As the European empires dissolved after 1945 and their colonies reclaimed their independence, one group of people got caught in the middle. These were the white settlers, (called the pieds-noir) in French Algeria and the Italians in Eritrea. Some had been there for generations. What happened to them?
Africa had other white settlers: the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Afrikaners and of course those of British descent, notably the Rhodesians. Some left at independence, but many of them thought they could and would stay for ever; but, except in one case, the Afrikaners, it was not to be.
Here, for reasons that will become clear, I focus on the French and Italian settlers, and their very different experiences of being caught up in liberation struggle. One of their number, their Homer, was the Nobel-winning author Albert Camus. He died in 1960, chronologically about halfway through the period of the settlers’ dilemma but his writings portray, hauntingly, a world about to disappear, and not without violence.
Seen from 60 years on, the numbers are astonishing. By 1961, the French inhabitants of the three departments of French Algeria totalled 1.4 million, or 13% of the whole population. In 1939, out of the total population of Asmara, capital of Eritrea (98,000), 54% were Italians; permitted by local laws and prejudices to, for example, order indigenous Eritreans off the awning-shaded pavements of that bella citta.
In their heyday, many French and the Italian settlers enjoyed the good life. The former made Algiers into a French Mediterranean city, with all that that implies. The Italians thought nothing of closing streets in Asmara in order to stage Monaco-style Grand Prix races through what was by then, in the 1950s, an African-governed city. Clubs, entertainments, cinemas, dances and trips to the beach abounded. Camus’ novel L’Etranger illustrates how even the lower middle class in French Algeria benefited from a system skewed in their favour.
World War II and its aftermath
For both groups, however, the clouds on the horizon first appeared even before the end of World War II. When the British liberated Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1941, they were astonished to find Italians amongst the starving civilians whom they had to feed. The experience led many to leave: the Italian population of Eritrea, 75,000 in 1939, halved by 1946. But most of those who remained prospered, and I think it safe to say that they were not hated by the indigenous population, who had a more distinct enemy to mistrust – the Imperial government of Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa, which reclaimed Eritrea from UN mandate in 1952.
The French settlers’ experience for the next few years was very different. In Algeria, the hatred was always there, and the settlers represented an occupying power. The pieds-noir suffered the first attacks as early as May 1945 when 100 of them were killed in the Setif incident. Tit-for-tat killings increased the body count on both sides, the atrocities multiplied, and the situation began to destabilise the Republic itself. The Battle of Algiers – the struggle to overthrow the French authorities by seizing the capital – began in September 1956 (the film Battle of Algiers which tells the story in all its horror is required viewing for officers in the Pentagon to this day).
Militancy amongst the pieds-noir developed a kind of victory when, supported by some generals, they successfully demanded that France’s war hero Charles De Gaulle assume the presidency. It was a false victory. Visiting Algiers, and addressing an enormous white crowd, De Gaulle made his famous speech on the theme, “Je vous ai compris!”, a phrase interpreted by the settlers, wrongly, as support for their cause. By the time they realised that de Gaulle had no intention of keeping Algeria, it was too late.
In July 1962, a referendum in favour of independence spelled the end for many of the French settlers. A million of them emigrated to France, leaving abandoned schools, public offices, homes and cars behind them. Leaving hostility in Algeria (the last page of L’Etranger, where he marches to his death surrounded by shouts of hatred, is an eery presentiment), they were not particularly welcome in the patrie and were behind at least some of the Day of the Jackal attempts to assassinate de Gaulle.
The Italians in Eritrea had a different experience of violence. Crucially, the struggle for independence for Eritrea was directed, not at them, but whoever was governing in Addis Ababa. The war of liberation (1961 – 1991) hit close to home in the early 1970s when the insurgents came near to taking Asmara. Repeated rocket attacks on the city pinned residents in their homes and interrupted food and energy supply. House to house searches carried out by soldiers looking for loot were a regular occurrence. Many Italians got away – on at least one occasion by an Exodus-style charter flight lifting off from the airport which had been taken over, for a couple of hours, by armed men of the community.
One Italian farmer was denounced by his farm hands and imprisoned. Then the authorities realised that he was their only reliable source of information on animal health and released him, offering to have the farm hands shot (he declined). Houses were seized and handed over to ‘ministers’. Phones were tapped, families subject to ‘inspection.’ The boomer generation who graduated in those years left Eritrea for good and made new lives for themselves and their children (not all whom speak Italian) in Italy, South Africa, the UK or the US.
What was it all about? The settlers did their best, bringing technology, further education and good business practice to Eritrea. My father-in-law, a second-generation settler, put it best. One evening in 1981 he said to me, “It was different for you British, going out to Kenya and Rhodesia and so forth. You always thought that one day you would go back to your home country, and you did. It affected your attitude. We Italians came here to stay. We had nothing to go back to, we had to make it here, we weren’t temporary.”
When he died a couple of years later, this noble man who had given so much to the country of his birth was given the equivalent of a state funeral. Police cordoned off the streets. Soldiers stood at attention. Local people crowded the pavements as the cortege marched slowly down the middle of the avenue to the cathedral, male members of the family and I, numb with grief, leading the procession into the crowded gloom of that great church. “When a just man dies/Sorrow and joy/Lamentation and praise/Are one”.
There are now only about 900 Italians left in Eritrea.