Life in the colony

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Life in the colony was like living in an middle class Italian province. Typical Italian goods were very expansive, but they were locally produced as well, so that everyone could afford buying them. In the principal cities of the Country, such as Asmara and Massawa it was possible to find any kind of shop: goldsmiths, artisans, mechanics etc. In Asmara there were also a theatre, three cinemas and a Officers’s Club.

During the years before the Fascist regime,  certain occupations and facilities were not open to the local population. With the rise of Fascism this segregation policy was intensified and with the passing of the “racial laws” soon became a real system of apartheid. Eritreans were segregated from residential areas, bars and restaurants reserved for the white population. However these laws did not support the idea of the superiority of the Aryan race. Italy wanted to stop relationships between Italian men and local women in the colonial territories. In those years there were 2,700 single white men in Eritrea, while only 450 single white women. This imbalance would obviously cause unions between white men and Eritrean women. The result was a growing number of meticci (mulattos), that if recognized by their Italian father would receive Italian citizenship with all its privileges. However in 1940 the laws were modified and all meticci were considered “natives”. Consequently they lost all privileges as Italian citizens. In spite of all this, the number of single white men always exceeded the one of white single ladies. The racial laws were almost impossible to implement and there was an increase in prostitution and illegitimate children.


Eritrea is a small Country, situated in the Horn of Africa, by the Red Sea. Its history dates back to immemorial times.

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In 1995 some hominid fossils were found in Buya, dated two million years ago. Furthermore, tools dated to 8000 b.C. were found in the Barka Province. It is thought that the first inhabitants of Eritrea came from Central Africa. They later mixed with people who had immigrated from the Middle East (the actual states of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE) 2500 years ago.

The empire of Aksum ruled Eritrea from the 1st century to the 11th. Aksum, capital of the great empire, is located in the Tigray area (in today’s Ethiopia), 170 km from the sea. The commercial trades of the kingdom were mostly maritime and were managed by the ancient seaport of Adulis, in Eritrea. The street that connected Aksum to Adulis had great importance during that period.

Under the reign of Edana, from 325 to 360, Christianity was introduced in the empire’s territories, when Syrian merchants of Christian belief were shipwrecked on the coasts of the Red Sea. In the 4th century AD, Christianity became the official religion of the kingdom.

Islam was introduced in the region in the 7th century, and marked the beginning of the decline of the kingdom of Aksum. With the spread of Islam, the Arab populations grew stronger and soon became the new lords of the Red Sea, occupying the city of Massawa as well. The authorities of Aksum were defeated.

During the 15th and the 16th centuries northern Eritrea and the coastal areas were invaded by the Ottomans, that ruled the region for over 300 years.  Their successor, the Egyptians ruled from 1846 to 1885, under Ali Pasha. They first invaded Sudan and some areas of Ethiopia, then occupied western Eritrea and Massawa. The Eritrean king, Yohannes, declared war on the Egyptians and defeated them in 1875 in Gundat, in eastern Eritrea. The influence of Egypt lasted a few more years, until the arrival of the Italians.

The Italians arrived in Eritrea in 1869 with the Rubattino shipping company, who bought a lot nearby Assab, in the south of Eritrea. In 1882 the Italian government took over the proprieties of the company and established a local administration. In 1885 they occupied Massawa and took advantage of the disorder in Ethiopia to occupy the highlands of Keren and Asmara. However, during this advance on the highlands, the Italian army was defeated by Ras Alula, Yohannes’ governor of Ethiopia, in Dogali. 500 Italian men lost their lives and Italy’s government decided to support Yohannes’ rival Menelik, who ascended the throne of Ethiopia in 1889. Italy and Ethiopia signed a treaty that ratified Italian control over Eritrea. In 1890 the colony of Eritrea was eventually created. However the relations between the two countries worsened because of some differences in the texts of the treaty, which was supposed to be written identically in both languages (Italian and Amharic). In 1896 there was a battle near Adwa. The Ethiopians defeated the Italians once more. This battle is of great significance to the Ethiopian population.

During the fascist period, Eritrea went through a profound modernization. Among all the Italian colonies, it was considered to be the “jewel” because of its access to the Red Sea and of its potential mineral wealth. The Italians promoted the Catholic Church, developed agriculture, industry, trade and built streets, harbors, hospitals and the railway that still connects Asmara to Massawa. In the ‘30s Eritrea was one of the most industrialized colonies of Africa and experienced a great population growth.  In 1933 the Eritreans were 510,000 and the Italians 3,600, while in 1939 Eritrea’s population was  of a million inhabitants and the Italians were 100,000. Italy instituted provinces, governed by officials and a governor.

Asmara became capital in 1897 and during the ‘30s looked typically Italian. In fact, it is still possible to admire its “art deco” and fascist architectures, such as the “Cinema Impero” or the former base of the Italian enterprise Fiat “Fiat Tagliero”. Today, Asmara is considered by the UN a “world heritage center”.