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RED SEA / ITALIAN COLONIAL VENTURES – ERITREA / ETHIOPIA / DJIBOUTI / SUDAN / YEMEN / SAUDI ARABIA: Carta del Mar Rosso e del Sudan orientale pubblicata per cura della Sezione Cartografia della Società Africana d’Italia.



A fine map of the Red Sea depicting Italy’s first major operation to establish an overseas colony, in Eritrea, commissioned by the Società Africana d’Italia, an influential lobbying-research organization, and originally published in an issue of their rare journal.

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This attractive and informative map was excised from an edition of the rare journal Bolletino della Società Africana d’Italia (March-April, 1885), a specialist magazine on Italian colonization in Africa.  It depicts the entire Red Sea / Nile region.  It was made in the early part of 1885, just as news had arrived that Italy’s ‘Spedizione militare italiana in Africa’ (January-February 1885) had secured control of the country’s first overseas beachheads in Eritrea, a land that became known as the ‘Colonia Primogenita’ (First-born Colony).  All key cities and towns are labelled, as are main roads and caravan routes, railways, and telegraph lines (both overland and submarine), while a chart translates Arabic geographical terms. 

The map includes three cartographic insets; the ‘Pianta di Cartùm’ acknowledges the recent Siege of Khartoum (March 13, 1884 – January 26, 1885), the climax of the Madhist War (1881-99), whereby a British garrison under General Charles Gordon was overwhelmed and killed by Sudanese rebels.

The ‘Carta dell Baia d’Assab e dintorni’ depicts the Assab region of south-eastern Eritrea where the Italians established their first small base in Africa in 1882.

The ‘Massaua e contorni’ map depicts the port of Massawa in Eritrea where the recent Italian military expedition established Italy’s first major colonial base in Africa.

The present map was commissioned by the Società Africana d’Italia (SAI), an organization founded in 1880 in Naples to promote and study Italian colonial endeavours in Africa.  The society was a powerful and influential force in Italian affairs up until World War II.  Its archives are today preserved as the SAI Museum in Naples, opened in 2014.

All issues of the SAI’s Bolletino are today rare, they were only published in small print runs for a select readership.  We have not been able to trace a separate reference to the present map in institutional catalogues or sales records.


Historical Background: Italian Reunification and the Quest for Colonial Glory 

During and in the wake of the Risorgimento Italy endeavoured to become a great world power, which would only be possible if it acquired overseas colonies, as had Britain and France, etc.  Italian explorers, business leaders and politicians initially focussed their attention upon the Horn of Africa, in good part due to its strategic location by the Red Sea, along the world’s greatest shipping route, recently opened upon the completion of the Suez Canal, in 1869.

The father of Italian colonial ambitions was the priest and adventurer Giuseppe Sapeto.  In 1869-70, he arranged for the Rubbatino Shipping Company to purchase the excellent natural harbour of Assab, in the far south-east of Eritrea, from local chiefs.  This gave Italy, an albeit tenuous, foothold along the Eritrean coast, although it was not until 1882 that Italy developed it first fixed settlement along the shores of Assab Bay.  In the meantime, Italy, under the umbrella of the Società Geografica Italiana, sponsored a number of exploring expeditions to Eritrea and Abyssinia to reconnoitre the territory in advance of colonization ventures.

The Italian presence along the Eritrean coast was ardently opposed by the Ottoman Empire, which had long claimed the region as part of its domains, even if its practical authority there was virtually non-existent.  Meanwhile, France was working to consolidate its presence in French Somaliland (Djibouti), located a short way down the coast from Assab Bay.  Britain, the ultimate power in the Red Rea region (having made Egypt a protectorate in 1882, so controlling the Suez Canal) feared French expansion more than all other factors, and so tacitly supported Italian ambitions in the Eritrea as a counterweight, even as it angered the Sublime Porte and Abyssinia.  Italy thus believed that it had a ‘green light’ for colonial expansion.


The ‘Spedizione militare italiana in Africa’: Italy Secures its First Major Colonial Base


While Assab Bay was considered a fine waypoint for shipping, it was not viewed to be a stellar base for colonial expansion, as it lay on the edge of the Danakil Depression, the hottest place in the world, often likened to ‘Hell on Earth’.  On the other hand, the central coast of Eritrea was viewed to have vast potential, at it likewise possessed fine natural anchorages, as well as access to the fertile and climatically peasant uplands just above the littoral.  Thus while Assab Bay was in indispensible beachhead for Italian colonialism, Massawa was to be the foundation of the Italian imperialistic dream.

Massawa, while once ruled and still claimed by the Ottomans, was since 1846 held by a small Egyptian garrison of soldiers who had little interest in remaining in the region.  With the tacit approval of Britain (which controlled Egypt), the Italian government launched an unprecedented military expedition with the aim of consolidating its hold over Assab Bay and seizing control of Massawa.

The ‘Spedizione militare italiana in Africa’ consisted of two waves.  The first force, commanded by Colonel Tancredi Saletta, consisted of 1,000 troops and left Naples on January 17, 1885.  As shown on the inset map, Saletta’s force sailed through the Suez, before stopping at the British-controlled Sudanese port of Suwakin; from there they visited Assab and on February 5, 1885 landed at Massawa.  The Egyptian garrison voluntarily relinquished the town to the Italians; however, low-grade local resistance prevented Saletta’s force from maintaining control over the perimeters of Assab and Massawa; re-enforcements were needed if the Italian presence was to endure.

The second wave of the Spedizione left Naples on February 24, 1885, commanded by General Augustine Ricci, and consisted of 1,600 troops.  Arriving in Eritrea shortly thereafter, the combined Italian forces, albeit with some difficulty, managed to secure enduring control over both Assab Bay and Massawa.  This marked a major milestone in modern Italian and African history, as the Italy would remain a leading player on the Horn of Africa for the next six decades.


Epilogue: Italy’s Founds its Colonia Primogenita’

The ultimate technical success of the ‘Spedizione militare italiana’ legitimized Italy’s colonial ambitions on the Horn of Africa in the eyes of the major European powers.  During the Berlin Congress (November 15, 1884 – February 26, 1885) the European powers divided Africa amongst themselves.  Italy was awarded Eritrea as a colonial possession while Abyssinia was vaguely designated as a zone of Italian influence.  

However, the Italians soon became dissatisfied with the boundaries of Eritrea, which hugged the coast, so preventing them from developing the agriculturally-rich Ethiopian Highlands just a short distance inland. 

During the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1887-9, Italy attempted to prise the frontal ranges of the highlands from Abyssinia.  However, they severely underestimated the martial abilities of the Abyssinians, and their forces suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Dogali (January 26, 1887), located to the west of Massawa.  Undeterred, Italy redoubled its efforts, allocating 200 million Lira to the cause and sending 20,000 troops to the Eritrean-Abyssinian theatre.  Subsequrntly, the Abyssinians retreated from the conflict owing to their internal problems and the threat of a Sudanese Mahdist invasion of their country.  At the Treaty of Wuhele (May 2, 1889) that ended the war, the Abyssinians were compelled to cede their borderlands with Eritrea to Italy (including the region containing Asmara, the future Eritrean capital).  In 1890, Italy formally declared Eritrea to be its ‘Colonia Primogenita’ (First-born Colony).  Italy would remain in Eritrea for more than fifty years, whereupon it would have a complex, and often acrimonious, relationship with Abyssinia.


References: Revue coloniale internationale, vol. 1 (1885), p. 87.


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