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Post Mahdist Wars and Italy's Role
Created by John Eipper on 12/04/20 3:24 AM

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Mahdist Wars and Italy's Role (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy, 12/04/20 3:24 am)

About the Mahdist wars, I remember the film The Four Feathers of 1939, the first color film that I ever saw.

But it may be more interesting to remember that in order to fight the followers of the Mahdi, the British Government in 1885 invited Italy to occupy Eritrea (quite a difference from 1935).

Italian forces (2200 men), mainly consisting of the first brave, loyal Eritrean Ascaris, defeated a Mahadist Army (10,000 men) led by Ahmed Wad Alì at Agordat on 21 December 1892.  They triumphed again at the important town Kassala.  However, after five years of Italian occupation, it was given back to the British Empire in December 1897. (Italy has quite often been silly.) By the way, the same town was occupied by the Italian Forces in 1940 but this time the British/Sudanese forces reoccupied the town by force the following year when they also reoccupied the previously lost British Somaliland.

The war in the Horn of Africa was a good fight by the Italians and its brave, faithful local troops, but in the new republic--lay, democratic and anti-fascist, born from the resistance--it is a forbidden topic.

Finally In Ethiopia, the hate among Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and why not Muslims and Christians is alive again (if it ever was dead) as in 1935, but at that time the only "bad" people were the Italians. Nobody now pays attention but behind this new fight probably is the problem of the new Ethiopian Dam desperately opposed by Egypt and Sudan, which may organize a proxy war.

JE comments: Eugenio, was the British "invitation" of 1885 the origin of Italy's historic role in Eritrea?  Why would the Eritreans agree to fight alongside the Italians?

I fear the US attention span can focus on only two things at a time, and here we have Covid and the election aftermath.  Meanwhile, a civil war is brewing in Ethiopia, and we've barely noticed.  Who can walk us through the events?

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  • Italy's History in Eritrea (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 12/08/20 8:51 AM)
    Our esteemed moderator asked me some questions about Italy's historical role in Eritrea.

    1) Were the British responsible for Italy's arrival as a colonial power in Eritrea?

    Eritrea in Greek means red (erytros), and from it comes the name of the Red Sea.

    In antiquity, it was the kingdom of Punt, followed by the Sabean kingdom and then the kingdom of Aksum. Unfortunately in 1557, following a short Portuguese presence, it fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which in 1865 left it to its ally Egypt.

    In the middle of the 19th century, many Italian missionaries were active in the area, and Father Giuseppe Sapeto in 1869 arranged for the Italian shipowner Raffaele Rubattino to have access to Bay of Assab in order to have a supply port for his ships.

    In 1882, Assab Bay was purchased by the Italian government, but it was only from 1885 that the Italians expanded their territory.  In that year they landed 1500 Bersaglieri at Massawa following an invitation from London.

    2) Why would Eritreans agree to fight alongside the Italians against the Mahdi?

    Very simple, because the Italians were much better than the previous rulers.

    The Italians abolished slavery, as they later did after entering Abyssinia in 1935, and started a great work of modernization, with new roads, railroads, industries, agricultural projects, ports, towns, villages, with churches, mosques, and synagogues.  This was quite a difference from other colonial empires. Due to its architecture under Italian rule, Asmara was named a Unesco Cultural Heritage site. There were four cinemas: Roma, Capitol, Impero, Oden. All were open to locals and Italians (quite a difference from the US in the same years, and all the way until 1964, but we have to be grateful that the US invaded us to bring their "democracy"). The Eritreans at a certain point were better Italians than the actual Italians, and I have already written about Amin, my marvelous Eritrean skipper in Mena Saud.

    Dogali still has a well-kept monument to the Italian soldiers, and there is an Italian military cemetery at Asmara.

    In 1945 following the end of WWII the port of Massawa, the pearl of the Italian colonial period, suffered damage as the occupying British troops either dismantled or destroyed much of the facilities. See the book by Sylvia Pankurst, Eritrea on the Eve or Michela Wrong's I Didn't Do It for You, How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation.

    The Italian population in Eritrea reached 100,000 in 1940.  There are only a few at present, but many Eritreans (3300 in 2018 alone) have moved to Italy.

    There is also a great stain in the relations between the two peoples. The relations between an Italian men and women were fairly common even outside of regular marriage, which resulted in many children without fathers when the bad father would return alone to Italy, leaving behind the partner and kids. To avoid such crimes, in 1938 a law was enacted which was probably even worse: the infamous Law for the Protection of the Race (remembered generally only for the separation of the 76% of the Italian Jews) that prohibited such relations. Theoretically the children of these unions have been able to obtain Italian citizenship in recent years. A famous Italian Officer with a young local partner was the newsman/writer Indro Montanelli, who related that before leaving East Africa he "gave" her to another local man under his orders.

    The story of Italian Eritrea and its people is very long, but I hope to have provided some relevant information.

    JE comments:  I'm realizing just how little I know about Eritrean history:  Punt?  The Sabeans?  Most WAISers are equally clueless I'm sure.

    Appreciate the history lessons, Eugenio.  As for Asmara's art deco architecture, I came across the Fiat Tagliero service station from 1938, which would be right at home in LA or Miami Beach.  Image below.

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    • Indro Montanelli and Eritrea: Controversy Today (Roy Domenico, USA 12/09/20 3:15 AM)
      In response to Eugenio Battaglia's interesting post on Eritrea, I would add the recent controversy over Indro Montanelli--one of Italy's most prominent journalists of the past century.

      Because of his "marriage" to an Eritrean girl (she was 12 years old), a statue to Montanelli in Milan has been attacked with red paint and graffiti. Montanelli was a complex figure with a lot of ties to the Fascists. The mayor of Milan, however, has condemned the attack on the statue.

      On Eritrea--I would add that the first moves in 1869 were also the result of the (soon to be opened) Suez canal which jacked up the property values along the Strait of Aden (the Bab-el-Mandeb). The Brits, French, Turks and Italians all had pieces of the action and, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Italy secured a most favored nation status across the strait in Yemen.

      JE comments:  Montanelli's Wikipedia bio reports that he "bought" and "married" the 12-year-old to act as his sex slave while in Abyssinia, and that this was a common practice among the Italians during the Ethiopian war.  Later as a reporter in Spain, Montanelli shared a room with legendary spy Kim Philby.  He (Montanelli) lived a long, prolific and controversial life, dying in 2001 at the age of 92.

      Indro Montanelli - Wikipedia

      Montanelli also reported on the German invasion of Poland in 1939.  According to Ed Jajko (link below), he was responsible for the myth of Polish cavalry charging at German panzers.


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