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Djibouti - History

The Republic of Djibouti gained its independence on June 27, 1977. It is the successor to French Somaliland (later called the French Territory of the Afars and Issas), which was created in the first half of the 19th century as a result of French interest in the Horn of Africa. However, the history of Djibouti, recorded in poetry and songs of its nomadic peoples, goes back thousands of years to a time when Djiboutians traded hides and skins for the perfumes and spices of ancient Egypt, India, and China. Through close contacts with the Arabian Peninsula for more than 1,000 years, the Somali and Afar tribes in this region became the first on the African continent to adopt Islam.

The area of Djibouti was once used by nomadic tribes who raised livestock. The Afars of eastern Ethiopia and the Issas of Somalia were the earliest tribes in the region. Archaeological investigation in the west and north confirm settlement of this area by Oromo and other Cushitic peoples now dwelling in Ethiopia.

Islamic communities that developed in the lowlands of the Horn of Africa likely supplied troops to conflicts between the Islamic lowlands and the Christian highlands of Ethiopia. Nearly all of the geographic names in Djibouti are of Afar origin, suggesting their lengthy presence in the region.

Issa-Somali ethnic expansion into the Horn has been studied extensively, but little is known about the confrontation between the Afars and the Issas who spread north into Djibouti. Historians believe the arrival of foreigners — Turks, Egyptians, British, French, and Italians — caused greater population movements into the interior. Prior to French colonial rule, the area was sparsely populated with only a few trade routes. Islam was introduced to the country around 825 AD by the Arab traders.

The Afars and the Issa Somali clans long used the severe interior lands of this region for nomadic herding and carried out trade at small coastal ports for perfumes and spices from Egypt and eastern Asia. The sometimes tense relations between these two groups have been a recurring theme in the history of Djibouti since before the colonial era.

Until the mid-19th century, historical references to the region now occupied by the Republic of Djibouti are relatively sparse. During the 12th through the mid-17th century, the Djibouti region was part of the Adal Muslim kingdom. Beginning in the early 17th century, the Adal kingdom gradually weakened. Several small sultanates filled the power void, including the Sultanate of Tadjoura.

Modern-day Djibouti’s coastal region was of limited maritime importance until the last century and a half. Much of the trade from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) flowed through the ports of Massawa (in modern-day Eritrea) and Zeila (in northwestern Somalia). Although coastal settlements existed at Tadjoura and Obock on the northern shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura, they were backwater ports in comparison to Massawa and Zeila. Of the two Djibouti port towns, Tadjoura was the busiest, handling caravan trade to and from the interior. Slaves were among the trade items bartered at the Tadjoura waterfront.

Although a few French scientific expeditions to Abyssinia during the late 1830s/early 1840s explored the Djiboutian coast and hinterland, French presence did not begin until 1855. During that year, Henri Lambert, the French Consul in Aden, visited Tadjoura. While in the region, Lambert established a relationship with Aboubaker Ibrahim Chehem, who at the time was the pasha (governor) of Zeila. After Lambert helped secure Aboubaker’s release from prison after the latter man was charged with embezzlement by a political rival, Aboubaker offered to cede to the French the coastal strip around Obock.

Lambert’s assassination in 1859, most likely plotted by Aboubaker’s rival, put the French acquisition of Obock on hold for a few years. By 1862, however, the French had acquired by treaty territorial cession for all of the modern-day Djibouti coast stretching from southwest of Obock to the present-day northern coastal border with Eritrea. The French raised their flag at Obock, but for nearly 20 years they otherwise ignored their new foothold on the Red Sea coast. Even the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 did not provide sufficient motivation for the French to exploit the Obock port.

French colonial wars in Madagascar and Indochina during the 1880s finally spurred the development of Obock, which became a coaling station for French ships traveling along the East African coast. Beginning in 1884, Léonce Lagarde, the French commandant at Obock, negotiated a series of treaties of alliance and protection with local sultans in the region of modern-day Djibouti. One of these treaties was signed in 1885 by chiefs of a Somali subclan known as the Issas. This treaty established France’s presence in the stretch of coastline that is now the site of Djibouti city.

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Page last modified: 25-11-2015 16:18:18 ZULU