It was Rochet d'Hericourt's exploration into Shoa (1839-42) that marked the beginning of French interest in the African shores of the Red Sea. Further exploration by Henri Lambert, French Consular Agent at Aden, and Captain Fleuriot de Langle led to a treaty of friendship and assistance between France and the sultans of Raheita, Tadjourah, and Gobaad, from whom the French purchased the anchorage of Obock (1862).
In the mid-19th century, Anglo-French rivalry for control of the entrance to the Red Sea prompted French involvement in the territory that is now Djibouti. The port of Obock was acquired by the French from the Sultan of Tajourah in 1862 by purchase, but it was not until 1884 that coaling the possession was turned to any practical account, it being made station. a coaling station for French vessels on their way to the Far East. It was also in 1884 that the French Protectorate over Tajourah and the neighbouring districts was established.
With Obock as a functioning port—thanks to Lagarde securing funding from the French government—it became the administrative center of a French protectorate. Known as Obock and Dependencies, it included all of the recent cessions. Lagarde was named governor of the colony and served in that role until 1899. However, Obock was a poor port site because it was located too far from the trading caravan routes of the hinterland.
Growing French interest in the area took place against a backdrop of British activity in Egypt and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In 1884-85, France expanded its protectorate to include the shores of the Gulf of Tadjourah and Somaliland. Boundaries of the protectorate, marked out in 1897 by France and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, were affirmed further by agreements with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1945 and 1954.
In 1888 work began on a new port at an unoccupied site on the southern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura. Djibouti, as the new village/port was named, had a good supply of water and a much better natural harbor than Obock. The new town, supported by a large trade in both legal and illicit arms and ammunition, grew quickly. The administrative capital was moved from Obock to Djibouti in 1892. In 1896 Djibouti became the capital of the French Somaliland colony, which was a reconstitution of the Obock territory and the surrounding protectorates. The borders of the French Somaliland colony differed only slightly from those of the nation of Djibouti today. Djibouti, which has a good natural harbor and ready access to the Ethiopian highlands, attracted trade caravans crossing East Africa as well as Somali settlers from the south.
This territory, then called French Somaliland, was formally established in 1894. The area of the French sphere of influence is roughly estimated at about 120,000 square kilometers, and its population, variously calculated at from 50,000 to 200,000, while the territory actually administered as a colony was 12,000 square kilometers in extent, and had a population of 22,000. The population in 1917 was estimated at 206,000. Jibuti, the port and capital, had 13,608 inhabitants, of whom 294 were Europeans (107 French).
The Franco-Ethiopian railway, linking Djibouti to the heart of Ethiopia, was begun in 1897 and reached Addis Ababa in June 1917, further facilitating the increase of trade. In 1913, before the railway had reached Addis Abbaba, the value of the transit trade was £1,636,000. In 1918, With the railway completed, the imports destined for Abyssinia were valued at £1,433,000 and the exports from Abyssinia at £2,622,000.
The story of the Ethiopian Railway, for all practical purposes, was the history of Djibouti. French policy sought supremacy over the British, the Italians and others searching for access to the Christian empire, exacerbating the age-old rivalry between the Somali tribes and the Afars, who originally populated the region north of Zeila.
Djibouti city is essentially an Ethiopian town with a Somali population. The town's existence was originally predicated on the ability of the French to monopolize Ethiopia's export trade, a situation which existed from the opening of the final section of the Chemin de fer Ethiopien (CFE), in 1917, until the Yugoslavs built the port of Assab for the Ethiopians in the mid-1950's.
Despite the availability of Assab, the economies of rail transport for bulk cargos from Djibouti versus road transport from Assab were such that Djibouti remained the key lifeline between the population centers of southern Ethiopia, particularly Addis Ababa, and the world. The essentially Somali population of the town of Djibouti was a phenomenon as recent as the railway in historical terms.
Relations between the Somali and Danakil and the French proved satisfactory, the tribes being very lightly administered. A small military force was maintained for the security of Jibuti and the railway. The colony was on good relations with its Italian, British and Abyssinian neighbours, save for differences with the Abyssinian customs officials, whose valuation of dutiable goods passing inwards was often arbitrary. Some anxiety was caused in 1917-8 by the presence of Lij Yasu, the deposed Emperor of Abyssinia, in the Danakil country, and by his threats to the railway. His effort to raise the tribes against the French failed.
During the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s and during World War II, constant border skirmishes occurred between French and Italian forces. The area was ruled by the Vichy (French) government from the fall of France until December 1942, and fell under British blockade during that period. Free French and the Allied forces recaptured Djibouti at the end of 1942. A local battalion from Djibouti participated in the liberation of France in 1944.
On July 22, 1957, the colony was reorganized to give the people considerable self-government. On the same day, a decree applying the Overseas Reform Act (Loi Cadre) of June 23, 1956, established a territorial assembly that elected eight of its members to an executive council. Members of the executive council were responsible for one or more of the territorial services and carried the title of minister. The council advised the French-appointed governor general.
In a September 1958 constitutional referendum, French Somaliland opted to join the French community as an overseas territory. This act entitled the region to representation by one deputy and one senator in the French Parliament, and one counselor in the French Union Assembly.
The first elections to the territorial assembly were held on November 23, 1958, under a system of proportional representation. In the next assembly elections (1963), a new electoral law was enacted. Representation was abolished in exchange for a system of straight plurality vote based on lists submitted by political parties in seven designated districts. Ali Aref Bourhan, allegedly of Turkish origin, was selected to be the president of the executive council.
French President Charles de Gaulle's August 1966 visit to Djibouti was marked by 2 days of public demonstrations by Somalis demanding independence. On September 21, 1966, Louis Saget, appointed governor general of the territory after the demonstrations, announced the French Government's decision to hold a referendum to determine whether the people would remain within the French Republic or become independent. In March 1967, 60% chose to continue the territory's association with France.
In July of that year, a directive from Paris formally changed the name of the region to the French Territory of Afars and Issas. The directive also reorganized the governmental structure of the territory, making the senior French representative (formerly the governor general) a high commissioner. In addition, the executive council was redesignated as the council of government, with nine members.
Divisions between the indigenous Afars and Issas were not marked until the 1960s. Since then, conflicting international interest in the region and France's policy of favoring the Afar minority community have created tensions between the two tribes.
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