Empire, Italian

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Empire, Italian

Like Germany, Italy was a latecomer to the European scramble for African and other overseas colonial possessions. Both Germany and Italy became unified nations only in the second half of the nineteenth century, when many smaller and often fragmented states united against the longstanding hegemony of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Italy, however, no state with the power and influence of Prussia emerged as the focal point of the nationalist movement. Indeed, while Berlin became the capital of the new German state and in every sense a major counterpoint to Vienna, Rome remained ambiguously within the sphere of influence of the Roman Catholic papacy, which had a long history of political domination in central Italy. Likewise, while both new nations scrambled to establish colonies in areas on the fringes of established British and French colonies, there was a significant difference in their approaches. Whereas the Germans aggressively established colonies adjacent to British and French holdings in East and West Africa, the Italians seemed content to settle for "leftovers."

The initial Italian possessions in Africa were located at what were then the farthest reaches of the decrepit Ottoman Empire. The first Italian colonies were established on the Horn of Africa and in Eritrea and Somaliland in East Africa. In 1885 a Roman Catholic priest, Father Guissepe Sapeto, who was acting in effect as an agent for Italian commercial interests, purchased the port of Assab from the Afar sultanate, an Ethiopian vassal state. The area around Assab was located at the fringes of the Ethiopian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Anglo-Egyptian advancements into the Sudan. In combination with the general decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan and the confused political situation in Ethiopia following the death of the Ethiopian Emperor Johannes IV (ca. 1836–1889) enabled the Italians to expand their holdings in Eritrea well beyond Assab.

What would develop into longstanding tensions between Italy and Ethiopia had their origins in a dispute over the Ottoman port of Massawa in Eritrea, which had passed informally into the Anglo-Egyptian sphere of influence. The British ceded their own and the Egyptian claims to the port in favor of the Italians, even though the Ethiopians believed they had been promised it in return for harboring Egyptian refugees from the Mahdist massacres. Landlocked, Ethiopia naturally placed a great value on controlling a port, but the British were concerned that the French might use the Ethiopian expulsion of Roman Catholic missionaries as a pretext to oust the Ethiopians from the port in order to establish their own presence in the Horn of Africa. Tellingly, the Ottoman Turks seem to have factored very little in any of these decisions.

The Italians soon discovered, however, that Massawa was the hottest port in the world. In large part to provide a retreat from the oppressive heat, the Italians began to take possession of some of the surrounding highlands. Ras Alula (1847–1897), one of the chief lieutenants of Johannes IV, controlled the territory into which the Italians were making these incursions. Alula's forces surprised and massacred an entire Italian division near Dogaly. In fact, the Ethiopians might have driven the Italians from Massawa, and perhaps even from all of Eritrea, except that the Mahdists attacked them from the west and Johannes IV was subsequently killed in the campaign to drive the Mahdists out.

In this same regionally tumultuous period, Italy took the first steps toward establishing a fuller presence in the Horn of Africa in the Ottoman-controlled part of Somaliland, adjacent to the established colony of British Somaliland. Over three decades, from the late 1880s to the end of World War I (1914–1918), the Italians increased their holdings in Somaliland incrementally at the expense of the Turks—through purchase, seizure, and transfer by treaty. The last parcels of what would become Italian Somaliland were ceded to Italy at the end of World War I as part of its compensation for entering the war on the Allied side.

In 1896 tensions between Ethiopia and Italy escalated into the First Italo-Abyssinian War. By 1889 Menelik II (1844–1913) had defeated several rival claimants and succeeded Johannes IV as emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In return for Italian support, Menelik had agreed to recognize Italy's claim to Eritrea. To formalize this arrangement, Menelik signed the Treaty of Wichale (1889), but it turned out that there were significant variations in the Italian and Amharic (a Semitic language of Ethiopia) versions of the treaty. Most significantly, the Italian version asserted that Ethiopia should be regarded as a vassal state within the Italian Empire.

In 1893 Menelik formally renounced the Treaty of Wichale. After diplomacy and economic sanctions failed to convince him to reconsider, the Italians began to attack adjacent portions of Ethiopia from Eritrea. Menelik responded by leading a major force toward Eritrea. Because Italy's forces were outnumbered, the Italian commander, Oreste Baratieri (1841–1901), wisely retreated toward Asmara. But embarrassed by this relatively unprecedented retreat from "native" forces and grossly underestimating Menelik's leadership and the amount of Western weaponry that he had managed to acquire, the Italian government of Francesco Crispi (1819–1901) ordered Baratieri to attack the Ethiopians.

At the 1896 Battle of Adwa, an estimated 120,000 Ethiopians encircled an Italian force of fewer than 15,000. Concerned about the limited supplies and ammunition available to his forces, Baratieri tried to force a decisive battle but ordered his forces forward into an area of rugged ground almost singularly unsuited to concentrated attack. Menelik's forces won a convincing victory over the Italians. Despite the great discrepancy in the sizes of the forces, both sides suffered between 10,000 and 11,000 casualties. The remnants of Baratieri's force trickled back to Asmara, and Menelik left Eritrea convinced that the Italians would sue for peace on his terms. When the news of this humiliating defeat reached Italy, Crispi's government was forced out of office and Baratieri was recalled. The new Italian government signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa (1896) with Menelik, recognizing the full independence of Ethiopia and fixing its borders with the Italian colonies on the Horn.

Italy had more success in the Italo-Turkish War (1910–1911). Concerned that France and Great Britain would soon assume control of the entire coast of North Africa, Italy took advantage of the tensions between those rival colonial powers, and of Ottoman weakness, and seized control of the North African provinces immediately opposite its own shores, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Because these two provinces were not deemed economically significant and because the interior beyond the immediate coastal areas was a vast, largely uninhabitable wasteland, the French and British were willing to accept an Italian buffer between their more prosperous spheres of influence in Tunisia and Egypt. In the 1912 Treaty of Lausanne that ended the brief Italo-Turkish War, the Ottoman Turks also ceded Rhodes and the other Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea to Italy, in part to stymie Greek claims to the islands.

Disturbed by extensive emigration from Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Italian government attempted to promote the opportunities in the new colonies as an alternative. That immigration to the colonies did occur on a fairly large scale was probably more a testament to the terrible economic conditions in southern Italy and Sicily than evidence of the actual opportunities available in the colonies. Nonetheless, the Italian government ruthlessly dispossessed the native populations from the most desirable land in the colonies, and some prosperous and attractive colonial communities were established. Most notably, despite the terrible, recurring regional conflicts of the last half of the twentieth century, Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, still retains many fine examples of Italian colonial architecture.

After his fascist regime seized power in Italy in 1923, Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) often declared his ambition to reestablish the glory of the Roman Empire. Recurringly, he would overestimate and overextend his resources in trying to realize that ambition. The two colonies in North Africa were not completely "pacified" until the late 1920s, but in 1934 Mussolini combined Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into a single colonial province that he called "Libya," resurrecting a name given to the region some 1,600 years earlier by the Roman emperor Diocletian (245–316 c.e.). Seeking to expand the colonies and to redress the humiliating defeat at Adwa, Mussolini became increasingly bellicose toward Ethiopia and escalated his demands for concessions to Italian interests in that country. In 1935 he ordered the forces he had massed in Eritrea and in Italian Somaliland to subjugate Ethiopia.

The Italian force, which included a large contingent of Askari troops from Eritrea, numbered about 100,000. The force was supported by airplanes, tanks, and mobile artillery. In response, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (1892–1975) was able to mobilize about 500,000 men, though many were armed with primitive firearms or even spears and shields. After several Ethiopian defeats, the League of Nations denounced the Italian aggression but then refused to impose effective economic sanctions on the Italians.


Roman Catholic priest, Farther Guissepe Sapeto, acting as an agent for Italian commercial interests, purchases the Port of Assab from the Afar Sultanate, an Ethiopian vassal state
Battle of Dogali, Italians are defeated by the Ethiopian army
Menelik II succeeds Johannes IV as Emperor of Abyssinia. The Italian government signs the Treaty of Wichale with Menelik II
Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi establishes the Italian colony of Eritrea on the Red Sea
Tensions between Ethiopia and Italy escalated into the First Italo-Abyssinian War
Menelik II formally renounces the Treaty of Wichale
Battle of Adowa, Ethiopian forces outnumber Italian forces by five to six times. The Italians suffer a resounding defeat
Italo-Turkish War or Turco-Italian War, Italian forces seize Ottoman provinces in Libya
Benito Mussolini seizes power in Italy and declares his ambition to re-establish the glory of the Roman Empire
Mussolini combines Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into a single colonial province that he calls Libya.
Mussolini orders the forces he has massed in Eritrea and in Italian Somaliland to subjugate Ethiopia
Italy adds Ethiopia to its East African colonies
Italy annexes Albania as part of the Italian Empire
Italian forces in East Africa surrender to the British
All Italian soldiers have been driven out of Africa by the middle of the year

The Italian advance into Ethiopia continued steadily, but Mussolini wanted a much more dramatic victory. So he replaced the commander of the Italian forces and ordered that the full force of Italian arms be directed more ruthlessly against the remaining Ethiopian forces and against Ethiopian towns and cities that had not yet been subdued. Despite vocal international protests, Italian forces used some 300 to 500 tons of mustard gas against both combatants and civilians. Defeated and demoralized, the Ethiopian resistance collapsed, and some seven months after the Italian invasion had begun, Haile Selassie was forced into exile, where he became a gallant symbol of the growing resistance to fascism. With the Ethiopian defeat, Mussolini declared the formation of Italian East Africa, consisting of all of the Italian holdings on the Horn of Africa. Angered by the British and French opposition to his imperial ambitions, Mussolini was drawn into an increasingly friendly relationship with German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).

Although Mussolini believed that his alliance with Nazi Germany would permit him to expand his sphere of influence in the Balkans and in northern and eastern Africa, World War II (1939–1945) quickly spelled the end to Italy's short-lived colonial empire. After some initial successes against the British forces in Egypt, Italian forces were driven back and almost entirely out of Libya. Only the intervention of the Afrika Korps led by German field marshal Erwin Rommel (1891–1944) prevented the annihilation of the remaining Italian forces. As the British were subsequently trying to slow the dramatic advance of Rommel's forces, and then building up their own forces at El Alamein, Egypt, to turn the tide against him, other British and commonwealth forces undertook a much less extensive and less publicized, but nonetheless arduous and equally successful, effort to expel the Italians from the Horn of Africa. By the middle of 1943, the Italians and Germans had been driven out of Africa.

After the war, Ethiopia regained its independence. Eritrea was made an autonomous state in federation with Ethiopia. Later Ethiopian attempts to eliminate Eritrean autonomy led to a thirty-year war and ultimately complete Eritrean independence. After being administered by the United Nations, Libya became an independent kingdom in 1951 and then ostensibly a republic in 1969. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, it became a "rogue state" under the leadership of Mu'ammar Gadhafi (b. 1942). In 1949 Italian Somaliland was named a UN trust territory, but alone among Italy's colonies, it was placed again under Italian administration. In 1960 it was granted independence and almost immediately merged with the former British Somaliland to form the independent nation of Somalia.

Although Italy never established colonies in the Americas, large-scale emigration from Italy, and especially from southern Italy and Sicily, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created sizable and significant Italian populations in both North and South America, in particular within the United States and Argentina. Ironically, it has become clear that Italian cultural influences will endure in the Americas much longer than in the former colonies of the Italian Empire in Africa.

see also Empire, Ottoman; North Africa, European Presence in; Scramble for Africa.


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