From the Archives
A few years ago, I attended a talk at Harvard by MIT professor Vivek Bald on his research documenting the Bengali presence in the United States (he has since published a book on the topic). Among his central arguments is that South Asians have a much longer history in the United States than recognized, and that there were settled communities of working class immigrants from South Asia prior to the 1965 Immigration Act. In his research, he shows earlier waves of migration of merchants in the 19th century, and seamen in the early 20th century, many of whom stayed in the US and sometimes married into African American and Latino communities.
It reminded me of the long history of Somalis in Britain, the seamen who traversed the British Empire and settled in port cities like Liverpool, Cardiff and London since the mid-19th century.
Historical Somali neighbourhood in east London
Though my research does not focus on these early Somali diasporas and transnational Somali figures, I have occasionally come across traces while mining the archives for other material. While reading through the pages of War Somali Sidihi a few months ago, a newspaper published by the British Somaliland Protectorate Information Department in the 1950s, I found a letter to the editor by a Somali seaman then in Marseilles, France. The Protectorate had recently started airing a Somali language radio broadcast, which he caught by chance aboard a ship. He wrote of the loneliness he felt being so far from home and how he searched the airwaves in hopes of one day hearing his language, and how happy and fortunate he was to finally hear Somali on the radio.
Club Rio, a club in east London for Somali seamen who settled in the city or were passing through.
More recently, I have been going through colonial and foreign office documents at the UK National Archives, focusing on the demarcation of the Ethiopia-British Somaliland boundary (1930s) and the transfers of the Ogaden (1948) and Haud and Reserved Areas (1955) to Ethiopia. As the Somali nationalist movement developed and grew in the Somali territories in the 1940s and 1950s, Somali communities in Britain acted as intermediaries, delivering petitions and documents to London and providing information and other assistance to Somalis organizing back home.
The Somali Youth League, the largest Somali nationalist organization during the period, had offices in Liverpool, Cardiff and east London. It was while pouring over British documents about the planned transfer of the Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1948, that I saw a series of telegrams from British SYL branches stating Somali demands for the unification of the Somali territories and asking for a meeting with Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. They would meet him eventually, accompanied by a delegation from Mogadishu that included Abdullahi Issa Mohamud.
Like Bengalis, Somali seamen also settled in Harlem, New York and other port cities in the United States that their travels took them, though this history is even less known. These early waves of Somali migration complicate our understanding of the Somali diaspora, and the assumption that Somalis are recent immigrants with little to no presence in Europe or North America prior to Somalia’s civil war. What these long histories show is the depth and continuity of the Somali presence in the West.
**The main photo is a group of Somali men in Cardiff. Second to the left is Mahmood Hussein Mattan, the last man executed by hanging at Cardiff Prison in 1952, after he was wrongfully convicted for murder.