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The Italian colonial empire, created after the Kingdom of Italy, joined other European powers in establishing colonies overseas during the "scramble for Africa". Modern Italy as a unified state only existed from 1861. By this time Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and France had already carved out large empires over several hundred years. One of the last remaining areas open to colonisation was on the African continent. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Italy had annexed Eritreamarker and Somalia, and had wrested control of portions of the Ottoman Empire, including Libyamarker, though it was defeated in its attempt to conquer Ethiopiamarker. The Fascist government under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini which came to power in 1922 sought to increase the size of the empire further, which it did via force or threat of force. Ethiopia was successfully taken, four decades after the previous failure, and Italy's European borders were expanded at the expense of its neighbours. Italy sided with Nazi Germany during World War II and initially enjoyed successes. However, Allied forces eventually captured Italian overseas colonies and by the time Italy itself was invaded in 1943, its empire had all but ceased to exist.

Birth of a Nation and Scramble for an Empire (1861-1914)

The unification of Italy in 1861 brought with it a belief that Italy deserved its own overseas empire, alongside those of the other powers of Europe, and a rekindling of the notion of mare nostrum. However, Italy had arrived late to the colonial race, and its relative weakness in international affairs meant that it was dependent on the acquiescence of Britain, France and Germany towards its empire-building.

Italy had long considered the Ottoman province of Tunisiamarker, where a large community of Tunisian Italians lived, within its economic sphere of influence. It did not consider annexing it until 1879 when it became apparent that Britain and Germany were encouraging France to add it to its colonial holdings in North Africa. A last minute offer by Italy to partition Tunisia between the two countries was refused, and France, confident in German support, ordered its troops in from French Algeria, imposing a protectorate over Tunisia in May 1881 under the Treaty of Bardo. The shock of the "Tunisian bombshell", as it was referred to in the Italian press, and the sense of Italy's isolation in Europe, led it into signing the Triple Alliance in 1882 with Germany and Austro-Hungary.

Italy's search for colonies continued until February 1885, when by secret agreement with Britain it annexed the port of Massawamarker in Eritreamarker on the Red Seamarker from the crumbling Egyptian Empire. Italian annexation of Massawa denied the Ethiopian Empire of Yohannes IV an outlet to the sea and prevented any expansion of French Somalilandmarker. At the same time, Italy occupied territory on the south side of the horn of Africa, forming what would become Italian Somaliland. However, Italy coveted Ethiopia itself, and in 1887, Italian Prime Minister Agostino Depretis ordered an invasion. This invasion was halted after the loss of five hundred Italian troops at the Battle of Dogali. Depretis's successor, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi signed the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889 with Menelik II, the new emperor. This treaty ceded Ethiopian territory around Massawa to Italy to form the colony of Eritreamarker, and - at least, according to the Italian version of the treaty - made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate.

Relations between Italy and Menelik deteriorated over the next few years until the First Italo-Ethiopian War broke out in 1895 after Crispi ordered Italian troops into the country. Outnumbered and poorly equipped, the result was a humiliating defeat for Italy at the hands of Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwamarker in 1896, the first defeat by an indigenous people of a colonial power, and a major blow to the Italian empire in East Africa, as well as to Italian prestige.

On 7 September 1901, a concession in Tientsin was ceded to the Kingdom of Italy by Imperial Chinamarker. It was administered by Rome's Consul. Several ships of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) were based at Tietsin.

A wave of nationalism that swept Italy at the turn of the twentieth century led to the founding of the Italian Nationalist Association, which pressed for the expansion of Italy's empire. Newspapers were filled with talk of revenge for the humiliations suffered in Ethiopia at the end of the previous century, and of nostalgia for the Roman era. Libya, it was suggested, as an ex-Roman colony, should be "taken back" to provide a solution to the problems of south Italy's population growth. Fearful of being excluded altogether from North Africa by Britain and France, and mindful of public opinion, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti ordered the declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire, of which Libya was part, in October 1911. As a result of the Italo-Turkish War Italy gained Libya and the Dodecanese Islands.

World War I and its aftermath (1914-1922)

In 1915, Italy agreed to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France, and in return was guaranteed territory at the Treaty of London, both in Europe and, should Britain and France gain Germany's African possessions, in Africa. However, at the concluding Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Italy received far less in Europe than had been promised, and none overseas. In April 1920, it was agreed between the British and Italian foreign ministers that Jubalandmarker would be Italy's compensation, but Britain held back on the deal for several years, aiming to use it as leverage to force Italy to cede the Dodecanese to Greecemarker.

Fascism and the "Italian Empire" (1922-1940)

Fascist stamp promoting a colonial art exhibition, 1934.

In 1922, the leader of the Italian fascist movement, Benito Mussolini, became Prime Minister of Italy after a coup d'├ętat. Mussolini resolved the question of Dodecanese sovereignty at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formalized Italian administration of both Libya and the Dodecanese Islands, in return for a payment to Turkeymarker, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, though he failed in an attempt to extract a mandate of a portion of Iraq from Britain.

The month following the ratification of the Lausanne treaty, Mussolini ordered the invasion of the Greek island of Corfumarker after the murder of an Italian general there. The Italian press supported the move, noting that Corfu had been a possession of the Republic of Venicemarker for four hundred years. Though the matter was taken by Greece to the League of Nations, Mussolini successfully resisted its pressure, and it was only the threat of war with Britain that convinced him to evacuate Italian troops, in return for reparations from Greece. The confrontation over Corfu, and Italy's obvious determination never to give up Dodecanese sovereignty, led Britain and Italy to resolve the question of Jubaland in 1924: it was merged into Italian Somaliland.

In October 1935, Mussolini launched the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and invaded Ethiopiamarker. Emperor Haile Selassie fled the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababamarker on 2 May 1936 and the Italians entered the city on 5 May. The Italians merged Eritreamarker, Italian Somalia, and newly captured Ethiopia into Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, A.O.I.). The invasion had the tacit approval of Francemarker and Great Britainmarker, who did not wish to alienate Italy as a potential ally against Nazi Germany.

Victory was announced on 9 May 1936 and Mussolini declared the creation of the "Italian Empire". Italian King Victor Emmanuel III added Emperor of Ethiopia to his titles. Mussolini dreamed of sending millions of Italian settlers to Italian East Africa, and Italians had high hopes of turning the area into an economic asset. However, by overrunning Ethiopia, a member of the League of Nations, Italy attracted widespread international hostility. This did not affect Italy's economy drastically, since the US, Germany and Japan were not in the League of Nations and did not follow the economic sanctions of the League of Nations.

During the 1930s, emigration to the colonies was encouraged due to a belief that Italy was suffering from "excess population". Most went to Libya which by 1938 contained 89,098 Italians, primarily concentrated in the coastal cities of Tripolimarker and Benghazimarker. The coastline of Libya was referred to as Italy's "Fourth Shore" (in Italian: quarta sponda).

There was emigration to Italian East Africa as well. According to the 1931 census, there were 4,188 Italians in Eritrea and 1,631 in Italian Somaliland. During the five-year occupation of Ethiopia, roughly 300,000 Italians were absorbed into East Africa. But fully one-third of these Italians were military personnel. After a disastrous period under brutal Rodolfo Graziani, Italian East Africa was ruled more successfully by Amedeo, 3rd Duke of Aosta. The Duke brought a program of progressive improvement that included 2,000 miles of new paved roads, 25 hospitals, 14 hotels, dozens of post offices, telephone exchanges, aqueducts, schools, and shops. Even so, the tight grip on security that the Italians maintained did not extend far beyond the main population centers.

In 1939, Italy invaded and captured Albania and made it a protectorate. The region of modern-day Albania had been an early part of the Roman Empire, which had actually been held before northern parts of Italy had been taken by the Romans, but had long since been populated by Albanians, even though Italy had retained strong links with the Albanian leadership and considered it firmly within its sphere of influence. It is possible that Mussolini simply wanted a spectacular success over a smaller neighbour to match Germany's absorption of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Italian King Victor Emmanuel III took the Albanian crown, and a fascist government under Shefqet Verlaci was established to rule over Albania.

World War II (1940-1943)

[[File:Amadeo Aosta3rd 01.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Prince Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta led the heroic resistance at Amba-Alagimarker, having military honours from the British.]]

Mussolini entered World War II on the side of Adolf Hitler with plans to enlarge Italy's territorial holdings. He had designs on an area of southern France, Corsicamarker, Maltamarker, Tunisiamarker, part of Algeriamarker, an Atlantic port in Moroccomarker, French Somalilandmarker and British Egyptmarker and Sudanmarker. Mussolini also mentioned to Italo Balbo his ambitions of capturing British and French territories in the Cameroons and founding an Italian Cameroon, in hopes that Italy could establish a colony on the Atlantic coast of Africa.

On June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. Both countries had been at war with Nazi Germany since September of the prior year. Mussolini's troops invaded southern France. But an armistice was soon signed between France and Germany. As a result, Italian troops pressed no further than a few miles into France, with the city of Mentonmarker being the only considerable gain from the offensive. Two days later, a separate agreement between France and Italy ceded Nicemarker and parts of the Savoy to Italy.

In October 1940, keen to emulate the successes that Hitler was enjoying, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece from colonial Albania. But the invasion faltered, and the Italians were soon pushed back into Albania..

In April 1941, Germany launched an invasion of Yugoslavia and then attacked Greece. Italy and other German allies supported both actions. The German armies overran Yugoslavia in about two weeks and, despite British support in Greece, the Germans overran that country by the end of April. The Italians gained control over portions of both occupied Yugoslavia and occupied Greece. An Italian Duke, Aimone, 4th Duke of Aosta, ruled over the newly created Independent State of Croatiamarker as King Tomislav II.

During the height of the Battle of Britain, the Italians launched an attack on Egypt in hope of capturing the Suez Canalmarker. By 16 September 1940, the Italians advanced 60 miles across the border. However, in December, the British launched Operation Compass and, by February 1941, the British had cut off and captured the Italian 10th Army and had driven deep into Libya..

The East African Campaign started with Italian advances into British-held Kenyamarker, British Somaliland, and Sudanmarker. In the summer of 1940, Italian armed forces successfully invaded all of British Somaliland. But, by the end of 1941, the British had counter-attacked and pushed deep into Italian East Africa. By 5 May, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia had returned to Addis Ababamarker to reclaim his throne. In November, the last organised Italian resistance ended with the fall of Gondar. However, following the surrender of East Africa, some Italians conducted a guerrilla war which lasted for two more years.

In November 1942, Italian-occupied France was expanded slightly when the Germans occupied Vichy France during Case Anton.

End of Empire (1943-1960)

By the fall of 1943, the Italian Empire effectively came to an end. On May 7, the surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia and other near continuous Italian reversals, led King Victor Emmanuel III to plan the removal of Mussolini. Following the Invasion of Sicily, all support for Mussolini evaporated. On July 25, after a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism ended in the night of the 24th, where Dino Grandi organized the opposition, Mussolini was deposed and arrested by the King in the afternoon. Afterwards Mussolini remained prisoner of the King, only to be rescued on the 12 of September on the orders of Hitler by German paratroops and become leader of the Italian Social Republic.

Outwardly, the new Italian government under the King and Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio remained part of the Axis. But secretly it started negotiations with the Allies. On the eve of the American landings at Salernomarker which started the Allied invasion of Italy, the new Italian government secretly signed an armistice with the Allies. On September 8, the armistice was made public. In Albaniamarker, the Dodecanese, and other territories still held by the Italians, German military forces successfully attacked their former Italian allies and ended Italy's rule. Some Italian troops in the Balkans chose to join the resistance fighting against the Germans there. During the Dodecanese Campaign, an Allied attempt to take the Dodecanese with the cooperation of the Italian troops ended in total German victory.

In 1947, the Republic of Italymarker formally lost all her overseas possessions as a result of the Treaty of Peace with Italy. In November 1949, Italian Somaliland was made a United Nations Trust Territory under Italian administration. This lasted until July 1, 1960, when Italian Somaliland was granted its independence along with British Somaliland to form the Somali Republicmarker.

See also




  1. Betts (1975), p.12
  2. Betts (1975), p.97
  3. Lowe, p.21
  4. Lowe, p.24
  5. Lowe, p.27
  6. Packenham (1992), p.280
  7. Packenham (1992), p.471
  8. Packenham, p.281
  9. Killinger (2002), p.122
  10. Packenham, p.470
  11. Killinger, p.122
  12. Packenham (1992), p.7
  13. Map and information
  14. Killinger (2002), p.133
  15. Fry (2002), p.178
  16. Lowe, p.187
  17. Lowe, p.196
  18. Lowe, p.198
  19. Lowe, p.191,199
  20. Barker, p.152
  21. Lowe, p.289
  22. Howard (1998), p.95.
  23. Barker, p.154
  24. Dickson (2001), pg. 69
  25. Dickson (2001), pg 69
  26. Time Magazine Aosta on Alag?
  27. Calvocoressi (1999) p.166
  28. Calvocoressi (1999) p.142
  29. Dickson (2001) p.100
  30. Dickson (2001) p.101
  31. Dickson (2001) p.103
  32. Jowett (2001) p.7

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