The Eritrea colony got off to a bad start.  It was brutal to the Eritreans and attracted few Italian settlers, mostly hustlers.  With the defeat at Adua in 1896, Eritrea hit bottom.

A civilian governor, Ferdinand Martini, replaced the sleazy and incompetent military administration.  During his nine years, Martini moved the capital from steamy Massawa into the cool highlands at Asmara, threw out the worst of the officers and parasites, created an effective civilian administration with departments for finance, education, health, police and courts, and divided the territory into locally administered districts.  His goal was to prove the superiority of Italian culture.

Martini was no less a European supremist than others. He had coauthored a report that described Eritrea as “a fertile and virgin land…stretching out its arms to Italian farmers”. Eritreans were considered inherently inferior, less able to learn, not fully human.

Martini understood, however, that Eritrea wasn’t ready for an influx of Italian colonists. Most of whom would be little more skilled or educated than Eritreans and would not be able to compete with cheap Eritrean labor. He also knew that quiet borders with Ethiopia would give him time to build the colony. Eritrea became, for a while, a good neighbor. Soon a well ordered modern colony began to take shape, able to absorb settlers.

To make sure that Eritreans knew who was boss, Martini reacted immediately to acts of resistance with whippings and imprisonment, frequently enough fatal to convey his message.  Things were looking up for Italy, but Eritreans were losing their freedom to colonial masters who treated them with contempt, valued them mainly as cheap labor, household servants, cannon fodder (to help subdue Libya and Somaliland, Italy’s newer colonies) and, notably, bedmates. When the mostly male Italian population was still under 5000, Eritrea already had an estimated 1000 mixed-race children.

Martini knew that Eritrea’s future was in the highlands. The short distance from Massawa’s stunning heat to temperate Asmara included a steep climb above 7000 feet. He envisioned a railway up the escarpment that was considered impossible by many but which came to be seen as an engineering marvel. Railway construction went on long after Martini was gone, eventually reaching nearly to the Sudan. He began the network of roads, telegraph lines and electrification that remained a legacy long after Italian rule ended.

The beginnings of a modern economy appeared, and with it a small working class with some literacy and modern skills. The first schools offered Eritreans only a fourth grade education – as much, the racists believed, as they could absorb and enough to make them useful. As both participants and observers, growing numbers of Eritreans were leaving feudalism behind.

Eritrean culture survived in the spaces left to it, tolerated as long as it didn’t interfere. Family ties remained, but traditional authority and social structures were easily ignored. The daily insults and humiliations of colonialism replaced the highland pride of independence. A monetary economy arose for the first time. Eritreans were paid, however poorly, as shop clerks, servants, soldiers, waiters, construction laborers, watchmen, etc. Shops and cafes opened, selling imported goods and serving pasta and caffe latte. A few were opened by Eritreans, for Eritreans.

The impact of these changes was enormous. Formerly, a boy’s future was determined by his family’s social status and land holdings, if any. A girl’s future depended on her marriage prospects. Now their worth depended on their value to the colonial economy and government. A clever boy might find a place in school, become literate, learn to drive a car, become a soldier or operate a machine. A girl could serve in a household, a shop or café. Sex was a constant commodity. Inexorably, the colonial impact penetrated ever deeper into rural areas, creating a new Eritrean society with a European dimension.

Cohabitation with Eritrean women was so widespread that the colonial administration was pressured from home to respond. Madamismo, as it was called, was officially banned.  The decision is blamed for the unintended spread of prostitution in Eritrea and later in Ethiopia under Mussolini for which they became known, that became the new sexual marketplace.

While colonialism was transforming the lives of Eritreans, relatively little was changing in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa became the capital, and with the completion of the railroad from Djibouti and the revival of European interest after World War I, foreign influence grew. Ethiopia remained fully under Ethiopian control. Traditional authority gave in very slowly to modernization.

Compared with Eritrea, Ethiopian society remained nearly frozen in time. Until the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 the threat of a power struggle was not completely eliminated. Few schools or roads were built and electrification spread slowly. The first ministries to manage finance, education, etc. were set up, but with limited real authority and of course without experienced Ethiopians.

Inevitably, the growing colony of Eritrea began to attract Ethiopian labor from just across the border in Tigre Province. Eritreans saw them as ignorant bumpkins, fit only for the most menial jobs. The abuse they received from their colonial masters was now passed on to hapless Tigreans, derisively called Agames from the name of a border district in Tigre.

This Eritrean air of superiority would infect relations with Ethiopia on more than one occasion. When Italy sent its Eritrean troops into battle during the Fascist invasion in the 1935, for example, some shared the emotions of the Italians, feeling both superiority to Ethiopians as well as the Italian lust for revenge after Adua, when Eritrean prisoners had limbs cut off before being freed.

The breach that had opened at Adua steadily widened. Suddenly the path of local history changed when the British liberated both Ethiopia and Eritrea from the Fascists in 1941. A new era in their relations now began.

A good read about Eritrea is “I Didn’t Do It For You” by Michela Wrong, published in 2005.