91 years of Italian colonialism in the African continent


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Indro Montanelli’s statue – ©ANSA

Many statues, reminiscing the colonial past, were damaged last summer across some countries globally, including Italy, with the Indro Montanelli’s statue in Milan, a symbol of Italian colonialism. Weeks of protests spark over the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death, rekindling debates on racism and rethinking the approach with colonial history. 

Indro Montanelli’s statue is not for the first time under attack, it has been controversial since the early 2010s due to Indro Montanelli’s background. Indro Montanelli used to be a reporter in the Italian colonial empire, bought a 12-years old to be his sex slave. Other statues have been damaged, such as from lieutenant general Antonio Baldissera, participating in the first Italo-Ethiopian war. 

© Rete Restiamo Umani – Facebook

Italian colonialism overlooked

Italian colonialism history tends to be overlooked, considered insignificant. As living in Naples, I personally never heard about it. However, Italian colonialism over the 20th century left its mark on the so-called ‘colonial empire’. From 1869 to 1960, Italy established its colonial politics over a couple of territories and countries – some greek Islands, some parts of Croatia, Macedonia, Southern France, a part of the Chinese city of Tientsin, Albania, Montenegro.

The African continent was not exempt from Italian colonialism. European nations, among Italy, raced one another to take over Africa. As a result, Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland, Eritrea and Libya, were also part of the Italian colonial project, each of the country facing different destiny. The following map illustrates the Italian empire in blue.

Source: hubscola.it

The article used the following date to refer to Italian colonialism: 1869 marks the beginning of the colonial conquest, with the acquisition of the Bay of Assab, in Eritrea, whereas 1960 is the year of Italian Somaliland united to Somalia. In this instance, the use of these dates is a matter of personal choice. 

The first phase of Italian colonialism

The colonial project for Italy was the opportunity to get more agricultural lands to respond to farmworkers’ discontent at the end of the 19th century.
From 1869, Italian colonialism established in the African continent with the first colony’s purchase, the bay of Assab (Eritrea). England also took part in Italian colonialism, aiming to counter France’s growing influence on East Africa, with its colonies, Djibouti and part of Somaliland.

As belonging first to an Italian entrepreneur colonialist, the Bay of Assab was then sold to the Italian government in 1882. The Italian government kept expanding their dominance in Eritrea, occupying from the 5th February 1885 Massawa. One thousand two hundred men, including light infantry soldiers (bersagliere), NCOs, soldiers and sailors, disembarked in the Massawa port.

bersagliere colonialism italian
The Italian troops disembarking at Massawa port

The growing dominance of Italian colonialism led to the occupation of Saati, an Eritrean village at the time possessed by Ethiopia. In 1887, the Battle of Dogali broke out between Italy and Ethiopia, causing a war of almost two years and a half. The Italian troops’ defeat resulted in changing strategy, passing the competence over Eritrea from the foreign ministry to the war ministry. In 1889, the empire of Ethiopia and Italy’s kingdom signed the treaty of Wuchale, aiming for different purposes: defining politically, economically and diplomatically the relationships between the Ethiopian empire and the Italian Kingdom but also delineating the borders of Eritrea, becoming an Italian colony officially in 1890.

Mistranslation and miscommunication stirred up disagreements between both parties, specifically article 17. The Amharic version stated, ‘His Majesty, the King of Kings of Ethiopia, may, if he so desires, avail himself of the Italian government for any negotiations he may enter into with other Powers and Government’. Whereas the Italian version stated, ‘His Majesty, the King of Kings of Ethiopia, consents to avail himself of the government of his Majesty the King of Italy for all negotiations in affairs which he may have with other Powers or Governments’.

In other terms, the Italian government viewed Ethiopia as an Italian protectorate while it wasn’t for the Ethiopian government. The tensions stemming from the disagreement gave rise to a new war from the 15th December 1894 to the 23rd October 1896, where Italy renounced to the protectorate over Ethiopia through the Treaty of Addis Ababa.

colonialism italian ababa addis treaty

After several sultans signed requests for protectorates, Italy decided to assign the Somali colony’s administration to companies, Filonardy company firstly then Benadir company, to ensure a more peaceful invasion’ of the territory and to reduce spending. From 1905, the state opted for more direct control over their colonies, including taking over the Somali settlement in 1905. Despite Italian colonialism in great difficulty, their desire to expand the Italian kingdom was not curbed, furthering their colonial project.

Italian colonialism in the first phase was essentially economic, aiming to create opportunities for Italian companies to exploit raw materials such as oil in Libya and social, intending to find new land for Italian agricultural workers. Under fascism, the second phase of colonialism evolved differently. 

The second phase of Italian colonialism

From the 20th century, the Italian colonial policy was named under the project ‘Grande Italia’. The project targets Italy’s expansion and advocated ”civilizing missions”, justifying their so-called superiority above other nations, ‘scientifically’ proved with race classification, who might be first initiated by François Bernier, a French physician and traveller. Two Italian foreign policy trends emerged: an imperialist vision of expanding its conquests on the African continent. On the other, a desire for unity in the Mediterranean basin. To reach its objectives, Italy embarked on an even more brutal and violent colonial conquest.

A bloody italian colonialism

The conquest of Libya during the Italo-Turkish War in 1911 and the rise to power of the dictator Benito Mussolini strengthened the bloody colonial assault in Libya for decades, resulting in hangings, shootings, deportations. The deported were sent to several islands and cities, such as Tremiti, Favignana, Ponza, Gaeta and Caserta. In 1912, around 3053 were deported, children, teenagers and adults including. Between 1929 and 1931, thousands of nomads and semi-nomads Libyans were deported and died in concentration camps.

Prisoners being at the El Agheila concentration camp, in the Italian colony of Libya

In Somalia, the new governor Cesare Maria De Vecchi undertook the local populations’ disarmament and the expansion of the colonial conquests through multiple attacks, such as that on the Sultanate of Hobyo. The sultanates further north were autonomous and governed by the local sultans, something unthinkable for the Italian fascist regime. Economic exploitation was a priority, with the Italian lira’s introduction, the tax on Somalis, and the construction of new roads to prepare for Ethiopian assault.

Indeed, the fascist regime had the urge to reinvading Ethiopia. Although the Italo–Ethiopian Treaty of Friendship and Arbitration was signed in 1928, the fascist regime prepared its military campaign from 1930 to declare war on Ethiopia 5 years later. It was the time to take revenge from the Battle of Adwa, where Italian troops were defeated. An incident between Italian and Ethiopian troops over the possession of water wells provided the basis for fascist propaganda to justify this war. The League of Nations‘ sanctions against Italy on the importations, exportations, and the ban on arms trade were not enough to stop Italy.

Italy’s overwhelming military superiority led to Ethiopia’s defeat within a couple of months and Vittorio Emmanuele III’s proclamation as emperor of Ethiopia on the 9th of May 1936. The use of mustard gas, massive killings, bombing, concentration camps such as Danane killed thousands of local civilians and soldiers. Ethiopia was from then on, part of the so-called Italian East Africa divided into six governorates. However, Mussolini’s ambitions were not accomplished. In fact, under Italian colonialism, no amount of Ethiopia was really under Italian ruling; Italian emigration, cultural colonisation, and the country’s modernisation were a failure. 

An Italian naval ship heading for North Africa in Sue Canal – Source: Internazionale – ©Archivio Gbb/Contrasto

The so-called Italian empire in East Africa ruled for 5 years. Italy, an ally of Nazi Germany with colonies in Africa, was seen as a danger by the United Kingdom, especially with its attacks in Egpyt to get closer to the Suez Canal. A war broke out between Italy and the British Empire, where Italy was defeated. With the Italian defeat, the British Empire regained control of East Africa.

The decline of Italian colonialism took place in the early 1940s, with the end of the Italian domination over Ethiopia and Eritrea ended in 1941 and in 1943 in Libya. With the Treaty of Paris of 1947, Italy gave up colonies, apart from the Italian part of Somaliland, later administered by Italy from 1950 to 1960.

The post colonial period

The effects of Italian colonialism manifested themselves in different ways in the countries formerly invaded.

As early as 1947, Eritrea considered its future, choosing between annexation to Ethiopia or independence.The United Nations Security Council decided that Eritrea would be federated to Ethiopia while maintaining a certain degree of autonomy. The degree of autonomy diminished as Ethiopia wanted to make Eritrea an Ethiopian province. Consequently, an independence movement was formed in the early 1960s, the Eritrean Liberation Front, and a decades-long series of conflicts between Ethiopia and the independent movements and the leading independent movements, the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, led to independence in 1993.

Somaliland suffered the same fate. Gaining independence in 1960, joining Somalia seemed the most suitable option. But discontent grew over a referendum ratifying a new constitution, seen as valuing the Somalis over the country’s north. A series of conflicts led to the civil war starting in the 1980s, which hasn’t ended. Even if Somaliland declared its independence in May 1991, it is still internationally an unrecognised state.

The colonial past only became a preoccupation in the late 1960s in Libya, when a coup d’état brought Muammar Gaddafi to power, using his access to power to evict the Italians and Italians businesses from the country. The expulsions were a way of making a clean break with the colonial past. A few decades later, an agreement of colonial repetitions was signed between Italy and Libya.

What about colonial reparations?

In 2008, a treaty was signed between Italia and Libya, compensating $5 billion over 25 years for colonizing Libya. Colonial reparations are a thorny issue that regularly comes to the fore, thanks to the reparations movement that ‘is not just a call for monetary compensation; it’s also a demand for radical and justice-driven change’, to quote the economist in international development, Priya Lukka.

Berlusconi on the left and Gaddafi on the right

The Treaty is vague, including on reparations for the abuses perpetrated. Apologies from Berlusconi, the repatriation of the Venus de Cyrene statue in Libya are only symbolic gestures. The Treaty turned out to be more of an economic exchange than a treaty remembering the colonial past. It is a combination of interests between a stranglehold on the flow of migrants into Libya and long-term Italian investment in Libya.

The $5 billion compensation over 25 years covers mainly infrastructure projects, projects that Italian companies lead. The financial compensation applies to companies such as ENI, the most prominent Italian company paying taxes and benefit from oil and gas contracts, in force until 2042 and 2047, respectively. While migration controls are intensifying, a series of measures have recently been in 2019, such as the sending of patrol boats and the creation of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.

The Italian government is not on its first colonial reparation. At the time of the signing of the peace treaty with Ethiopia in 1947, Italy agreed to pay billions in compensation to Ethiopia. However, colonial reparations still seem to be of interest.

Even if the history of Italian colonialism lacks consideration at the political level, several initiatives have been carried out for years to remember these historical chapters at the social level.

A collective amnesia on Italian colonialism

Most of the Italian colonialism is rarely taught at schools, and the post-colonial debates are hardly initiated. The coined phrase under the fascism ‘Italiani brava gente’ (Italians are decent) is on everyone’s minds. The distortion of historical reality, initiated by fascist propaganda, goes on until today, which we can see on books, social media such as blogs dedicated to Italian colonial history, ‘L’Italia coloniale’ and romanticizing the colonial past.

Italy has to work on raising collective consciousness through education, the culture of remembrance and debates. Only a greater collective consciousness can overcome the neglect of history and prevent the dangers of revisionism, fuelled by ignorance of history. In the last decade, many initiatives by organisations, collectives across Italy aimed at acknowledging the colonial past, such as Decolonial Italy, are one of the projects exploring Italian colonial history, opting to document the Italian colonialism’s visible traces heritage across the country.

Last September 2020, posters were hung on various road signs, to recall that fascism and colonialism included gender-based violence

Constant attacks on the Antonio Baldissera monument raise questions about colonial history’s narrative, the place in the history of people involved in the atrocities. Street names and metro stops are changing, as the Amba Aradam-Ipponio stop replaced by Giorgio Marincola, an Italian-Somali partisan killed in the Second World War. The opening of the metro station in Rome is planned for 2024.

At the political level, Italian colonialism is not part of the priorities. The 2006 bill, to establish 19 February as a “Day of Remembrance for the African victims of the Italian colonial occupation”, was soon forgotten. Yet, it is not only at the level of the activist world of research that Italian colonialism’s history must be remembered. Education, politics must also engage in acknowledging and remembering the colonial past.

Italy’s time to acknowledge its colonial heritage as the consequences of Italian colonialism are reflected in the present. Thanks to the work of activists, writers, scholars, the history of forgotten Italian colonialism cannot now be denied. Amnesia about Italian colonialism is spreading in Italian society, but change has not yet had its final say.


Text credits reserved to POC Stories. Credit my work while sharing it. As I run by my own the blog, I spend a lot of time, voluntarily, by providing good quality content, basing my work on multiple reliable resources. Thank you.

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Percorrendo la storia di Etiopia ed Eritrea, Armando D’Amaro, 30/11/2017

I libri che smontano il mito del colonialismo buono degli italiani, Igiaba Scego, 1/04/2017

La Somalia coloniale: una storia ai margini della memoria italiana, Michele Pandolfo, 2013

Breve storia del colonialismo italiano, Il Post, 28/06/2020

25 ottobre 1911: gli italiani iniziano a deportare i libici in Italia, Me.Dia.Re

A Roma sono stati danneggiati alcuni simboli del colonialismo italiano, Albachiara Re, 28/06/2020

Una mappa per ricordare i crimini del colonialismo italiano, Wu Ming 2,

The paradoxes of colonial reparation: Foreclosing memory and the 2008 Italy–Libya Friendship Treaty, Chiara De Cesari

Copyrights Images

  • ANSA
  • Rete Restiamo Umani
  • Archivio Gbb/Contrasto
  • Hubscola.it

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