An African colony

Italian Eritrea, also known as the "Colony of Eritrea," was a colony of the Kingdom of Italy that was located on what is now Eritrea. The purchase of Assab in 1882, marked the beginning of Italian settlement in the region. The region was progressively engulfed by the 1885 occupation of Massawa and the subsequent territorial expansion; in 1889, the Treaty of Wuchale established border lines with the Ethiopian Empire. The official founding of the Colony of Eritrea, or Colonia Eritrea in Italian, occurred in 1890.

A 1910 Italian Military Postcard showing Italian Eritrea.

The area became the Eritrea Governorate in 1936 when it was included into Italian East Africa. This would continue up until 1941, when Italy lost control of the area during the Second World War's East African campaign. 

An industrial hub

When Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, the colonial government in Eritrea underwent significant changes. Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland willwould be combined with the recently acquired Ethiopia into the new Italian East Africa administrative entity when il Duce declared the formation of the Italian Empire in May 1936. In the name of a "new Roman Empire," imperial expansion was a defining feature of this fascist era. The Italian government selected Eritrea to serve as the industrial hub of Italian East Africa.

The road to Massaua from Decamere - Eritrea, 1930's.

Italian Colonies - Road to Massaua (Massawa) from Decamere… | Flickr

There were only 4,000 Italians and 12,000 Eritreans in the capital city of Eritrea in 1935; by 1938, there were 48,000 Italians and 36,000 Eritreans. According to historian Gian Luca Podesta, Asmara has essentially turned into an Italian city.

Agricultural reforms were still being carried out by the Italian government, mostly on farms owned by Italian colonists (exports of coffee boomed in the 1930s). More than 2,000 small and medium-sized industrial businesses, mostly in the sectors of construction, mechanics, textiles, food processing, and electricity, were located in the Asmara region in 1940.

Little Rome

The city of Asmara had a population of 98,000 people in by 1939, of whom 53,000 were Italians, according to the Italian census. Due to this circumstance, Asmara served as the Italian empire's capital in Africa. Additionally, Asmara was known as Piccola Roma (Little Rome) due of the city's Italian architecture. 75,000 Italians were recorded as living in Eritrea that year.

As a result, both the native Eritreans and the Italian settlers thought that Eritrea's level of life in 1939 was among the greatest on the continent.

Life in Asmara - 'Little Italy', Eritrea, 1935.

Life in Asmara, Eritrea – 1935 – Martin Plaut

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War

The colony was viewed by Mussolini's administration as a strategically important base for future expansion, and it was governed as such. From Eritrea, the government launched its 1935–1936 campaign to annex and occupy Ethiopia - the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. According to Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani and illustrious officer Amedeo Guillet, the Eritrean Ascari were the best soldiers serving with the Italian colonial forces.

Additionally, the main source of paid work for the native male population of Italian Eritrea after the First World War was service with the Ascari (colonial soldiers). 40% of the eligible Eritreans were enlisted in these colonial soldiers during the 1936 expansion necessitated by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

Eritrean Askari during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935.

1935 Italy invades Ethiopia. | Sutori

Italian postcard featuring an Eritrean Askari on the front.

Abyssinian Expansionism and the Empire of Ethiopia. about Wrnzla (

During the conflict, the Eritrean soldiers – who were highly regarded by the Italians – played an active role throughout, performing efficiently in a series of battles, demonstrating their courage, determination and loyalty.

A group of Native Eritrean troops with the Italian army in Ethiopia, are shown assembled before the march on Aduwa. 15th October 1935.

Ethiopia: 3rd October 1935 – the Italian invasion begins – Martin Plaut

Without the presence of these troops, the Italians would have struggled to make the progress they did during the conflict. And while the ultimate victory of the better-equipped and trained Italian forces over the Ethiopians was never really in doubt, the absence of the supporting Eritreans would have made victory for Mussolini’s forces that much harder.