Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Italian Empire, A History to Take Pride In

The Italian colonial empire was a short-lived affair but one that had far more extensive roots than most people realize. As a united country, the Kingdom of Italy is often described as the last to obtain an empire and the first to lose it but Italians had been colonizers for a very long time. One need not go back to the Roman Empire when the whole Mediterranean basin was ruled from Italy but simply going back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance shows that various Italian states had minor colonial holdings of their own. The Republic of Genoa held territory on the Crimean peninsula, the Kingdom of Sicily held Tunisia for some time and the Republic of Venice had extensive holdings down the coast of the Adriatic and in the Aegean Sea as well as controlling Crete and Cyprus. The Grand Duke of Tuscany sent a preliminary expedition to South America with the intention of establishing an Italian colony in the New World but he died before the project could be completed. Unlike virtually every other colonial power, Italians were most often not treading on new ground but simply returning to lands which their ancestors had held, sometimes for centuries, before them.

Governor's Palace in Eritrea
The colonial empire of the Kingdom of Italy had humble beginnings. It started when the Rubattino Shipping Company bought land around the Bay of Assab on the coast of the horn of Africa from the Sultan of Raheita in 1869 to establish a coaling station. This holding was later bought by the Italian government and expanded to become the first overseas colony of the Kingdom of Italy with the first Italian settlers arriving in 1880. Hearkening back to the old Roman name for the Red Sea, the Italians named the territory Eritrea. In 1888 the first railroad in the country was built and another improvement of particular pride was the Asmara-Massawa Cableway which was the longest in the world at the time (the British later dismantled it after World War II). Laws against racial mixing were imposed but no one seemed to mind much as, for the first time in their history, the local Africans had access to modern medical services, improved sanitation, transportation and improvements in agriculture. Italy lost money in the enterprise on the whole but the lives of the natives certainly improved, particularly because of the Italian colonial army which prevented raids on the country from Ethiopia, particularly from the Tigray region.

As a result, many Eritreans enlisted in the Italian colonial army and many gained quite a high reputation. Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani considered the Eritreans the best of the Italian colonial soldiers and the famous cavalry officer, Amedeo Guillet, referred to them as the ‘Prussians of Africa’. During the Fascist era there was also a huge increase in industrialization in Eritrea and a subsequent boom in the population, both African and Italian. Before the outbreak of World War II, Asmara was a growing, prosperous city dotted with coffee shops, ice cream parlors, pizzerias and even its own race track. The fact that it was a “planned” city meant that it had many modern conveniences that even some cities in Italy lacked and boasted scenic wide boulevards lined with trees. These many improvements as well as the threat from Ethiopia worked together to ensure that Eritrea remained a loyal colony.

Not long after the first foothold in Eritrea was established, Italy also gained new territory on the southern side of the Horn of Africa in Somalia. In 1888 Sultan Yusuf Ali Kenadid of Hobyo made his province an Italian protectorate. The following year the Sultan of Majeerteenia did the same and the colony of Italian Somaliland was established. Here, development was somewhat slower as the Italians left local affairs in the hands of the local rulers, paid them a pension and focused on foreign relations, defense and the establishment of port facilities. In 1905 the Italian government decided to establish a formal colony in the region, partly because it was discovered that the local company had been turning a blind eye to the continued operation of the slave trade in the region. By 1908 the legal formalities were finished to establish Italian Somaliland as a formal colony. The most determined problem, early on, was the trouble caused by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, aka “the Mad Mullah” but that violent movement was duly done away with and in the Twentieth Century development began to spread from the coast further inland.

Prince Luigi Amedeo formed an Italian-Somaliland Agricultural Society that established new, model plantations in the colony for the growing of sugar, bananas and cotton. The same year, 1920, saw the first modern bank established in Somalia when the Banca d’Italia opened a branch in Mogadishu. Surveys were done, after which more development proceeded such as the establishment of model farms, schools and hospitals. Before the end of the decade, Crown Prince Umberto had come to witness the opening of a new Catholic cathedral in Mogadishu and the region’s first international airport was established. The Sultan of Hobyo was usually very loyal to the Italians, the only problem occurring when he was excepted to allow British troops to land in his territory and Somalis tended to resent the British for their colonial rule over Somali tribes in the north (British Somaliland). After this, the Sultan was replaced by the Italian authorities and the population was disarmed but there were no major problems in the future and the Italians continued to abide by their agreements and allow the original, northern protectorates to govern themselves in their own way. Somalians were also enlisted in the Italian colonial army and included such colorful units as a corps of camel-born artillery.

The Battle of Adowa
There were, of course, bound to be setbacks. When the Italians took control of Eritrea, one of the local chieftains who had given his approval was one Sahle Maryam of Shewa. In exchange for this, Italy gave him support such as modern weapons in defeating his rivals to take control of Ethiopia as Emperor Menelik II. A treaty was signed that was supposed to ensure peace between the two, however, there was a discrepancy in the wording as it read differently in the Italian-language and Amharic-language versions. One established, essentially, an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia and the other said that Ethiopia could have Italian protection but only if and when they wanted it. Each side, of course, accused the other of changing the text in their version, Menelik II broke off diplomatic relations with Italy, effectively declaring war. A small Italian colonial army of a little over 17,500 men was later attacked by an Ethiopian army of around 100,000 and almost totally wiped out, ending, for the time being at least, any idea of Italy establishing any sort of control or influence over Ethiopia.

Italian troops landing in Libia
However, of all overseas territories, none seemed more near at hand to Italy than Tunisia. Not only was it extremely close, but it had a sizable Italian population that had been present for a very long time. In the “Scramble for Africa” the Italian government sat back, taking the moral high road as it were, only to see Tunisia snatched up by the French. This caused quite a backlash in Italy and a renewed effort to make sure that such a thing did not happen again with the other north African lands south of Italy, three provinces still held by the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey, known to Italians as “the fourth shore”. Determined not to let another power snatch this region away from them, the Italian government began investing in the area and when the Turkish government started to clamp down on the increased Italian interest, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire in September of 1911. Italian military forces landed on the coast and quickly seized control of the major ports while the Ottoman forces, largely Arab raiders with Turkish officers, fell back into the interior to strike at any Italian attempt to move south. The situation produced a stalemate as Italy had been counting on the support of the local Arab population and resources had not been allocated for a major campaign in the desert interior of the country. The Turks, likewise, could rule the desert but proved incapable of dislodging the Italians from the coast or of challenging Italian naval supremacy.

In 1912 the Turks finally agreed to come to terms with Italy, prompted by the Italian seizure of Rhodes and other nearby islands and the threat of an attack on the Dardanelles, which all powers were anxious to avoid. The former Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan were ceded to Italy which, in due time, merged them into one colonial administration, resurrecting the old Roman name for the region, “Libia”. Actual Italian control, however, continued to remain mostly on the coastal region and during the First World War, attacks by Islamic insurgents, backed up by Turkey and Germany in an effort to restore Ottoman Turkish control over the whole of north Africa, forced the Italians back into the major port cities as the overwhelming bulk of Italian military strength was concentrated on the critical border region with Austria. However, all of that changed after the acquisition of power by Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party. From 1923 until 1932 a fierce irregular war raged in the region, known as the Pacification of Libya. Stopping the terrorist attacks on Italian settlers and ending the insurgency took time but finally Italian forces resorted to repressive measures and the rebellion was ended, with the primary insurgent leader actually being captured by a troop of Libyan cavalry fighting on the Italian side. The first modern roads were built, port facilities were modernized and new model farming communities were established. Much progress was made under the governorship of Air Marshal Italo Balbo and when he was killed at the start of World War II, witnesses remarked that the Libyans showed more grief than the Italians at his loss because he had made things so much better.

Victory parade in the Ethiopian capital
The next colonial acquisition for Italy was Ethiopia, which, of course, was the cause of much controversy. It was sparked by an attack on an Italian outpost which was on land that the Ethiopians claimed as their own. The fact that this was not something instigated by Italy is evident enough by the amount of time it took to transfer military forces to Eritrea and Somalia to fight the actual war. The League of Nations opposed this and the issue became larger than Ethiopia but was, rather, seen by Mussolini as a struggle against the leaders of the existing international world order, embodied by the League. The fighting was harsh but, in the end, Italian forces conquered Ethiopia in seven months and merged it, administratively, with Eritrea and Somalia into “Italian East Africa”. Tensions were high at first and when the Viceroy, Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani, was badly wounded in an assassination attempt, there were bloody reprisals. However, he was replaced by the Duke of Aosta under whose administration the country was at peace and began to see considerable improvements, including the abolition of slavery in the country. Plans for the modernization of the capital and other projects were ultimately canceled by the outbreak of World War II.

Italian troops enter Durazzo, Albania
The Kingdom of Albania was occupied by Italian forces with practically no opposition by the native population shortly before the outbreak of World War II, however, again, the fact that Italy joined World War II so shortly thereafter, and the Italian presence was removed after 1943, meant that the Italians were able to have very little impact on Albania. Although, it is worth pointing out, that the period of union with Italy, following the conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia, was the only time that the nationalist goal of “Greater Albania” was actually achieved, albeit for a short time. Before World War II had ended, all Italian colonial possessions were, of course, taken away and given independence or, short of that, given nominal independence under the temporary stewardship of a parent country. It is worth pointing out though that, at the time of Italian entry into World War II, there was no widespread opposition to Italian rule in any of the colonies.

The Italian presence in Albania was not entirely welcomed but not entirely opposed either and most of those in the Albanian government had previously been in the government of Ahmed Zog, the previous potentate of the country. Libya, Eritrea and Somalia were all quite calm and peaceful under Italian rule, the only place where any opposition at all existed was in Ethiopia. That is understandable given that, unlike all the others, the Ethiopians had a history as a previously independent country with their own sense of nationhood. However, even there, serious opposition had been dealt with and most accepted the change and got on with things. In fact, of all the colonial troops who served in the Italian royal army in World War II, the only native soldier to earn the highest Italian decoration for bravery was an Ethiopian. So, even there, considerable levels of support and devotion did exist. What is illustrative of the Italian colonial enterprise overall, and why Italians should not be ashamed of their short-lived period of imperialism, is the fate of the former Italian colonies after Italian rule was removed and these places became independent.

Colonial Mogadishu
The Kingdom of Albania was occupied by the Germans and then, after the Allied victory in World War II, fell to the communists of Enver Hoxha who established a Marxist tyranny, so fanatical and so murderous that it alienated Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and Tito’s Yugoslavia in turn. Albania fell into oppressive poverty and had the lowest standard of living of any European country. To this day, it has not fully recovered. Italian East Africa was occupied by the Allies (mostly British imperial troops) and broken up into the countries that exist today. Somalia was under the military administration of Britain and became nominally independent though in 1949 stewardship over the country was given to the Italian Republic until 1960 when it was joined with the former British colony of British Somaliland to create the country as we know it today. And, as we know, Somalia has become the go-to example in the world for a “failed state”, being reduced by poverty, crime and internal warfare to a state of total chaos. When one thinks of Somalia today it is only as a place of anarchy, warlords and a nest of pirates. Somalis have fled their failed independent homeland in huge numbers, going as far abroad as Minnesota and Sweden to get as far away from their nightmarish native land as possible.

Asmara station, Eritrea
In Eritrea, the first Italian colony, the British military ruled the place until 1950 because no one could decide what to do with it. One person who knew exactly what he wanted to do with it was the de-throned Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie who was pushing for Allied support for the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea even before British imperial forces had set him back on his own throne. The United Nations, in the 1950’s, finally agreed that Eritrea would be joined with Ethiopia in a “federation” with Eritrea officially remaining independent. That charade ended in 1962 when Haile Selassie dissolved the Eritrean parliament and unilaterally declared the country to be part of Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, war broke out immediately as the Eritreans fought the Ethiopians in a brutal conflict that spanned the next thirty years, only ending when the Eritreans made an alliance with a faction of Ethiopian rebels after which the UN stepped in to hold a referendum. This, of course, resulted in the Eritreans voting for their independence in 1993. Eritrea got it, established a dictatorship and haven’t had another exercise in democracy since. Needless to say, thirty years of war, terrorism and finally Marxist dictatorship have left the country an impoverished wreck.

Haile Selassie & Winston Churchill
Ethiopia, again, is really in a class by itself and cannot entirely be compared to the others. Still, the post-Italian period has not been pleasant for the country, though it would also be worse than the pre-Italian period as well. Haile Selassie was put back in control of the country and money poured in from the victorious Allies through various aid funds. Still, this did not benefit the country overall as serious divisions and problems remained which Haile Selassie struggled to deal with. He championed the cause of pan-African unity and opposition to European colonialism in Africa (even while imposing his own sort of colonial rule over the unwilling population of Eritrea) but this ultimately proved to be not so beneficial to the “Conquering Lion of Judah” as he styled himself. Most of the anti-colonial movements in Africa were communist and after some particularly hard times the communists managed to overthrow Haile Selassie in 1974. This time there was no British Empire to put him back on his throne again and he was murdered the following year. His replacement was a communist dictatorship so vicious and so oppressive that it must rank among the very worst in the entire world. Oppression, murder and misery prevailed to the point that the very name of Ethiopia became synonymous with “starvation” in the rest of the world. Again, even after the communist regime officially fell, the country has still not recovered from the decades of murderous misery the communists inflicted on it.

King Idris
Finally, we have the case of Libya. British military rule gave way to the creation of a new monarchy under the former Emir of Cyrenaica who became King Idris I of Libya in 1951. The British and Americans established close ties with the new regime, built military bases there and in 1959 Exxon discovered vast deposits of oil in the country which changed things considerably. New wealth brought greater resentment and efforts to promote unity failed, mostly because neither the King himself nor any of his people recognized him as a “Libyan” but rather as the Emir of Cyrenaica who had been imposed by western powers over the whole country. He was accused of favoring his own circle when it came to dishing out the oil revenues and of being too friendly with foreign powers and foreign oil companies. This culminated in King Idris being overthrown while on holiday by a military coup led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 1969.

Gaddafi with African chiefs
Gaddafi, as we know, established a brutal and farcical dictatorship over the country, marked by tyranny at home, support for terrorism abroad and for the increasingly bizarre behavior of Gaddafi himself. Whether it was his painfully long orations at the UN, his threats of war against Switzerland or his bevy of buxom female bodyguards, no one could accuse Gaddafi of being boring. He also used the threat of floods of illegal immigrants to extort huge financial benefits as well as groveling apologies from the Italian government. In 2011 the hated dictator was overthrown, with air support from NATO, and given mob justice on the streets of Sirte. Since that time, Libya has fallen into chaos and is increasingly becoming a hotbed of terrorism, economically stagnant, politically unstable and extremely dangerous. Certainly, a far cry from what it had been during the tenure of Air Marshal Italo Balbo to be sure. And this in a country, it is worth remembering, where Italian-born Roman legions marched long before the first Arab ever cross the Sinai or the name of Mohammed was known to the world.

The wartime peak of Italian expansion
No, the historical record clearly shows that Italians have no reason to feel ashamed of their colonial past overall. Certainly there were unpleasant episodes in a couple of places but, on the whole, these parts of the world often saw their only periods of sustained stability and progress while under the Italian flag and the Crown of Savoy. Without exception, none of them have fared better after Italian rule was withdrawn. On the contrary, their record as independent states has been a record of failure. That does not mean, of course, that anyone in any of these places is nostalgic for the colonial past. National and racial awareness exists today in a way that did not exist in those days, though it is interesting to note that the Albanian government recently requested the return of the Italian military to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants (aka “refugees”) into their country, many of them fleeing former Italian colonies that have since become failed states. That, in itself, rather tells the story doesn’t it? European rule once came to Africa and, now that it is gone, Africans (and others) are now coming to Europe to live once more under their former imperial rulers.

5 comments:

  1. May I suggest doing an article on Royalist holidays that used to be celebrated?
    Especially for the countries like France and Mexico(New Spain) that at times seem like they only have Republican holidays left.

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    1. At present I'm not qualified to say much on the subject. The closest thing, off the top of my head, that I have posted about before is the dual "independence" celebrations in Mexico, one by the republicans and one by the monarchists.

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  2. I'm so sick and tired of Europeans being made to feel guilty for the actions of their ancestors. Especially when you consider the fact that a lot of the supposed "crimes" are either lies, distortions or half truths. MadMonarchist, why is it that you think the media is so fond of labeling people they dislike as "fascists"? Mussolini was a terrible human being, whose policies led to the deaths of around half a million people, but compare that to the 100 million murdered by communism. It annoys me that there is such a hypocritical double standard. Also, if Hitler never rose to power, do you think Mussolini and his regime would have went down the path of Franco, or do you think the West would've toppled it at some point?

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    1. I understand the frustration, which is partly what prompted this article. I will never understand the compulsion western countries feel to apologize to every naked savage anywhere in the world for the "crime" of being more successful than they are. The only explanation I could come with is, as someone else once said, is that a great many white people seem to only be able to feel good by feeling bad about what their ancestors did. Who can say why? No one else in the world seems to have this problem.

      As for Mussolini, among the Axis powers, his regime was certainly guilty of the least amount of cruelty and his totalitarian government was positively libertarian when compared to Stalinist Russia. It's also worth noting how many leaders who later fought against him, early on had nothing but praise for him (Churchill and FDR included).

      What the Duce would have done without Hitler is hard to say. Even Franco would likely not have survived had there been no World War II as that forced countries that had despised Franco to accept him as an ally in the struggle against Communism. One point I think is significant, and was just pondering on writing about in greater detail was the international power-structure of the world. The Communists, eventually, got on-side with this but Hitler was never part of it and Mussolini was the only one to have openly defied and embarrassed them, so he might have been a marked man in any event. It's hard to imagine him doing otherwise. Franco, after all, mostly kept himself at home and he was eventually accepted into the new international order.

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  3. Your work is always excellent, but I'd like to thank you for this article on the Italian colonial empire. Not only is there generally a collective guilt among Europeans for their colonial empires, but generally the guilt is emphasized even more among Italians, as if our colonial adventures were more evil than Britain and France's.

    Certainly Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya were better off under Italian administration than what they're going through today.

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