Italians of Ethiopia

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Italians of Ethiopia
Italian soldiers and colonists starting their travel to conquest and colonize Ethiopia in 1935
Total population
1,400 (plus 2,000 descendants)
Regions with significant populations
Addis Ababa
Italian, Amharic
Christian, mostly Roman Catholic
Related ethnic groups

Italians of Ethiopia are the emigrants and colonists from Italy who moved to live in Ethiopia as far back as the 19th century, and their descendants. King Menelik II allowed the sale of lands belonging to Ethiopia to Italians (Eritrea) and France (Djibouti) to solidify his centralized power and have external trading partners. There was a subsequent exchange of ideas, farming techniques, education and technology between the Italians and Ethiopians during most of this period. However, the relationship was often marked by the fact that under various treaties written in both Amharic and Italian, the Italian version always referred to Ethiopia as a protectorate of Italy.[1] Most of the Italians moved to Ethiopia after the Italian conquest of Abyssinia in 1936.


The 1880s were marked by the Scramble for Africa in Ethiopia and Eastern Africa, when the Italians began to vie with the British and French for influence in the area. Asseb, a port near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, was bought by in March 1870 from the local Afar sultan, vassal to the Ethiopian Emperor, by an Italian company, which by 1890 led to the Italian colony of Eritrea being established. From then on, the Kingdom of Italy had traded and set up large tracts of farm land up to the borders with Ethiopia. As the Italian colonists moved further inland from the agreed upon borders of Eritrea which had been agreed upon in the Treaty of Wuchale, Emperor Menelik II saw this as an invasion of his country, whereas the Italian King Umberto of Italy referred to Article 17 of the treaty to justify Italian claims to the land.

Conflicts between the two countries resulted in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, whereby the Ethiopians defeated Italy and remained independent, under the rule of Menelik II. It should be noted that at the time, Italy had only been unified for less than a few decades, and support for the war was minimal, especially among Southern Italians who were forcibly conscripted. Anti-war riots and demonstrations broke out across Italy and in the city of Pavia the population came out to blockade the railroad to prevent Italian troops from leaving for Ethiopia. Italy and Ethiopia signed a provisional treaty of peace on 26 October 1896, but in the next years Italians started to pursue the "avenge of Adua" as a matter of national honor.

The avenge indeed came when Benito Mussolini started to expand the African colonial possessions of Italy in the 1930s.

In October 1935, Mussolini launched the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and invaded Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie fled the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on 2 May 1936 and the Italians entered the city on 5 May, after bloody battles.

Victory was announced on 9 May 1936 and Mussolini declared the creation of the "Italian Empire". The Italians merged Eritrea, Italian Somalia, and newly captured Ethiopia into Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, A.O.I.).

The Italian King Victor Emmanuel III added Emperor of Ethiopia to his titles.[2]

Mussolini dreamed of sending millions of Italian settlers to Italian East Africa, and Italians had high hopes of turning the area into an economic asset: huge investments were made in the creation of needed infrastructures (roads, airports, hospitals, etc..).

From 1936 to the start of World War II Mussolini controlled much of Ethiopia, but a guerrilla war raged in areas of Ethiopia still controlled by partisans linked to Haile Selassie (who was exiled in Great Britain).

In the first months of 1941 the Allies conquered the Italian East Africa Empire and for the Italian Ethiopians started a period of harassment that led to their near disappearance after World War II.

Italian Ethiopia: 1936-41[edit]

Main article: Italian Ethiopia

The Italian community in Ethiopia was very small in 1935, before the Italian invasion: only 200 Italians lived in Ethiopia, as an invitation to reside in Ethiopia had been required by the royal family; nearly all of them in the capital Addis Ababa.[3]

Railways -in red color- in 1940 Italian Ethiopia (in orange the asphalted roads nely built by the Italians)

But in 1940, just five years after Mussolini's conquest of this African country, the Italians residents in Ethiopia were nearly 40,000. The Italo-Ethiopians were concentrated in the capital area, and in some cases were related to military and administrators just arrived from Italy.

To these colonists there was to be added the Italian labourers, who came temporarily to work (usually only for some months) in the construction of the Ethiopian infrastructures, calculated in nearly 200,000 in five years.

The 40,000 were to be followed - according to the Fascist regime of Mussolini - by nearly two millions Italians in the next ten years, who were to be added to the 10 millions of Ethiopians living in the country in 1940.

According to official statistics of the Italian government, in October 1939 the Italian Ethiopians were 35.441, of whom 30.232 male (85,3%) and 5209 female (14,7%), most of them living in urban areas.[4]

Only 3,200 Italian farmers moved to colonize farm areas, mainly because of the danger of Ethiopian guerrilla (that in 1940 was still controlling nearly 1/4 of Ethiopia highlands).

Ethiopia (divided in the administrative provinces of Scioa, Galla-Sidamo, Harar and Amara) was part of the Italian Empire from 1936 to 1941. The Italians did huge and expensive infrastructures, that drained the Italian economy but reduced in those years the unemployment in the Kingdom of Italy. They did 18,794 km (11,678 mi) of new roads asphaltated: in 1940 Addis Ababa was connected by state-of-the-art roads to Asmara and Mogadishu called Via dell'Impero.

Furthermore, 900 km (559 mi) of railways were reconstructed or initiated/planned (like the railway between Addis Abeba and Assab), dams and hydroelectric plants were built, and many public and private companies were established in the underdeveloped country. The most important were: "Compagnie per il cotone d'Etiopia" (Cotton industry); "Compagnia etiopica del latte e derivati" (Milk industry); "Cementerie d'Etiopia" (Cement industry); "Compagnia etiopica mineraria" (Minerals industry); "Imprese elettriche d'Etiopia" (Electricity industry); "Compagnia etiopica degli esplosivi" (Armament industry); "Industria per la birra dell'AOI" (Beer industry); "Trasporti automobilistici (Citao)" (Mechanic & Transport industry).

There was an urbanistic project for the enlargement of Addis Ababa, but these architectural plans -like all the other developments- were stopped by World War II.[5]

Italians of Ethiopia under British and Ethiopian rule[edit]

With the Italian defeat in eastern Africa in spring 1941, the Italians of Ethiopia started to face a period of huge difficulties.

Some Italian civilians even participated in the Italian guerrilla war in Ethiopia until 1943, like Rosa Dainelli. This Italian doctor was a woman who became an active member of the Fronte di Resistenza (Front of Resistance), an Italian organization which fought the Allies in a guerrilla war from December 1941 until summer of 1943.

In August 1942 she managed to enter inside the main ammunition depot of the British Army in Addis Ababa and blow it up, somehow surviving the huge explosion. This act of sabotage destroyed the ammunition for the new British sten machine gun and delayed the deployment of this "state-of-the-art" weapon for many months.

Doctor Dainelli, even if less known than lieutenant Amedeo Guillet, was famous as one of the few Italian woman who participated actively in the Italian guerrilla operations against the British troops after the East African Campaign (World War II). She was nominated, after the end of the war, for the Italian medal of honor called "Croce di Ferro".

After World War II the Italian Ethiopians were given a full pardon by the newly returned Emperor Haile Salassie, as he saw the opportunity to continue the modernization efforts of the country, namely in the capital of Addis Ababa. He declared that no reprisals would be taken against the Italians, and many remained for decades, until the overthrow of the Emperor by the Dergue. It was under the Communist-led government of Menghistu where the Italians were forced to return to Italy in 1974. Nearly 22,000 Italo-Ethiopians took refuge in Italy during the 1970s.[6] Their main organization in Italy is the Associazione Italiana Profughi dall'Etiopia ed Eritrea (A.I.P.E.E.).[7]

In the 2000s many Italian companies are back to work in Ethiopia and now there it is a community of 1256 Italian technicians and managers with their families living mainly in Addis Ababa .

Only 80 original Italian colonists remain alive in 2007 and nearly 2000 mixed descendants of Italian men/women and Ethiopian men/women.

Language and religion[edit]

The remaining 80 original Italian Ethiopians colonists speak Italian, but their descendants speak even Amharic.

The 1256 recently moved to Ethiopia Italian technicians and managers (with their families living mainly in Addis Ababa) use the Italian and English language (but have some knowledge of Amharic for their work).

In religion, practically all are Roman Catholic Christians.

Famous Italians of Ethiopia[edit]


  1. ^ Taytu Betul
  2. ^ Detailed map of Italian Ethiopia in 1936 (click to enlarge)
  3. ^ Website on Italians of Ethiopia
  4. ^ Italian emigration to Ethiopia in the 1930s (in Italian)
  5. ^ Addis Abeba's 1939 Architectural plan
  6. ^ Photos and articles of Italoethiopians who took refuge in Italy
  7. ^ Associazione Italiana Profughi dall'Etiopia ed Eritrea (AIPEE)


  • Antonicelli, Franco. Trent'anni di storia italiana 1915 - 1945. Mondadori ed. Torino, 1961
  • Blitzer, Wolf. Century of War. Friedman/Fairfax Publishers. New York, 2001 ISBN 1-58663-342-2
  • Del Boca, Angelo. Italiani in Africa Orientale: La conquista dell'Impero, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1985. ISBN 8842027154
  • Del Boca, Angelo. Italiani in Africa Orientale: La caduta dell'Impero, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1986. ISBN 884202810X
  • Labanca, Nicola. Oltremare. Storia dell'espansione coloniale italiana. Il Mulino. Bologna, 2007. ISBN 8815120386
  • Rosselli, Alberto. Storie Segrete. Operazioni sconosciute o dimenticate della seconda guerra mondiale. Iuculano Editore. Pavia, 2007.
  • Sbiacchi, Alberto. Hailé Selassié and the Italians, 1941-43. African Studies Review, vol.XXII, n.1, April 1979.

See also[edit]