"METODO", N. 18/2002
(Docente di Storia moderna e contemporanea dellAfrica presso la FacoltÓ di Lettere e Filosofia
dellUniversitÓ degli Studi di Bologna )
NOTES ON RECENT ITALIAN STUDIES ON ETHIOPIA AND ERITREA
After the Second World War Italy broke off its great tradition
of historical research on the former Italian colonies. As everybody knows, Ethiopian
studies in Italy have a long tradition starting from colonialism. However, the
tradition of studies that linked Italy to the Horn of Africa and Libya was immediately
interrupted after the fall of the fascist regime and African colonies were completely
cancelled from the collective memory. Few Italian scholars have since been involved
in such studies.
African studies in Italy after the independence of African countries and the emergence of a new historiography have mainly concerned the many new states of the continent and have dealt with various themes, but research on the former Italian colonies has been negligible.
This is in stark contrast with what has happened in the rest of Europe: the other colonizing countries have kept alive a tradition of studies linked to their respective former colonies, a tradition that has also resulted in operative projects, cooperation in various sectors, and direct political interventions. All the connections that existed for the metropolis-colony still exist today.
Italy left African territory, defeated, in 1941, even before the Second World War had ended. Political-economical links were brusquely interrupted and were not taken up again until a new phase of cooperation was opened in the 1970s. As a result of the collective desire to cancel all traces of a past linked to fascism and the African campaigns, the tradition of studies on the colonial period were suspended. Italian historians did not seriously examine Italian colonial policy and scholars in modern history did not conduct any research on Africa.
Research on the Horn continued to survive only in Naples. We should mention the role of a number of scholars in Naples historians and philologists working on many subjects of Ethiopian history and on the Horn of Africa but despite this, colonialism and Italian colonial legacy were themes of research that were completely neglected.
When I started working on Italian colonialism in the late seventies not a single scholar was working on this issue in the Italian academic world. And when I published LEritrea colonia in 1986, the situation of research into the social history of Ethiopia and Eritrea during colonialism was very poor in Italy.
Recently, however, a new wave of scholars has emerged; unfortunately few of them are usually present in international meetings, but the Horn of Africa has taken on a new important role in the field of African studies in Italy. Now a young generation of scholars is active in many fields of research and colonialism has received attention even abroad: see R.B. Ghiat, M. Fuller (ed.), Italian Colonialism: a Reader, St. Martin Press, New York, (forthcoming) and the international meeting on Italian colonialism held in London in November/December 2001.
I would like to stress an important point: these new studies in Italy cover different disciplines and they are not limited to the historical and philological tradition of Italian scholarship on Ethiopia. In many respects they complete the previous historiography and introduce important new themes and areas of research. They also deal with social studies: anthropology, sociology, geography and humanities in general. This is a notable innovation in Italy given the fact that these disciplines were not a significant component of previous Italian studies. They are relatively new fields of research.
Another important element is that the new research concerns not only Ethiopia, but Eritrea as well, and of course it is difficult from a historical point of view to separate the two areas in modern studies.
I would like to discuss the importance of this new wave of studies and include a note on a project that I set up at the University of Bologna two years ago and which is still in progress.
We can schematize recent Italian studies under at least three categories:
1. The important tradition of historical and philological studies
very well known among scholars both in Christian and Islamic Ethiopia has been
systematically resumed. I need not mention here Bausi, Lusini and Gori whose
studies are very well known in this domain. This tradition is still alive in
Italy and the young generation of scholars is very productive: their participation
in Ethiopian conferences is important and their contributions innovative. The
tradition of classical Ethiopian studies has been continued thanks to the presence
in Naples of a few representatives of Ethiopian studies very well known to scholars just to mention Proff. Triulzi and Beyene who encouraged the younger generations.
Another significant area of Ethiopian studies is present in Florence with Prof.
Marrassini and his assistants.
Archaeology is another component of the Italian tradition and is represented by the team of Naples Prof. Fattovich and his Úquipe for the area. These fields of studies are the best known to Ethiopianists and do not require further discussion.
I would like to focus on the two different categories of study rarely represented at the international meetings of Ethiopian studies. This is the main reason for my reflextion here: I think that the panorama of Ethiopian/Eritrean studies in Italy is actually more developed than usually appears in specialized conferences. This is a good opportunity, therefore, to mention some names and titles.
2. A second area of research deals with social studies including
anthropology, a discipline not particularly developed in colonial studies where,
as is the case with Ethiopia, written sources and historical research have tended
Anthropological research in Italy has mainly concerned the border areas of the Ethiopian empire such as the Cunama society and the Borana, which have been studied by Gianni Dore and Marco Bassi respectively: G. Dore, Prassi coloniale e africanistica. Lorganizzazione sociale dei cunama della colonia Eritrea, Seminario di etnologia, Materiali di didattica e di ricerca, Venezia Ca Foscari 1994-95; M. Bassi, I Borana, F. Angeli, Milano, 1996.
The history of anthropology is another field of research: anthropology and colonial milieu are vivid sources of discussion in G. Dore, Antropologia e colonialismo italiano, Miscellanea, Bologna, 1996, a collection of different essays and B. Sorgoni, Etnografia e colonialismo. LEritrea e lEtiopia di Alberto Pollera 1873-1939, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2001. Moreover, Barbara Sorgoni and Giulia Barrera discuss the racial relations in Italian colonies and examine in a critical way the dynamics of colonial power on the politics of segregation. They offer a solid contribution to the analysis of the construction of racial hierarchies and the politics of meticciato in the colonies. See B. Sorgoni, Parole e corpi, Liguori, Napoli, 1998, and G. Barrera, Dangerous liaisons: colonial concubinage in Eritrea 1890-1941, African Studies Working Papers, n. 1, Northwestern University, Evanston, 1996. In this area of studies we can mention Francesca Locatelli research on colonial urban space, new urban environment and the creation of new identity in Eritrea (see her present thesis research in SOAS, London, Urban growth and identity in Eritrea during Italian colonialism: the case of Asmara, 1889-1941 and Id., Urban segregation and definition of the colonial social order: the case of prostitution in Asmara, 1889-1941, a paper presented to the First International Conference of Eritrean Studies, Asmara July 2001).
A special mention should be given to geography: this area is not very richly covered in Italy but I would like to mention here the work done by Gabriele Ciampi in the field of demography and cartography. Ciampis essay on Recenti spostamenti di popolazione su base etno-politica in Africa orientale, Istituto InterfacoltÓ di Geografia dellUniversitÓ di Firenze, 1990, is one of the few works in Italy on African demographic matters but it deals more with Somalia. His contributions to Ethiopian/ Eritrean studies are more recent : G. Ciampi, Le popolazioni dellEritrea, Bollettino SocietÓ Geografica Italiana, I, 1995, 487-524; Id., Componenti cartografiche della controversia di confine Eritreo-Etiopica, Bollettino SocietÓ Geografica Italiana, III, 1998, 529-550; Id., Fra il petrolio e lIslam. Lo strano caso delle isole Hanish-Zuqurt, Limes, 3, 1997, 213-226; Id., Appartenenza cartografica dellarcipelago Hanish-Zuqur (Mar Rosso), LUniverso, LXXVIII, 3, 1998, 313-325, Id., Cartographic problems of the Eritreo-Ethiopian boder, Africa (Roma), LVI, 2, 2001, 155-189.
Another field of research connected with the previous one is
urban and territorial planning, studies carried out by architects who have dealt
with this aspect of the Italian colonies; I would like to mention, among others,
Giuliano Gresleri and his assistants in Bologna. See: G. Gresleri-P. G. Massaretti-S.
Zagnoni, Architettura italiana doltremare 1870-1940, Venezia, 1993,
G. Gresleri, Limpossibile Predappio dEtiopia, in L. Prati,
U. Tramonti, La cittÓ progettata; Forlì, Predappio, Castrocaro,
Forlì, 1999, 327-350, P.G. Massaretti, I programmi di colonizzazione
demografica del fascismo in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI) nellesemplare
esperienza degli Enti di colonizzazione etiopici, Ibid., 321-327.
The history of colonial photography has also been examined by the young generation of scholars following some previous authors like Triulzi and Goglia. See: S. Palma, LItalia coloniale, Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1999; M. Zaccaria, Photography and African Studies. A Bibliography, Pavia, 2001.
The new research includes another field of studies, law and judiciary issues. Recent works and conferences povide new themes of research on Ethiopian/Eritrean contitutions, precolonial law and the impact on modern society: see E. Grande, Alternative dispute resolution, Africa and the structure of law and power: the Horn of Africa in context, Journal of African Law, 43, 1999, 63-70; E. Grande (ed.), Transplants, Innovations and legal tradition in the Horn of Africa, LHarmattan Italia, Torino, 1996; A. Volterra,Verso la colonia Eritrea; la legislazione e lamministrazione, Storia contemporanea, 26, 3, 1995, 817-850; Uoldelul Chelati Dirar, The issue of nationalities in Eritrean and Ethiopian Constitutions: a historical perspective, in V. Piergigli, I. Taddia, International Conference on African Constitutions, Giappichelli, Torino, 2000, 221-246. On land legislation and control over land in historical perspective see: L. Castellani, Recent developments in land tenure law in Eritrea, University of Wisconsin, Madison Land Tenure Center Working Paper, 2000.
3. The third area of research is more developed and deals with
political and historical studies. I would like to mention here some authors
of the new generation of scholars that complete the previous work done by Giampaolo
Calchi Novati in the field of political history of the Horn: Federica Guazzini,
Marco Lenci and Nicola Labanca .
Federica Guazzinis work on colonial borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Le ragioni di un confine coloniale. Eritrea 1898-1908, LHarmattan Italia, Torino, 1999, is not only an essay on colonial history, but it is also fundamental for our understanding of the present situation. The book is important because the author has a wide knowledge of Italian sources and international literature on Ethiopia and Eritrea, a characteristic very rare in Italian or international Ethiopian studies. Usually the Italian archives are under-exploited by foreign scholars and, on the contrary, Italian scholars do not have a complete panorama of international research. It seems to me that the works by Guazzini, including her recent article on La geografia variabile del confine eritreo-etiopico tra passato e presente, Africa (Roma) LIV, 3, 1999, 309-348, can satisfactorily fill this gap.
Her present research focuses on social dynamics at the border area between Ethiopia and Eritrea during colonialism. Guazzini explores the social and demographic effects of forced migrations peoples flight and withdrawal into other areas linked to the Italian politics of settlements as a case of political protest. See: F. Guazzini, Avoidance protest in colonial Eritrea and Ethiopia: social challenge of local movements, (forthcoming in the proceedings of the XIV International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, November 2000). The research is interesting because it combines the systematic study of two areas, the north of Etiopia and the Eritrean highlands, particularly important in modern times. A correct historical analysis of both areas is, I believe, a prerequisite to understanding modern Ethiopia.
The work of Labanca deals mainly with military history and politcs,
see N. Labanca, In marcia verso Adua, Einaudi, Torino, 1993, a traditional
area of study that recently has also produced Marco Scardiglis work on
colonial ascari Il braccio indigeno, F. Angeli, Milano, s.d.
Labancas work is worthy of note especially in the analysis of the colonial state: his essay Lamministrazione coloniale fascista. Stato, politica e societÓ, in AA.VV., Il regime fascista. Storia e storiografia, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1995 is one of the first attempts to place African colonial history within the context of fascism in Italy.
More recently, Paolo Borruso and Marco Lenci conducted a research
on Ethiopian/Eritrean patriots and political prisoners in Italy. Borrusos
records focus on fascism: the author exploits the Italian archives and a great
deal of documentation such as letters and private notes still unknown to scholars.
A vivid picture of Ethiopian intellectual life came out from this research that
shows the attitude of Ethiopian intelligenzia towards the fascist regime on
the basis of autobiographical records. There are also letters of people not
well-known in politics, or from less important families, which confirm that
Italian colonialism carried out an indiscriminate act of repression of suspects
between 1937-39 after the attempt on Graziani.
Lencis work deals with the previous period and deals with Ethiopian/Eritrean deportation to Italian prisons at the beginning of colonialism in 1885-1898. The research still unpublished is important because we know little about this period and political refugees under fascism have been the main object of study.
Another field of research is that of colonialism and memorialistics. See: P. Borruso (a cura di) Il mito infranto. La fine del sogno africano negli appunti e nelle immagini di Massimo Borruso, funzionario coloniale in Etiopia (1937-46), Lacaita Editore, Bari, 1997, and Uoldelul Chelati Dirar, LAfrica nellesperienza coloniale italiana: la biblioteca di Guerrino Lasagni (1915-1991), Bologna, 1996, whose introduction Le biblioteche coloniali come percorso culturale e politico, ibid., 11-41 examines in a critical way the relation between colonialism and literature.
Religious studies are also present in Italy with the work of
Chelati: his thesis at the University of Bologna discusses the complex dynamic
of religions and colonial power (see Uoldelul Chelati Dirar, Colonialismo
e religioni in Eritrea, Ph.D. thesis, Bologna University, 1995). On the
Orthodox church a book came out recently by Paolo Borruso, Lultimo
impero cristiano. Politica e religione nellEtiopia contemporanea 1916-1974,
Guerini Editore, Milano, 2002.
Islam is represented by Goris work on Ethiopia/Eritrea which I have already mentioned. We must underline that very few studies exist in Italy on Islam in the Horn of Africa: among them the work of Federico Battera on Somalia is worthy of note: See: F. Battera, Le confraternite islamiche somale di fronte al colonialismo (1890-1920) tra contrapposizione e collaborazione, Africa (Rome), LIII, 2, 1998, 155-185; Id., Il risveglio islamico e le confraternite (turuq) somale dagli inizi del XIX secolo al XX: diffusione, modalitÓ di insediamento e impatto sul contesto sociale, Africana, 1997, 15-29.
In the field of history I would like to mention two recent monographies
published by LHarmattan Italia containing the catalogue of such an extraordinary
Ethiopian collection as the Ellero papers conserved at the University of Bologna
in the History Department. In the first volume dealing with the Amharic and
Tegre˝˝a documents from the Ellero collection I have emphasized the role of
informal documentation such as letters to study XIX century Ethiopian history:
see I. Taddia, I documenti in amarico e tigrino negli archivi italiani ed
eritrei concernenti lo scambio di corrispondenza (lettere sec. XIX e XX),
in Uoldelul Chelati Dirar-A. Gori-I. Taddia, Lettere tigrine. I documenti
etiopici del fondo Ellero, LHarmattan Italia, Torino, 1997, 7-24.
The second volume contains a catalogue of Italian documentation of the Ellero papers and it is introduced by Dores study on colonial civil servants, an important new subject of research that illustrates the contribution of Italian bureaucracy in collecting material for documentation and historical research. See Uoldelul Chelati Dirar, G. Dore, Carte coloniali. I documenti italiani del fondo Ellero, LHarmattan Italia, Torino, 2000, and the introduction by G. Dore, Giovanni Ellero: un funzionario nellImpero dA.O.I . Amministrare e conoscere ellEritrea e nellEtiopia detÓ coloniale, Ibid., 3-25 that offers a critical survey on the role of Italian civil servants during colonialism.
If we look at Italian studies in general, two important themes of research have recently emerged: land tenure and environment, which are discussed in two different monographic works.
The first work is dedicated to a dicussion of rim tenure. In January 1999 I organized an international workshop at the University of Bologna on Rim Land in Historical Ethiopia which was very well attended and the proceedings are now being published, edited by A. Bausi-G. Dore-I. Taddia, Materiale antropologico e storico sul rim in Etiopia ed Eritrea, LHarmattan Italia, Torino 2001. They also include Italian research: the essays of Bausi, Lusini and Taddia focus on Ethiopian sources to study land tenure and are the result of a project on local sources we conducted during the last few years. The collection of new sources represents an important contribution to this field of studies as land tenure has not been particularly developed in Italy or else has been limited to the exploitation of European sources.
The second collective work I would like to mention here covers
a field of studies completely neglected in Italian research and deals with ecology
and environmental issues. See I. Taddia (ed.), Il Corno dAfrica, la
tradizione di studi in Italia e le problematiche dellecologia e dellambiente,
Storia Urbana, 95, 2001.
In 1998 the editor of the very well known and esteemed journal Storia Urbana asked me to coordinate and edit a monographic issue about the former Italian colonies. I decided to concentrate on the discussion of ecology and environment in the Horn of Africa, including land policies, urban strategies and natural resources management.
The environment, ecology and development, deforestation, rural and urban strategies, climate studies are all topics that international research has been dealing with for over a decade and which have been widely covered in recent international literature about the Horn of Africa. Several studies have recently highlighted new research topics and new methodologies; such innovative approaches are the result of field studies as well as of the acceptance of new methods and yet there have been no Italian exponents in this area regarding the Horn of Africa. I have tried to attract peoples attention to this subject and thus open a new branch of research in Italy.
Italy has no recent tradition of studies on development and
the environment in Africa, not even in its former colonies. If, generally speaking,
we have very little in the way of colonial studies after the Second World War,
in this particular field there is absolutely nothing. The themes dealt with
in this collection of Storia Urbana are blatantly missing
from Italian research. It is no chance that in the collection just one scholar
is Italian, Federico Battera (his work deals with Islamic strategies and the
use of space in modern Somalia), the others are from the U.S., Ethiopia-Eritrea,
During colonialism, however, Italy too showed concern for the environment of its colonial state and studies on the environment were a component of the colonial bibliography, as we can see from published documents and archival sources, mainly in the Istituto Agronomico per lOltremare in Florence. And yet no critical revision of these documents has been made. This collection of essays on the Horn of Africa fills in this gap and unites various international experts who have reread the Italian colonial literature on ecology and the environment from the point of view of new methodologies.
So far I have stressed:
the importance of Italian historiography
the interruption after the 2nd World War
the new generation of scholars and the role of multi-disciplines
two underexploited themes: land tenure and environment
To sum up, Italian research now seems to be very well established and more flexible than before; it deals with many subjects, with the important exception of environmental issues. Moreover, Italian scholars tend to cover both Ethiopia and Eritrea in their researches. However, if we look at the international situation in this area of studies, we can see there is still a clear division between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a division that ought to be reconsidered by scholars. These studies tend to be two separate fields of research and in my opinion this perspective is not useful in analysing modern history.
Given the potentially restricted geographical limits of historical research, I have tried to develop a new project over the last two years at the University of Bologna concentrating on an integrated regional area, the Red Sea coast and the hinterland, with a view to analyse the development of coastal towns during the second half of the XIX century. The project entitled Nomadic Settlements/Territorial Towns of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the XIX century analyses the coastal settlements of Massawa and Zeila and the related areas of the hinterland in their historical and environmental context. We have studied the development of Zeila and Massawa and their respective relations with the interior, the Asmara and Harar areas, trying to compare patterns of trade and environmental contexts.
The aim of the project is to offer a critical discussion and
propose a critical re-reading of the historiography synthesized by the Cambridge
History of Africa that for both the Red Sea and Indian Ocean areas (former Italian
and British colonies) emphasized the importance of the external pattern of trade
with Arabia and Asia in general to explain the dynamics of coastal areas and
the development of towns. This analysis concentrated mainly on the coastal cities
as a product of a unique trading situation which had its origin in the pattern
of Indian Ocean trade and whose orientation was exclusively seaward.
The extra-African influences were certainly important, but our perspective is more flexible. From our point of view the importance of the political and economic dynamics of the interior of the continent appears very clear and we are trying to examine the pattern of trade and the development of a new urban milieu at the end of XIX century stressing the importance of this context: inter-regional trade, not only foreign trade, pointing out the significance of the hinterland in accumulating social whealth. The development of the coastal towns is closely related to a flexible African context.
We would like to reassess the whole area in the light of an African background: the African hinterland is important, as well, in the emergence of a new type of town. Massawa was embedded in a bulk of economic and historical relationships connecting the near and the far hinterland (the Sudan and Ethiopian highlands), the northeast African coast and southern Arabia. The city was formed as a centre for social relations closely linked to the Ethiopia-Sudan border. Economic exchanges based on trades (slaves, ivory, skins, coffee, guns) should be taken into consideration in the development of new territorial unities. The urban feature is related to the ecology and demography of the areas of the interiors. The structure of urban power controls the resources created through the development of new commercial routes. The particular form of the human settlements ranging from nomadism to territorialism depends on the type of regional exchanges.
The research is based on a regional dimension and is not strictly confined to present states.
We have developed a data base of published and unpublished literature with the help of the Italian bibliographer Giancarlo Stella. At this stage in the project we have to start exploiting African sources and we would like to encourage scholars from Addis and Asmara University to join the project.
The themes of research are:
the ecology of the area at the end of slavery
the importance of inter-regional networks
slaves and the role of agricultural products
territorial towns of colonialism
the role of the hinterland in the construction of towns and the new urban milieu
I would like to stress here the regional dimension of the project. The great historical tradition in Italy of studies on Ethiopia should be resumed and systematically continued. This tradition has never made a division between the history of Ethiopia and that of Eritrea. History should be analysed on a regional basis and we cannot nowadays speak of two distinct histories, of Ethiopia and of Eritrea. I do not see any good reason to separate Ethiopian and Eritrean studies from an academic point of view. In my opinion future research needs to study the entire area Ethiopia and Eritrea as a component of the history of the Horn of Africa in modern times. In many respects national historiography has to face this problem and put the modern history of the area into a new context: the context of a critical research on the past.
As historians of Africa we need to work from a different perspective. State boundaries were created by colonialism. But precolonial history must be based on an African ground. Eritrea must be studied in the context of the Horn of Africa, and the Horn of Africa must, in turn, be analyzed in the context of Subsaharan Africa. On the other hand, Ethiopian studies tend very often to be a completely separate field of research in African history. Ethiopian studies must be more flexible and open to exchange and debate with scholars of other African areas. So far Ethiopian scholars have not worked seriously on Eritrean history. No significant research on Eritrea has been done at the History Department of Addis Ababa University. I hope that Eritrean/Ethiopian scholars and historians in the future will develop another approach. We need confrontation, debate and lively discussion and real academic research on both countries in Asmara and Addis Ababa Universities.
Eritrea has the right to a national history, like Ethiopia, but this fact should not constitute a negative factor for historical research. Historians from both countries should come together on a ground of common ideas and study the various different aspects in a flexible way, without preconceived ideas. Reconstructing modern history goes beyond the reconstruction of the history of Ethiopian states and Eritrean state respectively. It is not a question of analysing the historical traditions of the two different states.
Given the political situation, no scholars from Asmara are present in international conferences held in Addis Ababa and vice-versa; there is no communication at the moment between Addis Ababa History Department and Asmara University. But we must be optimistic about the developments of political events and the composition of present conflict. And this again is another case where politics play an important role in determining the orientation of academic work. This is nothing new: we have seen similar phenomena in history. This is a real challenge for the future.