Late Nineteenth-Century Italy in Africa: The Livraghi Affair and the Waning of Civilizing Aspirations

Late Nineteenth-Century Italy in Africa: The Livraghi Affair and the Waning of Civilizing Aspirations

by Stephen C. Bruner
English | 2017 | ISBN: 1443843768 | 198 Pages | PDF | 2.27 MB

"Civilizing Africa" - bringing European institutions and society to Africa - was a common rationale for nineteenth-century European expansions into that continent. However, in March 1891 a news correspondent accused officials in Italy's Red Sea colony of having ordered, without trial, the secret and brutal killing of certain indigenous notables. A scandal erupted because the news contradicted civilizing expectations, portraying Italians rather than Africans as the barbarians. The press drove a public debate over the accusations, but the debate ultimately led to an unanticipated reversal: public acceptance of the killings, because most Italians no longer considered European standards applicable to Africans. Reportage on three topics turned out to be most influential in shifting the public outlook: an Italo-Abyssinian diplomatic impasse, an on-going Africa famine, and the public persona of a colonial commander. Historians have read the 1891 affair as an inconsequential, essentially minor event in the run-up to the 1896 battle of Adua (Adwa), Italy's defeat by African forces that some have called an event of world-historical consequence. Yet the Livraghi affair re-shaped the Italian outlook on colonialism, opening the door to the later Italo-Abyssinian conflict and an event like Adua. The affair was so important to contemporary Italians that it occupied public attention for ten months, and influenced attitudes and colonial policy for decades. It prompted an enduring change without which there might have been no Adua.

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