French Somaliland: Obock, 1862 - 1891

French interest in that part of the World was initially to counteract the British presence in Aden and palliate France´s lack of a coaling station on the route to the East. Of course, the importance of the Red Sea route was to be considerably enhanced by the projected opening of the Suez Canal and both colonial powers vyed for control of the southern access to the Red Sea.
Explorations by Henri Lambert, the French Consular Agent at Aden, and by Captain Fleuriot de Langle, were to result in a treaty of friendship and assistance between Napoleon III´s France and the sultans of Tadjoura, Gobaad and Raheita.
The sultans delegated Dini Ahmed Aboubekr to Paris where he and Mr Touvenel from foreign office signed the treaty on March 11th 1862. France was to pay 10,000 thaler for the acquisition of the port of Obock as well as the territory within Doumeira and Ras Ali. This gave France control of the entire coastline between the border of Eritrea and Tadjoura.
It was specified in the treaty that if the anchorage of Obock was to prove to be unsuitable to larger vessels, the French would be entitled to select another anchorage at their convenience, whether in the Goubhet or elsewhere, along with its surrounding territory.

a view of the first French settlement around 1870
The first French delegates were Mr Schefer and Capitaine Buret who were despatched on the vessel Le Curieux. In 1869, the Suez Canal opened to traffic...


The French poet Arthur Rimbaud moves to Harar from Aden. He was among the first European traders operating in that area. Aside from dealing in coffee, hides and gums he also sold fireworks and firearms to Menelik in his quest to unify Abyssinia and become Negus.


France is involved in a number of colonial ventures such as the conquest of Madasgascar and Indochina. The French had decided to build a road across half of Madasgascar and soldiers were equiped with individual two-wheel wagons in order to transport their equipment. The French had by then acquired som experience in colonial warfare since their defeat of the Dahomey warriors in West Africa and the so-called the Black Flags in China. No conquest came easely though, as diseases and suicides killed many more soldiers than combat. On the other hand, although native warriors were to display considerable bravery in combat ( such as the female amazons against French foreign legion in Dahomey ), their lack of firearms or their inability to use them was to prove a considerable handicap.
Until the acquisition of Obock at the entrance of the Red Sea, French military expeditions had had to use the port of Aden and pay fees to the British, a rather humiliating situation for a major power like France. Likewise, Obock would provide the caoling station the French navy had been clamoring for.
Leonce Lagarde, the first French aministrator, soon envisionned to extend French influence in the area in order to counteract the Egyptians who ambitionned to extend their control south.


On September 10th, Rimbaud writes to his family:
There is a French naval vessel in Obock on which 65 out of 70 crewmen on board are sick with tropical fever. The commanding officer died yesterday...


Obock has 800 inhabitants and one school founded by catholic missionnaries.
L.Lagarde has concluded agreements with the sultan of Tadjoura and with the Issas in the South.


Obock now has 2,000 inhabitants. On the way to Ras Bir, a convict penitentiary is built with a watchtower. This penitentiary was not to survive its inmates for very long though:
To work outside the cell was considered an opportunity to commit suicide since the prisonners knew that the prison guards in the watchtower did not have any other source of amusement - aside from drinking Pastis - than shooting at prisoners who attempted to escape. The penitentiary was closed a few years after its opening.
Rimbaud assembled a caravan in Tadjoura, in order to bring a large shipment of arms to Menelik but the French authorities delay his departure .
He meets L.Lagarde, now Governor in Obock, and succeed in convincing him to let him depart. He leaves Tadjoura in December with 100 camels loaded with 2,000 guns.


Djibouti is founded. The new site offers many advantages over Obock: a deeper anchorage, freshwater and a oasis. But above all it is located almost directly on the caravan route to competing Zeila. Governor Lagarde is hoping that this improved location will allow the French territory to become at last profitable in its quest to capture the Ethiopian trade. Lagarde moves that same years but the 50 European residents will hesitate a few more years before following suit.


Official move of French administration from Obock to Djibouti. About a tusen merchants and construction workers had already moved to the new capital and Obock´s population is now down to 1,000.

As I see it, one of the highlights of French influence in Obock was the settlement of Henry de Monfreid (1879-1974) from 1920 and into the sixties. He had converted to Islam, was called by arab name Abd El Hai and had a reputation across the all country, rejected by french authorities as dangerous, he could lead european reporters on the hunt to slaves, as reported by Josef Kessel.
I hope that Monfreids house, very well described as a 2 floor house in wich the ground floor is to be a storage for goods, while the first floor is the appartment, still belongs to his descendants or became a museum consacred to his Djiboutian writing period. Monfreid wrote more history about this region than anybody else can remember and he and his work are worth a holyplace to pilgrim to.