"Oziosi, Vagabondi E Pregiudicati": Labor, Law, and Crime in Colonial Asmara, 1890-1941*

By Locatelli, Francesca | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

"Oziosi, Vagabondi E Pregiudicati": Labor, Law, and Crime in Colonial Asmara, 1890-1941*


Locatelli, Francesca, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


When questioned in 1906 by traveler Renato Paoli on the reasons why Italian colonial administration in Eritrea preferred prison to more traditional forms of punishment such as flogging, the president of the Indigenous Tribunal of Hamasien, Sir Salvadei, replied: "Do you really think, dear Sir [Paoli], that I could have these plants and flowers in Asmara and these streets without the help of the prisoners?"1 In its perverse logic, Salvadei's statement is testimony to the application in colonial Eritrea of an exploitative pattern also common in other African colonies: the use of prisoners as labor in the building of infrastructures. Underpinning this policy, however, was the more general question of the redefinition of labor relations and the intrinsic link between socioeconomic change, law, and crime in colonial Africa (Eritrea in this case).

The relationship between labor, law, and crime and the analysis of their role in the making of modern states and the configuration of present day societies has long been the object of debate among criminologists, sociologists, and historians of modern Europe. Scholars have investigated the burning issue of the relations between the emergence of the working class in modern Europe and the response of authorities in controlling social behavior and status.2

Social historians have undertaken numerous studies of crime within the general framework of the formation, reproduction, and disciplining of working classes in Europe in the early modern period and during the Industrial Revolution, with a particular focus on Britain. Similar research with regard to Africa is rapidly growing. As highlighted by Francis Snyder and Douglas Hay, the question of the underdevelopment of "Third World" countries has produced interesting analyses of the process of the formation, growth, and control of labor and of the criminalization of poverty, especially in specific historical periods, such as the colonial period, and in specific contexts-the urban milieu, for example.3 Within African studies, the relationship between the development of colonial urban economies and the emergence, organization, control, and criminalization of urban working classes has been central in pioneering works such as Charles van Onselen's study of the Witwatersrand, and the edited volume by Frederick Cooper.4 A later monograph by Cooper also examines the development of patterns of labor and its control and discipline in colonial Mombasa as the result of the interrelations between colonial attempts to fashion a permanent and "respectable" African working class, and African workers' response to it.5 Finally the recent study of Andrew Burton provides an accurate and fascinating analysis of the relationship between urbanization, the emergence of an African urban underclass, and social disorder in colonial Dar es Salaam.6

The link between labor, law, and crime remains neglected in the historiography of colonial Eritrea. Indeed, the three themes have been examined in a compartmentalized and often marginal way. An emerging literature deals with the nature of law in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial Eritrea, with limited analysis, however, on its impact on the economic, social, and political development of the country through time.7 The formation of Eritrean working classes during the Italian colonial period is a theme that has not been analyzed in a systematic way, although it surfaces in some historical studies.8 The nature and impact of Italian colonial policies, especially economic policies, on the structure of Eritrean society has become a contested issue among scholars of different orientations. Historian Tekeste Negash, for example, has attempted to demonstrate the limited impact of Italian colonialism on the socioeconomic structure of Eritrean society through the analysis of Italian economic, educational, and "indigenous" policies.9 From a totally different perspective, Yemane Mesghenna, and more recently Redie Bereketeab, examined the deep changes that occurred in Eritrean society during the period of Italian domination by examining how these changes contributed to the creation of modern Eritrean society.

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