Eritrean troops attacking Ethiopians

Eritrea was a colony of Italy until 1941. It was a source of pride for the Italians, while also providing troops. This was celebrated in beautiful images on a series of postcards. Some go back to the 1880’s.

Eritrea was under Ottoman rule until the late 19th century, with Italian occupation of the territory beginning with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. Italian monks and later traders established a foothold in the port of Assab and their country’s influence gradually spread, lasting for some 70 years, until 2 April 1941, when British led forces captured the capital, Asmara, during the Second World War.

Italy used its Eritrean colony as a base from which to extend its influence over the rest of the Horn. Inevitably it clashed with Ethiopia, which was an independent kingdom and the only country in Africa never to fall permanently under European control. Tensions led to the first war between the two countries and in the battle of Adwa (1 March 1896) the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II defeated the Italians – a rare example of an African power defeating a European army. Among the Italian forces was a brigade of Eritrean Askaris (soldiers) led by Italian officers.

The defeat was a huge blow to Italian prestige. When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 he was determined to expand his African empire and set about planning the invasion of Ethiopia, which took place 28 March 1935. Again Eritrean troops participated. They were renowned for their bravery and served their colonial masters with distinction.

Graphic representations of Eritrean askaris

These cards are most interesting. They are clearly celebratory – they make great play of the heroic qualities of the Eritreans, rather in the way in which the British army regard the Nepali Gurkhas. Some show the troops with lions, to highlight their bravery. Others are cooler, providing images of the work of the troops in developing the colony.

Italy in the Horn of Africa

Italy was immensely proud of its African colonies and showed them on maps, both of Eritrea and their other colonies of Somalia and Libya. They had a clear propaganda purpose. The cards include some which can be described as ‘infantile’ depictions. In one Ethiopians are shown bowing down and welcoming the Italian flag, carried by Italian troops. All figures are portrayed as children.

This card shows Italians freeing Ethiopians who are in chains. This could be a reference to Ethiopians who were slaves – a practice which continued well into the twentieth century. Ethiopian slavery was only  abolished in 1942 by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Photographic representations of Eritrean askaris

These are interesting, since they show what the Eritrean troops actually looked like. They are respectful and are clearly meant to show what a useful addition to the Italian military they were.  The cost to the Eritreans was high. In the first invasion of Ethiopia in 1895-96 around 2000 were killed. In the second the death toll is estimated at between 3,500 and 4,500. Finally, resisting the British led invasion of Eritrea in 1941 (in which Sudanese, South African and Indian troops were also involved) as many as 10,000 Eritrean troops were killed.