Italian Colonialism in Eritrea, 1882-1941:
Policies, Praxis and Impact

Tekeste Negash

Uppsala University 1987
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
Originally a PhD thesis, Italian Colonialism in Eritrea is not a general history of Italy in Eritrea, but an exploration of aspects of colonial policies and practices; these are related to the broader history and placed in the context of theories of colonialism.

Negash begins with a survey of different theories of colonialism and an overview of sources and historiography. He then turns to political economy. Eritrea was initially conceived of as a colony of settlement, then as a source of raw materials and then soldiers, and again as a colony of settlement from 1935. It was of strategic rather than economic importance: an entrepot for trade with Ethiopia, a source of troops for use in Libya and elsewhere, and a base for the conquest of Ethiopia.

Using administrative records and school texts as sources, Negash looks at what was taught in colonial Eritrea and why, and at the demographics of enrolments. Education was "merely an instrument for enhancing colonial rule" and "the colonial administration succeeded in controlling the quality and intake of students", preventing any results which might complicate colonial rule. It took a negative attitude to Swedish mission schools, whose graduates showed a disturbing attachment to Ethiopia.

Negash gives a rapid survey of French and British native policies and key concepts of indirect rule, assimilation, and association. With the very existence of the early colony in doubt, governor Ferdinando Martini (1897-1907) administered Eritrea through traditional political elites, leaving political, economic and social structures undisturbed. There followed a period of "rational imperialism" where a stronger Italy directly employed Eritreans and governed through district commissioners advised by chiefs. The period from 1932 saw the development of apartheid racial laws and an emphasis on the inferiority of Africans.

Native resistance at the end of the 19th century was sparked by land confiscations; not significant in itself, an 1894 uprising was part of the lead up to Italian conflict with Ethiopia and defeat in the battle of Adwa. Ethnic and class divisions worked against resistance, but Orthodox monasteries with links to Ethiopia helped to prevent conversions by Catholic missions.

There is quantitative evidence for some of the changes brought by colonial rule: political stability contributed to a dramatic demographic increase (disproportionately among Tigrinyans) and evidence for increasing well-being can be found in the trade figures. The colonial impact on Eritrean identity is less clear: Negash argues that the events of 1946-1949, when the British allowed open political debate, demonstrated the absence of an Eritrean national consciousness. Turning to Benedict Anderson and other theorists of nationalism, he attributes this to lack of educational opportunities and the absence of a Western educated elite.

Negash concludes with an overview of Italian motives and colonial objectives and the presentation of a "partial theory of colonialism".

"Unlike Britain and France, Italian colonialism did not give Eritreans any opportunity to either challenge the colonial system or to enter into a dialogue with Italian ideologists of colonialism."
He argues that colonialism created no Eritrean nationalism, only "an inchoate consciousness of a separate identity". And he pushes explanations for the later development of nationalism and the rise of the Eritrean Liberation Front onto "study of the subsequent period".

References, technical details and discussion of sources are provided in extensive chapter endnotes. Accessible without a background in Italian or Ethiopian and Eritrean history, Italian Colonialism in Eritrea would make a useful introduction for students of colonialism. The Italian experience in Eritrea offers a useful contrast to the much better studied policies and practices of the French and British.

May 2006

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%T Italian Colonialism in Eritrea, 1882-1941
%S Policies, Praxis and Impact
%A Negash, Tekeste
%I Uppsala University
%D 1987
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 9155421113
%P 217pp