1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eritrea

ERITREA, an Italian colony on the African coast of the Red Sea. It extends from Ras Kasar, a cape 110 m. S. of Suakin, in 18° 2′ N., as far as Ras Dumeira (12° 42′ N.), in the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, a coast-line of about 650 m. The colony is bounded inland by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Abyssinia and French Somaliland. It consists of the coast lands lying between the capes named and of part of the northern portion of the Abyssinian plateau. The total area is about 60,000 sq. m. The population is approximately 450,000, of which, exclusive of soldiers, not more than 3000 are whites.

The land frontier starting from Ras Kasar runs in a south-westerly direction until in about 14° 15′ N., 36° 35′ E. it reaches the river Setit, some distance above the junction of that stream with the Atbara. This, the farthest point inland, is 198 m. S.W. of Massawa. The frontier now turns east, following for a short distance the course of the river Setit; thence it strikes north-easterly to the Mareb, and from 38° E. follows that river and its tributaries the Belesa and Muna, until within 42 m. of the sea directly south of Annesley Bay. At this point the frontier turns south and east, crossing the Afar or Danakil country at a distance of 60 kilometres (37.28 m.) from the coast-line. About 12° 20′ N. the French possessions in Somaliland are reached. Here the frontier turns N.E. and so continues until the coast of the Red Sea is again reached at a point south of the town of Raheita. In the southern part of the colony are small sultanates, such as those of Aussa and Raheita, which are under Italian protection. The Dahlak archipelago and other groups of islands along the coast belong to Eritrea.

Physical Features.—The coast-line is of coral formation and is, in the neighbourhood of Massawa, thickly studded with small islands. The chief indentations are Annesley Bay, immediately south of Massawa, and Assab Bay in the south. The colony consists of two widely differing regions. The northern division is part of the Abyssinian highlands. The southern division, part of the Afar or Danakil country, includes all the territory of the colony south of Annesley Bay. These two regions are connected by a narrow strip of land behind Annesley Bay, where the Abyssinian hills approach close to the sea. From this bay the coast-line trends S.E. so that at Tajura Bay the distance between the Abyssinian hills and the sea is over 200 m. The Afar country is part of the East African rift-valley, and in the southern parts of the valley its surface is diversified by ranges of hills, frequently volcanic, and by lakes. The plains, however, extend over large areas, they are generally arid and are often covered with mimosa trees which form a kind of jungle called by the natives khala. The torrents which descend from the Abyssinian plateau usually fail to reach the sea. They are mostly bordered by dense vegetation; in the dry season water is found in pools in the river beds or can be obtained by digging. The principal rivers enter and are lost in one or other of two salt plains or basins, that of Asali in the north and that of Aussa in the south. The Hawash flows through the Aussa country in a N.E. direction, but is lost in lakes Abbebad and Aussa (see Abyssinia). The Raguali and other rivers drain into the Asali basin. This basin, like that of Aussa, is in places 200 ft. below sea-level. On the west the Asali basin reaches to the Abyssinian foot-hills; in its southern part is the small lake Alelbad. The eastern edge of the basin is formed by a ridge of gypsum and on its margin grow palms. In parts the salt lies thick on the plain, which then has the appearance of a lake frozen over. South of Lake Alelbad is a volcano called Artali or Erta-alé (“the smoky”), and farther to the S.E., in about 13° 15′ N., is the peak of Afdera, which was in eruption in June 1907. The hills, 1000 to 4000 ft. in height, which run more or less parallel to and a few miles from the coast, include the volcano of Dubbi (reported active in 1861), some 30 m. S. of the port of Edd (Eddi). In 14° 52′ N., 39° 53′ E. and near the northern end of the zone of depression the volcano of Alid (2985 ft.) rises from the trough. Its chief crest forms an elongated ring and encloses a crater over half a mile in diameter and with walls 350 ft. high. North and south of Alid extends a vast lava field. Dubbi and Alid are in Italian territory; the greater part of Afar belongs to Abyssinia.

At Annesley Bay the narrow coast plain is succeeded by foothills separated by small valleys through which flow innumerable streams. From these hills the ascent to the plateau which constitutes northern Eritrea is very steep. This tableland, which has a general elevation of about 6500 ft., is fairly fertile despite a desert region—Sheb—to the S.E. of Keren. It is characterized by rich, well-watered valleys, verdant plains and flat-topped hills with steep sides, running in ranges or isolated. The highest hills in Eritrean territory rise to about 10,000 ft. The plateau is known by various names, the region directly west of Massawa being called Hamasen. To the west and north the plateau sinks in terraces to the plains of the Sudan, and eastward falls more abruptly to the Red Sea, the coast plain, known as the Samhar, consisting of sandy country covered with mimosa and, along the khors, with a somewhat richer vegetation.

The colony contains no navigable streams. For a short distance the Setit (known in its upper course as the Takazze), a tributary of the Atbara, forms the frontier, as does also in its upper course the Gash or Mareb (see Abyssinia). The Mareb, often dry in summer, in the floods is a large and impassable river. Both the Setit and Mareb have a general westerly course across the Abyssinian plateau. The Baraka (otherwise Barka) and Anseba rise in the Hamasen plateau near Asmara within a short distance of each other. The Baraka flows west and then north; the Anseba, which has a more easterly course, also flows northward and joins the Baraka a little N. of 17° N. A few miles below the confluence the Baraka leaves Italian territory. It is (as is the Anseba) an intermittent stream. After heavy rain it discharges some of its water into the Red Sea north of Tokar. The whole of the hill country north of Asmara belongs to the drainage area of the Baraka or Anseba. Of the numerous streams which, north of the Danakil country, run direct from the hills to the Red Sea, the Hadas may be mentioned, as along the valley of that stream is one of the most frequented routes to the tableland. The Hadas, in time of flood, reaches the ocean near Adulis in Annesley Bay.

Climate.—The climate in different parts of the colony varies greatly. Three distinct climatic zones are found:—(1) that of the coastlands, including altitudes up to 1650 ft., (2) that of the escarpments and valleys, and (3) that of the high plateau and alpine summits. In the coast zone the heat and humidity are excessive during most of the year, June, September and October being the hottest months. Rains occur between November and April, during which time the temperature is lower. In this zone malarial fevers prevail in winter. The heat is greatest at Massawa, where the mean temperature averages 88° F., but where, in summer, the thermometer often rises to 120° F. in the shade. In the second zone the climate is more temperate and there is considerable variation in temperature owing to nocturnal radiation. This zone falls within the régime of the summer monsoon rains, while those districts adjoining the coast zone enjoy also winter rains. August is the most rainy and May the hottest month. On the high plateau, i.e. the third zone, the climate is generally moderately cool. Slight rain falls in the spring and abundant monsoon rains from June to September. The heat is greatest in the dry season, November to April. Above 8500 ft. the climate becomes sub-alpine in character.

Flora and Fauna.—In the low country the flora differs little from that of tropical Africa generally, whilst on the plateau the vegetation is characteristic of the temperate zone. The olive tree grows on the high plateau and covers the flanks of the hills to within 3000 ft. of sea-level. The sycamore-fig tree grows to enormous proportions in parts of the plateau. Lower down durra, maize and bultuc grow in profusion. In the northern part of the colony, especially along the Khor Baraka, the dom palm flourishes. The fauna includes, in the low country, the lion, panther, elephant, camel, and antelope of numerous species. On the plateau the fauna is that of Abyssinia (q.v.).

Inhabitants.—The inhabitants of the plains and foothills are for the most part semi-nomad shepherds, living on durra and milk. In the north these people are largely of Arab or Hamitic stock, such as the Beni-Amer, but include various negro tribes. Afar and Somali form the population of the southern regions. The inhabitants of the plateau are Abyssinians. The nomads are Mussulmans and are, as a rule, docile and pacific, though the Danakils are given to occasional raiding. The Abyssinians are more warlike, but they have settled down under Italian rule. Among the native industries are mat-weaving, cotton-weaving, silver-working and rudimentary iron and leather working. (See Afars; Somaliland and Abyssinia.)

Towns.—The principal places on the coast are Massawa (q.v.), pop. about 10,000, the chief seaport of the colony, Assab, chief town of the Danakil region, to which converges the trade from Abyssinia across the Aussa country, and Zula (q.v.), identified with the ancient Adulis. The chief town in the interior is Asmara (q.v.), the capital of the colony and under the Abyssinians capital of the province of Hamasen, and favourite headquarters of Ras Alula (see below and also Abyssinia). It is situated 7800 ft. above the sea, and has something of the aspect of a European town. Keren, 50 m. N.W. of Asmara, is the centre for a district (Bogos) fertilized by the upper course of the Anseba; Agordat, on the river Baraka, on the road from Keren to Kassala, is the centre of the Beni-Amer, Algheden and Sabderat tribes; Mogolo, on the lower Mareb, is the rendezvous of the Baria and Baza tribes. Towards Abyssinia the chief towns are Saganeiti (capital of the Okulé-Kusai province), Godofelassi and Adi-Ugri, the two latter situated in the fertile plain of the Seraé; Adiquala, on the edge of the Mareb gorge; and Arrasa, the centre of the districts constituting the province of Deki-Tesfa.

Agriculture and Trade.—The nomads of the plains possess large herds of cattle and camels. The low country is almost entirely pastoral and unsuited for the cultivation of crops. On the other hand almost all European cereals flourish in the intermediate zone and on the high plateau, and the Abyssinian is a good agriculturist and understands irrigation. Numbers of emigrants from Italy possess farms on the plateau. Experiments in the cultivation of coffee, tobacco and cotton have given good results in the intermediate zone. Besides camels and oxen, sheep and goats are numerous, and meat, hides and butter are articles of local trade. Hides are the principal export (about £50,000 a year). Wax, gum, coffee and ivory are also exported. Pearl fishing is carried on at Massawa and the Dahlak islands. The annual value of the fisheries is about £40,000 (pearls £10,000, mother of pearl £30,000). Gold mines are worked near Asmara. Salt, obtained from the salt lakes in the Aussa and Danakil countries, is a valuable article of commerce. Cotton goods are the chief imports. There is a little trade with northern Abyssinia, but it is undeveloped. For the five years 1901–1905 the average value of the external trade was £456,000 per annum. The imports more than doubled the exports.

Communications.—A railway, 65 m. long, connects Massawa with Asmara. An extension of the line is planned from Asmara to Sabderat and Kassala. The whole territory is crossed by camel and mule paths between the sea and the high plateau, and between the various centres of population. Every valley that brings water to the Red Sea has a route leading to the high plateau. The great arteries, however, number three, which, starting from Massawa by way of Asmara, run, two to Abyssinia, and one to Kassala and Khartum. They are all more or less practicable for carts, and are flanked by a good telegraph line as long as they lie in Italian territory. There are also two caravan routes from Assab Bay, across the Danakil country to southern Abyssinia. The northern leads by a comparatively easy ascent to Yejju, the more southern follows the valley of the Hawash. A telegraph line 500 m. long connects Massawa with Adis Ababa via Asmara. Massawa is also telegraphically connected with the outside world by a cable to Perim via Assab. There is regular steamship communication with Italy.

Administration.—Eritrea is administered by a civil governor responsible to the ministry of foreign affairs at Rome. It is divided into six provinces, each governed by a regional commissioner. Some tracts of frontier territory are detached from the various regions and entrusted to political residents, as, for instance, on the Sudan frontier and also on the Abyssinian boundary, where strict surveillance is necessary to repress raiding incursions from Tigré, and where the chief intelligence department is established. The six regions or principal provinces are:—Asmara, which includes Hamasen and other small districts; Keren, which comprises the high territories to the north of Asmara, i.e. the Bogos country; Massawa, extending over all the tribes between the high plateau and the sea from the Hababs to the Danakil; Assab, which extends from Edd to Raheita; Okulé-Kusai, the plateau country S.E. of Asmara; Seraé, including Deki-Tesfa, the country S.W. of Asmara. The regional commissioners and the political residents act either by means of the village headmen (Shum or Chicca), by the chiefs of districts in the few localities where villages are still organized in districts, or by the headmen of tribes, and by the councils of the elders wherever these remain.

Revenue is derived from customs duties, direct taxation and tribute paid by the nomad tribes. The local revenue, which for the period 1897–1907 was about £100,000 a year, is supplemented by grants from Italy, the total cost of the administration being about £400,000 yearly. Nearly half the expenditure is on the military force maintained.

Justice.—Civil justice for natives is administered, in the first instance, by the headmen of villages, provinces, tribes, or by councils of notables (Shumagalle); in appeal, by the residents and regional tribunals, and, in the last instance, by the colonial court of appeal. Europeans are entirely under Italian jurisdiction. Penal justice is administered by Italian judges only. An administrative tribunal settles, without appeal, questions of tribute, disputes concerning family, village or tribal landmarks, as well as suits involving the colonial government. The civil laws for the natives are those established by local usage. Europeans are answerable to the Italian civil code. Penal laws are the same as in Italy, except where modified by local usages. Appeal to the Rome court of cassation is admitted against all penal and civil sentences.

Defence.—Defence is entrusted to a corps of colonial troops, partly Italian and partly native; to a militia (milizia mobile) formed by natives who have already served in the colonial corps; and to the chitet or general levy which, in time of war, places all male able-bodied inhabitants under arms. The regional commissioners and political residents have at their disposal some hundreds of irregular paid soldiers under native chiefs. In war time these irregulars form part of the colonial corps, but in time of peace serve as frontier police. The colonial corps, about 5000 strong, garrisons the chief places of strategic importance, such as Asmara, Keren and Saganeiti. The irregular troops, on foot, or mounted on camels, number about 1000 men. The militia consists of 3500 men of all arms, and is intended in time of war to reinforce the various divisions of the colonial corps. The chitet yields between 3000 and 4000 men, to be employed on the lines of communication or in caravan service. All these troops are intended to ward off a first attack, so as to allow time for the arrival of reinforcements from Italy. The customs and political surveillance along the coast is entrusted, afloat, to the Massawa naval station, and, ashore, to a coastguard company 400 strong stationed at Meder, with detachments at Assab, Massawa, Raheita, Edd and Taclai.

History.—Traces of the ancient Eritrean civilization are scarce. During the prosperous periods of ancient Egypt, Egyptian squadrons asserted their rule over the west Red Sea coast, and under the Ptolemies the port of Golden Berenice (Adulis?) was an Egyptian fortress, afterwards abandoned. During the early years of the Roman empire, Eritrea formed part of an important independent state—that of the Axumites (Assamites). At the end of the reign of Nero, and perhaps even earlier, the king of the Axumites ruled over the Red Sea coast from Suakin to the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, and traded constantly with Egypt. This potentate called himself “king of kings,” commanded an army and a fleet, coined money, adopted Greek as the official language, and lived on good terms with the Roman empire. The Axumites belonged originally to the Hamitic race, but the immigration of the Himyaritic tribes of southern Arabia speedily imposed a new language and civilization. Therefore the ancient Abyssinian language, Geez, and its living dialects, Amharic and Tigrina, are Semitic, although modified by the influence of the old Hamitic Agau or Agao. Adulis (Adovlis), slightly to the north of Zula (q.v.), was the chief Axumite port. From Adulis started the main road, which led across the high plateau to the capital Axomis (Axum). Along the road are still to be seen vestiges of cities and inscribed monuments, such as the Himyaritic inscriptions on the high plateau of Kohait, the six obelisks with a Saban inscription at Toconda, and an obelisk with an inscription at Amba Sait. Other monuments exist elsewhere, as well as coins of the Axumite period with Greek and Ethiopian inscriptions. After the rise of the Ethiopian empire the history of Eritrea is bound up with that of Ethiopia, but not so entirely as to be completely fused. The documents of the Portuguese expedition of the 16th century and other Ethiopian records show that all the country north of the Mareb enjoyed relative autonomy under a vassal of the Ethiopian emperor.

Michael, counsellor of Solomon, who was king of the country north of the Mareb, usurped the throne of Solomon during the reign of the Emperor Atzié Jasu II. (1729–1753), and, after proclaiming himself ras of Tigré and “protector of the empire,” ceded the North Mareb country to an enemy of the rightful dynasty. Hence a long struggle between the dispossessed family and the occupants of the North Mareb throne. The coast regions had meantime passed from the control of the Abyssinians. In the 16th century the Turks made themselves masters of Zula, Massawa, &c., and these places were never recovered by the Abyssinians. In 1865 Massawa and the neighbouring coast was acquired by Egypt, the khedive Ismail entertaining projects for connecting the port by railway with the Nile. The Egyptians took advantage of civil war in Abyssinia to seize Keren and the Bogos country in 1872[1], an action against which the negus Johannes (King John), newly come to the throne, did not at the time protest. In 1875 and 1876 the Egyptians, who sought to increase their conquests, were defeated by the Abyssinians at Gundet and Gura. Walad Michael, the hereditary ruler of Bogos, fought as ally of King John at Gundet and of the Egyptians at Gura. For two years Walad Michael continued to harass the border, but in December 1878 he submitted to King John, by whose orders he was (Sept. 1879) imprisoned upon an amba, or flat-topped mountain, whence he only succeeded in escaping in 1890. In 1879 his territory was given by King John to Ras Alula, who retained it until, in August 1889, the Italians occupied Asmara (see Abyssinia: History).

An Egyptian garrison remained at Keren in the Bogos country until 1884, when in consequence of the revolt of the Mahdi it was withdrawn, Bogos being occupied by Abyssinia on the 12th of September of that year. On the 5th of February 1885 an Italian force, with the approval of Great Britain, occupied Massawa, the Egyptian garrison returning to Egypt. This occupation led to wars with Abyssinia and finally to the establishment of the colony in its present limits. The history of the Italian-Abyssinian relations is fully told in the articles Italy and Abyssinia (history sections).

It was not, however, at Massawa that Italy first obtained a foothold in eastern Africa. The completion of the Suez Canal led Italy as well as Great Britain and France to seek territorial rights on the Red Sea coasts. The purchase of Assab and the neighbouring region for £1880, from the sultan Berehan of Raheita for use as a coaling station by the Italian Rubattino Steamship Company, in March 1870, formed the nucleus of Italy’s colonial possessions. This purchase was protested against by Egypt, Turkey and Great Britain; the last named power being willing to recognize an Italian commercial settlement, but nothing more. (The Indian government viewed the establishment of the Italians on the new highway to the East with a good deal of ill-humour.) Eventually, the British opposition being overcome and that of Egypt and Turkey disregarded, Assab, by a decree of the 5th of July 1882, was declared an Italian colony. Between 1883 and 1888 various treaties were concluded with the sultan of Aussa ceding the Danakil coast to Italy and recognizing an Italian protectorate over the whole of his country—through which passes the trade route from Assab Bay to Shoa.

On the 1st of January 1890 the various Italian possessions on the coast of the Red Sea were united by royal decree into one province under the title of the Colony of Eritrea—so named after the Erythraeum Mare of the Romans. At first the government of the colony was purely military, but after the defeat of the Italians by the Abyssinians at Adowa, the administration was placed upon a civil basis (1898–1900). The frontiers were further defined by a French-Italian convention (24th of January 1900) fixing the frontier between French Somaliland and the Italian possessions at Raheita, and also by various agreements with Great Britain and Abyssinia. A tripartite agreement between Italy, Abyssinia and Great Britain, dated the 15th of May 1902, placed the territory of the Kanama tribe, on the north bank of the Setit, within Eritrea. A convention of the 16th of May 1908 settled the Abyssinian-Eritrean frontier in the Afar country, the boundary being fixed at 60 kilometres from the coast. The task of reconstructing the administration on a civil basis and of developing the commerce of the colony was entrusted to Signor F. Martini, who was governor for nine years (1898–1906). Under civil rule the colony made steady though somewhat slow progress.

Authorities.—See B. Melli, La Colonia Eritrea dalle sue origini al anno 1901 (Parma, 1901); G. B. Penne, Per l’Italia Africana. Studio critico (Rome, 1906); R. Perini, Di qua dal Marèb (Florence, 1905), a monograph on the Asmara zone; F. Martini, Nell’ Africa Italiana (3rd ed., Milan, 1891); A. B. Wylde, Modern Abyssinia, chaps. v.-ix. (London, 1901); E. D. Schoenfeld, Erythräa und der ägyptische Sudân, chaps. i.-xii. (Berlin, 1904); Luigi Chiala, La Spedizione di Massana (Turin, 1888); Abyssinian Green Books published at intervals in 1895 and 1896, covering the period from 1870 to the end of the Italo-Abyssinian War; Vico Mantegazza, La Guerra in Africa (Florence, 1896); General Baratieri, Memorie d’Africa (Rome, 1898); C. de la Jonquière, Les Italiens en Érythrée (Paris, 1897); G. F. H. Berkeley, The Campaign of Adowa (London, 1902). For orography and geology see an article by P. Verri in Boll. Soc. geog. italiana, 1909, and for climate an article in Rivista coloniale (1906), by A. Tancredi. A. Allori compiled a Piccolo Dizionario eritreo, italiano-arabo-amarico (Milan, 1895).

For Afar consult W. Munzinger, “A Journey through the Afar Country” in Journ. Royal Geog. Soc. for 1869; V. Bottego, “Nella Terra dei Danakil,” in Boll. Soc. Geog. Italiana, 1892; Count C. Rossini, “Al Rágali” in L’Espl. Comm. of Milan, 1903–1904; and articles by G. Dainelli and O. Marinelli in the Riv. Geog. Italiana of Florence for 1906–1908, dealing with the volcanic regions.

Bibliographies will be found in G. Fumagalli’s Bibliografia Etiopica (Milan, 1893) and in the Riv. Geog. Italiana for 1907.

  1. During the Second Empire unsuccessful efforts were made by France to obtain a Red Sea port and a foothold in northern Abyssinia. (See Somaliland: French.)