The story of a Somali stowaway to Europe in 1915


The story of a Somali stowaway to Europe in 1915.

Many people always think Somalis arrived in Britain in late 20th century because of war without knowing that there has been a Somali presence in Britain for over a hundred years.
The first Somalis to arrive in Britain were economic migrants. Merchant seamen settled in cities including Cardiff, Liverpool, and London.

Although principally nomadic herders, Somalis were also a historically sea-faring people – familiar with the sea and boats.

Some Somali young men had already seen opportunities in Europe and were hiding or taking employment on British ships bound with traded goods

For example Ibrahim Ismaai’l was just a teenager in 1912 when he left home to look for work. He would later end up in Basra Iraq in 1914 where he found work as a watchman for one rupee a night. Although he later found work on a British war ship which had docked there, this was temporary. Soon he was jobless again .

The British, however , were kind enough and offered to pay for the voyage of those who were willing to go back home only up to Aden in Yemen.

Just before he boarded the ship to Aden , his friend who was just about to die entrusted him with the whole of his property (120 rupees) to take to his cousin in Aden . However just before the ship arrived in Aden, a man claiming to be the deceased’s brother came on board and demanded the money.

“I saw that everyone on the ship was of opinion that I had no right to withold it from him.” So he surrendered the money.

When he arrived in Aden, he learnt that the cousin to whom he was to deliver the property had also died, but another man claiming to be the brother lodged a claim to it, and demanded to know where Ismaai’l had taken the money.

It became a big issue fortunately someone intervened by suggesting that the matter should be settled by the Somalis themselves and should not be taken to court

As the matter was talked over, it was brought to Ismaai’l’s attention that the man who had taken the money in the ship was not a brother to the deceased as he had claimed but a cousin, and that he was also cousin to the man who was suing him. In the end all the relatives solved the matter by agreeing to divide the sum between them.

By good luck Ismaai’l who was really broke bumped into a man he had given some 20 rupees in Basra to deliver to his mother in Somalia ." I learnt that he had not delivered the money so I asked him for it and he gave it back. I was badly in need of it now."

Ismaai’l’s plan was to use this little money to get to Europe a continent he had learned about while working in Basra.

“While in Basra I had heard of a place called Europe, which was the other side of Djibouti, and where life was easier, wages being higher. I now decided to try my luck there.”

As a result, in 1915 he embarked on a little boat which took him first to Zeila where he stayed one day then to Djibouti.

He had no money left when he arrived, but soon managed to earn a few francs by working in a ferry with three other boys. Meanwhile he had made enquiries as to how he could get to Europe.

"I had been told my only chance of going there was by stowing away on a ship. For a long time I felt very nervous about doing this: would I ever have the courage? "

At last, after he had been three months in Djibouti. a ship arrived from Shanghai, transporting carribean soldiers. He decided to try his luck.

He crept on board and managed to discover a small nook, near the funnel, where it was so unbearably hot that it was seldom visited by the inspectors, it was there that he hid.

What made matters difficult was that he had caught bronchitis and in order to hush up his cough he had to fill my mouth with his clothes.

As he had expected, my little hiding place was not searched.

At last the hooter went once, twice, three times, and the ship left the harbour. “Of course I did not sleep that night: my cough alone would have prevented me.” When the morning began to break,he could not stand it any longer, and decided to come out of his hiding place.

To his surprise he found that there were no less than fifteen men who had stowed away like him among them seven Somali, all the others were Arabs.

" How they all managed to hide was a puzzle to me: some had concealed themselves among the goats and cattle, others were certainly there with the complicity of the boatswain."

In the early morning they were all discovered by the co-captain of the ship who became mad with rage, and gave them a thorough beating right and left. " I was fortunate enough to escape the blows." They were all put to hard work as punishment. Ismaai’l was put for eight hours at a stretch in the stoke hole.

“I was dead tired and tried to dodge further work as much as I could, only showing myself at meal times. I tried to make friends with the sailors but they would have nothing to do with me.”

“One night as I was sleeping on a little deck near the funnel, it began to rain heavily; I woke up and tried to get under shelter, but in my half-sleep, I stumbled on the ladder and fell into the bottom deck. For some time I stayed motionless, being quite sure that I was dead; and it was a great relief when I found out that I was not. The pain I got in my back occasionally recurs to me even now.”

As the ship made a brief stop opposite Port-Said in Egypt to pick up some food stuff , all the Somalis including Ismaai’l, decided to disembark thinking they had arrived in Europe.

They called a boatman and offered him half a rupee per head to take them ashore. The boatman told them that since they had no papers it would be difficult to get through the custom officials. However for one rupee each he agreed to land us in a place where they could get out unnoticed.

They gave the boatman the money, and he took them to the pier. However upon arrival, the boatman asked them to wait for him so that he could fasten his boat and lead them to the proper place, only for him to flee; never to return.

For some time Ismaai’l and his mates walked up and down the quay, gazing at the town through a fence of iron bars thinking they were already in Europe. There was only one door and this was closed to them as they could not face custom officials.

In the end they realised Europe was still miles away. They took the only course open to them and that was taking another boat to the ship this time they gave the ferry-man nothing at all, leaving him to claim his due from his friend.

In 1918 the ship arrived in Marseilles France where Ismaai’l I found other Somalis who gave him European clothes and boots. “I noticed that all had their hair trimmed in European fashion, being cut at the back of the head, so I thought I would, also in this, conform to the custom of the country.”

I went into a barber’s shop, and, not knowing a word of the language, I explained by signs what I wanted. The barber beckoned me to sit in an armchair and started to cut my hair. Then he pointed out to me a number of flasks and I agreed to all his suggestions. By the time he had finished I was scented all over, and felt very satisfied with myself."

" I put one franc in his hand then the equivalent of tenpence - and waited for my change. It was some time before I understood that my bill amounted to five times the sum I was giving him. But five francs was all the money I possessed, and I determined not to part with it.

" A customer, seeing I was a stranger and did not understand what I had done, interfered in my favour, and finally, it was decided that I should be let off after giving another franc to the barber. Since thay day I never ask for anything until I have enquired about the price."

The Somalis in France did everything they could for Ismaai’l. “It is their custom to do the same for any new-comer from home, until he gets to know the place and can look after himself,” he said.

“The shops in Marseilles were a continual surprise to me. I was glad when the sun rose on another day so that I could get out and see more of these wonders. I spent day after day just staring about me and looking in at the shop windows. The overhead bridge was an amazing structure, the like of which I had seen no where else. One night I was taken to a cinema and enjoyed it so much that I went almost every night afterwards. Though it was summer I felt the cold very much.”

" I stayed some time in Marseilles looking for work as a fireman on a ship, for I was now feeling much stronger. The pay on French ships being low, some friends and I decided to look for an English ship.
Since it is by his papers that a man is judged, and I had lost mine in Djibouti, a Somali friend gave me his own."

A few days later Ismaai’l heard that an English ship was looking for a crew . Several of them jumped at this opportunity. However, they had to give a commission to the man who found us the job.

After nine days sailing they arrived in London; we had a little bad weather on the way. On the ship they had heard of a place called Cardiff in Wales , where there were many Somalis, and plenty of ships, and where it was easy to get work.

So as soon as they arrived in London they hurried through the streets of the Metropolis and took the train to Cardiff.

“We were all welcomed by our countrymen, who gave us food and lodging on credit. Somali housekeepers help their other kin in every way they possibly can and trust they will pay them when and if they can.”

In January 1920, Ismaai’l found work on a ship is a fireman trimmer. The ship took them to Morocco, Gibraltar, to Genoa, and then to North America.

Ismaai’l had heard that in America money was very plentiful and easy to earn; so when they stopped at Norfolk, in Virginia, to load coal, he decided to go ashore and have a look at the place and decide whether he would leave the ship there and settle in America.

However the experience he had was never pleasant.

“I jumped on a tram which was going from the dock to the town but I had not reached the middle of the car, when the conductor pushed me back, and, in a most uncivil manner showed me a seat at the back where the coloured people had to sit. There I sat down silently and thought to myself: America may keep its many dollars . I bought a few things in the town and hastened back to the ship.”

Ismaai’l returned to Britain where he settled in Cardiff.