Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
12. The Occupation Years
We saw last week how Mussolini’s invasion led to the establishment of an Italian fascist empire. Now read on:
The Italian occupation led to important political and other changes. Italian-occupied Ethiopia was officially merged with Eritrea and Somalia, into an entirely new territory designated Africa Orientale Italiana (A.O.I.), i.e. Italian East Africa. This for the first time brought the greater part of the Horn of Africa under a single administration. The area was divided into six constituent units: 1) Eritrea, including the former Ethiopian province of Tegray, with capital at Asmara; 2) Amhara, formed out of the old provinces of Bagemder, Gojjam, Wallo, and northern Shawa, with capital at Gondar; 3) Galla and Sidamo, comprising lands to the south-west, occupied by people of that name, with capital at Jemma; 4) Addis Ababa, later renamed Shawa; 5) Harar, the town of that designation; and 6) Somalia, including Ogaden, with capital at Mogadishu. As a result of these arrangements Ethiopia ceased to be a legal entity.
The Addis Ababa Statues, and the Aksum Obelisk
Mussolini, from the outset, was determined to remove all symbols of Ethiopia’s historic independence. He gave personal orders for the removal of two Addis Ababa’s principal statues, one of Emperor Menilek, the victor of Adwa, and the other of the Lion of Judah. He later gave orders for the looting, and shipping to Rome, of one of the great obelisks of Aksum. The loot taken to Italy also included the aforesaid Lion of Judah monument, five Ethiopian royal or other crowns, and a number of historically interesting paintings which had adorned the Ethiopian Parliament building.
Fascist Italy, which had to justify its invasion of Ethiopia both to itself and to the world, was motivated by dreams of economic grandeur. This objective had to be carried out in an extensive territory with a still very limited infrastructure, and in the face of strong on-going patriotic resistance. Mussolini, in this far from enviable position, was willing to invest far more capital and resources in his newly won empire than the older colonial powers, who had been concerned essentially with short term profits, had ever done. The Italian occupation was therefore accompanied by very considerable Italian state expenditure, much of it, however, unwisely, or corruptly, spent.
Immediate strategic interests, as well as long term economic considerations, necessitated heavy initial investment in road construction. In 1936-7 as many as 60,000 Italian workmen were employed on the roads, though this figure fell by 1939 to 12,000 Italians, assisted by 52,000 “native” labourers. The rudimentary pre-war Ethiopian road network centred on Addis Ababa, was in this way integrated into a more extensive grid based on the Italian colonial ports of Massawa and Mogadishu. The country’s road mileage was thus considerably expanded. Such road-building, though impressive, was achieved at the price of postponing, and seriously curtailing, investment in other, potentially more profitable, fields of economic activity.
The number of Italians in the empire as a whole was by 1939 a little over 130,000. This was far lower than the fascists had originally anticipated, but nevertheless led to the construction, in the principal towns, of a substantial number of European type buildings, government offices, shops, flats and houses. Their location was based on rigid urban segregation between Europeans and `natives’. Intermarriage, or even co-habitation, between the races was strictly prohibited, and transportation in buses and other vehicles was strictly segregated.
The greatest urban development took place, not surprisingly, in Addis Ababa. The city witnessed the establishment of two segregated Italian residential areas: Case INCIS, a quarter reserved for state officials, called after its managing corporation, the Istituto Nazionale per Case degli Impiegati dello Stato; and Casa Popolare, or workers’ flats. Some 20,000 Ethiopians were evicted and transferred to the west of the settlement, which was projected as `native city’. The capital’s market, located since Menilek’s day in the centre of the town, near St George’s cathedral, was moved westwards to this `native’ area.
The city’s facilities, and particularly those of its white population, were substantially improved. An electric grid, ran by a para-statal company, the Compagnia Nazionale Imprese Elettriche, often referred to as CONIElL was established, and the supply of water expanded by the construction of a dam at nearby Gafarsa.
Industrial development in the empire as a whole was, however, curtailed by fears that it would compete with establishments in the Italian “motherland”, and thus endanger Italian exports. Several small factories were, however, established, notably for cement and textiles at Dire Dawa, for hessian rope and sacks at Jemma, and for pasta and biscuits at Kalite, just outside Addis Ababa.
Trade made a poor showing, and in some sectors actually declined. There were three main reasons for this. Firstly, fascist xenophobia, which resulted in the expulsion of long-established Indian and other foreign merchants, most notably the major Indian firm of Mohomedally and the French company, A. Besse. Secondly, efforts to replace the old, and well-liked, silver Maria Theresa thaler by Italian paper money, the value of which declined during the occupation, and was almost unacceptable by the population at large. Thirdly, the establishment of top-heavy, bureaucratic, and at times corrupt, state trading corporations.
“A Place in the Sun”
An important fascist objective, much publicised at the beginning of the invasion, was to win Italy a “place in the sun”, by settling hundreds of thousands, if not actually millions, of Italians in the empire, to solve what was officially described as Italy’s “surplus population”. Settlement schemes were accordingly attempted, at Bishoftu and Holata, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and in the provinces, at Wagara, Charchar and Jemma. Such projects, however, proved a dismal failure. Would-be settlers were discouraged by the difficulty of embarking on agricultural work in an accustomed environment, by lack of adequate infrastructure, by insecurity occasioned by Ethiopian patriotic resistance, and by a shortage of Italian state funds, which had been allocated elsewhere. The result was that only a few thousand Italians were settled. The empire could not even feed its Italian population, and had to import substantial quantities of wheat from Italy.
Education and Health
Social and welfare services were directed mainly to the Italian population. A number of small new hospitals were constructed, mainly for Europeans. An extensive innoculation programme for “natives” was, however, instituted. Several prewar Ethiopian schools were reopened for the instruction of Italian children. Education of “native” youth was strictly controlled, with the avowed aim of preventing the emergence of a “native intelligentsia”. Many Ethiopians nevertheless obtained manual work in road or house-building, or service in the colonial army, and learnt at least some elements of the Italian language.
Italian fascism had little interest in race until the occupation of Addis Ababa, but the strictly controlled Italian press soon began to devote considerable attention to the issue. The Gazzetto del Popolo of 21 May 1936 thus proclaimed that “the fascist empire must not be an empire of half-castes”. Many newspapers argued that to prevent such a possibility it was necessary to keep Italian colonists “rigidly separate” from the “natives”. The Italian media in ensuing months became ever more racially vociferous. A not untypical article declared that fascism “protected the race” and tried to “keep it pure”. A speaker at a Congress of Colonial Studies, held in Florence in April 1937, asserted that Italians must affirm the “dignity of race” in order to protect their “prestige as rulers”. Such utterances served as a prelude to the enactment of a series of increasingly strict racial decrees. The first, signed by the Italian king, Vittorio Emanuele, on 19 April 1937, prohibited conjugal relations between Italians and “native” (but did not prevent the former from consorting with “native” prostitutes). A number of ordinances establishing urban and other segregation were afterwards issued.
The racist influence of nazi Germany, which became increasingly apparent in the autumn of 1938, led to the founding, on 5 August, of a virulently racist Italian magazine, La difesa della razza, i.e. Defence of the Race. This was followed, on 5 September, by an anti-Semitic royal decree, which inter alia rendered illegal the marriage of Italian Aryans and Jews. Further legislation was enacted, on 29 June, providing “Penal Sanctions for the Defence of the Prestige of the [Italian] Race in face of the Natives of East Africa”. A later decree of 13 May 1940 reduced the status of `half-castes’ to that of the “native” population. Racial laws, though firmly endorsed by the fascist party, ran counter to Italy’s “Latin temperament”. Many Italian men, who had come to Africa without wives, found ways of associating with Ethiopians of the opposite sex, and not a few were deported or otherwise punished for this offence.
The last years of the occupation were particularly difficult. The fascist authorities, anticipating the Duce’s involvement in a European war, embarked on a strict policy of autarchy, designed to make the empire as far as possible, self-sufficient. Horse-drawn garries, or carts, were for example introduced as a substitute for cars making use of petrol.