Mohamed Haji Ingiriis pays tribute to Professor Lee V. Cassanelli, the historian who put Southern Somalia on the map.

Aside from festschriften, people rarely pay tribute to academicians before their passing. In a similar vein, there is a Somali dictum which advises, ‘Haddii aad doonaysid ammaan, dhimo; laakiin haddii aad doonaysid caay, guurso’ [If it is a praise that you seek, you ought first to die, for only then will you get it; if on the other hand, you want to be dealt insults, you should get married!]. Indeed, in one of his journal articles, the subject of this tribute, Professor Lee V. Cassanelli, himself acknowledged a Somali aversion for praise-poems aimed at individuals.

Flouting such conventions, in this piece, I proceed to pay homage to the work of a living scholar. If there was a Somali state, able to devote more of its time and resources to scholarship, it would have to honour Professor Cassanelli. His seminal book, The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900, is unparalleled in terms of originality and argumentation, except one chapter on the history of drought incidence which is a bit boring and dull.

When Cassanelli was doing his field research in the early 1970s, there was unique, untapped archival material in Somalia at the time, such as those held in the Garessa [Fort] of Barqash bin Said, next to Al-Uruba hotel in Mogadishu. Rather than draw upon Italian archives to present the perspectives of the Italian colonial officials, Cassanelli instead chose to draw upon their published accounts and memoirs. Although he utilised them and ultimately presented his findings in a compelling way, I would have liked to see him doing at least archival work either in Italy, the United States or Somalia. Fortunately, Cassanelli conducted extensive oral interviews with the then dying elders in Afgooye and around Bariire, Beledul Amiin and Buulo Mareer in the Lower Shabelle region in Somalia.

Rarely does distinction come without the necessary hard graft to precede it. Conducting fieldwork and interviews—that vital tool in the toolbox of a historian—under the watchful eye of the post-colonial African state could prove difficult. It was shocking for Cassanelli when attempts were made by the incumbent regime to induce him to stop his historical research on the Afgooye area and instead study the northern regions (1). He was bluntly told that this is where Somali history was born. He was even offered generous sums of money and a government vehicle to carry out his research.

Nor were the limitations placed on academics and researchers the preserve of the military regime. After all, I. M. Lewis, the veteran doyen of Somali studies, admitted how his writings on Somalia were not free from the influence of the post-independence civilian administrations, recalling, as a consequence, that ‘I have sometimes tended to be less critical and objective… about the policies and actions of successive independent Somali governments’. He also made the point that the post-colonial authorities tried hard to influence his work more than the Somali authorities under decolonisation process. However different to Lewis in their methodology, and more importantly their conclusions, subsequent Somalists proved to be, they were working under similar, if not, identical constraints.

Critically, Cassanelli refused to accept all that and continued to investigate the history of southern Somalia in Afgooye and its environs. Ultimately, it is for this brave display of integrity and commitment to his subject for which we pay tribute to Cassanelli’s work, particularly in distilling for posterity much of what may otherwise have been lost.

Overall, Cassanelli did a great job in his field of historical research. However, I would highlight at the same time that his doctoral thesis, when submitted, was very rough and needed major revisions. But Cassanelli would resolve this superbly when he later converted the thesis into his classic book, The Shaping of Somali Society. I always say to myself that Cassanelli would have been more prominent and powerful than Professor I. M. Lewis if he had at least written four more books on the massive data he had collected, bringing the total to five.

A natural consequence of his numerous field trips, Cassanelli’s work is noticeably more nuanced and sensitive than most other non-Somali historians. Whenever Cassanelli writes something about Somali history, he presents his sharp analyses and shrewd insights in a fascinating way. Most of Cassanelli’s wonderful contributions are buried in book chapters, such as his well-researched studies on the history of slavery in southern Somalia and the 1948 UN factfinding mission to Mogadishu (2, 3). Above all, the most recent of Cassanelli’s chapters provides an interesting interrogation of the concept of the Total Genealogy in the Somali clan system in the volume, Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics, edited by Markus Hoehne and Virginia Luling as a festschrift for Lewis (4). In this book chapter, Cassanelli shows how the Total Genealogy was not Lewis’s new innovation, but rather was of Somali origin. I will briefly explore this theme.

To prove his point, Cassanelli cites a case of the Italian explorer Luigi Robecchi Bricchetti, an Italian traveller who toured the Horn of Africa in the 1890s and chronicled his reflections in almost two dozen books. When, in 1899, for instance, Brichetti visited Hobyo, he gathered important oral data at focus group discussions attended by knowledgeable elders who told him that all Somalis, wherever they lived, would finally come to one total genealogy in the all-encompassing abtirsiga qabiilka (clan genealogy).

Other scholars too have noted that the concept of the total genealogy, in the case of the Somali clans, originated with Somalis. The impression that Somalis, in their different clans, ultimately descended from a common ancestor could prove to be of inestimable utility in forging durable political alliances or entities. One could note, for instance, that in his unpublished dissertation, ‘The Arab Factor in Somali Society’, Ali Abdirahman Hersi contended that the sultan Yusuf Ali Keenidiid created the first non-clan-based state. Although the sultan’s own sub-sub-clan had the upper hand in the polity, the role of other sub-clans and clans was not negligible. Here, too, we can turn to other examples. In so doing, I propose a caveat, originally of Cassanellian formation, found in the opening pages of his masterly The Shaping. To illustrate a point about the Total Genealogy and ‘for the sake of clarity and accuracy, I use clan names’.

If one considers the case of the Geledi Sultanate in 1843, the power rested with the eponymous clan, while other resident communities exercised considerable clout, such as the local Digil, Jareer-Bantu and Hawiye, who not only functioned as poets and partners but supplied the bulk of the polity’s fighters. Certainly, without their backing and contribution, the Geledi Sultanate would not have succeeded in defeating the Baardheere Jameeca in 1843. Most notably, the Sultanate could have been something like a nation-state if it had consolidated its rule and seized the two most important adjacent economic hubs – that is, the port towns of Mogadishu and Merka.

Be that as it may, the concept of the Total Genealogy—that Somalis share one single fatherhood—is a total invention. This argument is further propped up by the fact the concept did not achieve widespread subscription; different clans and clan groups claim different origins. For example, (1) the Isaaq and the Daarood claim Arab ancestral heritage; (2) the Digil also claim the Arab ancestry (but I don’t know what the Mirifle claim in their original ancestry); (3) most of the Hawiye claim they hailed from Oromo and (4) there is no need to mention the claims of the Reer Hamar, Reer Merka, Reer Barawe and Asharaaf since their names give them away (as Somalis say ‘sadar muuqda su’aal ka dhan’ [an obvious sentence does not need explanation]).

In short, Cassanelli has bequeathed to Somalis and the academic community alike an enviable intellectual legacy, principal among his achievement of quite literally putting southern Somalia on the map through his framework which looked at Somali history and culture through a regional perspective.



(1) Ali Jimale Ahmed, ‘A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea: The Oral and the Written 1890-1991, by Ghirmai Negash’, Research in African Literatures, 43, 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 58-64;

(2) Lee Cassanelli, ‘The Ending of Slavery in Italian Somalia: Liberty and the Control of Labor, 1890- 1935’, in Suzanne Miers and Richard L. Roberts (eds.), The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 308-331;

(3) Lee Cassanelli, ‘Somali Perceptions of Colonial Rule: Testimonies of the Four Power Commission’ in Robert W. Harns, Joseph C. Miller, David S. Newbury and Michelle W. Wagner (eds.), Paths Towards the Past: African Historical Essays in Honor of Jan Vansina (Atlanta: African Studies Associations Press, 1994), 143–155;

(4) Lee Cassanelli, ‘Speculations on the Historical Origins of the “Total Somali Genealogy”’ in Markus V. Hoehne and Virginia Luling (eds.), Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society, and Politics: Essays in Honour of I. M. Lewis (London: Hurst, 2010), 53–66.


Prof Lee Cassanelli is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. His book on the early history of Somalia, The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900 was published in 1982. He has published numerous articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Somali history, from a variety of perspectives, including the social, the cultural and the economic. He was a co-founder of the Somali Studies International Association, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary next year.

An Oxford doctoral candidate, Mohamed Haji Ingiriis was born in Mogadishu, where, in the thick of the civil war, he began working as a staff writer for the newspapers, Qaran (State) and Ayaamaha (The Daily). Later, after studying philosophy in Belgium, he settled in the UK, where he undertook postgraduate studies at Goldsmiths and London Met. He has published widely on Somalia and serves as the Book Review Editor for both the Anglo-Somali Society and the Journal of Somali Studies (JOSS). He specialises in Somali history, politics and society.