Somali seafarer Ibrahim Ismaa’il: from Cardiff to the Cotswolds

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Colony Hall, Cotswolds, 1922
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The image features a group of people from the small anarchist community of Whiteway in the Cotswold region of the English countryside. Taken in 1922, the picture shows a young man of African heritage, probably a Muslim from the territory of Somalia, given his name and appearance. He seems very at home with the rest of the people, who are generally identified just by their first names.

The image caption reads 'Building the Colony Hall. Some of those helping are Jeannie, Salah, Elfie and Fred Charles, with Dods and Rhoda seated in front', and is taken from N. Shaw (1935), Whiteway: a colony on the Cotswolds

Protecting trade routes: Britain in Somaliland

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1870 was a turning point in the history of the British Empire. In order to reach prized trading posts in India and the Far East, British ships previously had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost point of Africa – the same route the Portuguese had discovered centuries before. Rough seas and the long distance had made it a priority for European politicians and businessmen to construct a canal, one which opened a way through from the Mediterranean into the Indian Ocean.

The Suez Canal significantly reduced the time it took British ships to travel to and from Britain’s most important colony: India. A few years after the canal’s construction, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean became some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. In an era of colonial rivalry, the British made it a priority to safeguard the vast commercial shipping trade that passed through these lanes. The need to safeguard trade led to the British acquisition of territory on either side of this sea route. The aim was to protect profitable British trade with India and the ‘Far East’.

Territory on the southern bank of the canal, which would later become the Somali Republic, was slowly acquired by Britain through a series of treaties with regional and colonial powers. After the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, and when they acquired shares in the Suez Canal Company in 1875, the British became strongly connected to the ruling regime in Egypt. The territory did not become a colony, but its government was under direct influence from London. This arrangement was described as a suzerainty, rather than a sovereignty, the latter would have meant total authority and ownership. The same was true for the area of Somaliland that the British controlled from the 1880s.  The British interest in this region was in supplies, of foodstuffs and trade, especially for the nearby British colony of Aden.

Anglo-Egyptian suzerainty over northern Somalia collapsed in the 1880s, with the rise of the self-proclaimed Mahdi, an influential Muslim cleric, in Sudan. In 1888, in order to protect supply routes to Britain’s main Indian Ocean port, Aden, officials in Whitehall ordered the establishment of a British Protectorate in Somaliland.

Somali seafarers in Britain 

Although principally nomadic herders, Somalis were also a historically sea-faring people – familiar with the sea and boats. Some young Somali men sought new opportunities by taking employment on British ships bound with traded goods for ports like Cardiff and London.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many Somalis made the journey to Britain in the early twentieth century. Although there is evidence to suggest that there was a small but growing Somali community in both Cardiff and London by the end of the 19th century, many of these men often identified or were labelled as Arabs because they boarded vessels bound for Britain in Aden or in Egypt. At this early stage the seafarers were not likely to be registered on shore and many spent only a short time in British cities waiting for work on merchant vessels which would take them back to their homeland.

Cardiff, however, was an exception – the Tiger Bay region in particular. This part of Cardiff had already developed a reputation for being perhaps the most diverse district in all of Britain. Although this reputation generated the curiosity of a few intrepid sightseers, it also attracted scorn from some elements of the wider community. For example, a letter to the editor of the South Wales Daily News of 28 November 1893, states:  

'Wherever I have been I have never seen, or heard of, so black a blot on an otherwise fair and thriving town as the so-called "Tiger Bay" is on Cardiff… A fire, such as that which stamped out the plague in London during the reign of the Merry Monarch, would be a godsend…' 

(See G. Jordan (2001), Down the Bay)

Ibrahim Ismaa’il: an autobiography

One of the few detailed accounts we have of Somali communities in early twentieth-century Britain comes from the autobiography of a Somali seaman, Ibrahim Ismaa’il. Ibrahim's story is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because of the circumstances under which it was written.

Eugene Gaspard-Marin, a Belgian anarchist and avid traveller, met Ibrahim Ismaa’il at a mosque in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in 1922. After striking up the most unlikely of friendships, Ismaa’il agreed to stay with Gaspard in the Whiteway anarchist colony among the Cotswold Hills in the West of England. 

Quite early on during their time together at Whiteway, Gaspard asked Ibrahim to tell him all about his background and early life. He recorded his Somali friend’s story in writing, which eventually became an autobiography. Richard Pankhurst, an eminent historian in Ethiopia, published the surviving extracts of the autobiography in a journal of African history in 1977. The autobiography is a unique and immensely valuable source. It offers a rare first-hand account of the life of an African in Somalia in the early twentieth century, and the life of an immigrant in Britain before the Second World War. 

In the autobiography, Ismail recounts his experience of working in the British merchant navy, alongside West Indian seamen: 


'I joined a ship, which went to Liverpool, then to Lisbon. I was the only Somali on board; the rest of the crew consisted of a West Indian called Moses, a German, a Pole, and two jolly Irishmen. The German and I became great friends.

Moses and I were put on the same watch: Moses worked the port boiler, and I the starboard boiler. The shovel belonging to my boiler was a new one but the other one was old and had an impaired edge, which made it more difficult to work; invariably Moses would grab the new shovel that had been left on my side, and I had to use the bad one.

After a good many days I told him: "It is not fair that you should use the good shovel all of the time". He gave no answer. At our next watch I made sure to grab hold of it before him. He tried to snatch it from me, but I refused to let go. Then he poured upon me a torrent of insults which meant very little to me as I could hardly understand them. After we had cleaned our fires, Moses took his slice and sliced his three fires, I did the same – for by working in unison it is possible to get up steam much quicker. Having finished, I put my slice on my ash-pit damper, and leaned on my shovel while Moses was finishing his last fire, the nearest to me. When he finally pulled out the red-hot slice from the furnace, he hurled it at me with both hands saying "Take it you Arab bastard". I pulled myself up and just escaped the tool, which did no more than graze my thighs.

For the moment I remained dumbfounded. Then I thought to myself; Moses has tried to kill you, and has missed; now your turn, and don't miss him! I did not utter a sound. The Pole and the German who had kept the previous watch were still waiting for us to pass the ashes on to them. One shouted "hurry up, we want to go to bed". I said to Moses with composure: "Let us give them the ashes". "All right" he answered. I took the shovel while he was holding the sack open. I put in a few shovelfuls and then I took up the hammer which I had placed handle upwards by my side and I aimed at his skull. Fortunately for him – and still more fortunately for me – he raised his head at that very moment and the hammer missed him! It was his turn to be paralysed with stupor. Then we rushed at each other and fought like two wild animals until we were exhausted.

Then Moses tried to argue he had no intention to kill me, but he failed to convince me. I urged him to try recognise the truth: we have both tried to murder one another, but we have shown ourselves very bad marksmen. At the same time we realised what fools we had been. If one of us had killed the other he would have been hanged and nobody would have cared about either of us. And after that we became good friends.'

(Extract from R. Pankhurst (1977), 'An early Somali autobiography', pp. 355–383.)

In the autobiography, Ismail also recounts his experience of life in Britain. He witnessed the anti-immigrant riots which engulfed Cardiff in 1919 at the end of the First World War. Returning from the trenches of the Western Front, white British servicemen directed their frustrations at the lack of employment at the black and Asian residents of Tiger Bay. 

'Shortly after our arrival crowds of white people attacked the black people in Cardiff… A Warsangeli named ’Abdi Langara had a boarding house in Millicent Street, right in the European part of the town. It is there that I had my dinner every day. ’Abdi acted as a sort of agent for the Warsangeli, who left their money with him when they went to sea, and also had their letters sent to his place. As soon as the fight started we went to Millicent Street to defend ’Abdi’s house in case it was attacked… 

The fight started at about 7.30pm and lasted for a fairly long time.  Seven or eight of us defended the house and most of them were badly wounded. Some of the white people also received wounds. In the end, the whites took possession of the first floor, soaked it with paraffin oil and set it alight. The Somalis managed to keep up the fight until the police arrived.' 

(Extract from R. Pankhurst (1977), 'An early Somali autobiography', p 374.) 

Responses to Ibrahim in the Cotswolds and London

During his time as Gaspard's guest in the anarchist colony in the Cotswolds, Ibrahim worked on building the Whiteway Colony. During his time there he went by the name ‘Salah’ and was known affectionately to the other members of the community as ‘Sallie’. Ibrahim's autobiography recalls that when he arrived at the anarchist commune in 1922, he slept with a revolver under his pillow for fear of being attacked by his white hosts, a fear he later realised was unfounded as his hosts received him fully into their community.

In Gaspard’s record of Ismaa’il’s story, the two travelled to London in 1924 to visit the British Empire Exhibition, which celebrated the vast extent of the British territories and the wealth the Empire supported. Ismaa’il was denied lodging in a number of hostels and hotels. Although both men were foreign nomads, with a love for storytelling and poetry, only Gaspard was offered a room by the manager of the Rowton boarding house in Kings Cross. The following extract from Ibrahim's autobiography tells the story:

'In January 1924, I went on a voyage to South America. In the spring, however, I returned to Whiteway. My friend told me of a place called Wembley where things from many parts of the world were to seen, and we went there together. Here we saw big machines moving by themselves and all sorts of other strange and wonderful things. I felt overwhelmed by it all. It appeared to me as if the world had been made for Europeans, who had only to stretch out their hands to bring before them, as by magic, all the products of the Universe.

After the first afternoon at Wembley, we went to Bloomsbury to get a lodging as we had decided to stay a week. Most lodging places were full, but, to my friend’s amazement, even those house-keepers who had a spare room would not take me in. Tired and disheartened, we thought we would try Rowton House, where we thought anybody would be given a night’s lodging; but here also we were politely told: “The establishment does not accept coloured gentlemen”. We dragged ourselves on, until, at last, we were given hospitality by an old Russian Jew who had tramped through Siberia to China.

On the day we were to return, I arranged to meet Gassy [Gaspard] at the British Museum, but I lost my way in the tubes as I could not read the names of the stations quickly enough. Having missed the train at Paddington I did not arrive at Stroud until late at night. I searched all over the town but could not find anyone who would let me a room for the night. At last I found a policeman in plain clothes who did his best to help me to find a lodging. He tried many places and presented me as a British subject who had served in the navy during the war; at last, as he himself was giving up hope, we found a kind old lady who agreed to put me up. The next morning I walked back to Whiteway.'

(Extract from R. Pankhurst (1977), 'An early Somali autobiography', p.374)

Rethinking British Somali history

It is commonly thought that Somalis in the United Kingdom have arrived very recently. Many media accounts of Somalia have dwelt not only on the perils of famine and civil war but also on the sensational dramas of piracy on the Indian Ocean, leaving questions in the minds of some people in the host nation about how well these new arrivants can play a constructive part in the development of Britain. 

The conventional history of Black presence in the United Kingdom has generally focused on the post-1945 narrative of the ‘Windrush generations’, sidelining other arrivals in the Black British story. This has been intensified by negative portrayals of Somalis in the media, combined with growing Islamophobia. 

The longstanding presence of mosques in certain British port communities, where Somalis and other Muslim seamen lived, suggests that Islam has not always been seen as a hostile force in the UK (see: 'The lascars' and 'The East London mosque'). While troubles in Somalia itself undoubtedly hastened the settlement of Somali people in British cities since 1990, the story of Ismaa’il illustrates that Somali migration to the UK – travels characterised by both acceptance and resistance – has taken place for over a hundred years.

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Questions and Student Activities

Look again at the image of Colony Hall at the top of this page. What can this source tell us about what the people in the photo are doing? Also:

  • What might the picture tell us about the type of community that developed at Colony Hall? 
  • What position does 'Salah' appear to occupy in this community?
  • Does the image challenge your assumptions about Somali people's historical place in Britain? 

Read the extract from Ibrahim Ismaa’il's autobiography entitled 'The Story of Ismaa’il and Moses on board ship':

  • What can the extract tell us about Somali seamen's status in the merchant navy in the early twentieth century? How did their status compare to that of seamen from other backgrounds? 
  • What can the extract tell us about the relationship between different minority groups in England at that time?

Read the extract from Ibrahim Ismaa’il's autobiography entitled 'Ismaa’il and Gaspard at the British Empire Exhibition 1924'

  • What does the extract tell us about the British Empire? 
  • What does the extract tell us about how British imperial subjects were treated in Britain in 1924?