The Geopolitical Connection: Italian Eritrea and the British-Ethiopian Part

Italian Eritrea: A Forgotten Chapter in British-Ethiopian History

In the late 19th century, European powers raced to establish colonies and expand their influence in Africa. Italy was among them, aiming to fulfill its imperial ambitions by making Eritrea a colony. In 1890, the Italian government officially declared Eritrea a colony, establishing firm control over the region. This event had a significant impact on Eritrea's history, influencing its relationship with Italy and neighboring Ethiopia.

The local people referred to Eritrea as Mdree-Bahree, which translates to "Land of the Sea." The name Eritrea was derived from the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea, known as the Erythraean Sea, in 1890 during the Italian colonial era. This name endured even under Ethiopian and British rule. In 1993, during Eritrea's independence vote, the people affirmed that Eritrea would remain its name. In this article, we have highlighted the geopolitical aspects of Eritrea's past, based on historical events, and its current political position in the context of global democracy rankings.

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The Geopolitical Connection: Italian Eritrea and the British-Ethiopian Part
The Italian East African flag

Italian Colonial Influence in Eritrea: A Historical Overview

Eritrea's borders were defined during the Scramble for Africa. In 1869 or 1870, local leaders sold lands around the Bay of Assab to the Rubattino Shipping Company (an Italian shipping company specializing in operating merchant vessels along the routes connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea), transforming it into a coal station for ships using the newly constructed Suez Canal.

Following the death of Emperor Yohannes IV ( Emperor of Ethiopia who successfully defended Ethiopia against a large scale Egyptian invasion that was a autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire) in 1889, General Oreste Baratieri (Colonial Governor of the Italian Eritrea) assumed control of Eritrea's coastline, leading to the establishment of Italian Eritrea as a colony in 1890.

The Treaty of Wuchale was signed between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy on 2 May 1889 between King Menelik II of Shewa, acting as Emperor of Ethiopia and  Italian diplomat Pietro Antonelli at Wuchale (a town in northern Ethiopia). During the era when the treaty was signed, European colonization was rapidly expanding in Africa. Italy had occupied extensive territories in Eritrea and Somalia, neighboring countries of Ethiopia. Italy aimed to further expand its holdings by colonizing Ethiopia. However, Emperor Menelik II strongly opposed this and chose to negotiate a treaty instead. As part of the agreement, Menelik yielded certain Ethiopian territories to Italy in exchange for guarantees of Ethiopia's independence and financial and military support from Italy.

The Italian administration launched development projects in 1888, including the Eritrean Railway and the Asmara–Massawa Cableway. These projects aimed to improve infrastructure and agriculture, provide urban support, and generate employment opportunities for Eritreans in public service and the military.

The Geopolitical Connection: Italian Eritrea and the British-Ethiopian Part
General Baratieri

Italian Eritrea established numerous factories, contributing to the growth of cities and industries. The rise of Mussolini in 1922 brought about significant changes, with Eritrea evolving into an industrial hub within the new Italian East Africa. In this context, Italian East Africa refers to the territory in East Africa that was under Italian colonial rule during the early 20th century. It encompassed present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Italian East Africa was established by Italy in the 1930s and dissolved after Italy's defeat in World War II. The last Italian troops in East Africa were defeated in November 1941 during the Battle of Gondar. However, several thousand soldiers managed to escape and carried on with a guerrilla war until September 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allies.

Asmara's architecture flourished in the 1930s, showcasing a fusion of Art Deco and rationalist styles. Art Deco, which originated in Paris during the 1910s, is a style of art, architecture, and design known for its decorative and attractive appearance. It gained immense popularity in the United States and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Often referred to as Deco for short, this style encompasses various forms of artistic expression, including paintings, buildings, and furniture, all characterized by their distinct and fashionable appearance. This period of development was interrupted by Italy's involvement in World War II. 

However, Italian colonial rule faced numerous difficulties. The local population encountered discrimination, forced labor, and the seizure of their land. These policies sparked resistance movements and calls for autonomy, significantly influencing Eritrea's struggle for independence.

British Part: And Eritrea's Challenging Years under Ethiopian Control

Eritrea's post-colonial journey represents a turbulent period of transition, commencing with the end of Italian rule and the subsequent establishment of British administration during World War II. The Italian occupation, which persisted from the late 19th century until 1941, inflicted deep economic and social scars on Eritrea. However, the dynamics shifted when British and Commonwealth forces, in collaboration with Ethiopian resistance fighters, successfully liberated the region from Italian control.

The Geopolitical Connection: Italian Eritrea and the British-Ethiopian Part
Royal Air Force East Africa Command

Following the liberation, Eritrea came under the British Military Administration (BMA) in 1941 and remained a British protectorate until 1952. The primary focus during this period was on stabilizing the war-torn region, reconstructing infrastructure, and implementing socio-economic reforms. The British endeavored to bring about positive changes in education, healthcare, and overall governance, aiming to establish a stable and self-sufficient Eritrea.

In 1952, the United Nations passed a resolution that federated Eritrea with Ethiopia, which was under imperial rule at the time. The intent was to balance Eritrea's aspirations for self-government with maintaining close ties to Ethiopia. However, tensions escalated over the years, culminating in the dissolution of the federation in 1962.

The aftermath witnessed Ethiopia's complete annexation of Eritrea, marking the onset of a challenging period for the Eritrean people. Political and social marginalization within the Ethiopian state fueled discontent, eventually leading to the Eritrean War of Independence in 1961.

Under the leadership of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the armed struggle persisted until 1991, when Isaias Afwerki and the EPLF successfully overthrew the Ethiopian government. The subsequent 1993 referendum witnessed an overwhelming mandate for Eritrean independence, officially establishing the nation as a sovereign entity once again.

It is noteworthy that women played a crucial role in Eritrea's war of independence, making up more than 30% of the Eritrean freedom fighters. This achievement holds significance on a global scale. The country's history is defined by the struggle for independence against Ethiopian forces, leading to significant changes, such as the adoption of Amharic as the national language during Ethiopian annexation. Eritrea is linguistically diverse, with Tigrinya serving as the de facto language alongside several other national languages. In the context of Eritrea, "de facto" means that although Tigrinya may not be officially designated as the sole or primary national language, it is widely used and recognized as such in practice.

Despite this momentous achievement, Eritrea has faced and continues to grapple with significant challenges in terms of governance, human rights, and international relations. The trajectory of the country reflects not only the resilience of its people but also the complexities inherent in navigating the post-colonial landscape.

Legacy and Impact:

The establishment of Eritrea as an Italian colony in 1890 had a profound impact on the region's history. The Italian presence left a lasting mark on Eritrea's infrastructure, city planning, and farming methods. Even today, traces of Italian architecture can be found in cities like Asmara, showcasing the architectural influence of the colonial era. 

The Geopolitical Connection: Italian Eritrea and the British-Ethiopian Part
Asmara Panorama

The architectural legacy of Italian colonization is evident in Asmara (the capital city of Eritrea) that is also known as "Africa's Little Rome" or "La Piccola Roma" as named by Mussolini, still has many buildings from the 1930s with Italian design. These buildings have a lot of Art Deco style, which means they look very stylish and unique.

Furthermore, Italian colonization and subsequent British Military Administration and Ethiopian rule created a sense of marginalization and oppression among the Eritrean population. These factors fueled the Eritrean War of Independence, which spanned from 1961 to 1991. Ultimately, the conflict resulted in Eritrea gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Eritrea's Challenges: Striving for Democracy and Development

Presently Eritrea faces challenges reflected in its low rankings on global democracy assessments. While certain freedoms have improved in recent years, the country remains a one-party state, with President Afwerki Isaias expressing skepticism towards Western-style democracy. Economic reliance on rain-fed agriculture and mining, coupled with high poverty rates and a significant outflow of citizens, adds to its struggles.

Eritrea ranks poorly in all four categories of the Global State of Democracy's framework, placing in the bottom 25% worldwide in all areas except Basic Welfare and Absence of Corruption. According to the Freedom House Freedom in the World 2022 report, Eritrea was categorized as "not free," with a score of 1/40 for political rights and 2/60 for civil liberties.

Although significant challenges persist in governance, human rights, and international relations, Eritrea's journey stands as a testament to the enduring pursuit of freedom and self-governance. By recognizing its past and supporting its present, we can contribute to a brighter future for Eritrea.


In finale, Eritrea's history is defined by colonization, the struggle for independence, and ongoing challenges. From Italian occupation to British administration and Ethiopian control, the path to self-determination has been tumultuous. Eritrea continues to face significant poverty and remains one of the world's most economically disadvantaged nations. In navigating the post-colonial landscape, Eritrea has showcased the indomitable spirit of its people and their resolve to shape their own destiny.

The Geopolitical Connection: Italian Eritrea and the British-Ethiopian Part
Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

Today, Eritrea aims to overcome obstacles and forge a prosperous future, guided by the resilience of its people. Understanding this intricate history is essential in backing its aspirations for stability and development.