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Italian administration in Eritrea



Friday, 13 November 2009 09:43 | Written by Winta Woldeyesus | PDF Print E-mail
About Eritrea - History & Culture

The Italian colonization in Eritrea was aimed at getting access to the virgin resources of the country, besides securing farmland and cheap labor for Italian settlers. To realized these objectives, Italy introduced a new administrative system in Eritrea..

As a result, the Italian colonial rule divided the country into seven districts referred as “Awrajas” and each district was again divided into sub-districts called “Weredas” in accordance with area size of the respective regions. The administration staff was dominated by Italians but still there were some Eritrean officials commonly known by the title of “Meslenetat” who used to administrate few “Weredas”. However, since all the officials were loyal to the Italian masters, they assisted the colonizers in suppressing popular opposition.

In 1930s Italy declared a proclamation deliberately designed to discriminate the native blacks from the white colonizers. Consequently, the natives began to use separate public transport, restaurants and bars, as well as residential areas, and as such they were not allowed to access places that were reserved for the whites. Italy officially declared that whites are above the law and the natives by no means have equal rights as whites.

The Italian colonial rule also established different courts for both “whites” and “blacks” which means there existed no court that reviews a native’s case against a white man but not vice-versa.  Hence, two different legal systems were adopted in the country that used to address various cases pertaining to skin color.

The fascist Italian regime also banned educational opportunity for Eritrean citizens and access to education was limited only up to Grade 4 in order to train some translators, writers and servants. This move mainly emanated from a threat that educated Eritreans would arouse the general public to oppose the Italian colonial rule.

Cheap Eritrean labor was exploited by Italy to fulfill its own needs; the forceful recruitment of young Eritreans in the military, particularly during the war to occupy Libya in 1920s and the conscription of about 60,000 natives in the battle against Ethiopia in 1935 are worth mentioning incidents. Many Eritreans lost their lives in those two battles in the name of Italians.

In a nutshell, the Italian administration was pursuing racist and oppressive policy, and hence in Kebesa (the highlands) the colonizers were siding with the religious leaders and land owners known as (Gultengatat) so as to oppress as well as foment division among the general public. In the Metaht (Lowlands) too, they used to maintain close ties with the customary leaders (Shemagle) in a bid to suppress the local inhabitants, especially members of the Tigre ethnic group. Majority of the Shemagle and Geultnatat collaborated with the Italians in order to protect their own advantages.

Changes of the Italian administration

Initially the Italian colonizers thought that they can snatch the land of the Eritrean farmers and allot it to the Italian settlers. However, the opposition of Bahta Hagos compelled them to reconsider their actions. In 1903, the Italians adopted a new law that enabled them to overtake all farm plots in eastern and western Lowlands and all the confiscated fertile land were given the name “land of Domenya”. Although the colonizers seized most of the farm plots, they didn’t snatch the land owned by the public out of the fear of Bahta Hagos’s resistance and the people’s devotion to die for their land. It is worth noting at this juncture that the inhabitants of Tselma and Mensai opposed the seizing of their land by Italians through destroying the farmlands belonging to Italian settlers and attacking them.

The Italians utilized the confiscated farm plots for fruits and vegetables farming, as well as cotton and coffee plantation and dairy farming. The Italian farmers also introduced modern farming methods in the country while the Eritrean farmers were banned from the advantages of the modern farming methods, though many of them were employed in the plantations. Since the Italian colonizers didn’t want to improve the living standard of the local citizens, the newly introduced modern farming techniques served only for the benefit of the Italian farmers.

Some other changes introduced during the Italian administration include the expansion of new transportation and communication system. They built a railway extending from Massawa to Agordat that passes through Asmara, in addition to constructing a number of road networks connecting Asmara to the towns of Keren, Massawa, Senafe and Adi-Quala. Several other roads were also constructed that helped many towns in the county to be interlinked. Prior to the coming of Italians to the country, the commonly used means of transportation was on animal back and on foot.  And as such, the newly introduced modern transport system enabled the people to be more interconnected, besides promoting trade activities.


Italians also built cable transport network stretching from Asmara to Massawa.  The 71km-long cable used to transport around 7,200 quintals of goods to and fro Asmara and Massawa in just one day. Other advanced communication systems introduced by the Italian colonial rule in Eritrea were Telephone, Postal and Telegraph Services that also helped the country to interact with the outside world.

Although there were major developments in the communication and transportation aspects of the country, all the construction activities were undertaken through Eritrean labor and the Italians hired many natives from different parts of the country to this end. Many Eritreans died in construction of   roads particularly around the Arberebue area. And in order to overcome the problems imposed by the colonizers, the Eritrean people began cooperating and helping each other.

buildings constructed during italian administration

After the establishment of new transportation and communication methods in the country, the  Italians also started to set up new factories, which in turn made due contribution in enhancing trade activities. The newly opened factories produced buttons, cooking oil, and pasta, construction materials, packing meat, tobacco, hide and other household commodities. In the year 1939, there were around 2,198 factories and most of the employees were Eritrean citizens, some even moved from the villages to work in the factories.

The establishment of industries also made an increase in the number of both Italians and Eritreans residing in the cities. The number of Italians residing in the country increased from 4,600 to 75,000 in five years and with the involvement of Eritreans in the industries, trade and fruit plantation was expanded across the nation, and some of the plantations were owned by Eritreans.

Thanks to the improvement registered in transport, communication and agriculture sectors, Eritrean cities and towns began expanding. The number of population in major cities like Asmara and Massawa grew in thousands, and Massawa became one of the major ports in the Red Sea. While other cities like Tessenei and Barentu came to being, other small towns like Adi Wegri, Dekemhare, Agordat and Senafe were transformed to cities. Thus, most of the population of the country began residing in the cities.

This brought a major change in the lives of the citizens of the country, as the society began to live and work together in the plantation and factories in the cities. Eritreans recruited in the military were also facing the suffering and hostile situation of the conscription. The Eritrean people started to realize that they can live together by still keeping their respective religious beliefs and identity while at the same time facing a common enemy.

The national consciousness of the natives gained momentum that broadened their perspectives and they began thinking in terms of a national identity, rather than that of clan and religious identity. They realized that they all have the same national identity that can hold them together and enable them to be free from colonization. Eritrea was established as a country under the Italian colonization and has passed through major changes, one of which is national identity. Italian colonizers were well-aware of the fact that the emergence of the idea of national identify will not make colonizing Eritrea easy as this newly mushroomed national identity gives no room for colonization. 

The demise of Italian colonial rule in Eritrea
In the year 1935 Italy unleashed war to invade Ethiopia, where many Eritrean soldiers, ascaries, participated in the war that put Ethiopia under Italian colonialism for five years.
Two years after the eruption of World War II, British Air Force based in Sudan resorted to spreading pamphlets all over Eritrea that promised Eritrea’s liberation from Italy.


In the wake of this incident, many Eritreans in the Italian Army defected to their homeland while others fled to Ethiopia. With the defeat of the “Axis powers” in the World War II, Italy was ousted from Eritrea as well as from Ethiopia and Somalia. On Feburary1, 1941 Agordat and the next day Tesenei fall in the hands of the British army from Sudan. And later Massawa and Asseb fall under the British control. And the trusting and freedom hungry Eritrean people were once again forced in to another colonial rule i.e. British colonization.


Source:-"Tarik Hzbi Eritrea"


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