Britain Represses Somali Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After twenty years of a religious nationalist rebellion led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (the “Mad Mullah”) in British Somaliland, Britain finally repressed one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest colonial uprisings. After the defeat of his rebel forces at Taleh, Mohammed fled to Ethiopia.

Summary of Event

The largely pastoral and clan-based Somali society, which straddles the Horn of Africa and occupies one of the most inhospitable climates in Africa, is legendary for its aversion to centralized political institutions and authoritarian rule. Not surprisingly, the intrusion of European colonial rule into the Somali peninsula in the last quarter of the nineteenth century caused massive political upheaval that lasted for more than two decades and claimed the lives of more than a third of the population of the British protectorate of Somaliland. British Somaliland;rebellion Imperialism;northern Somalia Somaliland, rebellion [kw]Britain Represses Somali Rebellion (Early 1920) [kw]Somali Rebellion, Britain Represses (Early 1920) [kw]Rebellion, Britain Represses Somali (Early 1920) British Somaliland;rebellion Imperialism;northern Somalia Somaliland, rebellion [g]Africa;Early 1920: Britain Represses Somali Rebellion[04930] [g]Somalia;Early 1920: Britain Represses Somali Rebellion[04930] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Early 1920: Britain Represses Somali Rebellion[04930] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Early 1920: Britain Represses Somali Rebellion[04930] Mohammed Abdullah Hassan Swayne, Sir Eric John Eagles Corfield, Richard Manning, Sir William Henry Archer, Sir Geoffrey Francis Iyasu, Lij

No less than four imperial powers participated in the partition of the Somali region in the late nineteenth century. On the forefront of these imperial expansions was Great Britain, which was interested in acquiring the northern region of Somalia to defend strategic interests in the Red Sea. Italy established a protectorate in southern Somalia, and the French claimed the port of Djibouti in hope of penetrating the Ethiopian market in the interior. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik sought to preempt the European threat to his empire by embarking on an unprecedented expansion of his own in all directions including into the Somali-speaking Ogaden region in the east.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the exclusively Muslim and largely nomadic Somali communities that had not come under foreign control or submitted to centralized political authority were absorbed by the major Western powers. Somali frustration with this turn of events led to the leadership of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, who raised the banner of revolt in 1900 and maintained a protracted and fierce resistance against British imperial rule in Somaliland. Mohammed (who, as head of a religious order, was given the title of sayyid) was born in 1864 in the eastern part of Somaliland. He belonged to the Dulbahante clan on his mother’s side and the Bah-Gari, a sublineage of the Ogaden, on his father’s side.

Mohammed seems to have led an unremarkable life until his 1894 pilgrimage to Mecca, where he stayed for a year. While in Mecca, he joined the Salihiya tariqa (religious order or brotherhood). The Salihiya was a puritanical order influenced by Wahhābī teachings that propounded radical and austere anti-Western ideology. On his return, Mohammed settled in the port town of Berbera and began preaching the new brand of Islam strongly flavored with anti-British agitation. In 1898, he moved further inland, where he was relatively free from immediate British control. There he was able to recruit a cadre of committed followers into his Salihiya order and organize them into an army of Somali dervishes (a Sufi Muslim sect).

A gifted poet and orator who possessed a magnetic personality, the sayyid’s message swept the entire Somali peninsula. His call for jihad (holy war) resounded with many rural Somalis, and for the first time in Somali history, Sayyid Mohammed—called the “Mad Mullah” by some—was able to create a pan-Islamic platform that to some degree transcended clan and tribal division. In 1900, he formally declared war against the Christian colonizers, primarily Britain and Ethiopia. Alarmed by the rapid spread of the sayyid’s rebellion, the British hastened to organize an expedition that would counter Somali forces. Despite the heavy losses they inflicted on the dervishes, the first British expedition, launched in 1901 under the command of Sir Eric John Eagles Swayne of the Indian Army, was unable to stem the sayyid’s growing power. The British were forced to withdraw to the coast at Berbera, and subsequent British expeditions in 1902, 1903, and 1904 were also problematic; the 1903-1904 expeditions alone cost Britain more than five million sterling. When faced with stronger British offensive, Mohammed retreated into the interiors of Somalia, where he regrouped and resumed his attack.

In 1910, the British commissioner, William Henry Manning, decided to once again withdraw to the coast, leaving a gaping vacuum of authority in the interior. The arms the British had distributed among loyal tribes in the hinterland had been used to settle old tribal feuds, and this had triggered massive turmoil and violence throughout the region. Mohammed’s punitive raids against reticent tribes that rejected his ascetical version of Islam led to intensified civil strife. About one-third of Somaliland’s population was killed, and ultimately the disorder spread to the coastal areas. The British were forced to restore order in the interior by launching yet another expedition in August of 1913, and the entire expeditionary force under the command of Richard Corfield was wiped out at Dul Madoba.

The outbreak of World War I forced the British to scale back their operation against the dervishes. Developments in Ethiopia also favored the sayyid. Lij Iyasu, who succeeded Emperor Menelik, was favorably disposed toward his Muslim subjects and saw Mohammed as a useful ally in Ethiopia’s struggle against European encirclement. Iyasu extended financial aid and arms to the sayyid and was negotiating to cement the relationship with a marriage alliance. The plan was cut short, however, when Lij Iyasu was overthrown in 1916 by the Ethiopian Christian nobility, who were alarmed by Iyasu’s pro-Muslim policy. The new authorities in Ethiopia launched aggressive campaigns to reverse the sayyid’s advances in the Ogaden region.

The end of World War I saw a renewed British effort to address the rebellion with greater vigor. Sir Geoffrey Francis Archer, the newly appointed governor of Somaliland, organized a much larger force that included the air force, navy, and several infantry units assembled from different parts of the British Empire. This force began a highly coordinated offensive in early 1920 and succeeded in completely routing the dervish army. Mohammed fled to Ethiopia, where he died in November of 1920.


Mohammed led a ferocious resistance against European colonialism in the Horn of Africa. He remained a thorn in the side of the British administration in Somaliland, and his political and religious movement symbolized the reaction of an African Muslim community to Christian colonization. He attempted to forge political unity on a national basis where no such tradition existed. Today, the sayyid is regarded as the “father of the Somali nation.” British Somaliland;rebellion Imperialism;northern Somalia Somaliland, rebellion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beachey, R. W. The Warrior Mullah: The Horn of Africa Aflame, 1892-1920. London: Bellew, 1990. A brief outline of the series of campaigns carried out by the British to suppress the rebellion of Sayyid Mohammed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jardine, Douglas J. The Mad Mullah of Somaliland. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1923. A classic biography of Mohammed by a British official who observed the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Latin, David D., and Said S. Samatar. Somalia: Nation in Search of a State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987. A concise account of the dominant historical, social, and political experience that shaped twentieth century Somali society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, I. M. A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. One of the best standard works on the social and cultural history of Somali society by an author with a profound grasp of Somali pastoralism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Samatar, Said S. Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Muhammad Abdille Hasan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Excellent analysis of Mohammad’s poetry and assessment of his nationalist and literary contributions to the Somali heritage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. In the Shadow of Conquest: Islam in Colonial Northeast Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1992. A collection of essays by seven authors detailing the ways in which African Muslims reacted to the challenge of European colonial intervention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheik-Abdi, Abdi. Divine Madness: Muhammed Abdulle Hassan. London: Zed Books, 1993. Interesting discussion of Sayyid Mohammad’s role as a religious mystic, poet, and warrior leader of a religion-based anticolonial movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silberman, Leo. “The ’Mad’ Mullah: Hero of Somali Nationalism.” History Today 10, no. 8 (August, 1960). A succinct analysis of the sayyid’s role as father of Somali nationalism.

Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of Ethiopia

Italy Invades British Somaliland

Italy Invades Egypt

Categories: History