Italian Colonization of Libya

Libya's history comprises of thousands of years of colonizations by prominent empires such as the Roman and Ottoman peoples. This blog post will mainly focus on the Italian colonization of Libya during World War I and  World War II, an age of imperialism and global competition. 

The Italian colonization in Libya, driven by political, economic, and social reasons, began in 1911 and lasted for over 30 years. When Italy first sought Tripoli, the capital of Libya, the Ottoman Turks were in control of the area for many centuries. Despite a set of revolts by indigenous Libyan and Turkish citizens, the Ottoman sultan eventually signed the 1912 Treaty of Lausanne, which allowed Italian rule over the Libyan region.   


Italy’s representation of the takeover of Ottoman Tripolitania in 1911

One of the goals of the annexation is to extend the Italian land to house its growing population in an area that was once ruled by the Roman Empire. The goal was to extend a "fourth shore" for Italy. Italy was pondering about the “Southern Question”, which was seeking to provide a solution for the underdeveloped southern Italian economy that caused massive labor migration abroad. The Italian government saw Libya as an opportunity to extend its borders to a land familiar to the Italian nationalists. One can see that the Italian population in Libya increased at a rapid rate from 26,000 in 1927 to 119,139 in 1939, comprising 13% of the total Libyan population. Most of these settlements occurred in the northern parts of Libya and in major areas such as modern day Tripoli and Benghazi since that is where the majority of fertile land was. 

However, the Italian government framed its conquest of Libya as mainly an effort to restore the decaying Roman environmental legacy. Prior to 1911, no archeological research was done in the Libyan provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. By the late 1920s, the Italian government invested in excavations in major Roman cities such as Leptis Magna and Sabratha, which would increase Italy's tourism in its newly colonized land. However, as mentioned previously, the main goal of the occupation was to extend Italian nationalism and gain a strong footprint in the North African region as other world powers such as Britain and France have done.  

There was much resistance by Libyans, however, as Libyans did not enjoy the quality of life under Italian rule. The Italian settlers wished to transform the region from an Arab, Muslim society to a new system based upon a classical and Christian background. This was a complete contradiction of the life and values Libyans were accustomed to that have allowed room for resentment to grow against the Italians. 

Any resistance to the Italian colony have resulted in harsh countermeasures, including concentration camps and massacres. One prominent figure which is well respected by Libyans today is Omar al-Mukhtar, a teacher-turned-general who helped spearhead the Senussi movement in Libya. He was eventually captured by the Italian Armed Forces and hanged in 1931 for committing treason against the Italians. To this day he continues to be a national hero and symbol for resistance in Libya.

A portrait of Omar al-Mukhtar

Though resentments from the Italian colonization continued for years even after the liberation of Libya, relations between Italy and Libya warmed in the first decade of the 21st century, when they entered co-operative arrangements to deal with illegal immigration into Italy. On 30 August 2008, Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a historic cooperation treaty in Benghazi. Under its terms, Italy would pay $5 billion to Libya as compensation for its former military occupation. In exchange, Libya would take measures to combat illegal immigration coming from its shores and boost investments in Italian companies.

At the signing ceremony of the document, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recognized historic atrocities and repression committed by the state of Italy against the Libyan people during colonial rule, stating: "In this historic document, Italy apologizes for its killing, destruction and repression of the Libyan people during the period of colonial rule." and went on to say that this was a "complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era".  

Though resentment has slowly diminished throughout the years, Italian-Libyan relations is still an ongoing topic for many Libyans. The history of Italian rule has much more detail that wasn’t covered in this blog post, however, it’s a quick summary of the history and current climate of Italian-Libyan relations.