Going a few years back from Mussolini’s invasion of Libya, one of the main reasons for the original Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya was to expand Italy’s comparatively small colonial empire. Another concern was the rapid emigration of Italians to the United States and other countries (650,000 were estimated to have migrated to the US in 1910 alone). After the end of the Italian-Ottoman war, the Italians began to create plans to transport thousands and thousands of Italian colonists into the country’s newest territorial acquisition.
It formally began in 1913 with the establishment of the Ufficio Fondario (the Land Office), which had the job of assigning land to would-be Italian colonists. The Land Office initially assumed that all uncultivated land was private property and only assigned public lands to the colonists. However on July 18 1922, the Italian governor of Libya, Giuseppe Volpi (who would later order the Reconquista of Libya), issued a decree declaring all uncultivated land to be in the public domain, increasing the amount of land available to Italian colonists tenfold. Further decrees issued caused the confiscation of land owned by rebels or those aiding the rebels, in an effort to crackdown on dissent.
In 1928, de Bono (Volpi’s successor) issued subsidies and additional credits to help attract more colonists. Despite these measures, Italian immigration rates were much lower than what the government had expected, with little capital being invested in Libyan lands.
The situation changed in the early 1930s as a result of the Great Depression. A negative balance of trade, rampant unemployment and a strong lira encouraged mainland Italians to emigrate. Libya provided the perfect solution. With Omar Mukhtar executed and the rebels defeated, many public-works and infrastructure project ideas could finally be undertaken, in addition to resettlement projects. Indeed, all of these projects required manpower. It was the perfect region for the typical poor Italian patriot.
In 1934, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were merged together to form a Tripoli-based province. Four years later, Mussolini would declare Libya an integral part of the Kingdom of Italy, forming the country’s nineteenth region, dubbing it La Quarta Sponda d’Italia (Italy’s Fourth Shore).
Mussolini, who was imprisoned in 1911 for his criticism of the original Italian invasion, had visited Libya three times; in 1926, 1937 and 1942. His 1937 visit was to open what was described as the largest public works project in Libya, the 1,132 mile long strada litoranea (coastal highway), which ran from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian frontier. Though the Italians insisted it was only to help improve tourism in the region, contemporaries saw the strategic military value of such a road. Indeed, this road proved to be crucial to victory in the North African front of World War II (and more recently, the Libyan Civil War). The press in Italy hailed it as a feat of Italian engineering, despite it being built on the back of Libyan laborers.
Two major waves of immigration occurred in the 1930s; one in October 1938 and the other in 1939. Both were organized by the Italian governor Balbo - he led a convoy of around 10,000 Italians to Libya in 1938 and another 10,000 in the following year. His plan was to settle 20,000 colonists annually for five years, with the ultimate goal of reaching 500,000 colonists by 1950. In what could be seen as a precursor to reactions against Jewish migration to British Palestine, Italian migration evoked resentment and protests in the Muslim World, with agitations against it appearing as far away as Baghdad.
More support for colonists emerged in the form of the agricultural corporation Ente which was meant to attract farmers. Using confiscated land, the colonists (numbering 50,000 in the late 1930s) worked on 2,000 farms. By 1939, the Italians had built 400 kilometers of new railroads and 4,000 kilometers of new roads. Until 1940, there was even a Tripoli Grand Prix organized annually, while Italian archaeologists excavated the ruined Phoenician settlement of Leptis Magna and sent artifacts to museums in the mainland.
The Libyan Side
Many of the colonists were poor, but were generally better off than the native Libyan population. Libyans, mostly paupers, resented Italian development, still remembering the virtual genocide committed by them. It was only in September 1933 that the concentration camps were finally shut – and they left a horrifying toll. 40,000 of the 100,000 total internees died in the camps. Though Libyans resented the foreigners, Italian propaganda portrayed a very different story. In Mussolini’s 1937 visit, he declared Libya to be “morally and profoundly Italian”, to which the Muslims of Tripoli greeted him by addressing him as “the greatest man of the century and a sincere friend of Islam.” He was even awarded the ‘Sword of Islam’ (a Florentine sword with a fabricated history) and was declared the “Protector of Islam.”
For the native Libyans, life was not easy. All Libyans, of whatever faith, were expected to give the Fascist salute. Most wore black shirts during Mussolini’s 1937 visit to Tripoli. And in an effort to spread the wonders of Fascism, the Italian government ordered the formation of a Fascist group for Libyan youths, the Gioventu Araba (Arab Youth), modeled after Italy’s Opera Nazionale Balilla.
In 1939, the Italians allowed Libyans to apply for Cittadinanza Italiana Speciale (special Italian citizenship) effectively relegating Libyans to second-class citizens. At the time, Libyans were not allowed to work professionally in jobs involving Italian subordinates. That said, it seemed unlikely to be a great problem anyway as soon enough there were only 16 Libyan university graduates in the country. All told, even if the Italian occupation led to significant improvements in infrastructure and agricultural output, it left behind a native Libyan population that was not skilled and largely uneducated, while the country lacked effective political institutions. The effects of this would be apparent in the following decades.
With the outbreak of World War II, Balbo’s plan was in tatters. Most of the fighting occurred on farms allocated to the colonists. By 1941, only 8,426 colonists remained. Within a year, this number had halved. Following the end of subsidies and government support, the colonists abandoned Libya. The Allied forces occupied Libya in 1943. Libya was to declare its independence in December 1951.
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Libya: From Colony to Revolution by Ronald Bruce St. John, pages 1936-1939
Libya and the West: From Independence to Lockerbie by Geoff Simons, pages 12-13
If you would like to read in depth about exactly how Italian Libya life was, I recommend Brian McLaren’s Architecture and Tourism in Italian Colonial Libya: An Ambivalent Modernism.