Delusions of Empire: A Review of Francesco Filippi’s But We Built Roads for Them

Italian troops in Ethiopia, 1935. (Source: Wlkipedia, public domain)

One of the ironies of the Italic-skippered “discoveries” of the Caribbean and the Americas, from the late 15th and to and throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, is that Italy, not yet a modern nation-state, was unable – at first – to execute the continental land-thefts, Indigenous genocides, and the mass rape and pillaging wrought so mercilessly by the major European imperialists: Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands. Italians helmed ships and charted “New World” shores, but piracy, conquistador-swashbuckling massacres, lethal enslavement of “Indians” (and soon enough Africans), and the exchange of gore for gold was presided over by Their Royal Northwest European Majesties’ fleets and foot-soldiers, primitive capitalists and buccaneer entrepreneurs, and not by the Southwest Europeans of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Tyrrhenian seas. The result is that Italians have credited their own imperialism with spreading Catholicism and “civilization” and/or good times of sun, surf, sand, and sex, but certainly not at all with perpetrating sadism akin to that of the expansionist, North Atlantic European powers.

Via painstaking research, sober analysis, and an appreciation for the truths of Realpolitik and sombre, historical fact, Francesco Filippi shatters this rose-coloured-glasses-eye-view of Italy’s once-imperium in Africa, the Aegean, and even China. Filippi toils at this task because Italy’s conception of its own history – since its 1861-71 unification – has been subject to “acrimonious debates” leading to “reshuffling and revision,” mirroring democratic, Fascist, or Resistance perspectives. So, “battles of memory” rage about what should be remembered – or not – about events and personalities.

Still, one aspect of modern Italian history has been either whitewashed or utterly blacked out: Italian imperialism and colonialism. In his book, But We Built Roads for Them: The Lies, Racism and Amnesia that Bury Italy’s Colonial Past (Baraka Books, 2024), originally published in Italy in 2021, historian Francesco Filippi recovers, “The events that disrupted the lives of millions of people on several continents, because of Italian imperialism,” so that he may illustrate “how Italian society perceived colonialism,” as both a Putsch to accrue riches and international prestige, and simultaneously to affirm Caucasian Capitalist (and Christian) supremacy over, principally, the Blacks, Arabs, and Muslims of Northeast Africa – namely, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Although Italy’s imperialist ambition and colonial gambit endured nearly 80 years (1882-1960), and was a “substantial” orientation of monarchical, Fascist, and liberal democratic governments, its horrors, errors, tragedies, and farces – plus its legacy of impoverishment and political instability – are either erased from public memory or are sugar-coated to suggest that Italian empire-building was benign, if not beneficial, for the colonized. For Filippi, this disgraceful “amnesia” endangers both present-day domestic civil liberties regarding respectful accommodation of refugees, immigrants, and (visible) minorities, and a foreign policy assertive and protective of human rights:

From the start, Italy regarded otherness as inferior, subordinate, slave-like – not as an element of diversity worthy of respect. “Diverse” people entered the public imagination as savages and mindless servants. Then, they disappeared from public view for half a century – but were still represented by embarrassing, racist caricatures – only to reappear now as a threat: “illegal immigrants and intruders,” but never “human beings.”

Italian colonies in East Africa during War of Ethiopia, 1935. (Source: Wikipedia, used by permission.)

Consequently, Filippi warns, Italians – and other Caucasian Europeans – by refusing to acknowledge the colonial-accomplished atrocities of their imperialist ancestors – may slip “into a racist reinterpretation of a victimized, pure, blameless, and defenceless Festung Europa, the ‘Fortress Europe’ imagined by the Nazis.”

Filippi bades his readers acknowledge the eight-decade-long, tyrannous debacle that was Italian imperialism: from crafting “Eritrea” in 1890 to suit British interests, to one-sidedly reinterpreting a trade treaty with Ethiopia to mean that Italy would control its foreign policy; from the Ethiopian victory over Italy in the Battle of Adua (1896), costing 4900 Italian lives, to the “disaster” of a “cotton company adventure in Somalia, [leading to] revocation of the concession in 1903, and … accusations of embezzlement and even slavery against the industrialists”; from Italian participation in suppressing China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900 – in the name of a “crusade of white civilization against yellow barbarism,” to bombing civilians, unleashing poison gas, setting up concentration camps, and committing massacres, all to subjugate Libya, 1911-31; from illegally occupying the Dodecanese islands – “a strange, white colony” – in the Mediterranean in 1912, to the brutal conquest of Ethiopia in 1935, a mission succeeding only due to “the use of massive resources: the deployment of hundreds of thousands of men and … planes, tanks, and mechanized wagon-trains,” not to mention ferocious savagery (including “the use of poison gas”), all to erect an apartheid state. Yes, Mussolini’s Ventennio heightened the body count, but still could not heighten profits. Even the triumph over Ethiopia was pyrrhic. The victory drained the treasury so that Italy didn’t have the wealth or the weapons to be anything but Hitler’s poodle once World War II began.  Vanquishing Ethiopia proved, “Economically fruitless, internationally detrimental, and fleeting….” Indeed, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie took back his throne in 1941. Eventually, Italy’s loss to the Allies in World War II saw it stripped of all of its colonies in 1948, save for a slice of Somalia, which it had to surrender in 1960. Then, in 1970, Libya expelled 20,000 Italian colonists. Even the vaunted, Italian road-construction program consisted of, says Filippi, “expensive infrastructures used as propaganda, and a reality of neglect and waste.” In short, the roads became “a huge sinkhole.” Then again, few Italians accepted to be farmers in Africa when they could find more lucrative employ amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the smokestacks of Montreal and Hogtown. Thus, the 80-year-long dream of an Africa-based, Italian Empire proved to be a financial fantasy and a blood-and-bullets nightmare.

Unfortunately, however, the lies that Italians were told so as to sustain public support for the invasions and occupations, the sackings and the rapes, necessitated the caricaturing of African Blacks, Arabs, and Muslims as subhuman, barbaric, and incorrigibly bestial. (The Chinese were also cast as degenerates.) This racist propaganda was so insidious that, in 1884, Italy shipped Natives from its Red Sea colony at Assab to be displayed as “savage specimens” in a “human zoo” in Turin. Filippi traces Italian Negrophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia back – in part – to the racism that Italian imperialism propagated to justify its overseas missions that were actually mere illusions of grandeur backstopped by brute force.

The tale that Filippi unfolds in his masterful, yet accessible history of the aforementioned delusions is one applicable to Canada and to Canadians. The publisher of the English edition of Fillipi’s absorbing interrogation of the high price of (racist) imperialism, namely Robin Philpot of Baraka Books states in his Foreword that a similar book is essential vis-à-vis Canada’s “blotted out … colonial history,” and its “possible title” should be: “But We Have No History of Colonialism: The Lies, Racism and Amnesia that Bury Canada’s Colonial Past.” Philpot observes that not only is Canadian enmity versus Indigenous peoples still subject to denial or minimizing, so is colonial Canada’s engagement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and its assists to monarchs in suppressing Indo, Afro, and Sino resistance to British rule. Philpot holds that Canadians need to know this inglorious history due to “the world inching closer to wide-scale war and Canada coming into conflict with countries on all continents….” (Intriguingly, Filippi notes that it was “a sort of G8 ante litteram,” in fact “the Eight Nations Alliance,” an assembly of European states, the US, and Japan, that assaulted China in 1900-01. Who cannot see, now, the consolidation of a primarily Caucasian, European, and nominally Christian military alliance – NATO and the EU plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea – purposed to cannonade China again?)

While Philpot must be praised for publishing Filippi’s ultra-timely book – with its lessons for Canadians about interrogating our history of aggression against Indigenous and “Third World” others (and our expressions of hostility – toward “newcomers” from Asia and Africa, the Caribbean and Muslim nations), salutations need be allotted Francesco Filippi too. His previous, Italian-bestselling, popular history, Mussolini Also Did a Lot of Good (Baraka Books, 2021), delivered a total recap of the historic stupidity and cruelty, the decadence and cupidity, of Benito Mussolini and his Black Shirt gestapo. In Filippi’s newest work, his prose again scintillates in clarity and wit, and is scrupulous in its forensic reconstruction of the inevitable implosion of iniquitous, Italic imperialism. I wager that Filippi is a brilliant scribe in Italian, for Domenic Cusmano’s Englishing here is also formidably excellent. A Montreal communications professional, photojournalist, translator, and the publisher and editor of Accenti, Cusmano took on the translation of Filippi’s extremely relevant text because it alerts us to “the menace of demagoguery,” (see Trump.) Still, Cusmano confides, his task was not easy: “The author’s conversational tone, replete with heavy doses of dramatic irony and rhetorical assertions,” plus his “long, serpentine sentences,” mandated “meticulous treatment.” An emotional burden was also borne: “The author’s revelations about Italy’s colonial past … are disturbing and will unsettle many, especially those of us who are of Italian heritage.” Yes, that is a special angst, but not unique. As Cusmano’s belles-lettres translation clarifies, it is the torturous responsibility of Third World intellectuals to have to bear witness to five centuries of Caucasian Christendom’s capitalist Reign of Terror over all of Earth. I thank Filippi for his unflinchingly courageous exposé; I applaud Cusmano for his luminous rendering of Filippi’s incendiary truth-telling. Next? Oppose War! Share the Wealth!


But We Built Roads for Them: The Lies, Racism and Amnesia that Bury Italy’s Colonial Past (Baraka Books, 2024) is the English translation of Noi però gli abbiamo fatto le strade: le colonie italiane tra bugie, razzismi e amnesia by Domenic Cusmano.

George Elliott Clarke is a poet and a pioneering scholar of African-Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. His latest books are an essay collection, Whiteout: How Canada Cancels Blackness (Véhicule Press), and Canticles III (MMXXIII) (Guernica Editions), the concluding tome of his six-volume verse-epic, Canticles.

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