A journey through the Webi Shebeyli
A Stand off and war between the Hawiyya sultan and the rival subjects
Continued from page 632
The view of the Webbe valley as we descended the hill was very fine, and unlike anything we had seen in the Country before. A green and lightly-wooded plain clotted with Flocks and herds, and relieved here and there by native villages, formed the foreground to a thick belt of grand trees which marked the course of the river. Beyond this a barren expanse of land extended to a high range of mountains, whose summits were lost in the mass of clouds which hung about them. We pitched our tents along the Rer Hamers the first Somali tribe against whom we had no reason to complain. They seemed to be the only Somalis who did not fight with the Shebeyli people, and who were not afraid to live near them.
The Shebeyli sultan came to our camp, and through our abbans informed us that he and his ancestors, all Hawiya Somalis, had for many generations ruled over fifty-six villages of the Adone-as the Shebeyli folk are called-and that latterly half his villages had revolted, and electing another sultan had separated from him. He invited us to accompany him to his principal village, which we accordingly did, and making a strong zariba on the edge of the river prepared to enjoy the luxury of shady trees and of plentiful water. The Webbe” we found to be a rapid and deep river, measuring 50 yards in the broadest place; and we were told that a week before our arrival it had been nearly empty and easily fordable, but that lately, owing to rains having fallen towards Harrar, it had come down in flood. It is a singular fact that this immense volume of water never reaches the sea, but after flowing to within half a degree of the equator loses itself a few miles from the coast.
* Webbe is simply the native name for river, and Siicheyli menns leopard.
Crocodiles and fish were plentiful, and in some places where there mere large marshes, hippopotami abounded, and waterbuck and other antelope were numerous. The natives, who were different in every way from the Somals, cultivate the land, and plant quantities of dourra as well as pumpkins, and a kind of bean. Most of them presented strongly marked negro features, and though they spoke a Somali dialect, it was not their own language, which is the same as that spoken on the coast between Nerka and Zanzibar. They live in permanent and neatly made villages built of durra stalk, and cultivate the ground extensively, digging channels from the river for purposes of irrigation. Durra similar to that grown in Egypt is the staple food, and attains to a height of 15 feet; a heavy camel load costs from two to three tobes-18 to 27 yards of cloth, value at Berbera about 7s. Like the Somal, the Adone have large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, but all these animals are poor and suffer from the fly in the rain and from the ticks in the dry season; neither camels nor horses are used, for they will only live in the dry season, but the Rer Hamer, who leave the river valley for the plateau in the wet season, bring numbers to graze there in the winter. All small articles are exchanged for beads, but sheep and cattle are paid for in cotton cloth, the former costing one to b and the latter five to eight. ‘Unlike the Somals the Adone eat fowls, and by means of empty tins and bottles we were able to obtain a pleasant change in our diet. All the chief men are Hawiya Somals, but negroes form the mass of the population, and of these the majority are slaves. The Adone detest the Somal, but the latter are obliged to deal with the former for grain, though it rarely happens that their caravans return from the Webbe without being attacked. All are armed either with spears-of a different shape from the Somali spears-or with poisoned arrows, and a man is not looked upon with favor by the women of his tribe till he has killed another, either in fair fight or, what is very much more common, by assassination; this entitles him to paint the boss of his shield red or to wear a feather in his hair.
Arrived at the sultan’s village, Bari, we were hospitably entertained, but we had not been there many hours before we found that we were the central figures of a political crisis, and expected to take part in what the sultan intended to be a brilliant coup detat.
Within three miles of the sultan’s village was that of his rival. This man, once a subject, was now a formidable foe, for he had gathered round him a following which far exceeded in numbers and in fighting strength that of our host. No sooner, therefore, did the Sultan of Bari hear of our approach, than he determined to place us in a position from which, in order to save ourselves, we should be forced to act as his ally. His first step, as I have shown, was an invitation to his village with the promise of a hospitable welcome. His second was to send a message to his rival, saying that unless he at once tendered his submission, he would level his village and destroy his following, and that with this object he had obtained an army from Europe furnished with weapons which no mortal could resist. Until we arrived, the Sultan of Bari had been in daily fear lest his rival should be the first to indulge in acts of open hostility, in which case, by his own confession, he would have been powerless to defend himself, for many of his own people mere wavering in their allegiance, and prepared at the first opportunity to go over to the stronger side. It is needless to say that this maneuver on the part of the sultan was unknown to us until we had established ourselves by the side of his village, and we were surrounded by some 1500 of his people, and from their attitude it appeared more than probable that if we declined to give them the assistance they desired, their first act of hostility ~would be towards ourselves. Once possessed of our arms, they could easily frighten their neighbors into subjection; and the loot offered by our camels, horses, and camp equipment, was tempting to people who covet all they see. However, we flatly declined to fight any battles but our own, and endeavored to make it clear to the sultan and to his people that if they wished to interfere with their neighbors, they would have to do so without receiving any assistance from us or from our men. It was not long before new of our decision reached the rival village, who, attributing our attitude to fear, at once expressed their intention to attack the Sultan of Bari and his European army too. This increased the difficulty of our position, for, on the one hand, if we left, we should have been at once attacked by the people of the sultan, while on the other hand, if we acted as their allies, me were to be overwhelmed by their wore powerful rivals. The middle course, which was to remain neutral, seemed likely to end in the probability of the two hostile village’s combining their forces against us; and though this might have been a peaceful solution of the quarrel between the Adones, it was not one which commended itself to us as at all convenient. The united strength of the two villages amounted to some 4000 warriors, a number which we, with our little band of sixty, could scarcely expect to defeat. However, we adhered to our first resolution, and strengthening our zariba with such lateral as we could obtain, prepares to await events. Our rear had a natural protection from the river, which was some 50 yards in width, and well guarded by crocodiles; therefore from that side we had only to fear the poisoned arrows of the archers, who had good cover in the thick jungle on the opposite bank. The erection of a low traverse, however, enabled us to feel secure against this weapon, and our main efforts were directed towards our front and flanks, which were exposed to direct assault. Fortunately the country here was too open to afford much cover to any enemy by day, but a large force might have crept up to within a hundred yards of us at night.
For the first five days we were kept in a condition of tension which was as irritating as it was wearisome. The blowing of the war-shells, the yells of the women, the continuous reports that the enemy was coming, and the demonstrations of the sultan’s warriors, made night and day one long and tedious watch, in which sleep or rest in any form was impossible. During these days we allowed our men to fire frequent volleys in the air, while we made short shooting excursions. And succeeded in slaughtering a number of crocodiles and many of the larger antelopes. This produced an excellent effect on the sultan’s people, and gave them so much respect for our rifles that we soon felt sure we should have little to fear in the way of a surprise from them; and the sense of security from at least this danger induced us to cross the river on a rough raft and explore a few miles of the country on the opposite side, where game was abundant. At the end of the fifth day the sultan came to us with a very cunning proposal. He said the enemy was so much afraid of our rifles that though they had made frequent feints, they had never dared to approach within a mile of our zariba, and he now saw his way to reconquer his revolted subjects without bloodshed. His scheme was that we should advance with all the circumstance of war upon the enemy, while he and his people followed behind. That on reaching the village we should arrange our men as though we were about to attack, but that before we fired he should rush forward and implore us to desist from the slaughter of men who once had been his loved and faithful subjects.
Thus those now in revolt would look upon him as their savior, and at once return to their former state of allegiance. This was very ingenious, and doubtless an excellent programme as far as the sultan was concerned, but it did not suit us to leave ourselves and our camp equipment exposed to his people who were to form our rear, nor did we at all share the sultan’s professed certainty as to the peaceful results. We, therefore, again declined to interfere in any way, and again expressed our determination to do nothing but defend ourselves. The following days were repetitions of the preceding ones-alarms by day and alarms by night, all accompanied by shrieks and yells, by wild war-dances, and great parades of warriors, who rushed about, and showed in pantomime how great and terrible they were, and how a thousand phantom foes were falling beneath their spears. It now seemed hopeless to expect to leave the Webbe without a fight, and we all felt a sense of relief when a crisis arrived, and the enemy came out in their full strength to attack. When, however, they were within a few hundred yards of us, the discretion of their leaders suggested a halt and a consultation. During this we sent an advance guard headed by our chief man Dualla, who challenged the enemy when he got within bowshot. The answer was a volley of imprecations, and in return our men replied by a few shots, fired high, and then they galloped back to us.
Upon this the enemy retired, and spent the remainder of that day in consultation. We also took counsel together, and decided to go straight up to the enemy’s village on the following day and settle the question one way or another. We were weary of everlasting alarms and feints of attack; all efforts at conciliation had failed, and it seemed that we had either to remain indefinitely in a state of blockade on the Shebeyli, or to fight our way out against serious odds and great disadvantages. Next day, while we were preparing for our exodus amid the usual cries of alarm and warlike demonstrations of the villagers, some sixty of the enemy appeared in sight, with their spears reversed in token of submission. Among their number was the sultan’s rival, who was received with yells of welcome on all sides, and carried on a platform of raised shields into the presence of his now acknowledged sovereign. Thus peace was declared between these two claimants to the royalty of the river, but we learnt from our spies during the night that it was probably only the first more towards a combined attack upon us. Therefore before daybreak we gave the order to load the camels in silence and with the first streaks of dawn left the rival sultans in possession of our empty zariba, and by a rapid march reached the neighborhood of our old friends, the Rer Hamer. We were much disappointed at having to return northwards, but we were quite unable to persuade any of our men to accompany us further south. Fear of the Adones worked strongly upon them, and they urged with great reason that the rains, which might be expected to commence any day, would render traveling impossible with camels, both on account of the mud and also on account of the fly. We offered them every inducement to proceed, but nothing would make them alter their minds.
River Crossings: nineteenth century engraving; Krapf, upper Shebbeyli, by Dr Johann Lewis
, New Monthly
By F. L. James
Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography
Series, Vol. 7, No. 10. (Oct., 1885), pp. 625-646.