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Italo-Turkish War - 1911-12 - Background

Italian aspirations to a share of the lands of Northern Africa, bordering on the Mediterranean, date back to the chaotic days before unity was achieved. Even as early as 1838, only three years after Tripoli had been declared a Turkish vilayet, Mazzini and other Italian patriots, looking to the future, asserted that Tripoli must become an Italian colony. In 1866 Bismarck, writing to Mazzini, declared: "Italy and France cannot be associated to their common benefit in the Mediterranean. That sea is a heritage which it is impossible to divide among relatives. The empire of the Mediterranean incon- testably belongs to Italy, who possesses there coast- lands twice as long as those of France. Marseilles and Toulon cannot be compared with Genoa, Leghorn, Naples, Palermo, Ancona, and Venice. The empire of the Mediterranean must be the constant thought of Italy, the objective of her Ministers, the fundamental aim of the Cabinet of Florence."1 Words pleasant to Italian ears, though obviously intended to embroil Franco-Italian relations.

Since the growing feebleness of the Ottoman empire made itself felt, first of all, at sea, it was the north African dependencies, capable of being held to their allegiance only by sea-power, which were the first to assert their independent authority. As soon as the radical economic changes of the nineteenth century, familiarly summarized as the industrial revolution, accelerated the pace of European expansion, those detached shorelands were sure to become objects of interest to the powers in whose path they lay, and consequently the development occurred whereby France effected a lodgment in Algeria and Tunis and England in the basin of the Nile.

If Tripoli had possessed any particular value, very probably Italy casts either France or Great Britain would have put forth a claim to it in the course of their various north-African ventures. But Tripoli, besides being a burning desert-hell dotted with occasional oases, did not even boast a harbor, suitable as a naval base, and offered to the prospective owner hardly more than the prospect of considerable expense without an adequate return. Having dined off the fat of Africa, the governments of Paris and London discreetly declined to touch the bleached Tripolitan bone.

But Italy, which had not yet dined at all, gradually drew near to it. The young kingdom had been mortally offended when, in 1881, France seized Tunis, thereby planting herself at the point of the African coast where it thrust out a threatening spear-head in the direction of Sicily. The Roman government's disgust went the length of driving it into the arms of France's enemy, of Germany, and in 1883 it came to terms with the governments of Vienna and Berlin, thus completing the Triple alliance. As a youthful power, but recently arrived at statehood, Italy was extremely desirous of entering the colonial and imperialist game, preferably within the basin of the Mediterranean. Gradually a popular sentiment began to make itself felt in press and parliament in favor of seizing the last remaining African foothold before it was too late.

When Italy attained to nationhood aimost her first solicitude was to turn her attention to the North African littoral. The severe check to Italian ambitions administered by France in occupying Tunis, made Italian statesmen all the more determined to gain the control of Tripoli. In 1890 Crispi resolutely set about to secure Italian sovereignty of the Barbary Coast, and by making friends with Hassuna Pasha Karamanli, the direct descendant of the old Tripolitan "Bashaws," took the first decisive step in behalf of Italy. In a communication dated July 25, 1890, Crispi addressed an informal Note to Lord Salisbury with a view to receiving British sanction to his program. But Lord Salisbury, while acknowledging that in the event of any change of the status quo in the Mediterranean it was indispensable for Italy to occupy Tripoli, stated that the time for such a step had not yet arrived, and he bade Italy wait, adding: "The Italian Government will have Tripolitana, but the huntsman to bring down the stag must wait until it comes within the range of his gun, so that even wounded, it will not escape."

This program was not followed up by Crispi's successors in office, and the disaster at Adua so dampened the colonial ardour of the Italians that during the years which followed no effort was made openly to press Italy's claim to Tripolitana. However, towards the end of this same year (1896) the Marchese Visconti Venosta, who had taken over the direction of the Foreign Office, entered into an agreement with France regarding the revision of the treaties respecting Tunis, and he pointed out clearly that Italy expected compensations for this step in Tripolitana. Italy, in recognising French sovereignty over Tunis, had opened the road for her own occupation of Tripoli. Tunis was now admittedly for all time the terra perduta for the Italians, while Tripoli had become the terra promessa.

In March, 1899, France and Great Britain without informing Italy, signed a treaty defining the spheres of their respective influence in Central Africa, which directly concerned the Tripolitan hinterland. The Italians were thoroughly alarmed. They feared a repetition of the Tunisian fiasco. The Government was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of its policy. The Ministry fell, and the Marchese Visconti Venosta, once again called upon to direct the destinies of the Foreign Office, was able to arrange a detente with France, which later led to definite agreements regarding the recognition of the priority of Italian interests in Tripoli. Thus in 1902 M. Delcass6, at the time French Minister for Foreign Affairs, was able to declare: "In exchange for assurance given by France, not to interfere in Tripolitana, Italy has promised to do nothing which could obstruct French policy in Morocco."

From this time onward Tripoli and Morocco were linked together in the minds of the Italians, so that it was inevitable that when the Moroccan question should come up for settlement, Italy would press for a solution of the Tripolitan affair. Italian negotiations with Great Britain regarding Tripoli are less clear. Questioned concerning the attitude of England, M. Prinetti, the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, in May, 1902, replying in the Chamber to the query: "Whether we (Italy) could hope to obtain from England, regarding Tripoli's eastern boundary-line, a declaration identical with that received from France," stated "Yes, certainly, these same assurances have been given."

The next step in this appropriation of the African littoral took place when, in 1904, France and Great Britain formed an entente based substantially on an adjustment of their Mediterranean interests. In return for being left in undisturbed possession of Egypt, Great Britain agreed to promote the absorption by France of the as yet independent sultanate of Morocco. That left as the only unappropriated African shore-district the long barren stretch of Tripoli.

From 1902 onward, Italy showed that she meant to be faithful to her agreement with France respecting Morocco, and in pursuance of this policy, at the Algeciras Conference (1906), the Italian delegate voted with France against his ally, Germany, proving conclusively that Italy would not permit the Triple Alliance to stand in the path of her vital interests in the Mediterranean.

That Tripoli, considered purely as an investment, had little or no power of attraction, induced a certain amount of hesitation. But, while delaying action, the Roman foreign office discreetly initiated negotiations with the other powers directed at the effort of getting from them a formal acknowledgment of Italy's reversionary rights, that is, of her position as heir-at-law of the Ottoman empire. In the course of a generation the Italian claim had been duly buttressed by a series of diplomatic agreements with the general result that by the time the Turkish revolution of 1908 took place, it was well understood in all the capitals of Europe that, at the auspicious moment and without encountering objection from any European power, Italy would cross the sea and unfurl her banner on the Tripolitan coast.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Tripoli was still a part of the 0ttoman empire, but in reality it was ruled by the September, spirited Arab tribes, which for countless generations had made their home among its desolate sands. In this traditional situation the busy Young Turks, following their victory of 1908, produced a change in so far as they manifested a desire to draw Tripoli into closer dependence on the home government. Their much vaunted reform meant essentially a more effective centralization. They therefore began to interfere with the measures of economic penetration, which the Italians had for some time been pursuing and which constituted the usual preliminary phase of every well-regulated imperialist venture.

Italian merchant companies, already on the ground, discovered that they were meeting with underground resistance, while all requests for new concessions, including one for a purely scientific expedition to be conducted by Italian archaeologists, were curtly rejected. Strained relations followed, which certain personal influences such as always enter into diplomatic situations, but are really unimportant since they are symptoms rather than causes, did nothing to improve.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:16 ZULU