Italian Colonial Empire

Italian Colonial Empire

The Italian colonial empire was 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 Eritrea and Somalia, and had wrested control of portions of the Ottoman Empire, including Libya, though it was defeated in its attempt to conquer Ethiopia. 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 so 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". [Betts (1975), p.12] 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. [Betts (1975), p.97]

Italy had long considered the Ottoman province of Tunisia, 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. [Lowe, p.21] 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. [Lowe, p.24] 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. [Lowe, p.27]

Italy's search for colonies continued until February 1885, when by secret agreement with Britain it annexed the port of Massawa in Eritrea on the Red Sea from the crumbling Egyptian Empire. Italian annexation of Massawa denied the Abyssinian Empire of Emperor Yohannes an outlet to the sea [Packenham (1992), p.280] and prevented any expansion of French Somaliland. [Packenham (1992), p.471] At the same time, Italy occupied territory on the south side of the horn of Africa, forming what would become Italian Somaliland. [Packenham, p.281] However, Italy coveted Abyssinia 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. [Killinger (2002), p.122] 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 Eritrea, and - at least, according to the Italian version of the treaty - made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. [Packenham, p.470]

Relations between Italy and Menelik deteriorated over the next few years until the First Italo-Abyssinian War broke out in 1895 after Crispi ordered Italian troops into the country. Outnumbered and poorly equipped [Killinger, p.122] , the result was a humiliating defeat for Italy at the hands of Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, the first defeat by an indigenous people of a colonial power [Packenham (1992), p.7] , 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 China. It was administered by Rome's Consul. Several ships of the Italian Royal Navy ("Regia Marina") were based at Tietsin.


External links

* [ Speech of the proclamation of the empire] , 9 May 1936

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