1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sokotra

SOKOTRA (also spelt Socotra and formerly Socotora), an island in the Indian Ocean belonging to Great Britain. It is cut by 12° 30′ N., 54° E., lies about 130 m. E.N.E. of Cape Guardafui and about 190 m. S.E. of the nearest part of the coast of Arabia and is on the direct route to India by the Suez Canal. It is 72 m. long by 22 m. broad and has an area estimated at from 2000 to 3000 sq. m. It is the largest and most easterly member of a group of islands rising from adjacent coral banks, the others being Abd el Kuri, The Brothers (Semha and Darzi), and Kal Farun.

Physical Features.—From the sea Sokotra has an imposing appearance. The centre culminates in a series of rugged pinnacles—the Haghier mountains, which rise to nearly 5000 ft. above a high (1500 ft.) abutting and undulating limestone plateau, deeply channelled by valleys. At many parts of the north coast the edges of this plateau reach the shore in precipitous cliffs, but in others low plains, dotted with bushes and date-palms, front the heights behind. The southern shore is bordered nearly its entire length b a belt of drifted sand, forming the Nuget plain. On this side of, the island there are but one or two possible anchoring grounds, and these only during the north-east monsoon. On the north coast there are no harbours; but fairly safe anchorages, even in the north-east winds, are available off Hadibu or under Haulaf, a few miles distant, and at Kallansayia, at the north-west end of the island.

Geology.—The fundamental rocks of the island are gneisses, through which cut the feldspathic granites which form the Haghier massif. Through these, again, pierce other granites in dikes or lava flows, and overlying the whole are limestones of Cretaceous and Tertiary age, themselves cut through by later volcanic eruptions. “In the Haghier hills,” to quote Professor Bonney, “we have probably a fragment of a continental area of great antiquity, and of a land surface which may have been an ‘ark of refuge’ to a terrestrial fauna and flora from one of the very earliest periods of this world’s history.”

Climate.—From October to May the weather is almost rainless except in the mountains, where there are nightly showers and heavy mists. During this season the rivers, which are roaring torrents throughout the monsoon, are almost all lost in the dry, absorbent plains. The temperature of the coast area varies from 65°  F. in the night to 85 F. in the day—in the hot season it may reach 95° F. ; and on the mountains (3500 it.), from 52° F. to 72° F. In the low grounds fever of an acute and hematuric form is very prevalent.

Flora and Fauna.—The fauna contains no indigenous mammals, a wild ass which roams the eastern plains, perhaps its oldest denizen, is probably of Nubian origin; while the domestic cattle, a peculiar, unhumped, small, shapely, Alderney-like breed, may be a race gradually developed from cattle imported at a distant period trom Sind or Farther India. There are 67 species of birds known from Sokotra, of which 15 are endemic; of 22 reptiles, 3 genera and 14 species are peculiar; and of the land and fresh-water shells, to whose distribution great importance attaches, 44 species out of 47 are confined to the island. Among the other invertebrate groups there is also a large proportion of endemic species.

The flora is even more peculiar than the fauna. Aloes, dragon’s-blood (Dracaena), myrrh, frankincense, pomegranate, and cucumber (Dendrocycios) trees are its most famous species. The phanerogams number 570, apportioned to 314 genera, and of these over 220 species and 98 genera are unknown elsewhere. The flora and also (though to a less degree) the fauna present not only Asian and Central African affinities, but, what is more interesting, Mascarene, South African and Antipodean-American relationships, indicating a very different distribution of land and water and necessitating other bridges of communication than now exist. The natural history of Sokotra, unravelled by the study of its geology and biology, has been summarized by Professor Balfour as follows:—

“During the Carboniferous epoch there was in the region of Sokotra a shallow sea, in which was deposited, on the top of the fundamental gneisses of this spot, . . . the sandstone of which we have such a large development in Nubia. . . . During the Permian epoch Sokotra may have been a land surface, forming part of the great mass of land which probably existed in this region at that epoch, and gave the wide area for the western migration of life which presently took place, and by which the eastern affinities in Sokotra may be explained. In early and middle Tertiary times, when the Indian peninsula was an island, and the sea which stretched into Europe washed the base of the Himalayan hills, Sokotra was in great part submerged and the great mass of limestone was deposited; but its higher peaks were still above water, and formed an island, peopled mainly by African species—the plants being the fragmentary remains of the old African flora—but with an admixture of eastern and other Asian forms. Thereafter it gradually rose, undergoing violent volcanic disturbance.”

By this elevation “Madagascar would join the Seychelles, which in turn . . . would run into the larger Mascarene Islands. In this way, then, Africa would have an irregular coast-line, prolonged greatly south of the equator into the Indian Ocean, and running up with an advance upon the present line until it reached its north-west limit outside and south of Sokotra. Thence an advanced land surface of Asia would extend across the Arabian Sea into the Indian peninsula.” Sokotra thus “again became part of the mainland, though it is likely for only a short period, and during this union the life of the adjacent continent covered its plains and filled its valleys. Subsequently it reverted to its insular condition, in which state it has remained.” The Antipodean-American element in the Sokotran flora probably arrived via the Mascarene Islands or South Africa from a former Antarctic continent.

Inhabitants.—The inhabitants, believed to number from 10,000 to 12,000, are composed of two, if not more, elements. On the coast the people are modern Arabs mixed with negro, Indian and European blood ; in the mountains live the true Sokotri, supposed to be origin- ally immigrants from Arabia, who have been isolated here from time immemorial. Some of them are as light-skinned as Europeans, tall, robust, thin-lipped, straight-nosed, with straight black hair; others are shorter and darker in complexion, with round heads, long noses, thick lips, and scraggy limbs, indicating perhaps the commingling of more than one Semitic people. Their manner of life is simple in the extreme. Their dwellings are circular, rubble-built, flat, clay-topped houses, or caves in the limestone rocks. They speak a language allied to the Mahra of the opposite coast of Arabia. Both Mahra and Sokotri are, according to Dr H. Müller, daughter-tongues of the old Sabaean and Minaean, standing in the same relation to the speech of the old inscriptions as Coptic does to that of the hieroglyphics. The Sokotran tongue has been, he believes, derived from the Mahra countries, but it has become so differentiated from the Mahra that the two peoples understand each other only with difficulty. Sokotri is the older of the two languages, and retains the ancient form, which in the Mahran has been modified by Arabic and other influences. Hadibu, Kallansayia and Khadup are the only places of importance in the island. Hadibu, or Tamarida (pop. about 400) the capital, is picturesquely situated on the north coast at the head of the open bay of Tamarida on a semicircular plain enclosed by spurs of the Haghier mountains. A dense grove of date palms surrounds the village.

Trade and Products.—The chief export is ghi or clarified butter, which is sent to Arabia, Bombay and Zanzibar. Millet, cotton and tobacco are grown in small quantities. The most valuable vegetable products are aloes and the dragon’s-blood tree. The Sokotran aloe is highly esteemed ; in the middle ages the trade was mostly in these products and in ambergris. The people live mainly on dates and milk. They own large numbers of cattle, sheep and goats. Dates are both home-grown and imported.

History.—Sokotra has claims to be reckoned one of the most ancient incense-supplying countries. Among the “harbours of incense” exploited by various Pharaohs during some twenty- five centuries it is impossible to believe that the island could be missed by the Egyptian galleys on their way to the “Land of Punt,” identified by several writers with Somaliland; nor that, though the roadsteads of the African coast were perhaps oftener frequented, and for other freights besides myrrh and frankincense, the shores of Sokotra were neglected by such ardent explorers as those, for instance, of Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th dynasty. They would have found on the island, which is probably referred to under the name “Terraces of Incense” (from its step-like contours), the precious “auta trees”—whose divine dew, for use in the service of their gods, was their special quest—in greater abundance and in a larger number of species than any other country.

To the Greeks and Romans Sokotra was known as the isle of Dioscorides; this name, and that by which the island is now known, are usually traced back to a Sanskrit form, Dvīpa-Sak-hādhāra, “the island abode of bliss,” which again suggests an identification with the νῆσοι εὐδαίμονες of Agatharchides (§ 103). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea speaks of the island as peopled only in One part by a mixed race of Arab, Indian and Greek traders. It was subject to the king of the Incense Country, and was a meeting-place of Arabian and Indian ships. Cosmas in the 6th century says that the people spoke Greek and were largely Christian, with a bishop sent from Persia. The Arab geographers also had a tradition of an early Greek settlement (which they ascribe to Alexander), but also of later Persian influence, followed by a settlement of Mahra tribes, who partly adopted Christianity. The Sokotri appear to have remained Nestorian Christians, with a bishop under the metropolitan of Persia, through the middle ages, though there are indications pointing to a connexion with the Jacobite church. As early as the 10th century Sokotra was a haunt of pirates; in the 13th century Abulfeda describes the inhabitants as “Nestorian Christians and pirates” but the island, was rather a station of the Indian corsairs who harassed the Arab trade with the Far East. The population seems in the middle ages to have been much larger than it is now; Arabian writers estimate the fighting men at 10,000.

The Portuguese under Tristão da Cunha and Albuquerque seized Sokotra in 1507 in pursuance of the design to control all the trade routes between Europe and the East; Sokotra being supposed to command the entrance to the Red Sea. But on the capture of Goa and the building of a fortress there Albuquerque caused the fort which da Cunha had had built at Coco (Tamarida to be dismantled (1511), and though Portuguese ships subsequently raided the island they made no other settlement on it. The Portuguese found that Sokotra was held by Arabs from Fartak, but the “natives” (a different race) were Christians, though in sad need of conversion. This pious work Portuguese priests attempted, but with scant success. However, as late as the middle of the 17th century the Carmelite P. Vincenzo found that the people still called themselves Christians, and had a strange mixture of Jewish, Christian and Pagan rites. The women were all called Maria. No trace of Christianity is now found in the island, all the inhabitants professing Islam.

A certain dependence (at least of places on the coast) on some sovereign of the Arabian coast had endured before the occupation of Tamarida by da Cunha, and on the withdrawal of the Portuguese this dependence on Arabia was resumed. In the 19th century Sokotra formed part of the dominions of the sultan of Kishin. The opening of the Suez Canal route to India, led to the island being secured for Great Britain. From 1876 onward a small subsidy has been paid to the sultan of Kishin by the authorities at Aden; and in 1886 the sultan concluded a treaty formally placing Sokotra and its dependencies under the protection of Great Britain. Sokotra is regarded as a dependency of Aden, but native rule is maintained, the local governor or viceroy of the sultan of Kishin being a member of that chief's family, and also styled sultan. Since it came under British control the islarfd has been visited by various scientific expeditions. Professor Bayley Balfour made an investigation in 1880, expeditions were headed by Drs Riebeck and Schweinfurth in 1881, by Theodore Bent in 1897, and by Dr H. O. Forbes and Mr Ogilvie-Grant (who also visited Abd-el-Kuri) in 1898–1899. Simultaneously with the last named a further expedition, conducted by Professor D. H. Müller, under the auspices of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of Vienna, visited Sokotra, Abd-el-Kuri and some other islets of the group to investigate their geology and languages. With the Indian government the relations of the Sokotri have occasionally been strained, owing to their piratical tendencies.

Abd-el-Kuri island lies 60 m. W.S.W. of Sokotra, and 53 m. E.N.E. from Cape Guardafui, is 20 m. long by 31/2 m. in width. At either end the island is hilly, the central part being a low plateau. On the north side is a sandy beach ; on the south, cliffs rise abruptly from the ocean. The highest part of the island is towards its eastern end, where the hills rise to 1670 ft. It is largely arid and there are no permanent streams. Its zoology resembles that of Sokotra, but the fauna includes land shells and scorpions peculiar to Abd-elr KurL The inhabitants, who number one to two hundred, speak Sokotri and Arabic and are chiefly engaged in diving for pearl shell on the Bacchus Bank N.E. of the island. They live chiefly on turtle (which abounds in the island), fish and molluscs. The land is nowhere cultivated.

Kal Farun is the name of two rocky islets rising nearly 300 ft. above the sea 13 m. N.N.E. of the western end of Abd-el-Kuri. Birds flock to them in great numbers; in consequence they are completely covered with guano, which gives them a snow-white appearance. The Brothers (often called by the older navigators The Sisters) lie between Abd-el-Kuri and Sokotra. Semha is 61/2 m. long and 3 m. broad. It has rocky shores and rises in a table-shaped mountain to 2440 ft. As in Abd-el-Kuri ambergris is found on its shores and turtles abound. There is running water all the year. It is a fishing ground of the Sokotri. Darzi lies 9 m. E. by S. of Semha, is 31/2 m. long by 1 m. broad and rises almost perpendicularly from the sea to 1500 ft. The top is flat. The coral banks which surround Sokotra and The Brothers are united and are not more than 30 fathoms below sea-level; a valley some 100 fathoms deep divides them from the bank around Abd-el-Kuri, while between Abd-el-Kuri and Cape Guardafui are depths of over 500 fathoms.

See, for the history of Sokotra, Yule, Marco Polo (1903 ed.) ii. 406–410, and, besides the authorities there cited, Yakut, s.v.; Hamdānī p. 52; Kazwini ii. 54. Consult also the Commentaries of Afonso Dalboquerque, W. de G. Birch's translation (London 1875– 1884). For the state of the island at the beginning of the 18th century see the account of the French expedition to Yemen in 1708 (Viaggio new Arabia Felice: Venice, 1721); and, for the 19th century, J. R. Wellsted, City of the Caliphs, vol. il. (London, 1840), and Mrs J. T. Bent, Southern Arabia, Soudan and Sokotra (London, 1900). For the topography, &c, see Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Pilot (5th ed. London, 1900). For special studies see I. B. Balfour, Botany of Socotra (Edinburgh, 1888); G. Schweinfurth, Das Volk von Socotra (Leipzig, 1883) ; H. O. Forbes (edited by), The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kūri (Liverpool, 1903); F. Kossmat, Geologic der Inseln Sokotra, Semha und Abd el Kuri (Vienna, 1902) ; R. V. Wettstein in Vegetationsbilder (3rd series, 5th pt., Jena, 1906). See also J. Jackson, Socotra, Notes bibliographies (Paris, 1892), a complete bibliography to the year of publication.  (H. O. F.; X.)