The Rise and Fall of Italian Rule in Eritrea

Neolithic rock art in a Qohaito canyon cave, Pre-Axumite monolithic columns in Qohaito

Eritrea is a nation in Eastern Africa, with its capital in Asmara. Ethiopia borders it in the south, Djibouti in the southeast, and Sudan in the west. The eastern and northeastern parts of Eritrea have an unrestricted coastline along the Red Sea.

Today, we will explore the rise and subtle fall of Italian rule in Eritrea.

The boundaries of the modern-day Eritrea country were installed during the Scramble for Africa. In 1869 CE or 1870 CE, the local ruling chief sold lands encompassing the Bay of Assab to the Rubattino Shipping Company. The region served as a coaling station along the large shipping lanes propelled by the Suez Canal.

In the void that followed the 1889 CE death of Emperor Yohannes IV, Gen. Oreste Baratieri controlled the highlands along the Eritrean coast, and Italy declared the institution of the new territory of Italian Eritrea, a colony of the Kingdom of Italy. In the Treaty of Wuchale approved the same year, King Menelik of Shewa, a south Ethiopian kingdom, acknowledged the Italian occupation of his rivals’ lands of Hamasien, Bogos, Serae, and Akkele Guzay in exchange for assurances of financial assistance and resuming access to European arms and ammunition. His following victory over his rival kings and enthronement as Emperor Menelek II (r. 1889 CE–1913 CE) made the agreement formally binding upon the whole territory.

In 1888 CE, the Italian government launched its first expansion projects in the new colony. The Eritrean Railway was formed in Saati in 1888 CE and reached Asmara in the mountains in 1911 CE. The Asmara–Massawa Cableway was the largest line globally during its time but was later dismantled by the British in the Second World War. Besides significant infrastructural projects, the colonial authorities spent significantly in the farming sector. It also oversaw the provision of urban facilities in Massawa and Asmara and hired many Eritreans in public service, especially in the public works departments and police. Thousands of Eritreans were enlisted in the army, serving during the Italo-Turkish War in Libya and the Second and First Italo-Abyssinian Wars.

Additionally, the Italian Eritrea government opened several new factories, which produced cooking oil, buttons, construction materials, pasta, tobacco, packing meat, hide, and other household goods. In 1939 CE, there were nearly 2,198 factories, and most of the employees were Eritrean locals. The institution of industries also increased the number of both Eritreans and Italians residing in the cities. The number of Italians living in the territory increased from 4,600 to 75,000 in five years, and with the involvement of Eritreans in the industries, fruit plantation and trade was extended across the nation, while some of the farms were owned by Eritreans.

Asmara’s architecture after 1935 CE was significantly improved to become a “modernist Art Deco city” (in 2017 CE has been also declared a “UNESCO World City Heritage”), featuring rationalist and eclectic built forms, well-defined open spaces, and private and public buildings, including shops, cinemas, religious structures, banks, private and public offices, industrial facilities, and residences. The Italians designed more than 300 buildings in a construction boom that was only stopped by Italy’s involvement in World War II.

Through the 1941 CE Battle of Keren, the British expelled the Italians and took over the country’s administration. During the pressing postwar years, the British suggested that Eritrea be divided along religious lines and annexed to the British colony of Sudan and to Ethiopia.

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