Abstract

This article proposes a new periodization of European colonial rule on the African Red Sea Littoral (ARSL). The ARSL is the arid and semi-arid region between the Red Sea and the Sudanese Nile and the Ethiopian/Eritrean highlands. The region is now divided among Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti. However, historically the ARSL was claimed by numerous pastoralist tribes and clans, including the Hadendowa, Bisharin, Amarar, Beni Amer, Habab, and Afar. This article demonstrates that the process of rendering these pastoralists into British, French, or Italian colonial subjects-i.e., of establishing European colonial rule-took decades. Though colonial officials laid their claims to the region at the end of the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that they began to exert meaningful forms of colonial control over these pastoralist communities. This article argues that this period of early colonial rule should be treated diffferently from the period of high colonial rule that follows. During the early period, the balance of power on the ground had not yet tipped in the favor of colonial officials. Though these officials were part of large imperial networks, they were not able to efffectively mobilize these networks to get access to the resources they needed to establish efffective administrations. At the same time, these officials did not command local resources, which, in general, remained in the hands of the local communities that continued to mobilize them to their advantage. These communities progressively lost access to the resources that allowed them to hold the colonial state at bay. In the case of the ARSL, this loss was only partially the result of actions taken by the emerging colonial state. Rather, the leading cause was the introduction of rinderpest, a disease that killed up to 90 percent of infected cattle in virgin herds. Following the initial epizootic impoverishment of the region, continuing poverty over time robbed pastoralists of their ability to protect themselves from adverse environmental conditions such as droughts. During the first third of the twentieth century, pastoralists were plagued by repeated famines that left them with no choice but to submit to the colonial state and gain access to the limited colonial food aid programs. This submission marks the end of early European colonial rule.

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