This is thought to be the oldest African community in London. Whilst a lot of Somalis came to London as asylum seekers, fleeing civil unrest in their country, many are second, third and even fourth generation Somalis.
There are records of Somalis in London dating back to 1914, when they were recruited to fight in the First World War and then settled in the capital. This first group was followed by a continuous trickle, many of whom came over as merchant seamen. They tended to settle in cities with ports, including Cardiff, Liverpool and London, where they put down roots in Tower Hamlets.
Accounts of the time show that many of these seamen only planned to stay in London long enough to make some money before returning to their families. In Somalia, they were nicknamed "The Fortune Men" because they promised to bring wealth back home.Because they always intended to go back to Africa, many of the first Somalis in London didn’t learn English, and they have been slower to establish a formal community here than many other ethnic groups.
Somalia is a clan-based nation, and communities of Somalis were founded centuries ago in all eight of the countries that make up the Horn Of Africa.They are the only people of Arab-African ethnicity, dating back to the time when the Arab slave trade swept through the eastern seaboard.
The name "Somali" comes from a word meaning "milk the animal" and it
relates to the peoples’ nomadic farming tradition.It is said that when Somali people were first asked to identify their nationality, they had no common name, and so they chose the word, "Soma", which described the activity they most had in common!
Somalia itself is a relatively young country, formed in 1960, from a former British Protectorate and an Italian Colony.Many southern Somalis actually speak Italian, and spaghetti is one of the national dishes. Recently, the country has been ravaged by civil war (in 1991), and by intermittent border disputes until 1993. One million citizens died in the subsequent famine which brought the nation to the brink of anarchy.
Nevertheless, the Somalians are said to be one of the most unified African people, sharing a common language, heritage and faith (Islam). Because of the hardships of life in Somalia, the average life expectancy is just 45 years for men and 48 years for women and some of those who are able have chosen to migrate to the UK.
Somalis in London have managed to retain much of their cultural heritage and traditions, and their communities here are very much based on the family.As time goes on, however, Somalis make a growing impact on London’s industrial, professional and commercial life.