Eritrea, Italian Colonization (1890-1941)
From 1870, Italians started settling along the Eritrean coast. To counter the French expansion in the region, the United Kingdom changed its position of supporting Egyptian rule in Eritrea to supporting the Italian colonisation of Eritrea.
In 1885, following Egypt’s retreat from the region, the British helped Italian troops to occupy Massawa, which was then united to the already colonised port of Assab to consolidate Italy’s coastal possession.
In 1889, Italy occupy the Highlands with the aid of Eritrean auxiliaries. This occupation was accepted by the new Ethiopian monarch, Menelik II. On 1 January 1890, the Italian king announced the creation of the colony of Eritrea, taking its name from the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea, Erythreus. Massawa became the capital of the new colony, before being replaced by Asmara in 1897.
The Italian administration launched its first development projects in Eritrea from the late 1880s.
The construction of the Eritrean railway started in 1887 and the first line connecting Massawa to Saati, 27 kilometers inland from the coast, was completed in 1888. It reached Asmara in 1911.
In addition, Italians built an infrastructure of ports, roads, telecommunications, factories, administrative centres and police stations that unified the colony under a centralised government. Many historians and specialists trace the development of a national consciousness to that time.
Eritrea’s position in Red Sea trade had been overshadowed by the earlier commercial recognition of the territories of Sudan, Abyssinia, and French Somallland, which surround it on the land sides, and of the leading Red Sea port of Aden. It therefore remained in an obscurity which kept it from the direct notice of world commercial influences that would have done much to develop its economic possibilities.
The enterprising and energetic Italian officials of the colony had faith in its ultimate 1mportance as a factor in Red Sea commerce, and succeeded in bringing about a sixfold increase in the total annual value of the colony’s trade during the comparatively short period of 10 years ending with 1918.
This remarkable result lifted Eritrea from commercial obscurity, and demands for the colony the attention and interest of world traders, and particularly of those who were interested in Red Sea trade.
By the 1920s African slaves in Arabia fell into two categories, namely, those who were sold into slavery in the Hejaz as children by their parents or relations whom they had accompanied on the pilgrimage. The other category consists of slaves taken from Abyssinia, and presumably smuggled through remote and unoccupied portions of Eritrea and French Somaliland to the Red Sea.
The feeling of belonging to one nation was reinforced by the large scale enrolment of Eritreans as askaris (soldiers) in the Italian colonial army, which participated in the two Italo-Ethiopian wars (1895-1896 and 1935-1936) as well as in the war against Turkey in Libya (1911-1912). At the same time, the Italian administration developed policies intended to limit the development of an Eritrean elite.
In 1932, the Fascist government expelled Protestant missionaries, the only source of Eritrean education beyond fourth grade, and limited the access of all Eritreans, including those of mixed blood, to schools, jobs and social services in urban areas.
From 1922, the rise of Benito Mussolini to power in Italy transformed the colony by making it his base for implementing his expansionist ambitions in the Horn of Africa.
In 1935, thousands of Italian workers and soldiers poured into Eritrea in preparation of the second invasion of Ethiopia. In May 1936, Mussolini declared the birth of the Africa Orientale Italiana, the Italian East Africa Empire comprising Eritrea, Somaliland, and the newly conquered Ethiopia.
Eritrea became the industrial center of this empire. At that time, around 60 per cent of working-age male Eritreans found employment in the administration and in the 2,138 Eritrean factories in Eritrea in 1939; others were conscripted into the Italian army.
Italian colonialism lasted over fifty years. It did not completely change Eritrean society, nor was its influence evenly distributed.
However, its lasting impact on the history of Eritrea cannot be denied. Italian colonialism, as was true of all European colonialisms, forcefully established Eritrea’s boundaries; and by bringing under one administration all peoples within these boundaries, opened up a new chapter in the history of Eritrea.
Using Italian skills, but mainly relying on Eritrean human and material resources, Italian colonialism built cities and ports, highways and railroads, factories and modem farms.
It introduced conscription. Further, it created a condition where Eritrean citizens from all corners of the country were introduced to each other and gained common experiences.
The extent of colonial influence may have varied from place to place (some might not have been touched), but the ever expanding interaction among Eritreans, combined with their reaction to increasing Italian oppression and racism, sowed the seeds of Eritrean national consciousness.