We had a request for “a general history of Italy’s colonies in North and East Africa,” which is way too big a topic for one essay, but I think we can look at how Italy came to have an empire at all and why that empire began in East Africa, which is not what the Italians had initially intended. It involves European power politics, the French invasion of Tunisia in 1881, and some intrigue in the Horn of Africa.
Italy was born, in 1871, only about a decade before the “Scramble for Africa” really began and at a time when colonial ambition was already a defining feature of European politicsa. There was Britain, obviously, and France. Spain still had a few colonial holdings left. Russia had a massive and still growing empire, parts of which were functionally similar to colonies. Austria-Hungary found it mostly impossible to build a colonial empire but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Imperial Germany, also born in 1871, was keenly interested in colonialism. Belgian King Leopold I was more or less obsessed with establishing overseas colonies and tried several times, in several places, to no avail. So it figures that the leaders of the new Italy figured they deserved–and needed–an empire just as much as any of these other countries. Couple that with Italy’s Roman past, which was a big deal for Italian nationalists, and the new country’s rapidly growing population, and it’s no surprise that Italy started looking to build an empire very quickly.
Tunisia seemed the logical choice. It was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but was independent from it in all but the most formal sense. It had deeper relationships with France and Britain than with the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul. It was vulnerable, financially and militarily weak, and it was right there, I mean come on. The Roman thing also factored in here, since Tunisia contains ancient Carthage and Carthage was both the home of early Rome’s great adversary and the greatest city of Roman Africa. There was just one problem, which became apparent after the Congress of Berlin in 1878–it belonged, as far as the European powers were concerned, to France.
The Congress of Berlin wasn’t called to deal with North Africa per se, but nevertheless the future of Tunisia was laid out there. The congress was called, of course, to try to find a way to adjust European politics to the openly acknowledged reality that the Ottoman Empire was decaying and the less talked about reality that pan-Slavism was on the rise and working in Russia’s favor. Most importantly, it was called to renegotiate the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, which had ended the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. That treaty, reflecting the outcome of the war, was so lopsided in Russia’s favor that the other European nations feared it would wreck the balance of power on the continent. In particular, it created a self-governing Bulgaria that was so massive it took up almost the entirety of the Balkans, and the concern in the rest of Europe was that this new Bulgaria, while technically still part of the Ottoman Empire, would quickly become an extension of Russia. It also created other autonomous Balkan principalities that, again, could have easily come under Russian influence–pan-Slavism, you know how it is.
The congress resulted in a revised treaty, the Treaty of Berlin, which greatly reduced the size of autonomous Bulgaria, as well as the newly autonomous Serbia and Montenegro, and gave part of the Ottoman Balkans to Austria-Hungary, which hadn’t even participated in the war. It angered just about everybody and led directly to not only the first and second Balkan Wars but to World War I as well. In other words, it was a job extremely well done.
Anyway, while this main event was going on, Britain, France, and Germany got to talking about Tunisia. In particular, they got to talking about how France, which already possessed Algeria and had only recently been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War, might like to scoop Tunisia up as a consolation and to show everybody that it was still a major power. Britain, which had substantial commercial interests in Tunisia and could have contested France’s claim, agreed to support France taking Tunisia in return for France going along with the now de facto British ownership of Cyprus. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whose country didn’t have any interests in Tunisia but who had just handed France its ass and was therefore in a more dominant position in European politics, happily agreed to France annexing Tunisia because he figured it lessened the chances that the French government might try to provoke a rematch to their war. Italy objected strenuously, but nobody seems to have cared very much.
France didn’t go into Tunisia right away due to domestic political concerns, but when a Tunisian tribe raided into Algeria in March 1881 it seized on the excuse and moved quickly. The Treaty of Bardo, signed on May 12 by Tunisian ruler Muhammad III as-Sadiq and French representatives, established a “temporary” French military governorship over Tunisia (it wound up lasting until 1956) and gave France control over Tunisia’s military and foreign affairs.
Anyway, this was a very long digression to get to a very simply point: Italy’s dreams of a Tunisian colony were now out of the question. So it had to look elsewhere to begin building its empire. The logical place to start was Libya, which was right next door to Tunisia and also had strong Roman roots, but that would have to wait for the Italo-Turkish War in 1911. Instead, Italy’s imperial ambitions wound up taking it to the Horn of Africa and the territory we now know as Eritrea. In the early 1870s an Italian shipping company bought some land from the sultan of Raheita (modern Djibouti), so there was already an Italian commercial and settler presence in the region. The Italian government made arrangements with Britain in 1886 to “annex” the port of Massawa and even attempted (unsuccessfully) a military invasion of Ethiopia in 1887. During a period of Ethiopian weakness following the death of Emperor Yohannes IV in 1889, however, it declared a new colony along the Red Sea coast that it named “Eritrea” after the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea.
While this was going on, Italian authorities also entered into talks with two small sultanates along Africa’s east coast, Hobyo and Majeerteen, about establishing protectorates over them. The Italians were after their ports, and in particular they coveted Majeerteen, whose territory (largely identical to modern Puntland) covered the strategic region at the tip of the Horn of Africa. This territory, later augmented when Britain gave Italy the Juba region after World War I, became Italian Somaliland. Which is not to be confused with the modern breakaway region of Somaliland–that territory belonged to Britain until 1960, when it gained independence and merged with the former Italian colony to form Somalia.
This all took place in the context of the so-called “Scramble for Africa,” the period from the mid-1880s through World War I when Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain carved up the continent of Africa among them. Italy was really only a bit player in that drama but it was a player nonetheless, and thus its imperial dreams were fulfilled–though only partially. The one thing these East African colonies couldn’t easily do was to help alleviate population pressures back in Italy by offering new land for Italian migrants to settle. Tunisia would have done that, and Libya could, which is part of the reason why it remained an Italian target into the early 20th century.