Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




In March, 1891, Italian newspapers reported that African notables in Italy's Red Sea colony had been secretly arrested and brutally killed without trial. The report presented the killings as corrupt and lawless, and contradicted the notion, widespread among literate Italians, that Italy was bringing civilized society to Africa. The news provided a springboard for a nation-wide debate in press and parliament about colonialism, justice, metropole institutions and national identity. Yet by December, after extensive debate, two military trials, and a royal investigation in Africa, the initial aura of scandal had dissipated. Those who had committed the killings were exonerated, and their superiors, who admitted having given the orders, were never prosecuted.

The conventional explanation attributes the scandal's outcome to backstage plotting by military and political elites. However, this explanation overlooks the changed public perception of the killings by December. By then, the debate framed the killings as a matter of colonial security rather than corruption or lawlessness, and the prevailing view rejected civilizing pretensions in Africa, adopting instead an openly illiberal colonial outlook. Journalists were at the center of that change, shaping and disseminating across Italy a vicarious colonial experience that eventually undermined the application of liberal values. In this respect the scandal constituted an inflection point in the confrontation between Italian liberalism and colonialism, and illuminates Italy's experience with what is commonly called the late nineteenth-century crisis of liberalism.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.