The British Empire Library


by J.A. Golding

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by J. G. Stephenson (Somalia, Tanganyika 1948-62)
SHIFTA is a gripping novel of Somalia at the most traumatic turning point in its colonial history. During the first half of the Second World War the Italians, having been ousted by the British forces, opened their arsenals to the Somalis, flooding the country with firearms. It was under these conditions that the administration of the territory had to be undertaken by a skeleton holding force of the British Command. The story is an amalgam of the intrinsic nature of that desolate land and its people interacting with the lonely responsibilities demanded of a handful of British officers with little equipment other than their own personalities and measure of self reliance to maintain law and order.

As the reader will gather from the brief Introduction, Tony Golding's obvious purpose in presenting this story in novel form is to portray more cogently under "fictional licence" the intrinsic nature of a minuscule niche of the war of which little or nothing is known today. This he does simply and masterfully. The minimised number of chief protagonists provides clear definitive characterisation, and limitation of places, shown in a sketch map, holds the reader captivated. Those of us who were there with Tony can bear witness to the fact that there is far more reality than fictitious fantasy in his story.

Golding is eminently qualified to portray this "Somali episode", having served six years in the British Military Administration as an officer of the Somalia Gendarmarie and Civil Affairs for six years, and seventeen years in the Provincial Administration of Tanganyika.

The reader is introduced to the shag - a subtle interplay of desert, searing sun, limitless horizons and the perfidious Somal - a ruthless, cruel killer in pursuit of his lust for camels and women, yet having an outstanding capacity for loyalty, bravery and friendship. In this environment the British officer had somehow to cope; but for too many, the shag held nothing but terrifying isolation and loneliness.

The pater familias of the administration is an older Lt. Colonel, experienced in dealing with the Somali and who understands the strengths and weaknesses of his officers. Lt. Roberts is best suited to the shag: he is known to the Somalis as "Cold Eyes", having those qualities of ruthless determination ... yes, and cunning equal to that of the Somali himself, but tempered with understanding and British fairplay. These qualities are what the Somali can understand and respect, but Roberts' incorruptibility is incomprehensible. Antithetically, there is Lt. Seaton, on whom inevitably the administrative responsibility falls. The Somali's arch propensity for fitina and intrigue overwhelm Seaton to the point of tragic desperation. Quite expectedly, the fair sex plays a prominent part. Roberts having been jilted in love, hones his determination to near breaking point to bring the ruthless Shifta leader, Hussein Noor, to book. Some officers fall victim to the tender ministrations of the beautiful Somali women - for Roberts, without prejudice to his mission, but for others, not so.

The novel of some 150 pages is simply and well written but so compelling that I would like to have seen it a bit "thicker". Nevertheless, its gripping reality won't let you put it down! The story has its moral: law and order in the country was established and maintained enabling the Somali people to pursue their normal lives. It is a book which will be a must for all those shags to whom Golding dedicates it. For those now involved in trying to sort out Somalia's anarchy, there is much of pertinence; for the historian, a valuable contribution, and for all the rest, an eye-opener and a jolly good read.

British Empire Book
J.A. Golding
The Pentland Press


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