The following three part series seeks to trace the military and diplomatic origins & course of Italian Imperialism in the mid to late 19th century to the early 20th century, especially at it pertains to Ethiopia and Northeastern Africa.
Check out the Mad Monarchists blog post on the Italian Colonial Empire
Of the several great Imperial powers worth studying in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Italy always seems to fall short of the standards of conquest, through military and/or diplomatic means, that defined the course of history for Europe but more importantly the developing nations and republics which formed after the retreat of imperialism and colonialism in Africa especially.
Like in Germany or even America in the mid to late 19th century, Italy's national identity was fragmented due regional attitudes which eschewed the very idea of a centralized empire controlling all of the nation-states through authoritative means. Again like the states of Germany and of America, Italy dealt with regional cultures and the struggle to separate themselves from either Imperial and Federal Government control no matter how direct or indirect, during this period from circa 1850 to 1871.
For the Italians their struggle for unification was directly related to the German bid for an empire and the desire for Austria to maintain its position in Central and parts of Eastern Europe. Three separate wars with Austria and the French defeat at the hands of the new German Empire in 1871, sealed the fate of the Kingdom of Italy which had been founded in 1861 with Victor Emmanuel II as the first proper king of Italy in the modern age. Then when the great hero and Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered the Kingdom of Two Sicilies in the same year, Italy was forged into a Mediterranean power rivaling the former greatness of Rome. A desire that would lead to bloodshed and imperial conquest in the later ages.
Garibaldi, literally a larger than life character during the period of Risorgimento (unification). He had gained famed before his exploits in the reunification of Italy by fighting in the Uruguayan Civil War with the 'Italian Legion'.
It is this background that the sets the stage for Italy's imperial conquests which do not end until World War II, following the defeat of Italy and the Axis powers. Many of the officers and generals of Italy from the 1880's to 1915 had been enlisted men during the Wars of Unification, so their importance as a whole socio-culturally speaking, and in the culture of the Italian military itself, can not be overlooked.
1886 marked the Italians entrance into the 'Scramble for Africa' of the late Imperial era, by annexing the port city of Massawa in the modern day Republic of Eriteria which sits on the top of the Horn of Africa.
These annexations began Italy's greater ambitions in Africa though still tiny in comparison to France, Portugal, and Great Britain's territories. Two of the most important imperial conflicts took place in East Africa during this period, the first being the clash of the mighty Ethiopian (Abyssinian) empire and Italy's own colonial and imperialist ambitions. The second being England's conquest of Egypt and Sudan, and their increased influence through the Egyptian client state during the conflict with the Mahdist forces.
Garibaldi, left, at the Battle of Milazzo in 1860
Diplomatically Italy needed the support of its fellow imperial powers, especially England and France who controlled much of Africa between them and who had sizable military forces scattered throughout Africa as well. Perhaps in the end, the complicity of most of the European powers in dividing up Africa between spheres of influences and economically exploiting the regions within their control was a more powerful tool than any weapon or army of conquest could ever be.
Portrait of Garibaldi later in life