Know your History......................
The Somalis are one of the oldest African communities in Britain. They have communities in the port cities of Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull, South Shields and London. Despite their long association with Britain, very little is known or has been written about the Somali community in Britain.
The people who call themselves Somali only adopted the name in the 19th century. Prior to that time they preferred to use the name of their clan (Darood, Isaaq, Dir, Hawiye, Digil and Rahanweyn).
The name Somali comes from the word 'Soma', meaning to 'milk the animal' and it refers to their shared pastoral lifestyle. The Somali occupy a large part of the Horn of Africa, including the present day Republic of Somalia. There are large numbers of Somalis in northeast Kenya, the Ogaden area of southeast Ethiopia and the Republic of Djibouti.
The first British contact
Britain’s first contact with the Somali along the northern coast of Somalia began in the early 19th century. It was linked with the development of trade and transport between Europe and India via the Red Sea. In 1827 the British signed a trade treaty with Berbera, and in 1839 they captured the port of Aden. This prompted the expeditions by Johnstone to Berbera in 1842 and Burton to Harar in 1854. In 1855 further treaties were signed between the British and the Somalis.
P&O's London to India service
In the 1840s the Peninsula and Oriental (P&O) company launched a mail and passenger service from London to India via Egypt. The decline of sail and the increase in steam shipping had resulted in a considerable decline in manpower in the British merchant navy. Few Britons wanted to work in the hot and dirty 'stokeholes' of the steamships.
Somali men from British Somaliland were recruited in Aden by shipping companies and were very popular as firemen. Somalis were seen as one of the few ethnic groups who could stoke the fires of steam ships sailing through the heat of the Red Sea.
Growth in demand for Somali workers
In 1856, when the British Indian Steam Navigation Company (BINSC) made Calcutta the headquarters of their Indian Ocean operations, there was even greater demand for Somali firemen.
When the Suez Canal opened in 1869 the number of steam ships sailing through the Red Sea increased. Many other shipping companies started to employ Somali firemen. Somalis were hired on 'coolie' wages, which were often 25% below that of the pay of standard British seamen.
Somali ex-soldiers who had served with the British forces during the Second World War were often offered work on Royal Navy ships after the war.
Many Somalis looked for work with British merchant shipping companies, particularly those sailing in the Indian Ocean or to the Far East.
Somalis in the London docks
According to an Act passed in 1894 Somalis could only take jobs in the seafaring industry. This meant that many Somalis who became stranded in London worked in the docks.
Some Somali seamen had settled around Cable Street. This is where they established their own boarding houses prior to the First World War. There was more settlement of Somalis in London after the war.
This settlement was mainly of seamen who looked for accommodation in Stepney, Poplar and at East and West Ham.
Life between the World Wars
Life for the Somali men in London was often difficult. Few Somalis spoke much English and, like other black and Asian seamen, they were often attacked during the years of recession that followed the First World War.
In 1919 and again in 1930 there were riots and attacks on black and Asian seamen in many British ports. By this time there were probably also some Somali in Canning Town and around Customs House.
In London the British Union of Fascists (BUF) under Sir Oswald Mosley were particularly active in the East End. In 1936 a mixed group of East Enders, including the Somali seamen and dockers, took to the streets in opposition to the BUF in an event that became known as the Battle of Cable Street. Though the event did not remove the BUF from the East End, it did limit its influence.
Somalis in the Second World War
Many Somali seamen joined the merchant navy in the Second World War, despite the hostilities they felt in the East End. They served on troop ships in southeast Asia and north Africa.
During the Second World War the British were pushed out of Somaliland by the Italians, who attacked from Italian Somaliland. British military administration was introduced into both the Italian and British areas in 1941, when both areas became a British Protectorate, following the defeat of the enemy.
The Fortune Men
The rise in Somali employment in the British merchant navy and the shortage of manpower in post-war Britain encouraged many Somali ex-seamen to work for a few years in Britain. London’s familiar East End attracted many of these men who were known at home as the 'Fortune Men'.
Because they intended to return to Africa, these Somalis were slow to organize themselves. However, a small community did develop around Lemen Steeet, with five restaurants catering to the Somali community.
By the 1950s the Brocklebank Line sailed from England through the Suez Canal and called at Berbera once a month between October and April. There was a weekly service from Berbera to Aden, which was now second only to New York as a world port. Apart from the Somali seamen arriving in London there were also a few students.
Today there are an estimated 70,000 Somalis in London, with the largest group of over 10,000 in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Most of London’s Somali population is concentrated to the east and northeast of the City.
Along the Mile End Road between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green underground stations is an area sometimes called 'Somaal Town'. Along a small stretch of the road there is a mosque and cultural centre, and across the road are Somali-owned shops and restaurants.
An Internet cafe in 'Somaal Town' helps the Somali community in East London keep in touch with family and friends abroad. There is even a distinct Somali Bravanese community at Hackney with speakers of Chimini.
Somalis south of the Thames
There is a Somali community to the south of the Thames, based in Thamesmead, Plumstead, Woolwich and Erith. This community is served by a mosque and Islamic cultural centre at Plumstead. The market and several Somali fast-food stores serve the community at Woolwich and Plumstead.http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/ser ... ondon.html