Many Brits today would struggle to find Eritrea quickly on a map, but there is a clue in the name. The Red Sea used to be called the Erythraean Sea, from the ancient Greek word for red, erythros, and Eritrea has a long Red Sea coast.
Despite the haziness of the knowledge of many modern Brits regarding Eritrea, we have invaded it a couple of times, and we have been intimately connected with some key stages in its history.
Our first invasion was actually aimed at the Emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros, who had taken some Brits prisoner and refused to release them, so we will deal again with this invasion in the section on Ethiopia. But let’s just note here that the British expeditionary force commanded by Sir Robert Napier landed in 1867 at Zula, about 30 miles south of Massawa, Eritrea’s main port. In an impressive feat of engineering, they rapidly built new piers (of the cargo kind rather than the promenade up-and-down kind) and started building a railway heading inland and roads for the force, which included a number of elephants to carry the heavy guns. What expedition would be complete without elephants I hear you asking? The expedition was a great success from the Victorians’ point of view, though clearly not from Tewodros’ point of view as he ended up dead.
At about the same time as Napier’s expedition, the Khedive of Egypt was conducting his own invasions of parts of Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it then was. In the process he leased the port of Massawa from the sultan. Subsequently, we ended up with troops there as part of our Egyptian operations, but frankly we weren’t very interested in it, so in 1885, to prevent the French getting it, we handed it over to the Italians.
This, as it turns out, may not have been a very wise move and shows the problems of always assuming that your former enemies will also be your future enemies and that your former friends will always be your future friends. Massawa became a key element in the Italian colony of Eritrea, which the Italians put together in the late nineteenth century and which then became a key element in Mussolini’s African Empire, with which we were at war by 1940.
In January 1941 we were ready to invade Eritrea, and British and Commonwealth units, particularly Indian troops, crossed the border into Eritrea on 19 January. The key battle in the campaign was the bitter Battle of Keren, which lasted from 5 February until 27 March as two opposing forces in many ways quite well matched fought it out. Finally, our side won and Keren fell. Massawa fell shortly afterwards and in June, Assab, a port in southern Eritrea, was also captured. Though after that, and until Italy itself signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943, Italians, with some local support, conducted a guerrilla campaign against British forces.
We continued to administer Eritrea until 1951 when it was federated with Ethiopia. In 1993, after a long guerrilla war against Ethiopia, and after a UN-supervised referendum, Eritrea was internationally recognised as independent.