Eritrea Battalion XXI

In the 1880’s Italy took control of a small part of Eritrea on the Red Sea. Although at first it was little more than a trading station it gradually grew, until it became a colony from which Rome wished to project its power across the Horn of Africa. The Italians were proud of Eritrea, constructing a port at Massawa and the capital of Asmara on the cool plateau above it. In the 1920’s and 1930’s fine Art Deco buildings were constructed and a system of road and a railway put in place.

These achievements were celebrated on postcards; but so were their colonial troops. This Image (2)is unusual: few other colonial powers acknowledged the debt they owed to the black and Asian troops they enlisted.

The Italians had turned to local people to strengthen their hold on the area, recruiting what were called ‘askaris.’ Italy was keen to expand its presence in the region and this inevitably led to a conflict with the Ethiopians, culminating in the battle of Adwa in 1896.

Even at the early years of colonisation, the Italians had not relied solely on their own troops: some 15,000 ‘askaris’ joined the 30,000 strong Italian expeditionary force.[1] The battle was a humiliating defeat for the Italians. They were forced to retreat back into Eritrea, leaving thousands of prisoners behind. But an important precedent had been established: Italy was both willing and able to include Eritrean askaris as part of their military.[2]

Between 1890 and 1941 more than 130,000 Eritrean men served as askaris.[3] Their wages injected significant sums of money into the population, representing about it 10 per cent of the active male labour force.

Eritrea AskariSpecialist schools for askaris were established, teaching Italian and mathematics and offering an opportunity for travel to other lands.

Aristocratic Eritrean families sent their sons, and although they were not allowed to rise above the rank of sergeant, veterans were given places within the colonial administration.[4] From 1907 Eritrean askaris played a key role on the conquest of Somalia and from 1912 they formed the bulk of Italy’s colonial army in Libya.[5]

The rise to power of Benito Mussolini’s in Italy in 1922 brought profound changes in Eritrea. Mussolini was determined to avenge the defeat at the battle of Adwa and to turn Eritrea into a model colony – the gateway to a far greater African presence that would encompass Ethiopia as well as Somalia.Image (1)

Italian colonists flooded into the country. The conquest of Ethiopia would take very considerable forces and more than 300,000 Italian troops were despatched to Eritrea in the mid 1930’s.[6]

They were supplemented by Eritrean some 60,000 askaris.[7]

In 1941 Britain invaded Eritrea from Sudan, taking the town of Keren after fierce fighting and then marching on to capture Asmara before moving on to Ethiopia itself. Addis Ababa fell to the British and their Ethiopian allies in May 1941, with the Emperor Haile Selassie returning to his capital exactly five years after he had fled to seek exile in Britain.

Eritrea postcards 2The askaris were demobilised and over 9,000 were sent to Sudan following the British victory. Some worked on the cotton plantations, while others were unemployed and turned to banditry.[8]

However, the colonial experience had transformed Eritrean society. It had drawn large numbers into the military and they emerged with a reputation as tough, resolute soldiers who were capable of confronting their enemies.

Britain, although having conquered Eritrea as a prelude to liberating Ethiopia from the Italians, had no intention of turning the territory into a colony.

For years the British administrators attempted to find a satisfactory future for Eritrea, but in the end handed the issue over to the United Nations. In 1950 it was handed over to the Emperor, to become part of a federation with Ethiopia.

Italy was clearly proud of its askaris and the postcards celebrated each of its ‘native’ battalions. Some used animal imagery to emphasise the bravery of the troops; others showed them rescuing white soldiers or attacking Ethiopian soldiers.Image

They were miniature masterpieces, reflecting the high skills of the Italian graphic designers who produced them.


[1] Paulos Milkias and Getachew Metaferia (eds.) The Battle of Adwa- Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, Algora Publishing, 2005, p.26. Dan Connell and Tom Killion, op cit. put the number of Eritrean troops involved in the battle at just 5,000, of whom 2,000 were killed.

[2] The Italian reliance on large numbers of ‘native’ troops contrasts clearly with the policies of Britain and the Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer war (1889 – 1902) when both sides declared that this was a ‘white man’s war’ even though breaking this repeatedly in practice by including limited number of black and ‘coloured’ (or mixed race) troops among their forces.

[3] Dan Connell and Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, op cit. p. 92

[4] Dan Connell and Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, op cit. p. 93

[5] Roy Pateman, Eritrea: Even the stones are burning, Red Sea Press, Trenton, 1990, p. 53

[6] Kjetil Tronvoll, Mai Weini, a Highland Village in Eritrea, Red Sea Press, Trenton, 1998, p. 40

[7] Dan Connell and Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, op cit. p. 93

[8] Dan Connell and Tom Killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, op cit. p. 94


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