Sharmarke Ali Saleh

Sharmarke Ali Saleh (Somali: Sharma'arke Cali Saalax) was a leading 19th century Somali leader, captain, and merchant. He was known as "The African Rothschild " which indicates he was one of the richest man in Africa at that time and also the 'Political Boss of the Somali coast', a title which is a testament to his political influence in the region. [2] He was the governor and ruler of Zeila, Berbera, and Tadjoura between 1841 and 1861, and for a time was known as the richest man along the Somali coast. His descendants would go on to become the traditional leaders of the Musa Arreh sub-clan of the Habr Yunis clan.

Haji Sharmarke Ali Saleh
الحاج شرماركي علي صالح
Governor and Pasha of Zeila, Berbera and Tadjoura
Reign1810s–1830s (Influential native trader based in Berbera), 1845–1852 (Berbera rule), 1841–1855 (Zeila rule), 1857–1861 (2nd term rule of Zeila)[1]
Maydh, Isaaq Sultanate
DiedMay 25, 1861
ReligionSunni Islam


Map showing trade routes leading to Berbera and its environs

Little is known about Sharmarke's early life, except that he was born in the coastal town of Maydh in 1775 and he belonged to the Habr Yunis section of the Isaaq clan.

Haji Sharmarke received the famed explorer Richard Francis Burton in 1855 and Burton stayed in his home as a guest in Zeila.

Burton described Sharmarke as such:

The Hajj Sharmarkay in his youth was a man of valour: he could not read or write; but he carried in battle four spears, and his sword-cut was recognisable. He is now a man about sixty years old, at least six feet two inches in stature, large-limbed, and raw-boned: his leanness is hidden by long wide robes. He shaves his head and upper lip Shafei-fashion, and his beard is represented by a ragged tuft of red-stained hair on each side of his chin. A visit to Aden and a doctor cost him one eye, and the other is now white with age. His dress is that of an Arab, and he always carries with him a broad-bladed, silver-hilted sword. Despite his years, he is a strong, active, and energetic man, ever looking to the " main chance." With one foot in the grave, he meditates nothing but the conquest of Harar and Berberah, which, making him master of the seaboard, would soon extend his power as in days of old even to Abyssinia. To hear his projects, you would fancy them the offspring of a brain in the prime of youth: in order to carry them out he would even assist in suppressing the profitable slave-trade.[3]

Sharmarke started out as a Nakhuda (Captain) of a Somali vessel and trader. According to Frederick Forbes, a contemporary figure who retells the story of an attack of a trading brig in the Gulf of Aden, in 1825 the British brig the 'Mary Anne' on its way from Mauritius had been attacked and plundered in Berbera, resulting in several British crewman being killed. Sharmarke rescued and protected the remaining survivors, more so out of policy and pragmatism. This incident aided his burgeoning relations with the British government and eventually lead to a commercial treaty with the British East India Company some twenty years later.[4]


Rise and later rule in BerberaEdit

Richard Burton's map of the region, which shows the major ports of Zeila, Berbera and Tadjoura

Sharmarke rose to prominence as a dominant native trader during the Berbera fair held between October and April, which Mordechai Abir describes as "among the most important commercial events of the east coast of Africa."[5] The major Somali sub-clans of the Isaaq in Somaliland, caravans from Harar and the wider interior, and Banyan merchants from Porbandar, Mangalore and Mumbai gathered to trade. All of this was kept secret from European merchants.[6]

Sharmarke was also known for his trustworthy conduct when it came to matters of trade and general commerce,[7] and was also known as the 'African Rothschild' by his contemporaries:

By his [Sharmarke] industry and enterprise he has become the richest man along this coast; nor is there scarcely a prince or petty chief in the adjoining countries who is not indebted to this African Rothschild.[8]

Historically, the port of Berbera was controlled indigenously between the mercantile Reer Ahmed Nur and Reer Yunis Nuh sub-clans of the Sa'ad Musa, Habr Awal. These two sub-clans effectively administered the trade of the town, especially in the dealings of all transactions and brokerage between various parties to issuing protection agreements towards the foreign Arab and Indian traders. In the year 1845, the two sub-clans had a dissension over the control of the trade of Berbera, which lead to a wider altercation where each side sought outside support. With the backing of Haji Sharmarke Ali Saleh, the Reer Ahmed Nuh drove out their kinsmen and declared themselves the sole commercial masters of Berbera.[9] The defeated Reer Yunis Nuh moved westwards and established the port of Bulhar which later, for a brief period, became a trading rival to nearby Berbera.[10]

Jealousies soon arose, and the Aial Yunus shortly after drove the Aial Ahmed out of Berbera, and declared themselves the only “Abbans” for strangers during the fair. The Aial Ahmed upon this took advantage of Berbera being deserted as usual, and, with the assistance of Hadj Shermarkhi Ali Saleh, governor of Zeyla, erected four martello towers on the spot generally occupied by the town, and hired thirty match-lockmen to garrison them. A battle of course ensued, and, assisted by the foreign allies, the Aial Ahmed drove the Aial Yunus away from the place.[11]

However, Sharmarke's actions was ultimately a political ruse to control Berbera for himself, which he ultimately achieved for several years.[12]

Governorship and rule of ZeilaEdit

19th-century view of Zeila

As a tributary of Mocha, which in turn was part of the Ottoman possessions in Western Arabia, the port of Zeila had seen several men placed as governors over the years. The Ottomans based in Yemen held nominal authority of Zeila when Haji Sharmarke Ali Saleh, who was a successful and ambitious Somali merchant, purchased the rights of the town from the Ottoman governor of Mocha and Hodeida:

Allee Shurmalkee [Ali Sharmarke] has since my visit either seized or purchased this town, and hoisted independent colours upon its walls; but as I know little or nothing save the mere fact of its possession by that Soumaulee chief, and as this change occurred whilst I was in Abyssinia, I shall not say anything more upon the subject.[13]

However, the previous governor was not eager to relinquish his control of Zeila. Hence in 1841, Sharmarke chartered two dhows along with fifty Somali Matchlock men and two cannons to target Zeila and depose its Arab Governor, Syed Mohammed Al Barr. Sharmarke initially directed his cannons at the city walls which frightened Al Barr's followers and caused them to abandon their posts and succeeded Al Barr as the ruler of Zeila. Sharmarke's governorship had an instant effect on the city, as he maneuvered to monopolize as much of the regional trade as possible, with his sights set as far as Harar and the wider interior.[14]

During Sharmarke Ali Saleh's governorship of Zeila, Sharmarke's pre-existing trading activities with Southern Arabia and India continued unabated. Out of the twenty local vessels docked in Zeila ten were owned by Sharmarke himself, with two of the ships being "large trading dhows which convey yearly, about 300 tons of coffee and other goods" to Bombay.[15]

Downfall and ResurgenceEdit

Afar merchant Abu Bakr, rival of Sharmarke for control of Zeila

In the year 1855, Sharmarke was deposed by his Danakil rival, Abu Bakr, who gained control of Zeila via the support of the French. However, Sharmarke was resorted to power in 1857 and became the governor of Zeila again, ruling the historic port town until his death in 1861:

In April 1857, Coghlan reported that Boo Bekr (Abu Bakr), the ruler of Zeila, had been deposed by the Pasha of Hodeida, and Shermarkee restored to power. (BSC 1857, Coghlan-Bombay 4/24/1857)[16]

According to researcher Said M Shidad, it was Sharmarke's dream to restore authority to the lost state of Adal Sultanate[17]

Influence in Shewa, Harar and the Danakil CoastEdit

Negus Sahle Selassie with whom Sharmarke had great influence and convinced his son to arrest 300 Harari citizens

Sharmarke's influence was not only limited to the Somali coast as he had many allies in the interior of the Somali country and even further in Abyssinia, since he ruled the ports they depended on. Among his allies were the rulers of Shewa. When there was tension between the Amir of Harar Abu Bakr II ibn `Abd al-Munan and Sharmarke, as a result of the Amir arresting one of his agents in Harar, Sharmarke persuaded the son of Sahle Selassie, ruler of Shewa, to imprison on his behalf about 300 citizens of Harar then resident in Shewa, for a length of two years.[18]

Sharmarke Ali Saleh was also known to have great influence in parts of the Danakil (Afar) coast:

But the arrival of Ali Shermárki shortly changed this desultory conversation to weightier matters. This worthy old man, sheikh of the Somauli tribe Aber Gerhájis, possessing great influence and consideration among the entire Danákil population of the coast, had been invited from Zeyla, his usual place of residence, to assist in the extensive preparations making for the journey of the embassy.[19]

Sharmarke also collected a tribute of 1,200-1,600 thalers annually from the inhabitants of Tadjourah, equivalent to a massive sum in modern currency.[20] French Geographer Arnaud-Michel d'Abbadie visited the coast of the Horn of Africa to penetrate through towards the highlands of Abyssinia. However, he was halted in Tadjoura by Sharmarke, known as the local ruler of the port.[21]


Portrait of Henri Lambert, published in Le Tour du Monde in 1862

In 1861, Sharmarke was believed by the French to have a role in the murder of Henri Lambert, a former French consular agent at Aden while on his way to Tadjoura, and who was incidentally a major supporter of Sharmarke's main rival Abu Bakr, an Afar/Danakil slave trader. Both the Turkish Pasha of Hodeida and the British Residency in Aden believed Sharmarke was wholly innocent of the charge, but the Haji and some of his supporters were arbitrarily arrested and handed to the French navy for a trial in Constantinople (although the trial was later moved to Jeddah).[22] However, the ailing Sharmarke died during the journey and whether foul play was involved is not known.[23]


Mohammed Sharmarke, the eldest son of Sharmarke Ali Saleh, provided his father's genealogy to Richard Burton, who recorded it as such[24]

  • Ishak Ibn Ahmed
    • Ismail (Garhajis)
      • Said (Habr Yunis)
        • Arrah
          • Musa
            • Ibrahim
              • Fikih
                • Adan
                  • Mohamed
                    • Hamid
                      • Jibril
                        • Ali
                          • Awad
                            • Saleh
                              • Ali
                                • Sharmarke

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Alwan, Daoud (2000). Historical Dictionary of Djibouti. Scarecrow. p. 12. ISBN 9780810838734.
  2. ^ Marston, Thomas E. Britain's Imperial Role in the Red Sea Area, 1800–1878. Hamden: Conn., Shoe String Press, p. 473, 1961.
  3. ^ Burton. F., Richard (1856). First Footsteps in East Africa. pp. 19–20.
  4. ^ Forbes, Frederick (1986). Bridges, Roy (ed.). "The Visit of Frederick Forbes to the Somali Coast in 1833". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. Boston University African Studies Center. 19 (4): 688. doi:10.2307/219140. JSTOR 219140.
  5. ^ w. Abir, Mordechai (1968). Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes; The Challenge of Islam and the Re-unification of the Christian Empire (1769-1855). London: Longmans. p. 16.
  6. ^ Abir, Era of the Princes, p. 17
  7. ^ Hunt, Freeman (1846). Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, Volume 15. Freeman Hunt. p. 138.
  8. ^ Johnston, Charles. Travels in Southern Abyssinia: Through the Country of Adal to the Kingdom of Shoa. Madden, 1844. p. 25.
  9. ^ Lewis, I.M. (1965). The Modern History of Somaliland: from Nation to State. Praeger. p. 35.
  10. ^ Z. H., Kour (1981). The History of Aden, 1839-72. Cass. p. 72.
  11. ^ Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, 1849, Volume 8, p. 185.
  12. ^ Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s. Unesco. 1989. pp. 386.
  13. ^ Johnston, Southern Abyssinia, p. 33
  14. ^ Rayne, Henry (1921). Sun, sand and Somals; leaves from the note-book of a district commissioner in British Somaliland. Witherby, London. pp. 15–16.
  15. ^ Jama, Mohamed (1996). Constructing colonial hegemony in the Somaliland protectorate, 1941-1960 (Thesis). University of Toronto. p. 49.
  16. ^ Marston, Britain's Imperial Role, p. 255
  17. ^ Said M-Shidad H. The Impact of the Role of Traditional leaders on Politico-governance in Somalia: Present realities and Past Reflections. p. 9
  18. ^ Burton, First Footsteps, p. 302
  19. ^ Cornwallis Harris, William (1844). The Highlands of Æthiopia, Volume 1. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. p. 39.
  20. ^ Joint-Daguenet, Roger (1992). "Outre-MersRevue d'histoire". 294 (La côte africaine du golfe d'Aden au milieu du XIXe siècle): 87–113. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. ^ A. Bezabeh, Samson (2016). Subjects of Empires, Citizens of States: Yemenis in Djibouti and Ethiopia. Oxford University Press. p. 32.
  22. ^ Marston, Britain's Imperial Role, pp. 256-257,
  23. ^ Charton, Edouard (1862). Le tour du monde: nouveau journal des voyages, Volume 2; Volume 6 (in French). Libraires Hachette. p. 78.
  24. ^ Burton, First Footsteps, p. 18