French Somaliland (Côte française des Somalis, literally “French Coast of Somalis” in French or Dhulka Soomaaliyeed ee Faransiiska in Somali) was a French colony in the Horn of Africa on the Gulf of Tadjourna between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The area has long been occupied by two nomadic groups: the Afars of the north, and the Somali-speaking Issas of the south. Both are Muslim, but have often fought against each other. Much of the territory’s political and postal history has already been explored on this blog in postings about the French Territory of Obock, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas, and the current Republic of Djibouti. Thus, today’s article will be thankfully brief.
In the 1850’s, the “opening up” of Africa by the European powers and the development of steamships, required the setting up of coaling stations around the continent. With the pending opening of the Suez Canal, the French did not wish to be dependent upon the British port of Aden. During 1857, they bought the town of Obock and adjoining territory from the local Danakil sultans. This was ratified by a treaty in 1862. The French did not actually settle in Obock until 1883 when the Territoire d’Obock was established.
The territory comprised the town of Obock, a small port on the northern shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura, opening onto the Gulf of Aden. By 1885, Obock had 800 inhabitants and a school. At first, the inhabitants used the general stamps of the French Colonies, but in 1892 they introduced the OBOCK overprint in order to proclaim territory for propaganda purposes. Later in the year, some of these were also surcharged with values from 1 centime to 5 francs, and by the end of the year, they received a supply of the omnibus Navigation and Commerce issues, inscribed OBOCK in red or blue.
As the anchorage in the harbor of Obock proved to be too heavily exposed for large vessels, the port was moved south to Djibouti. In 1894, Léonce Lagarde, the French Consul, established a permanent French administration in the city of Djibouti, and named the region Côte Française des Somalis (French Somali Coast). It is said that the name had been proposed by Mohamed Haji Dide of the Mahad ‘Ase branch of the Gadabuursi. Before the arrival of the French, he was a prosperous merchant of Zayla as well as the sultan. He built the first mosque in Djibouti — Gami ar-Rahma — in 1891.
After the departure of the government from Obock to Djibouti, it is hard to believe that much mail came or went from the little port town. Although used stamps are no more valuable than unused varieties, commercially used stamps on covers are seldom seen. Djibouti had its own overprinted stamps from 1893 with the overprint reading either DJ or DJIBOUTI (Somali Coast Scott #1-5. A set of 15 imperforate stamps similar to those issued by Obock with simulated perforations was released in 1894 inscribed PROTECTORAT CÔTE DES SOMALIS / DJIBOUTI (Scott #6-22). In 1902, stamps of Obock were overprinted and surcharged for use in Djibouti (Scott #30-33F). In August 1902, the stamps issued for both Obock and Djibouti were replaced by a set of definitives inscribed PROTECTORAT CÔTE DES SOMALIS (Scott #34-48).
The construction of the Imperial Ethiopian Railway west into Ethiopia — reaching Dire Dawa in 1902, Adis Ababa in 1906 and completed in 1917 — the port of Djibouti became a boomtown of 15,000 at a time when Harar was the only city in Ethiopia to exceed that. Although the population fell after the completion of the line and the original company failed requiring a government bail-out, the rail link allowed the territory to quickly supersede the caravan-based trade carried on at Zeila (then in the British area of Somaliland) and become the premier port for coffee and other goods leaving southern Ethiopia and the Ogaden through Harar.
The railway continued to operate following the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. During World War II, the colonial administration in the French Somali Coast was loyal to the Vichy regime in France and collaborated with Nazi Germany. After a siege, the territory was occupied by British and Free French forces in 1942, upon which the administration was transferred to the Free French led by Charles de Gaulle.
In 1946, the French Somali Coast became a French overseas territory and in 1967 the name was changed to Territoire Français des Afars et des Issas. In 1977, through a referendum, it was decided that Afars & Issas would become independent as the Republic of Djibouti (République de Djibouti).
Between 1915 and 1933, the territory issued a 39-stamp pictorial series utilizing just three designs in a variety of colors across the denominations (Scott #80-118). These were typographed on chalky paper (except for Scott #90 which was issued on ordinary stamp paper) and perforated 13½x14. Scott #81 is a 2-centime stamp printed in ocher and indigo. It portrays a drummer, as do five other stamps in this set. Most of the pre-World War II stamps of the French Somali Coast feature rather striking typefaces and this is no exception.