<< 10: Berberah and Its Environs || Appendix I.
On Saturday, the 7th April 1855, the H. E. I. Company's Schooner "Mahi,"
Lieut. King, I. N., commanding, entered the harbour of Berberah, where her
guns roared forth a parting salute to the "Somali Expedition."
The Emporium of East Africa was at the time of my landing, in a state of
confusion. But a day before, the great Harar caravan, numbering 3000
souls, and as many cattle, had entered for the purpose of laying in the
usual eight months' supplies, and purchase, barter, and exchange were
transacted in most hurried and unbusiness-like manner. All day, and during
the greater part of night, the town rang with the voices of buyer and
seller: to specify no other articles of traffic, 500 slaves of both sexes
were in the market. (1) Long lines of laden and unladen camels were to be
seen pacing the glaring yellow shore; rumours of plundering parties at
times brought swarms of spear-men, bounding and yelling like wild beasts,
from the town; already small parties of travellers had broken ground for
their return journey; and the foul heap of mat hovels, to which this
celebrated mart had been reduced, was steadily shrinking in dimensions.
Our little party consisted of forty-two souls. At Aden I had applied
officially for some well-trained Somali policemen, but as an increase of
that establishment had been urged upon the home authorities, my request
was refused. We were fain to content ourselves with a dozen recruits of
various races, Egyptian, Nubian, Arab and Negro, whom we armed with sabres
and flint muskets. The other members of the expedition were our private
servants, and about a score of Somal under our rival protectors Jami Hasan
and Burhale Nuh. The Ras or Captain of the Kafilah was one Mahmud of the
Mijjarthayn, better known at Aden as El Balyuz or the Envoy: he had the
reputation of being a shrewd manager, thoroughly acquainted with the
habits and customs, as well as the geography, of Somaliland.
Our camp was pitched near the site of the proposed Agency, upon a rocky
ridge within musket-shot of the southern extremity of the creek, and about
three quarters of a mile distant from the town. This position had been
selected for the benefit of the "Mahi's" guns. Political exigencies
required the "Mahi" to relieve the "Elphinstone," then blockading the
seaboard of our old Arab foe, the Fazli chief; she was unable to remain
upon the coast, and superintend our departure, a measure which I had
strongly urged. Our tents were pitched in one line: Lieut. Stroyan's was
on the extreme right, about a dozen paces distant was the "Rowtie"(2)
occupied by Lieut. Herne and myself, and at a similar distance on the left
of the camp was that in which Lieut. Speke slept. The baggage was placed
between the two latter, the camels were tethered in front upon a sandy bed
beneath the ridge our camping-ground, and in rear stood the horses and
mules. During day-time all were on the alert: at night two sentries were
posted, regularly relieved, and visited at times by the Ras and ourselves.
I had little reason to complain of my reception at Berberah. The chiefs
appeared dissatisfied with the confinement of one Mohammed Sammattar, the
Abban who accompanied Lieut. Speke to the Eastern country: they listened,
however, with respectful attention to a letter in which the Political
Resident at Aden enjoined them to treat us with consideration and
There had been petty disputes with Burhale Nuh, and the elders of the Eesa
Musa tribe, touching the hire of horse-keepers and camel-drivers: such
events, however, are not worthy to excite attention in Africa. My friend
at Harar, the Shaykh Jami, had repeatedly called upon us, ate bread and
salt, recommended us to his fellow countrymen, and used my intervention in
persuading avaricious ship-owners to transport, gratis, pauper pilgrims to
Arabia. The people, after seeing the deaths of a few elephants, gradually
lowered their loud boasts and brawling claims: they assisted us in digging
a well, offered their services as guides and camel-drivers, and in some
cases insisted upon encamping near us for protection. Briefly, we saw no
grounds of apprehension. During thirty years, not an Englishman of the
many that had visited it had been molested at Berberah, and apparently
there was as little to fear in it as within the fortifications of Aden.
Under these favourable circumstances we might have set out at once towards
the interior. Our camels, fifty-six in number, had been purchased(4), and
the Ogadayn Caravan was desirous of our escort. But we wished to witness
the close of the Berberah fair, and we expected instruments and other
necessaries by the mid-April mail from Europe.(5)
About 8 P.M., on the 9th April, a shower, accompanied by thunder and
lightning, came up from the southern hills, where rain had been falling
for some days, and gave notice that the Gugi or Somali monsoon had begun.
This was the signal for the Bedouins to migrate to the Plateau above the
hills.(6) Throughout the town the mats were stripped from their
frameworks of stick and pole(7), the camels were laden, and thousands of
travellers lined the roads. The next day Berberah was almost deserted
except by the pilgrims who intended to take ship, and by merchants, who,
fearful of plundering parties, awaited the first favourable hour for
setting sail. Our protectors, Jami and Burhale, receiving permission to
accompany their families and flocks, left us in charge of their sons and
relations. On the 15th April the last vessel sailed out of the creek, and
our little party remained in undisputed possession of the place.
Three days afterwards, about noon, an Aynterad craft en route from Aden
entered the solitary harbour freighted with about a dozen Somal desirous
of accompanying us towards Ogadayn, the southern region. She would have
sailed that evening; fortunately, however, I had ordered our people to
feast her commander and crew with rice and the irresistible dates.
At sunset on the same day we were startled by a discharge of musketry
behind the tents: the cause proved to be three horsemen, over whose heads
our guard had fired in case they might be a foraging party. I reprimanded
our people sharply for this act of folly, ordering them in future to
reserve their fire, and when necessary to shoot into, not above, a crowd.
After this we proceeded to catechise the strangers, suspecting them to be
scouts, the usual forerunners of a Somali raid: the reply was so plausible
that even the Balyuz, with all his acuteness, was deceived. The Bedouins
had forged a report that their ancient enemy the Hajj Sharmarkay was
awaiting with four ships at the neighbouring port, Siyaro, the opportunity
of seizing Berberah whilst deserted, and of re-erecting his forts there
for the third time. Our visitors swore by the divorce-oath,—the most
solemn which the religious know,—that a vessel entering the creek at such
unusual season, they had been sent to ascertain whether it had been
freighted with materials for building, and concluded by laughingly asking
if we feared danger from the tribe of our own protectors. Believing them,
we posted as usual two sentries for the night, and retired to rest in our
Between 2 and 3 A.M. of the 19th April I was suddenly aroused by the
Balyuz, who cried aloud that the enemy was upon us.(8) Hearing a rush of
men like a stormy wind, I sprang up, called for my sabre, and sent Lieut.
Herne to ascertain the force of the foray. Armed with a "Colt," he went to
the rear and left of the camp, the direction of danger, collected some of
the guard,—others having already disappeared,—and fired two shots into
the assailants. Then finding himself alone, he turned hastily towards the
tent; in so doing he was tripped up by the ropes, and as he arose, a
Somali appeared in the act of striking at him with a club. Lieut. Herne
fired, floored the man, and rejoining me, declared that the enemy was in
great force and the guard nowhere. Meanwhile, I had aroused Lieuts.
Stroyan and Speke, who were sleeping in the extreme right and left tents.
The former, it is presumed, arose to defend himself, but, as the sequel
shows, we never saw him alive.(9) Lieut. Speke, awakened by the report of
firearms, but supposing it the normal false alarm,—a warning to
plunderers,—he remained where he was: presently hearing clubs rattling
upon his tent, and feet shuffling around, he ran to my Rowtie, which we
prepared to defend as long as possible.
The enemy swarmed like hornets with shouts and screams intending to
terrify, and proving that overwhelming odds were against us: it was by no
means easy to avoid in the shades of night the jobbing of javelins, and
the long heavy daggers thrown at our legs from under and through the
opening of the tent. We three remained together: Lieut. Herne knelt by my
right, on my left was Lieut. Speke guarding the entrance, I stood in the
centre, having nothing but a sabre. The revolvers were used by my
companions with deadly effect: unfortunately there was but one pair. When
the fire was exhausted, Lieut. Herne went to search for his powder-horn,
and that failing, to find some spears usually tied to the tent-pole.
Whilst thus engaged, he saw a man breaking into the rear of our Rowtie,
and came back to inform me of the circumstance.
At this time, about five minutes after the beginning of the affray, the
tent had been almost beaten down, an Arab custom with which we were all
familiar, and had we been entangled in its folds, we should have been
speared with unpleasant facility. I gave the word for escape, and sallied
out, closely followed by Lieut. Herne, with Lieut. Speke in the rear. The
prospect was not agreeable. About twenty men were kneeling and crouching
at the tent entrance, whilst many dusk figures stood further off, or ran
about shouting the war-cry, or with shouts and blows drove away our
camels. Among the enemy were many of our friends and attendants: the coast
being open to them, they naturally ran away, firing a few useless shots
and receiving a modicum of flesh wounds.
After breaking through the mob at the tent entrance, imagining that I saw
the form of Lieut. Stroyan lying upon the sand, I cut my way towards it
amongst a dozen Somal, whose war-clubs worked without mercy, whilst the
Balyuz, who was violently pushing me out of the fray, rendered the strokes
of my sabre uncertain. This individual was cool and collected: though
incapacitated by a sore right-thumb from using the spear, he did not shun
danger, and passed unhurt through the midst of the enemy: his efforts,
however, only illustrated the venerable adage, "defend me from my
friends." I turned to cut him down: he cried out in alarm; the well-known
voice caused an instant's hesitation: at that moment a spearman stepped
forward, left his javelin in my mouth, and retired before he could be
punished. Escaping as by a miracle, I sought some support: many of our
Somal and servants lurking in the darkness offered to advance, but "tailed
off" to a man as we approached the foe. Presently the Balyuz reappeared,
and led me towards the place where he believed my three comrades had taken
refuge. I followed him, sending the only man that showed presence of mind,
one Golab of the Yusuf tribe, to bring back the Aynterad craft from the
Spit into the centre of the harbour(10). Again losing the Balyuz in the
darkness, I spent the interval before dawn wandering in search of my
comrades, and lying down when overpowered with faintness and pain: as the
day broke, with my remaining strength I reached the head of the creek, was
carried into the vessel, and persuaded the crew to arm themselves and
visit the scene of our disasters.
Meanwhile, Lieut. Herne, who had closely followed me, fell back, using the
butt-end of his discharged sixshooter upon the hard heads around him: in
so doing he came upon a dozen men, who though they loudly vociferated,
"Kill the Franks who are killing the Somal!" allowed him to pass
He then sought his comrades in the empty huts of the town, and at early
dawn was joined by the Balyuz, who was similarly employed. When day broke
he sent a Negro to stop the native craft, which was apparently sailing out
of the harbour, and in due time came on board. With the exception of
sundry stiff blows with the war-club, Lieut. Herne had the fortune to
On the other hand, Lieut. Speke's escape was in every way wonderful.
Sallying from the tent he levelled his "Dean and Adams" close to an
assailant's breast. The pistol refused to revolve. A sharp blow of a war-
club upon the chest felled our comrade, who was in the rear and unseen.
When he fell, two or three men sprang upon him, pinioned his hands behind,
felt him for concealed weapons,—an operation to which he submitted in
some alarm,—and led him towards the rear, as he supposed to be
slaughtered. There, Lieut. Speke, who could scarcely breathe from the pain
of the blow, asked a captor to tie his hands before, instead of behind,
and begged a drop of water to relieve his excruciating thirst. The savage
defended him against a number of the Somal who came up threatening and
brandishing their spears, he brought a cloth for the wounded man to lie
upon, and lost no time in procuring a draught of water.
Lieut. Speke remained upon the ground till dawn. During the interval he
witnessed the war-dance of the savages—a scene striking in the extreme.
The tallest and largest warriors marched in a ring round the tents and
booty, singing, with the deepest and most solemn tones, the song of
thanksgiving. At a little distance the grey uncertain light disclosed four
or five men, lying desperately hurt, whilst their kinsmen kneaded their
limbs, poured water upon their wounds, and placed lumps of dates in their
stiffening hands. (11) As day broke, the division of plunder caused angry
passions to rise. The dead and dying were abandoned. One party made a rush
upon the cattle, and with shouts and yells drove them off towards the
wild, some loaded themselves with goods, others fought over pieces of
cloth, which they tore with hand and dagger, whilst the disappointed,
vociferating with rage, struck at one another and brandished their spears.
More than once during these scenes, a panic seized them; they moved off in
a body to some distance; and there is little doubt that had our guard
struck one blow, we might still have won the day.
Lieut. Speke's captor went to seek his own portion of the spoil, when a
Somal came up and asked in Hindostani, what business the Frank had in
their country, and added that he would kill him if a Christian, but spare
the life of a brother Moslem. The wounded man replied that he was going to
Zanzibar, that he was still a Nazarene, and therefore that the work had
better be done at once:—the savage laughed and passed on. He was
succeeded by a second, who, equally compassionate, whirled a sword round
his head, twice pretended to strike, but returned to the plunder without
doing damage. Presently came another manner of assailant. Lieut. Speke,
who had extricated his hands, caught the spear levelled at his breast, but
received at the same moment a blow from a club which, paralyzing his arm,
caused him to lose his hold. In defending his heart from a succession of
thrusts, he received severe wounds on the back of his hand, his right
shoulder, and his left thigh. Pausing a little, the wretch crossed to the
other side, and suddenly passed his spear clean through the right leg of
the wounded man: the latter "smelling death," then leapt up, and taking
advantage of his assailant's terror, rushed headlong towards the sea.
Looking behind, he avoided the javelin hurled at his back, and had the
good fortune to run, without further accident, the gauntlet of a score of
missiles. When pursuit was discontinued, he sat down faint from loss of
blood upon a sandhill. Recovering strength by a few minutes' rest, he
staggered on to the town, where some old women directed him to us. Then,
pursuing his way, he fell in with the party sent to seek him, and by their
aid reached the craft, having walked and run at least three miles, after
receiving eleven wounds, two of which had pierced his thighs. A touching
lesson how difficult it is to kill a man in sound health!(12)
When the three survivors had reached the craft, Yusuf, the captain, armed
his men with muskets and spears, landed them near the camp, and
ascertained that the enemy, expecting a fresh attack, had fled, carrying
away our cloth, tobacco, swords, and other weapons.(13) The corpse of
Lieut. Stroyan was then brought on board. Our lamented comrade was already
stark and cold. A spear had traversed his heart, another had pierced his
abdomen, and a frightful gash, apparently of a sword, had opened the upper
part of his forehead: the body had been bruised with war-clubs, and the
thighs showed marks of violence after death. This was the severest
affliction that befell us. We had lived together like brothers: Lieut.
Stroyan was a universal favourite, and his sterling qualities of manly
courage, physical endurance, and steady perseverance had augured for him a
bright career, thus prematurely cut off. Truly melancholy to us was the
contrast between the evening when he sat with us full of life and spirits,
and the morning when we saw amongst us a livid corpse.
We had hoped to preserve the remains of our friend for interment at Aden.
But so rapid were the effects of exposure, that we were compelled most
reluctantly, on the morning of the 20th April, to commit them to the deep,
Lieut. Herne reading the funeral service.
Then with heavy hearts we set sail for the near Arabian shore, and, after
a tedious two days, carried to our friends the news of unexpected
(1) The Fair-season of 1864-56 began on the 16th November, and may be said
to have broken up on the 15th April.
The principal caravans which visit Berberah are from Harar the Western,
and Ogadayn, the Southern region: they collect the produce of the numerous
intermediate tribes of the Somal. The former has been described in the
preceding pages. The following remarks upon the subject of the Ogadayn
caravan are the result of Lieuts. Stroyan and Herne's observations at
"Large caravans from Ogadayn descend to the coast at the beginning and the
end of the Fair-season. They bring slaves from the Arusa country, cattle
in great quantities, gums of sorts, clarified butter, ivory, ostrich
feathers, and rhinoceros horns to be made into handles for weapons. These
are bartered for coarse cotton cloth of three kinds, for English and
American sheeting in pieces of seventy-five, sixty-six, sixty-two, and
forty-eight yards, black and indigo-dyed calicos in lengths of sixteen
yards, nets or fillets worn by the married women, iron and steel in small
bars, lead and zinc, beads of various kinds, especially white porcelain
and speckled glass, dates and rice."
The Ayyal Ahmed and Ayyal Yunis classes of the Habr Awal Somal have
constituted themselves Abbans or brokers to the Ogadayn Caravans, and the
rapacity of the patron has produced a due development of roguery in the
client. The principal trader of this coast is the Banyan from Aden find
Cutch, facetiously termed by the Somal their "Milch-cows." The African
cheats by mismeasuring the bad cotton cloth, and the Indian by falsely
weighing the coffee, ivory, ostrich feathers and other valuable articles
which he receives in return. Dollars and even rupees are now preferred to
the double breadth of eight cubits which constitutes the well known
(2) A Sepoy's tent, pent-house shaped, supported by a single transverse
and two upright poles and open at one of the long ends.
(3)Since returning I have been informed, however, by the celebrated
Abyssinian traveller M. Antoine d'Abbadie, that in no part of the wild
countries which he visited was his life so much perilled as at Berberah.
(4) Lieut. Speke had landed at Karam harbour on the 24th of March, in
company with the Ras, in order to purchase camels. For the Ayyun or best
description he paid seven dollars and a half; the Gel Ad (white camels)
cost on an average four. In five days he had collected twenty-six, the
number required, and he then marched overland from Karam to Berberah.
I had taken the precaution of detaching Lieut. Speke to Karam in lively
remembrance of my detention for want of carriage at Zayla, and in
consequence of a report raised by the Somal of Aden that a sufficient
number of camels was not procurable at Berberah. This proved false.
Lieuts. Stroyan and Herne found no difficulty whatever in purchasing
animals at the moderate price of five dollars and three quarters a head:
for the same sum they could have bought any reasonable number. Future
travellers, however, would do well not to rely solely upon Berberah for a
supply of this necessary, especially at seasons when the place is not
crowded with caravans.
(5) The Elders of the Habr Awal, I have since been informed, falsely
asserted that they repeatedly urged us, with warnings of danger, to leave
Berberah at the end of the fair, but that we positively refused
compliance, for other reasons. The facts of the case are those stated in
(6)They prefer travelling during the monsoon, on account of the abundance
(7) The framework is allowed to remain for use next Fair-season.
(8)The attacking party, it appears, was 350 strong; 12 of the Mikahil, 15
of the Habr Gerhajis, and the rest Eesa Musa. One Ao Ali wore, it is said,
the ostrich feather for the murder of Lieut. Stroyan.
(9) Mohammed, his Indian servant, stated that rising at my summons he had
rushed to his tent, armed himself with a revolver, and fired six times
upon his assassins. Unhappily, however, Mohammed did not see his master
fall, and as he was foremost amongst the fugitives, scant importance
attaches to his evidence.
(10) At this season native craft quitting Berberah make for the Spit late
in the evening, cast anchor there, and set sail with the land breeze
before dawn. Our lives hung upon a thread. Had the vessel departed, as she
intended, the night before the attack, nothing could have saved us from
(11) The Somal place dates in the hands of the fallen to ascertain the
extent of injury: he who cannot eat that delicacy is justly decided to be
(12) In less than a month after receiving such injuries, Lieut. Speke was
on his way to England: he has never felt the least inconvenience from the
wounds, which closed up like cuts in Indian-rubber.
(13) They had despised the heavy sacks of grain, the books, broken boxes,
injured instruments, and a variety of articles which they did not
understand. We spent that day at Berberah, bringing off our property, and
firing guns to recall six servants who were missing. They did not appear,
having lost no time in starting for Karam and Aynterad, whence they made
their way in safety to Aden. On the evening of the 19th of April, unable
to remove the heavier effects, and anxious to return with the least
possible delay, I ordered them to be set on fire.
<< 10: Berberah and Its Environs || Appendix I.