The Isaaq are one of six Somali clan-families.
Traditionally their home is along the northern coast of the Somali peninsula, though for centuries a number have settled in Arabia.
The opening of the Suez Canal led to the development of bunkering facilities at Aden which quickly became an important port of call.
The Isaaq (isaq) people were well placed geographically to take advantage of this development.
Since many lived at Aden or on the Somali coast immediately opposite, they enlisted in significant numbers as stokers and firemen on passing ships.
As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century, ports as far apart as Perth and New York had small Isaq communities, but the largest groups outside Africa and Arabia were to be found along the Welsh coast of Britain.
At the same time there was a steady flow of Isaq from the northern Somali coast down to East Africa and their numbers gradually increased between 1900 and 1930.
Initially many came as askaris (soldiers) and gun-bearers.
It was Stanley who set a precedent in 1874 by stopping at Aden and recruiting the first Isaq for his Congo expedition.
Others quickly followed suit: Count Teleki, Sir Richard Burton, Captain Lugard and J. W. Gregory all hired Isaq for their trips.
Most explorers formed a highly favourable opinion of them and therefore, many were encouraged to stay on in British East Africa, despite strict repatriation clauses in their contracts.
Many Isaq entered government service as clerks and interpreters or joined the King’s African Rifles and the East African Constabularies.
Most, however, became stock-traders, an occupation at which they excelled, either trading on their own account in the pastoral reserves, or working as factotums to large stock-owners such as Lord Delamere, the Hon. Galbraith and Berkeley Cole.
A number of European farmers’ encouraged and financed Somali stock-trading, contracting them to buy donkeys in Karamoja or Southern Ethiopia and to exchange cattle for sheep in Laikipia.
Invariably the Isaq ended by residing in the townships and trading centres of Kenya.
From 1900 onwards the largest concentration of Isaq was to be found in Nairobi, while Isiolo became their second most important center after 1927.
There were sizable communities at Nanyuki and Nyeri and less numerous groups at Kakamega, Kajiado, Maralal, Nakuru, Embu, Kitale and Eldoret.
There were also a small number of Isaq in Uganda most of whom were confined to the area around Mbale.
During the same period there was a similar, though very much smaller, movement of Isaq to Tanganyika, now Tanzania.
The Germans, like the British, had made use of Somali askaris recruited at Aden, and most of those that remained on had likewise turned to the cattle trade.
But the evidence suggests that during the 1930s Isaq migration to Tanganyika was very much more rapid than it was to either Uganda or Kenya, until eventually their number came to be almost as great if not greater than in either of the other two East African countries.
Virtually all those who had contacts with the Isaq either in Kenya or in Tanganyika noted their proud, reserved bearing and haughty demeanor towards other East African peoples.
The Isaq were indeed strongly convinced that their status was superior to that of other East Africans and they bitterly resented being placed in the same category as other natives.
Moreover, such an attitude was encouraged by those government officials who claimed that the Somali were not of African origin and who advised that the Isaq should not be classified as ordinary African natives.
For their part, the Isaq refused to be called Africans, or even Somali, if this gave the idea that they came from a part of Africa.
Instead, they emphasized that they had either resided or been born at Aden, and that their written language was either English or Arabic.
The significance of this claim lay in the fact that from 1839 to 1937 Aden was annexed to British India and its inhabitants were therefore considered to be Asians.
But the claim suffered from the fact that verification was impossible due to the absence of documentary evidence, and so, despite Isaq claims, they were initially classified as natives.
Pressure from the Isaq in Kenya to be allowed to pay higher poll-tax was almost certainly motivated by their desire to acquire Asiatic status.
According to a Provincial Commissioner of the Northern Frontier District (NFD), the Isaq believed ‘that Asiatic status would confer, amongst other things, immunity from arrest by African police constables.
They hoped for special accommodation in hospitals and prisons, more favorable treatment in the law courts, and eventually the sharing with the Indians of lands in the ‘White highlands.’
Ahamed Nur and M. H. Mattan, two prominent members of the Isaq Association in 1960s, said their aims were to obtain access to Asian wards in hospitals, which was granted them between 1919 and 1928.
Secondly they wanted to get Asiatic privileges in jail; and thirdly to have an Isaq member on the Legislative Council.
They yearned for same trading privileges as Indians both in the townships and in the reserves.
Somali, for instance, were not allowed to own more than one shop, and trading licenses.
At the same time the Isaac agitation was also concerned with two other issues.
The first con- cerned Simpson’s plan of 1913 to zone Nairobi according to race, which necessitated the evacuation of four Somali compounds and the setting up of a new Somali location at Mbagathi.
The Isaq and other Somali sections opposed this move with petitions to the Governor and to the Secretary of State in 1916.
They employed solicitors to draft their complaints. They hired architects to construct plans for a model village, which they then tried to get the government to construct for them in lieu of compensation for the forced move.
The Isaq also organized a mass meeting outside Nairobi but the government stood its ground.
Nevertheless, Isaq Somali aspirations were partially fulfilled in 1919, when they achieved limited non-native status through the Somali Exemption Ordinance of that year.
This ordinance allowed them to pay non-native poll-tax and also permitted them to be classified as non-natives in all future ordinances.
In a government notice of 1921 defining the term ‘native’, in the General Revision Ordinance of 1925 which repealed it, the Isaq were indeed consistently defined as non- natives.
At the same time, however, almost all native legislation was still made to apply to them with only a small number of exemptions.
This was clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
The Isaq were considered to be natives under the Native Authority Ordinance but not under its corollary the Native Tribunal Ordinance.
While under the Registration of Domestic Servants Ordinance they were considered to be either native or non-native depending on their salary. Their social position was confused and uncertain.
Between 1919 and 1936, the Isaq continued to pay exactly the same taxation as Asians and this, to them, was a significant vindication of their claims to equality of status.
In 1936, however, a sliding scale was introduced and non-native tax was divided into three categories: Europeans paid 40s, Asians 30s and other non-natives 20s.
The Isaq were placed in the last category, their per capita tax being reduced by 10s, and this is what sparked off their agitation.
Initially, they sought to change the 1936 Non-Native Poll-Tax Ordinance by articulating their grievances to as wide an audience as possible.
Lawyers were consulted, memorials drafted and signatures gathered for petitions. In 1937 the Isaq asked Ormsby-Gore, then Colonial Secretary, to appoint a board of enquiry so that their complaints could be properly investigated and settled definitively.
The following year they sent a petition to King George VI.
All this proved to be extremely expensive, however, and funds had to be raised to defray the costs.
Moreover, this sort of activity, if it was to be sustained, required some form of central organization, and this was provided by the Ishaakia Shariff Community, an Isaq Somali association, which met once every three months as a national body in one of the Eastleigh sections of Nairobi.
They addressed circulars to ‘Isaq everywhere in the World.”