Richard Burton was not alone in his reckless and dangerous adventure to Zeila, Harrar and Berbera in 1854. He was just one of so many other spies, empire builders and many other misfits they sent to far off land in order to spy on them. They came in so many shapes, and forms. They all disguised as something they are not. You have Richard Burton, who disguised as Sheikh Abdulla, Walter Rhinault a French empire builder, disguised as a sales man, who also came to Zeila and Harrar almost the same time Burton came.
You have Dr. David Livingstone, who disguised as a medical doctor in Northern and Southern Rhodesia; you have Cecil Rhodes who was a colonist and empire builder who disguised initially as a business man and eventually became a very wealthy diamond tycoon. The two modern states of Zambia and Zimbabwe were named after Cecil Rhodes (Northern and Southern Rhodesia’s). He single-handedly annexed these two states for Great Britain. They also came as Captain Cook, Vasca Digamma, Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and so many other names. All these men were colonialists, and empire builders who regard the people of the land they slated for colonialization as savages. That was yesterday and this is today. Today they are called United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF and so many other so-called multilateral organizations.
The title of his book “The first Footstep on East Africa” and his thirty day trip towards the hinterland of Somaliland was full of omissions, half truths and outright lies. His derogatory comments about some of the people of the areas he went through in his trip from Zeila to Berbera. His actions depicted a man with low morals, mediocre education and intellectual prowess. One can also smell from his incessant vulgar language, towards the indigenous people he encountered, during his one month trip from Zeila to Berbera, an impudent man with street character. His derogatory comments about the people of the area he passed through are beyond belief. Nobody knows what his mission from Zeila to Berbera was about. The actions and arrogance exhibited by this unintelligent spy is a reflection of the lies and distortions, those strangers wrote about the lands they visited and eventually colonized.
This man was so much different than what he was portrayed in the western world. It was a very narrow book which says nothing about the commercial and the religious class of the city. Zeila at the time a has affably large business community that used to take caravans of consumer good to Harrar once every three times a month. To them he was a pioneer, an explorer and instant expert on Zeila and the Horn of Africa. To the Zeilites he was a deceitful infidel who was disguised as a Muslim preacher, spied on them and wrote lies and derogatory things about them. If you read his book, the so-called foot steps in East Africa, he will come across as a racist interloper who bites the hand that fed him. Besides the Futuh Al-Habash Richard Burton the lowly British navy spy is portrayed as an authority on Adel Empire. He came to Zeila the capital of Adel Empire in 1854, almost three hundred after the decline of the once great Adel Empire. This British spy has learned a little bit about Islam in Mecca and deceived both the Sharif of Mecca as well as the people of Zeila. At the time Zeila was still major thriving commercial port that trades with the Arabian Peninsula, Bombay, Sahel and Oman.
Apparently this man who disguised as Sheikh Abdulla stayed in Zeila for a very short period of time. He even has no knowledge in the hinterland of Zeila. His whole experience was based on a month trip from Zeila, to Berbera through Harrar. When ever they are talking about this area of the Horn of Africa, their major source is Richard Burton and Abyssinia an avid opponent of Adel in particular and all the indigenous people of the Horn of Africa. Most of these so-called experts on the Horn of Africa and western writers always describe Adel civilization as alien civilization. Their writings often times place the founders and stake holders of that civilization outside Zeila and the Horn of Africa. I wonder how few outsiders can come from outside and start a civilization without the cooperation and the participation of the indigenous people. What they were trying is to shove through our throats these baseless lies. They were trying to sell Adel civilization as a civilization without people. There is no civilization without people. That amounts to a myth. Moreover, the writings have racists leaning based on the premise, indigenous people are savages and primitives that are not capable to establish a civilization. Coming from that mind set they were justifying the colonization, oppression and subjugation of the people of indigenous communities. Everywhere they go the colonial powers and conquerors have applied the same tactics. The slave owners of the Southern United States of the former thirteen colonies used similar tactics. Richard Burton was a racist spy of the British colonial navy. It is so unfortunate that such lowly mediocre who have myopic views of the world and ancient Zeila.
The major reason for his visit was to spy on Zeila, a city, a government and later an empire which has a long history of independence and self-government and leadership. A huge reservoir of the history of the people of this land, Somaliland in particular and the Horn of Africa in general is buried in Zeila. I hope Zeila will rise again. The government Zeila was well-known through the Muslim. They call it Ballad Al-Zulia, the Greeks call it Avalites, and the people of ancient Bilaad-Al-Shaam (Levant) called Zeila the city of lights. The 64 thousand question has so successfully buried the rich history of Zeila/and the Adel empire? Is the sinister work of Abyssinians, the imperial powers of Britain and the French or all of them? We know all the former has something to do with the decline of Adel, but how much they were involved is not very clear yet. The answer of these questions requires a carefully orchestrated, meticulous research and investigation.
Suleiman Egeh: Freelance writer and senior science instructor