Italians started late to have colonies in eastern Africa, but in a few decades developed an approach to the colonization of their colonies that was different from the one of other European countries (like Great Britain, France and Germany). Indeed the Italians soon tried to use their colonial territories as a possible "melting pot" for their emigrants. Information about their lifestyles has been showed in my issue of March 2016 (https://researchomnia.blogspot.com/2016/03/life-in-italian-eastern-africa.html).
The first thing they did was to help the local populations with ordering the elimination of the shameful "slavery". Later the Italian government created a scholastic system for the native that -with all its problems and insufficiencies- was one of the best in all colonial Africa. And in the late 1930s for all the native children in Italian east Africa was introduced the law that imposed mandatory elementary school (at least 3 years, in order to make all of them to be able to write & read): it was a revolutionary improvement for all "black Africa"! Furthermore, from the legal point of view, the "mixed-race" sons of Italians and native girls were the only in Africa with the same rights (but with little limitations, mainly during Fascism) of the MadrePatria/Motherland's European citizens, while in German East Africa and even in British African colonies these "coloured" had no rights at all!
The Italian colonists brought with them not only new roads, but also their passion for race cars: in Eritrea and Somalia were created the "Grand Prix" of Asmara & Mogadiscio, that was welcomed by all the native population. And the same happened with the airplanes, ships and trains: the "Linea dell'Impero" was one of the first intercontinental air routes in the world, connecting directly Rome with Asmara and Mogadiscio; the most modern transatlantic ships went from Genoa to Massaua and Mogadiscio, while new train railways were built (and were projected). The first hospitals, sewage systems, radio communications were created in the 1930s by these colonists in Italian eastern Africa....were done even the first steps toward the creation of a university in Mogadiscio and Asmara: read http://researchomnia.blogspot.com/2016/04/italian-schools-in-asmara-after.html. The area of Asmara was becoming an industrial hub with a development unique in all Africa...but WW2 blocked (and destroyed) all this!
An Italian colonist family arriving in Italian Africa in the late 1930s
Colonists and “Demographic” Colonists. Family and Society in Italian Africa
Until 1936 the family question was not an issue in Italian colonies, as the number of Italian residents was insignificant and consisted mostly of young males employed in the civil service or in the few commercial enterprises. The economy in the Italian colonies was poor and backward. Eritrea and Somalia did not offer Europeans the chance to lead a decent life, whilst Libya was also poor and, moreover, Italians until 1932 controlled only part of its territory, because the Arabs had revolted against the occupiers. Residence in the colonies was usually temporary. Had they wanted to take their families with them, Italians would have found it very difficult to secure a decent home. Services were lacking, as well as hospitals, and even State schools, as education was still entrusted to catholic missions. Only in Eritrea some Italian men had set up home with African women of the Coptic faith, meeting with much disapproval on the part of the local bourgeoisie. Sometimes, children born of these mixed unions would be recognised by the father, thus acquiring Italian citizenship (Sorgoni, 1998). Mostly, however, cohabitation was not legitimated by matrimony, and after the father’s return to his homeland, the children were often abandoned by their mother. Catholic missionaries used to take them in and give them a summary education, so they could get some manual work. Such cases were however rare: most children born of mixed unions did not have Italian fathers, but other colonists, such as Greeks, or men from comparable countries, for example citizens of the Ottoman empire (Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians), who, however, were placed lower than Europeans in the social hierarchy. The number of Italians, both men and women, was slight and this caused unease among colonialists back home, because in fifty years Italy had not even managed to populate its own colonies. The situation was so dire that some scientists elaborated a controversial plan to increase the number of Italians in Eritrea.
In 1927 Domenico Simoncelli, one of the young assistants of the statistician and demographer Corrado Gini at Rome University, put forward a peculiar proposal to solve the problem of “racial crossing” and increase the number of Italian families in the colonies. On the basis of Gini’s fascinating theory, Simoncelli contradicted the idea that mixed-bloods were an inferior and less fertile race (Pogliano, 2005). He recalled that in the past the different races had always merged, generating stronger peoples, well apt to reproduce themselves. The opinion according to which half-castes would inherit only the worse features of each parent race was false, because what was attributed to nature was in fact due to poverty. Indeed, as the Spanish and Portuguese had demonstrated, mixed bloods were efficient colonisers and were better suited to colonial climate. Simoncelli suggested that it was necessary to facilitate the acknowledgement of paternity and of attribution of Italian citizenship to mixed-blood children (Pogliano, 2005). Latin people’s “temperament” was more apt to promote mixed unions and assimilation, unlike the Anglo-Saxons, who dominated rather than “shape”.
If mixed relationships were almost inexistent in Libya and Somalia, their number was growing in Eritrea, where, however, half-castes enjoyed a precarious social status, disliked by Italians and despised by the natives. However, in Simoncelli’s view, if they had been educated and protected, they could make up a class of “good, laborious, honest and civilised” citizens. In the future, he thought, it was also necessary to consider the “gradual replacement” of the African population with “new elements” in which Italians would inoculate, through race crossing, “their own blood, their qualities and culture”, thus promoting the expansion of a new colonial society: “It is the white man who has invaded and is invading the world, multiplying his conquests every day; it is he who goes and seeks out the coloured races in their own countries, and everywhere mixes his blood with theirs. More or less, all mixed-blood races recognise him as their father, and this causes them to be educated at the level of the superior mother race.” (Simoncelli, 1929).
Only ten years later the formulation of such a hypothesis would have been inconceivable. As already mentioned, Simoncelli’s proposal was not original, because it stemmed from a theory elaborated by Corrado Gini (Gini, 1912), one of the most famous Italian scientists, well-known all over the world for his contributions to statistics, demography and eugenics. In order to justify the decreasing birth rate in the Western world, Gini had formulated a cyclic theory of differential fertility, dependent on biological factors. In his opinion, inside any country, the intellectually sophisticated, but decadent and scarcely fertile ruling classes were contrasted with the lower classes, uncouth and uneducated perhaps, but highly vital (Cassata, 2006). It was they who, according to Gini, contributed most to the regeneration of society. Gini stated that nations in their history went through various stages of birth, growth and decadence, depending on the behaviour of their social classes. There was continuous exchange between higher and lower ranks of people, between the prolific and the sterile strata of society (Treves, 2001). History could offer many instances of decadent races mixing with more vital ones, producing a new biologically regenerated race (for example the Romans with the barbarians, or the American melting-pot). Gini denied that half-castes were biologically inferior, even though he recommended that race crossing should not take place between peoples who were too different from each other, as in the case of blacks and whites. But Gini also supported the idea that Eritreans were superior to African blacks. At the time Gini was a very important figure in the fascist regime, and he had inspired Mussolini’s demographic policy (Ipsen, 1992). In fact fertility policies were a common European phenomenon. The discussion centred around the problem of the decreasing birth rates, inspired by the scientists, became in that tormented period a precise political programme, both in democratic and authoritarian states (Treves, 2001). Liberal and social democratic governments entered the delicate sphere of men and women’s sexual behaviour, for example in Belgium, Weimar Germany, France and Sweden. The first signs of increased attention had already emerged during the First World War in Germany (Weidling, 1989) and in France (Wishnia, 1995; Le Naour, 2002). In 1940 the English demographer David Victor Glass published the first organic study on the population issue in Europe (Glass, 1940). He was worried by his country’s decadence, caused by the simultaneous decrease in birth rates and by the aging population. Glass was convinced that the British government should implement a demographic policy aimed at contrasting both phenomena, but he also believed that a liberal government must necessarily obey its own democratic principles, and not operate along authoritarian lines. This is a crucial difference. In a totalitarian state such as fascist Italy (and later Nazi Germany and partly also in Stalin’s Soviet Union), where numbers meant power, the demographic policy became an essential element in the life of the State, not only as a political programme, but above all as a founding myth used to mobilise the people and direct consensus towards the regime. In the fascist state, even a technical matter such as the monetary policy to return into the gold standard (“Quota 90”) was used by Mussolini as a myth for mobilisation. Moreover, Mussolini was worried because the lowe-ring birth rates were more evident in the cities, while he wanted to maintain a balance between urban areas and the countryside. That is why he started the integral land-reclaiming campaigns and encouraged the settlement of reclaimed areas, as well as elaborating his demographic policies. Mussolini believed that peasants, free from urban hedonism, would retain those features of strength, vitality and sobriety which, in his opinion, represented the values that should characterise the new fascist Italians; peasants, moreover, begot more children than town dwellers. The programme of demographic colonisation, which originated in Italy and was later exported to Libya and Ethiopia, was fundamental because it would prevent Italy from undergoing the consequences of that which Mussolini called the bourgeois degenerations of urbanism: hedonism, consumerism, low fertility and pacifism. That is why he wanted the organic family unit to become the basis for emigration to the colonies: to preserve and expand the Italian race and to maintain that vitality which he believed was being inexorably undermined by the increase in the urban population in Italy.
The demographic policy constituted the core of the fascist racial strategy originated after the conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 (Maiocchi, 1999). But as early as 1933, the new legislation for Eritrea contained some stronger measures aimed at lessening the position of half-castes in colonial society. For the first time race, i.e. a rigorous evaluation of physical and somatic features, became the most important element among those necessary to acquire Italian citizenship (Sorgoni, 1998). This was a significant move away from the previous laws elaborated by liberal governments and respected by the fascist regime until 1933: from a judgement on the degree of civilisation and education, the legislators started to take into account the explicit study of racial membership, measured on the basis of anthropological and physical factors. Gini’s theories were considered irrelevant by now, and the scientist himself could no longer influence Mussolini. 1937 is the year when, after the conquest of Ethiopia, racism became official State policy. In the new legislative system of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana – AOI) people born of mixed unions were no longer considered. In fascism’s new racist biological conception, they were relegated to the category of subjects, i.e. they were equated with the mother and could never become Italian citizens. The question of half-castes in the new fascist racial policy was different from that implemented by democratic colonial powers such as Great Britain and France. It was no longer just a problem of white dignity, or of the risks for the social order caused by the creation of a class of uprooted people; nor was it a matter of the immoral intercourse between colonisers and subject women (Stoler, 1991), or of prostitution and prophylaxis against the spreading of venereal diseases (Levine, 2003). Gone was the attention given to possible ambiguities generated by the effort to conjugate the right to equality guaranteed by the mother country, with the problems caused by the number of mixed bloods and by the effort to lay down the criteria to recognise their right to citizenship (Saada, 2007). Mussolini wished the fascist regime to be a social experiment, in which the new Italian colonists, made stronger by war and by the colonisation enterprise, would show the world that they represented the new type of Italian created by the fascist regime: sober, warrior-like, vital and prolific. This is why Mussolini was strongly against sexual relationships between Italian men and African women, and even more strongly stigmatised the birth of mixed-blood children. Mussolini was really convinced that the Ethiopian guerrilla was caused by the fact that Italians, by abusing African women, had lost any appearance of dignity and superiority in the eyes of the natives (Podestà, 2007). Only the outmost separation of the two races would restore Italian superiority. Racial legislation in AOI was indeed directed against Italians, not Africans. In 1937 the law only punished those who really cohabited with African women, as if they were married (Sorgoni, 1998). In 1939 the law was made more restrictive, punishing anybody who with their actions diminished the prestige of the Italian race, both by having sexual intercourse or just by patronising bars or other enterprises reserved for Africans. As early as in 1937, Mussolini had ordered the repatriation of over 100,000 Italian workers, because he thought they were engaged in too humble occupations and regularly mixed with African people. Emigration to AOI was going to be severely monitored and priority would be given to citizens endowed with the appropriate moral and political requisites, willing to take their families with them. The objective was to found a new Italy overseas. Following fascism’s Darwinian theories, somebody even suggested that the superior Italian race would soon reach and overtake in numbers the decadent Africans. Fascist racism transcended colonial policies and the question of Italian-African relationships. By then the matter of the relationship between the races did no longer concern the contingent aspects of sexual intercourse (for this, Italian prostitutes were introduced into the colony, and all military personnel were given condoms), or of half-castes (it was no longer a question of civilisation and education, but of biology), but it was fully inserted into the fascist regime’s general strategy for government. After the experience of AOI, racism would become a new myth for mass mobilisation, just like in Germany. The indifferent behaviour of many Italians in the colonies persuaded Mussolini of the necessity to implement a more violent racist policy. As early as 1937, piqued by an article appeared in a German news-paper which alleged the massive presence of Jews in the Italian empire, he had ordered a survey to be carried out on the number of Jewish officials and soldiers in AOI, and in 1938 he issued racial laws against Italian Jews (Matard-Bonucci, 2007). In a totalitarian regime such as fascism, colonial policy also loses its specificity, becoming an integral part of general state policy. The comparisons with democratic colonial powers’ policies should always remember this peculiarity or risk seeming partial and sometimes unclear. Italy was the only totalitarian country which possessed colonies. In Africa Mussolini wanted to enact a social experiment, in order to turn Italian settlers into prolific and bellicose racists. Only the policies implemented by Stalin, with the forced relocation and Russianisation imposed on Asian populations in the Soviet Union, could be vaguely compared to Mussolini’s social engineering. In Libya and Italian East Africa too, the fascists planned the forced transfer of part of the African population, in order to make space for new Italian colonists. On the other hand the question of mixed-bloods was only evident in AOI, because in Libya, just like in Algeria (Saada, 2007), it was practically non-existent.
In fact the new role of the family in the fascist empire derived from the regime’s racial policies. Half-castes had to disappear, and in any case they were considered for all purposes as African subjects; for matters of prestige of the Italian race it was deemed appropriate to adopt a policy for the family. The fascist regime’s racial policy, directly inspired by Mussolini, was aimed at preventing “the procreation of half-castes in the most totalitarian way possible” by issuing a series of laws that tried to prevent and punish sexual intercourse between Italians and Africans: “It is proven by biological law that half-castes inherit the mother’s physical characteristics more than the father’s; it is proven that they are generally and permanently useless for the purposes of any creative occupation; it is proven that half-castes are inclined to degenerative forms of various kinds; it is proven that they despise their coloured ancestors and, generally speaking, hate their white ones.” (Sangiorgi, 1937).
In Mussolini’s view, the colonisation of the new Italian Empire should be carried out through the immigration of Italian colonists, and in order to prevent (or better limit) interracial sexual intercourse it was indispensable to favour the transfer of whole family units, or to authorise the families of Italian men already settled in Africa to join them. If until 1935 Italian colonies were too poor to allow the immigration of large numbers of settlers, in later years the family became the basic organic element of fascist “populating” or demographic colonisation. But in order to accommodate the new families it was necessary to create houses, schools, hospitals and all the indispensable services. The programme would take years and a lot of money, but fascist Italy had little time and limited resources. The defeat in the Second World War would finally shatter Il Duce’s dream. The following paragraphs, listed in chronological order and distinct for all the African colonies, will try to delineate the development of Italian colonisation in Africa and, in particular, they will describe the fascist regime’s efforts to favour immigration by entire families. We will also highlight the break which took place, after 1934, with the praxis and the juridical customs of Italian colonialism during the liberal-democratic period and the first stages of the fascist regime, with the explicit purpose to create a new imperial model and favour the influx of new settlers.
A huge Italian family in 1940 Mogadiscio (Italian Somalia)
In 1890 a plan for the experimental agricultural colonisation of Eritrea was approved. In the course of the debate the Prime Minister, Francesco Crispi, had stated that Italy could send to Eritrea “that mass of emigrants that were trying to find their way to America” (Battaglia, 1958; Podestà, 2007). The first ten peasant families settled down in their new land in December 1893, but the project collapsed in just two years. In 1896 the government blocked the colonisation programme and discouraged emigration through restrictive measures, decisively rejecting the hypothesis that Eritrea was about to become a “populating colony”.
In fact the colony had never attracted many immigrants. In 1893, 623 Italian civilians lived there, out of whom only 70 were women (Castellano, 1948; Ciampi, 1995). In 1905 the European population amounted to 3,949 inhabitants (including the so-called “assimilated” —Greeks, Egyptians, Turks, etc.), of whom 2,333 were Italian. European women were only 544, of whom 482 were Italian. The great majority of colonists consisted of single men; a consequence of this situation was the widespread cohabitation of Europeans with indigenous women (Barrera, 2002), even though this phenomenon was more common among the assimilated population. Only 126 married Italian men out of 331 had brought their family to Eritrea. However, the number of children born to Italian women had been increasing steadily since 1902: between 1886 (the first year in which they were monitored) and 1904, 369 live births were recorded, 880 until 1913 and 1,434 until 1921. We should add to these figures the children born of mixed unions, who were often acknowledged with some delay. Until 1923, 340 civil marriages were celebrated between Italians (the first was in 1888), whilst in 1931 the average size of colonial families was 3.1 members (4.3 in Italy).
From 1905 to 1931 the Italian civilian population increased steadily: in 1913 Italians were 2,410 (731 women), 3,571 in 1921 (1,163) and 4,188 in 1931 (1,717). Italian society was more stable and less unbalanced as regards the two sexes. Asmara presented a varied social composition, not too different from that encountered in any urban centre back in the mother country. By now Italians born in Eritrea made up about 40 % of the Italian population and the male-to-female ratio had evened out in the meantime, as women constituted 41 % of the Italian population. Of course the number of Europeans was small compared to about 600,000 Eritreans. Most Italians lived in Asmara (3,500) and Massawa (350), whilst a few dozens had settled in the other towns (Bertarelli, 1929).
Eritrea represented a remarkably unconventional colonial society compared to the classic exploitative colonies inhabited mainly by army personnel, civil servants and plantation owners. In early 1900 most settlers were indeed employed in the public sector (949 compared to 611 in the private sector), but in 1931 the ratio was inverted (631 compared to 1,200). The Italian settlers were farmers, miners, skilled workers, builders, craftsmen, clerks, traders, mechanics, shoemakers, tailors. There were also some representatives of the professions such as engineers, doctors, lawyers and pharmacists.
The colonial administration did not tolerate the presence of any poor Italians, providing for the repatriation of those who did not possess the means of supporting themselves. There were whites employed in humbler jobs, such as washerwomen and ironers, cooks, waiters and waitresses, kitchen assistants, dustmen, porters and water vendors, but almost all of them belonged to the group of the assimilated.
The first town planning schemes of all main locations were only elaborated as late as the beginning of the twentieth-century, and later updated (Podestà, 2009). In 1908 Asmara was divided into four areas: the first was exclusively reserved for Europeans, the second was mixed (Europeans and Africans), the third was for indigenous people and the fourth was destined to suburban homes (later it was assigned to the industrial area). Although town planning could not escape the model of colonial subjugation, discrimination had not produced “two distinct urban organisms” with that sharp separation between the new European quarters and the indigenous town encountered, for example, in French North Africa or in Libya (Zagnoni, 1993), where the colonial town was prevalently identifiable with the European zone. Except for Massawa, in the other towns the absolute absence of a pre-existing urban nucleus meant that the colonial city represented, both for Italians and for Eritreans, the only model. At the end of the 1920s, Asmara had a theatre and four cinemas.
In 1905 over 63 % of young Europeans under the age of twenty were illiterate. This high percentage was caused by the fact that most of the assimilated children were not enrolled in primary education. The government created some new primary schools in Asmara, Keren and Adi Ugri, but the colony’s school system remained inadequate and was entrusted mainly to the religious missions until the creation of the empire in 1936, even though at the beginning of the 1930s there was a functioning secondary school in Asmara, as well as a technical school and a scientific lyceum.
Despite some progress, the number of Italian families residing in the colony remained low. Most civil servants and army officers regarded their presence in Africa only as a transitory period in their lives and only a few (generally among the upper ranks) asked their wives and children to join them. These latter, however, sooner or later were forced to repatriate, if they aspired to any decent school education. It is also very difficult to evaluate what Italian family life was like. Unfortunately, we only have few sources to help us reconstruct even a summary picture of colonial society. A rare example is represented by Rosalia Pianavia-Vivaldi Bossinet, the wife of a top army officer, who spent three years in the colony from 1893 to 1895, and who also sent some reports back to L’Illustrazione Italiana magazine (Ghezzi, 2003). But Rosalia paid more attention to the exotic and folkloristic aspects of the colony rather than narrate Italians’ social life. Unfortunately Italian colonial society did not produce any Karen Blixen or Albert Camus.
An exemplary case (though certainly not representative of Italian colonialism) is that of the Pastori family, which I was able to study thanks to the existence of a family archive made up of documents, letters and photographs and on the basis of some oral testimonies (Podestà, 1989; Puglisi, 1952). Adriano Pastori, the pioneer, emigrated to Australia after dropping out of the Naval Academy. In Sidney he became a mining engineer and explored the Australian desert in search of gold. In 1900 Pastori was employed by the Eritrean government to explore the colony after gold had been found near Asmara. He took with him his wife, Elisabetta Bonfà, who between 1904 and 1910 gave birth to four daughters (one died just after birth). After his time in government service, Adriano Pastori independently exploited some gold veins in Eritrea and created a large ostrich farm in Sudan. In 1912 he explored the Dankalia Desert hoping to find oil; instead he only discovered a potassium deposit. A personal friend of Menelik and of his successor to the throne, Ligg Yassu, Pastori obtained from the Ethiopian government the exploitation rights. On the eve of the First World War his wife and daughters returned to Italy.
During the war he was kept under surveillance by the Italian secret service, because he was on too friendly terms with the Muslim Negus Ligg Yassu, who was suspected of sympathies towards the central empires. In 1916 Pastori sold his potassium mine to some important Italian industrialists. In 1918 he founded the Banca dell’Africa Orientale (East Africa Bank) and established a salt mine and a fishing business in Somalia. In 1924 Pastori, suspected of anti-fascism, was expelled from the colony. In 1925 he organised an expedition from Tanganyika to Angola, crossing the Congo. In 1928 Pastori set up a coffee plantation in the Belgian colony, which he then left to his daughter Maria and in the early 1930s he emigrated to Angola to set up another plantation, later entrusted to his daughters Luisa and Elda. The great depression and the collapse of coffee prices convinced him to abandon Africa. In 1937 he joined another son in the Philippines, in search of new opportunities. After a few months, Pastori died during a typhoon whilst he was sailing in the gulf of Leyte.
Adriano Pastori’s case is certainly exceptional; however, his family history offers a rather fascinating view over the long period. His daughters Maria in the Congo, Elda in Angola and Luisa in Eritrea wrote each other regularly until the 1970s; in their letters they recounted family events and commented on the most important political news, offering the researcher the possibility to explore the colonists’ relationship with Africa, as well as social customs in the colony, the persistence of hierarchical mechanisms even after the demise of colonialism and the point of view of Europeans vis-à-vis some often tragic events (like in Congo and Angola), of which they were spectators and sometimes the victims. It is not surprising that, except for some minor details, the lifestyle and mentality were rather similar.
For about twenty years Somalia was just a nominal colony: there were only a few dozens resident Italians, all military personnel or working as civil servants and technicians. Only during the Twenties a programme of agricultural colonisation was started, and the fascist regime promoted the emigration of a few hundred colonists to the area of the Webi Shabeelle. The new farms, about a hundred, produced mainly cotton until 1931, when this was replaced by bananas because of the price fall caused by economic depression. The banana crop was sold at subsidised prices to the State, who directly managed commercialisation through the Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane (RAMB – Royal Monopoly Banana Enterprise), created in 1935 (Podestà, 2004).
For many years farmers and their families constituted the most important nucleus of settlers. Only at the end of the 1920s an embryonic colonial society started to take shape, whose early effects can be traced in the development of the first urban plans for Mogadishu and other large towns (Gresleri, 1993a). The school system was entrusted to the Catholic missions. In their free time, Italian colonists could choose among several leisure clubs and a theatre/movie house annexed to the Italian East Africa Company storehouse in Mogadishu, as well as a cinema in the Duke of Abruzzi Village.
Italian students of a high school in Asmara (Italian Eritrea)
The conquest of Ethiopia modified Italian colonial policy, shifting it to another level, that of the empire, a possibility which Mussolini had contemplated since the post-war period; this concept would become one of the regime’s pivotal points after the implementation of its demographic policy. The Empire, in Mussolini’s view, was above all an ideal and spiritual goal towards which Italians should strive to avoid the fate of the decadent people of the West. The meaning attributed to this term transcended the mere territorial enlargement of Italy’s dominions, to take on an almost metaphysical quality, representing the process of anthropological mutation of Italians wished for by the regime, in order to assert its revolutionary charge and fulfil Italy’s true mission.
Fascism’s idea of Empire conceived a new totalitarian colonial policy, which included some common guidelines for the colonies (such as the racial hierarchy and the school programmes), thus overcoming the historical, political and cultural heterogeneity of the various dominions, and also taking into account that one of the principal objectives was to create large Italian communities overseas. To highlight the differences between the fascist model and the classic colonialism of the other European powers, and underline its communitarian outlook, jurists defined the fascist Empire as a corpus misticum made up of several parts which, however, “although they all concurred to reach the same common goals and though each obtained its own advantage” (Ambrosini, 1940), were not on the same level: first came Italy and Albania, followed by Libya and the Italian islands in the Aegean sea; AOI came last.
Of course the elements concurring to make up the hierarchy of dominions were mainly racial and cultural. The administration of the territories was also differentiated: the Aegean Sea and Albania, which was part of the imperial community as an autonomous and independent entity associated to Italy, depended on the Foreign Ministry, whilst Libya and AOI depended on the Ministry for Italian Africa (Ministry of Colonies until 1937), which had purposely changed its name to underline the new way to conceive the relationship between the colonies and the motherland. Between 1936 and 1940, in all its overseas possessions, including Albania and Rhodes, the fascist regime elaborated demographic colonisation plans for the transfer of Italian colonists. The emigration of select Italian families represented one of the cornerstones of fascist policy. The common elements bearing witness to the universal vocation of imperial policy, which aimed at training new Italian settlers and increasing the percentage of Italian blood among the autochthonous populations, were for example the creation of schools and the development of educational programmes for both Italian and indigenous pupils; the impulse given to archaeological research, which would not only confirm the thesis of the “Romanity” of the territories, but also help create that ideal imperial iconography constituting the background for both Mussolini’s exploits and the regime’s propaganda (such as the archaeological excavations in Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Cyrene in Libya, as well as in Rhodes and Albania); the popularity of newspapers, magazines (including some written in the local languages) and the cinema, theatres and the radio; the spread of Western and/or typically Italian lifestyles and leisure pastimes; the planning of an overseas architecture attuned to the various Italian architectural currents; the foundation of cultural institutions of various kinds: beside organisations such as the Dante Alighieri Society, which officially promoted the diffusion of the Italian language and culture overseas, several other entities took part in the spreading of Italian culture, such as the Touring Club, the Automobile Club, the tourist boards and sports societies, etc., whose popularity was proportional to the social organisation in the different territories and to the number of resident Italians.
Until the mid-1930s the fascist regime had been little interested in education, delegating it to the Catholic missions. In the Aegean islands the schools sponsored by the National Association for the Support of Italian Missionaries (ANSMI) were placed under the control of the Government Office for Public Education and subsidised by the government (Pignataro, 2001). Schools managed by the Orthodox and Muslim communities had to teach Italian for at least four hours a week, while school teachers had to obtain a diploma from the Rhodes Teacher Training Institute. In Northern Albania the Jesuits and Franciscan monks had created some Catholic institutions (Santoro, 2005). From 1933 Italian became the compulsory language in Albanian secondary schools. In Libya and the Aegean Sea, the Jewish communities were also spreading Italian language and culture. From 1925 in Rhodes, schools founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle became Italian Jewish schools, adopting Italian as the official teaching language, whilst Libyan Jews normally attended Italian schools.
The creation of the Empire and the increase of Italian colonists in Libya (119,139 in 1939) and in AOI (165,267 in 1939) represented a turning point in the scholastic organisation of the colonies. On the one hand, new primary and secondary schools were founded and reserved for Italian pupils, on the other the “Italianisation” of subjected populations was intensified, by creating a new educational system aiming at assimilation.
The outlines of the school systems in the different territories had been developed according to racial hierarchies, although particular attention was given to Muslim culture and traditions (in line with Mussolini’s pro-Islamic policy). Everywhere the State gradually assumed direct responsibility for both Italian and native students’ education, replacing the Catholic missions, not only to gain greater political control on the programmes (especially as regards subjects such as physical education), but also to avoid hurting the sensitivity of Muslim populations.
In July 1937, at the start of the implementation in the school sector of what governor Cesare Maria de Vecchi loved to call the beginning of a necessary “totalitarian clean-up”, all schools in the Aegean Sea (including the Orthodox and Muslim ones) were placed under government supervision and management. Italian became the only teaching language, whilst regulations, programmes and textbooks were the same as those used in the Kingdom of Italy. Starting from the 1940/41 school year, Italian also became compulsory in the last two forms of Albanian primary schools.
In Libya and AOI, beside schools for Italians, state schools for indigenous students were also created and organised according to special rules elaborated by the Ministry for Italian Africa, which took into account the specificity of the single territories as regards race, culture, religion, economic needs, etc. Nursery and primary schools were free. Compulsory education, which for Italian pupils was the same as in the mother country, could be imposed on the natives only as far as the first three years of primary school (Mondaini, 1941). Metropolitan schools could also be entrusted to Italian religious congregations, which thus became officially recognised institutions, on condition that the same should only employ teachers that had acquired the suitable qualifications back in Italy, and who would accept to carry out activities and programmes in line with government directives and control. But in AOI the Partito Nazionale Fascista (Fascist National Party-PNF) was determined to limit the missionaries’ involvement in education to a few areas of the former Ethiopian Empire.
The creation of Italo-Arabic State schools in Libya (in competition with Islamic schools) and of schools for the natives in AOI (including in the most peripheral areas), all equipped with a set prepared by the Paravia publishing house, which included Mussolini’s portrait and that of the Emperor King, highlighted the regime’s effort to create a new imperial pedagogy: the purpose was no longer just to annihilate the conquered people with the image of Italy’s power, in order to subjugate them in line with traditional paternalism: in fact the fascist goal was much more ambitious, because its real aim was to actually mould them, i.e. to train a generation of young subjects, who would acquire superior political awareness and could act as a guide and controller for the indigenous masses. “Paternalistic policies, especially suited to Southern people Italo Balbo stated at the Volta Congress in 1938 should necessarily be integrated, for the Arabs of coastal territories, by a system of provisions aiming at their moral elevation and civil evolution, such as to create spiritual harmony between the conquering power and its subjects […]. The fascist government’s work […] is therefore so politically and morally charged that it will be able to transform the population’s social structure; it could indeed create the necessary conditions for greater participation to our civil life on the part of this same population.” (Balbo, 1938). Mass literac since access to higher education was to be rigidly regulated would allow the regime to display all educational and communicative tools at its disposal, such as newspapers, radio and the cinema. In Libya and in the Muslim regions of Italian East Africa the education policy, by integrating Italian programmes and Koranic studies, seemed aimed at the preservation of traditional culture, but it was obvious that in the future the ambition was to “channel” Islam too in the bosom of fascist totalitarianism. In 1935 Italo Balbo founded a Higher Institute of Islamic Culture (Contini, 1953), in competition with Tunis and Cairo universities, which aimed at training civil servants and teachers, whilst in 1936 he created a girls’ boarding school for training nurses. This was the first institution allowing Arab girls access to specialised training at higher levels, no longer restricted, as in the case of the other women’s training colleges, to household economy and to the art of traditional weaving. In AOI too, secondary schools of Islamic studies were founded at Gimma, Harar and Mogadishu. The cultural opening towards Islam was meant to represent the most tangible and remarkable sign of Fascism’s universal mission, as conceived by Il Duce, while of course it also met political and diplomatic goals. But it also had implicit in itself the intention to attract and integrate Muslims, by showing them that the spiritual conception at the core of fascist imperialism offered them the instruments to escape backwardness, by reconciling modernity with tradition and offering them an opportunity for redemption.
In Italia East Africa there were 4 Italian men for every Italian woman and as a consequence was common the "Madamato" (relationship between Italian soldiers and native girls). The photo -taken in 1939 Italian Ethiopia- shows that proportion.
In AOI Il Duce intended to create a new organic social system conjugating demographic colonisation with other forms of valorisation, transferring from Italy “the whole machinery of its own civilisation” . Fascist colonisation should be understood, in space and time, as “the settlement and empowerment of a people”, that is the transposition to the colonies of all the productive elements of the mother country, such as farmers, workers, artisans, clerks, traders, small entrepreneurs and intellectuals, thus shunning the loathsome model of capitalistic colonisation exclusively aimed at benefiting a restricted class of privileged individuals. This conception met with three crucial objectives: preserving and increasing the country’s numerical power, cementing Italians’ racial cohesion in the empire and in Italy itself and, finally, promoting the social elevation of large popular masses.
There are no precise data on the European and African population in AOI. An estimate carried out in the spring of 1939 indicated 165,267 Italian civilians (Table 1), against about 12 million Africans (Ciferri, 1942). The greatest number of settlers, amounting to 72,408 lived in Eritrea (43.8 %). The percentage of women was very small (Table 2) and only in Eritrea did it exceed 20 %: in 1939 there allegedly were 26,628 women, of whom 14,827 in Eritrea (55.7 %).
Beside workers, the military and all those who depended on the public administration (including those with a temporary contract), and private companies’ employees (including banks and insurance companies), a large number of Italians, not quantifiable but certainly amounting to some tens of thousands, had set up their own business. These were hard-working people that had shown great adaptability, initiative and inventiveness. A multitude of small entrepreneurs, traders, managers of small, often itinerating, catering businesses, drivers and owners of means of transport, skilled workers who doubled as artisans, owners of small building firms, trade representatives and intermediaries.
Mussolini constantly urged the need to increment the number of families, in order to balance the ratio between the two sexes. Il Duce was obsessed with racism. He was above all horrified by the sexual promiscuity of Italian workers and soldiers with African women, about which since 1935 he had been receiving hundreds of alarming reports that deplored the increase in the birth of mixed-blood children; he had even discussed this subject with the foreign press. The issuing of racial legislation, from spring 1937 onwards (Barrera, 2008), was a consequence of the decision to force settlers to take their families with them to the colonies. Unfortunately the problem was not so easy to solve, because African towns did not yet possess a sufficient number of homes or the necessary services. The management of the demographic colonisation programme was delegated to the Opera Nazionale Combattenti (ONC–the War Veterans’ National Organisation) and to some regional boards depending on the PNF. Until 1940, according to data published by the Italian press, the farmer families already settled in their plot were 854, whilst more reliable sources reduce their number to 377 (Sbacchi, 1980).
Most Italians of course lived in the towns. But the increasing number of new arrivals between 1936 and 1938 caused great difficulties to colonial governments, who were totally unprepared as regards housing and other urban services (water, electricity, gas, transport, etc.).
The case of Asmara was emblematic. In 1934 Asmara had a population of about 3,500 Italians and 12,000 Africans. In 1939 Italians had risen to 48,000 whilst Africans were 36,000 . In just five years the total population had increased fivefold, whilst the proportion between Italians and indigenous people had been reversed. This was an unprecedented phenomenon, determined by the economic importance of the city as a logistic base for the war. Families coped as best as they could, while many single men even resorted to sleeping in their vans. At the start almost all new immigrants were single men, but in 1938, thanks to the construction of new housing estates, families started to arrive regularly, thus normalising the population’s female-to-male ratio. In 1940 11,296 italian women were recorded as living in Asmara (23.5 %).
In Eritrea the Italian population’s birth rates were constantly on the increase and this seemed to confirm Mussolini’s hopes that the empire would contribute to the regeneration of the Italian race: the birth rate was 27.8°/00 in 1937 and 28.8°/00 in 1938, whilst in Italy the percentages were 22.9°/00 and 23.6°/00 respectively,br/>
The new residential quarters built in typical Italian style in the city suburbs, featuring two or three-storey buildings, symbolically faced the old town centre characterised by one-storey houses, occupied by Eritreans lured to Asmara because of the demand for labour. The new town planning scheme provided for the forced removal of the indigenous quarter, the market and the mosque, but the governor of Eritrea, Giuseppe Daodiace, objected, highlighting the loyalty always shown by Eritreans towards Italy. The town therefore kept at its core an indigenous area which contradicted fascist racial policies and which, as has been remarked, determined “the peculiar social structure characterising the town for a long period after the war” (Gresleri, 1993b).
In Addis Ababa the situation was different. The capital of the empire was due to become, in Mussolini’s opinion, the most beautiful and futuristic city in Africa, the beacon of the new fascist civilisation (Podestà, 2009). The preparation of the new town planning scheme was very long and problematic, involving top professional people like Giò Ponti, Enrico Del Debbio, Giuseppe Vaccaro and even Le Corbusier, who asked Il Duce to be allowed to design the plan for the new city (Talamona, 1985; Gresleri, 1993c).
Work started only in 1939. The plan provided for a clear separation between the European and indigenous areas. However, this would have meant transferring the African population and building tens of thousands of new homes. Italian settlers had increased from a few thousands in early 1937 (with 150 families) to over 40,000 in March 1940 (33,059 men, 6,998 women and about 4,000 families) whilst the African population had practically doubled and was estimated at about 120,000 people.
The Health Corps of Italian Africa was created only in 1936, and it was made up of about 200 doctors and health inspectors (18), by organising a special public competition which took place between 1937 and 1938. Three centres were gradually built in Addis Ababa, Asmara and Mogadishu, specialised in the cure of malaria, as well as numerous hospitals and clinics. Given Mussolini’s obsession with sex, special attention was naturally given to the prevention and cure of venereal diseases (since the authorities could not prevent contact between Italian men and African women), by rounding up and imposing forced hospitalisation on thousand of native women in special “syphilis homes”. Towards the end of 1938 the incidence of sexual diseases had dropped: the percentage of Italian soldiers suffering from venereal diseases was about 5 % compared to 10 % in 1937, whilst that of civilians, which was much lower, had decreased from 1.4 to 0.9 %. An improvement was also registered among indigenous military personnel, from 3.7 % to 2 %. These data of course reinforced Mussolini’s will to increase the number of whole families emigrating from Italy to AOI. A remarkable effort was made to improve healthcare: beside the doctors belonging to the Italian Africa Health Corps, flanked by 450 military doctors, there were about 500 civilian doctors (232 specialists, among whom 30 paediatricians, and 262 general practicioners). Special maternity wards were built in the hospitals situated in the main locations. The new Italian hospital in Addis Ababa had a delivery room and a pediatric clinic for Italians, with a capacity of over 100 beds in its various sections: expectant mothers, postpartum mothers, babies’ room, gynaecological ward, infectious diseases, visitors’ room, etc. The children’s hospital was subdivided into separate wards for babies and older children, for infectious, gastro-intestinal or pulmonary diseases, etc. Moreover, a university-type faculty was founded in 1941 in Asmara to train nurses.
In Addis Ababa the number of new-born Italian babies was continually growing, rising from 50 in 1937 to 570 in 1939 and the number of weddings being celebrated shot up too, despite the dramatic housing shortage. Italians coped in all possible ways: many continued to live in temporary shelters (tents, huts and prefabricated houses), whilst a lot of families used indigenous homes that had been expropriated or rented. Mussolini found this situation intolerable, and he constantly urged the Italian East Africa’s government to ensure a more vigorous policy of racial separation (on his orders the African market had been forbidden to Europeans, but the measure was later withdrawn, because indigenous trade was indispensable for the provision of food by whites). As Amedeo d’Aosta, the new Viceroy of AOI, once remarked, the solution of the problem of racial prestige was incompatible with the housing situation: firstly, there was not enough money to build houses for Italians or tukuls in the new indigenous town, then there were huge difficulties in sourcing water and building materials; that is why most Ethiopians, after cashing in their expropriation indemnity, went back to the old quarters. To confront the situation, given that, as the Viceroy Amedeo repeated, it was impossible to separate the two races “by evicting one hundred thousand natives”, and whilst waiting for the implementation of a low-cost building programme for the colonists, it was necessary to stop new family units emigrating to Italian East Africa.
To house the families of AOI government employees, who had been forced by Mussolini to take their wives and children to Africa, the national housing body for civil servants (INCIS - Istituto Nazionale Case degli Impiegati dello Stato) financed the construction of 42 buildings with 119 flats, largely insufficient to satisfy all requests. Private individuals did not have any incentives to invest in residential building save for exceptional cases. Notwithstanding the “winds of war”, only in July 1939 a law was emanated which authorised banks operating in AOI to grant loans and mortgages to institutions, societies or private citizens who wished to build civilian houses (including cheap homes), and the planning schemes of the most important towns were completed only on the eve of WWII.
The war definitely put an end to all works in progress, and today the traces of Italian occupation are absolutely insignificant. But if the new imperial cities had trouble in taking shape, social life in Addis Ababa and Asmara was pulsating just like that of any other European town. At the heart of the city were the markets: in the capital in 1939 over 75,000 heads of cattle had been slaughtered and thousands of tons of foodstuffs had been sold. Dozens of shops and even department stores were opened in both cities. Leisure activities also boomed: in Addis Ababa four cinemas had been built for Europeans and one for Africans; eight were functioning in Asmara.
New dancehalls, restaurants and bars were being opened everywhere. The working men’s clubs and numerous sports and recreational societies, supported by local government and by the PNF, organised the colonists’ free time. In Eritrea, near the strategic hubs where companies and the army had located their logistic bases, new urban agglomerates rose from scratch, such as Dek’emhare and Nefasit, with plenty of restaurants and clubs.
The PNF was a crucial instrument in moulding colonial society in a fascist sense and also in the involvement and training of those Africans destined to fill some inferior role in the civil administration or in the army, through school education and the Gioventù Indigena del Littorio (GIL – the fascist indigenous youth organisation). Italian colonists’ degree of adhesion to the fascist party was massive, well above the percentage of party members back in Italy, especially among women: at the end of 1939 the PNF had 51,146 members in the colonies, whilst pending applications for membership amounted to 24,397 and those transferred from Italy were 9,950.
There were 3,308 women enrolled in the fascist organisations (12.8 % of the female population). There also were 237 fascist working men’s clubs with 38,235 members and 106 sports societies with 19,822 members.
A remarkable effort was made to establish a school system in AOI, both for Italians and for Africans. Schools for Italian students were built in thirty locations. Some secondary schools of all kinds were also created in the main towns. In Eritrea, where the number of Italian families was higher than in the rest of AOI, the educational system was structured in the same way as in Italy: in 1938/39 primary schools for Italians counted 107 classes in total, attended by 2,554 pupils, of whom 1,793 in the capital alone. In Asmara the lyceum (grammar school) had 470 registered students, while the technical college had 341 pupils. Between 1937 and 1938, in the whole of AOI, teachers had increased from 209 to 380. On the eve of the war some teacher training schools were also due to be opened.
After the war a ministerial inspection reported that the Asmara lyceum was excellent and “far superior” to that in Tripoli.
Colonisation represented a major turning point in the life of thousands of settlers. The regime conceived a new social plan for the empire, consisting of a society made up by brave and hard-working farmers, virtuous and frugal, “all equal and all poor enough” (Ciano, 1990), as Mussolini loved to say, emphasizing the ethics of sobriety that he wished to inoculate Italians with, as a remedy for the evils of bourgeois hedonism. But it was clear that the settlers did not wholly correspond to the myth of the new Italian. Not only did many of them violate the taboo of interracial sexual relationships, but also, influenced by the climate of mobilisation in the empire, which favoured the creation of wealth and social climbing, they let themselves be seduced by the virtues of individualism and capitalism, turning, in their new country, into entrepreneurs and bourgeois, almost unconsciously breaking loose from fascism in their social and consumer behaviours; ideally, however, the Duce myth would fascinate them till the end of their lives.