Eritrea was a colony of Italy from 1869 until 1941. It was a source of pride for the Italians, while also providing troops. This was celebrated in beautiful images on a series of postcards.
“Eritrea” is an ancient name, associated in the past with its Greek form Erythraia, Ἐρυθραία, and its derived Latin form Erythræa. This name relates to that of the Red Sea, then called the Erythræan Sea, from the Greek for “red”, ἐρυθρός, erythros.
Eritrea was under Ottoman rule until the late 19th century, with Italian occupation of the territory beginning with the opening of the Suez Canal. Italian monks and later traders established a foothold in the port of Assab and their country’s influence gradually spread. The Italians created the colony of Eritrea around Asmara, and named it with its current name.
Italy used its Eritrean colony as a base from which to extend its influence over the rest of the Horn. Inevitably it clashed with Ethiopia, which was an independent kingdom and the only country in Africa never to fall permanently under European control.
Tensions led to the first war between the two countries and in the battle of Adwa (1896) the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II defeated the Italians – a rare example of an African power defeating a European army. Among the Italian forces was a brigade of Eritrean Askaris (soldiers) led by Italian officers.
The defeat was a huge blow to Italian prestige. When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 he was determined to expand his African empire and set about planning the invasion of Ethiopia, which took place 28 March 1935. Again Eritrean troops participated. They were renowned for their bravery and served their colonial masters with distinction.
Benito Mussolini’s brought profound changes to the colonial government in Eritrea. After he declared the birth of Italian Empire in May 1936, Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland were merged with the just conquered Ethiopia in the new Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) administrative territory. This Fascist period was characterized by imperial expansion in the name of a “new Roman Empire”. Victor Emmanuel III of Italy consequently adopted the title of “Emperor of Ethiopia”, although having not been recognized by any country other than Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Nicknamed Colonia Primogenita (“First-born Colony”) in contrast to the newer and less-developed territories of Italian Somaliland and Libya, Eritrea boasted a larger native Italian settlement than the other lands. The first few dozen families were sponsored by the Italian government around the start of the 20th century and settled around Asmara and Massawa. The Italian-Eritrean community then grew from around 4,000 during World War I to nearly 100,000 at the beginning of World War II.
Eritrea was chosen by the Italian government to be the industrial center of Italian East Africa: The capital of Eritrea experienced a huge increase in population: in 1938 there were 48,000 Italians and 36,000 Eritreans. Historian Gian Luca Podesta wrote that practically Asmara has become an Italian city. Furthermore, because of the Italian architecture of the city, Asmara was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome).
Consequently, the standard of living in Eritrea in 1939 was considered among the best on the continent for both the local Eritreans and the Italian settlers.
In 1939, there were 165,267 Italian citizens in the Italian East Africa, the majority of them concentrated around the main urban centres of Asmara, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu. The total population was estimated around 12.1 million.
During the Second World War, Italian East Africa was occupied by a British-led force including colonial and Ethiopian units. After the war, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea came under British administration, while Ethiopia regained full independence
With the Peace Treaty of 1947 Italy officially accepted the end of the colony and Eritrea entered into the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 1949, Italian Somaliland was reconstituted as the Trust Territory of Somaliland, which was administered by Italy from 1950 until its independence in 1960. In the 1950s, the Ethiopian feudal administration under Emperor Haile Selassie sought to annex Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. On 1 September 1961, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, waged an armed struggle for independence.
The Eritrean War of Independence ended with Eritrean independence following a referendum in April 1993. Hostilities with Ethiopia persisted, leading to the Eritrean–Ethiopian War of 1998–2000 and further skirmishes with Djibouti and Ethiopia.
Today, Eritrea is a one-party state in which national legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed.
Eritrea is a multi-ethnic country, with nine recognized ethnic groups in its population of around 5 million. Among these communities, the Tigrinyas make up about 55% of the population, with the Tigre people constituting around 30% of inhabitants.
Barka was a province of Eritrea until 1996, when it was divided between present day Gash-Barka and Anseba regions. Its capital was Agordat.
Serae (or Seraye) is a former province of Eritrea. It has since been incorporated primarily into the Debub Region, though some western districts have become part of the Gash-Barka Region. It is believed that the name of the province is from the “dark forests” which once throve on its fertile ground.
The habesha kemis is the traditional attire of Ethiopian and Eritrean women. The ankle length dress is usually worn at formal events, but it comes in many forms nowadays. It is made of cotton fabric, and typically comes in white, grey or beige shades. Many women also wrap a shawl called a netela around the formal dress.
Sources / More to Read:
Wikipedia: History of Eritrea
Wikipedia: Italian East Africa
Wikipedia: Italian Eritrea
Martinplaut, journalist specializing in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa: Italy’s homage to its Eritrean troops
The Library of Congress: Africana Historic Postcard Collection
Wikipedia: Habesha kemis
Sociology Mind Vol.05: Gender and Sexual Abuses during the Italian Colonization of Ethiopia and Eritrea
Pictures are found in Flick account: mariotto52