Rome, 1887 Tumult in the Square
The first news of the massacre appeared in the French-language Journal de St.-Pétersbourg, closely followed by The Times of London.
Meager information, scanty details. A few hackneyed words. The darkness of unexpected loss.
The news came out of East Africa and was received in Rome with ever-increasing dismay.
Italians had died.
They had died in battle, or maybe in an ambush. Neither the Journal nor The Times was definitive on this point.
The only certainty was that Italians had died far from home, and that they had died most horribly.
One hundred corpses on the battlefield. Two hundred corpses, and then three hundred.
No, five hundred. Five hundred Italian corpses. A round number.
Five hundred dead in East Africa.
But how had they died? And what had they been doing down there in Africa, among the palms and the baobabs? Among the mirages and the mermaids?
And then a name suddenly leaped out of the pages of those European newspapers.
The name was Dogali.
A name known, before the tragedy, to very few people in Italy.
The incident seemed just as obscure in Rome as anywhere else. There hadn’t been any official communication yet. Politicians were keeping quiet, and journalists were awaiting confirmation of what The Times and the Journal had reported in brief, third-page articles.
In the city, the name of Dogali was pronounced through clenched teeth. People in the highest military circles were especially concerned about the general bewilderment that would soon afflict the country.
Rome, however, was not daunted.
Nothing could bring her down. Decrepit millenarian that she was, Rome had seen some troubles in her life: arrogant condottieri, avid Landsknechte, corrupt clerics, young girls sacrificed for reasons of state. By now, the city was used to the rot.
Dogali. The name menaced the City of Seven Hills like a pack of mad dogs.
It was February 1, 1887, and Rome was enveloped in cold, crystal-clear air, in a great icy bubble. And so rich aristocrats took from their armoires their satin cloaks and their pure woolen overcoats, while poor people cast about desperately for some rags to cover their unhealthy limbs, prematurely aged by toil and rancor.
Rome, in the first hours of that first day of February 1887, was clad in hope. With a smile, she tried to defeat the icy air that had taken possession of her inhabitants’ fragile souls.
It was in such moments that the city shone like an Indian emerald. It was in such moments that Rome became Rome again.
But it didn’t last long. A vexing rain, an insidious wind, a crowd in tumult could suffice to undo all the magic. And on that day, the spell had been broken by a name: Dogali.
Dogali, an Eritrean city one hundred two meters above sea level and around twenty kilometers from Massawa. In Dogali, the sand was soaked with blood. In Dogali, an invading army—the invaders were Italians—had been surprised by wily Abyssinian patriots, who defended their land with honor and the sword.
But before Dogali, there had been Sahati. There, inside a stronghold, a small fort, were some Italians.
They were tattered and besieged, parched and starving.
Their skimpy provisions were almost gone. Their food would last two days at most. Their condition was critical. They needed reinforcements, which they urgently requested in a telegraph to Massawa.
The Italians were desperate. They were all reciting the Lord’s Prayer, giving each other extreme unction, confessing their sins before it was too late.
“When will the reinforcements come?” the frightened soldiers asked. But nobody knew. Nobody had enough strength to hope. And more than one wondered, “What am I doing here, with broken boots and a torn uniform?”
They were Italians, the officers had told them before they left Italy. They’d told them, “Go and win the fatherland a place in the sun.”
And they, they had believed that lie about the sun. They’d even believed in the Italy that Cavour and the House of Savoy had crudely cobbled together. Only forty years earlier, Italians had been Bourbons and Papists. They’d been abruzzesi and piemontesi, from Abruzzo and Piedmont. And now they were all supposed to acknowledge their union in “a single hope,” according to the lyrics of the song “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”) by Goffredo Mameli, who had died defending the Roman Republic in 1849.
But “a single hope” wasn’t something anyone in the little redoubt felt, not in the midst of all that piss-colored sand.
They were all different, those new Italians, and they loved being themselves. They loved their accents, their elongated vowels, their tousled locks of brown hair.
There were no mirrors they could look at themselves in, down there in Sahati. But many of them knew in their hearts that they weren’t so different from the abissini, those Ethiopians they were supposed to do battle with and conquer. Same amber skin, same big eyes, same long limbs, same unruly curls.
But the pay was good, and back home there were bawling infants and waiting women. Back home, they were hungry. A soldier’s pay could plug up all the holes.
It was the prospect of money, more than patriotic sentiment, that had brought them to East Africa. And then there was a beguiling thought, one each of them harbored deep down inside: that a beautiful Ethiopian girl with large, opulent breasts would soon be pressing herself against his pallid chest.
But there was no beautiful Ethiopian girl inside that redoubt of theirs. Only a bunch of starving grunts, ready to stage a rebellion and surrender to the enemy.
The officers were overwrought. Who was it they were supposed to fight? The Ethiopians outside the little fort or the rebels inside?
“When will the reinforcements from Massawa arrive?”
Rome knew nothing of the dilemmas her soldiers were facing in East Africa. She knew nothing of the siege, nothing of the urgent request for help telegraphed to Massawa, nothing of the relief column that was about to be massacred at Dogali. Rome was too wrapped up in herself to care about a handful of rag-tag soldiers catapulted into the sun of darkest Africa. The city was all wrapped up, as usual, in her own trivial little affairs: the premieres at the Teatro Argentina; the juicy gossip about the commendatore’s daughter, who had run off with that French lady-killer; and then there was politics, omnipresent politics, always center stage.
In the drawing rooms of Rome, nobody was talking about the African enterprise. Only in socialist and anarchist circles were there people who condemned that waste of public funds, that governmental rhetoric about colonies, that aggression against free nations.
But apart from a few rare exceptions, as far as Rome was concerned, Dogali didn’t yet exist.
Rome didn’t know that in a few days’ time, Italians, troops in that African wasteland, would be slaughtered, between a brook and a hill. She didn’t know that an Ethiopian commander named Ras Alula Engida, a native of Mennewe in the district of Tembien, the son of a modest farmer, had prepared a plan to teach the invaders a lesson.
After an unsuccessful attack on the fort at Sahati, the Ethiopian ras had decided to abandon his position. He’d feigned a total withdrawal but instead had remained, along with his troops, in nearby Dogali, where they waited in a hollow and readied themselves for a surprise attack on the reinforcements the Italian officers in Sahati had requested from Massawa. Sooner or later, the Italians would pass through that hollow, and Ras Alula would give them a sound thrashing. The Abyssinians’ blades were sharpened and ready. Ras Alula’s plan was predictable, but none of the Italian officers could be bothered to predict it. Lieutenant Colonel Tommaso De Cristoforis, a native of Casale Monferrato in Piedmont, had been charged with leading the relief battalion to the redoubt in Sahati, and he felt rather too sure of himself.
“Those niggers are our inferiors,” he said to all who could hear. “I don’t care if there’s a billion of them, they don’t stand a chance against us. We’re better tacticians and better fighters. We are Europeans, we are the supreme race.”
It was obvious to whoever took a look around that the situation was getting dangerous. And that hostility toward the occupying forces was mounting day by day. In Massawa, the workers had disappeared from the factories and workshops. Many of the Eritrean askari serving with the Italians had deserted. It wasn’t hard to imagine that those men had run away in order to swell the ranks of the Ethiopian patriots.
But De Cristoforis paid no attention to any of this. He felt big, strong, puissant. An Achilles, invincible and supreme. “They’re niggers, there’s nothing to worry about.”
And that was how he marched straight into Ras Alula’s trap.
It was a little past eight o’clock in the morning. The relief column was about an hour’s march from the fort in Sahati.
When the reinforcements began to pass through the hollow, the first to understand were the Eritrean askari. They saw the concentration of native troops; among them, some of the askari even recognized their own relatives.
I don’t want to shoot my brother, many of them thought. And, taking care not to be spotted by their Italian officers, they abandoned their mercenaries’ uniforms and the invading army on whose behalf they killed in exchange for money. They deserted silently, in small groups.
Then it was the scouts’ turn to discover that something wasn’t right. The word massacre was not uttered. It was too terrifying.
At that moment—it wasn’t eight thirty yet—the officers could have ordered a retreat. There was still time for them to save their troops’ skins. The day was already very hot. The sun, alternating with the frequent cold of the high plateau, had exhausted the few trees in the hollow. It was a climate that crushed your soul, infernal heat and then freezing cold. Rectangular wounds covered sun-roasted skin.
The relief column was in bad shape, an inadequately trained battalion with only a few experts in guerrilla warfare. Continuing to advance was risky. A gamble.
The officers could have ordered a retreat, but they didn’t. De Cristoforis had no desire to be marked out as a coward by the senior military leadership. As someone who was afraid of niggers.
Niggers aren’t anything, they can’t do anything, he said to himself, and then, to the troops: “We are superior in race and in intellect. Even if they’re fifty thousand strong, we’ll beat them all the same. We’re white, aren’t we, soldiers? Well, then, forward!” he yelled. “Viva l’Italia!”
Thousands of Africans appeared as though from out of the bare earth and fell upon the relief column like a sudden storm.
Rifle shots echoed through the hollow in Dogali. The Italians were encircled, completely surrounded. Some officers even heard their names called and were dismayed to find themselves face-to-face with askari deserters they had whipped only a week earlier, accompanying the lashes from the kurbash with insults. Here was the revenge of those who had been humiliated, raped, and outraged by the Italian invaders.
And in an instant, the earth of the hollow was drenched in blood. It was a slaughter.
After the battle, shouts of jubilation resounded over those African lands. Ras Alula had won a great victory.
“We are a free people,” he said, or someone said for him. “This is our land, and we will fight to the last man to save it from the enemy invader. The Italians are hereby warned. We will never stop defending ourselves.”
It took six days for news of the massacre to reach Rome. The task of announcing the sad news in the parliament fell to Prime Minister Agostino Depretis. His voice shook under the strain of suppressed sobs and fear of the consequences to come from the bloodshed. He stared straight ahead; he had no wish to look either his majority or the opposition in the eye. In great distress, unable to hide from his infuriated audience, he concluded by muttering something incomprehensible to the assembled parliament.
While the prime minister was speaking to the Chamber of Deputies, a man named Franco Mussi was walking naked through the desert around Massawa, nearly dead from hunger and thirst. He was short, with muscular shoulders and a member that dangled between his legs. Many of the corpses in the hollow at Dogali had been emasculated, a practice the Italians also applied to deserters and terrorists, as they called the Africans who resisted them. Mussi touched his penis countless times in his desperate trek, making sure he was still alive and had really survived the slaughter in Dogali. The rest of his body, however, no longer responded to stimuli. And behind him were his comrades in misfortune, all in the same condition. Feet covered with cuts and sores, nails black with dried blood, legs gashed by enemy bayonets.
In the battle, Mussi—from Zollino, a small town in Grecìa Salentina in southern Italy—had been wounded in the head by a blade and in one arm by a bullet. The man, who was a goatherd back home, had pressed grass into his wounds to stanch the bleeding.
He and his comrades, one from Calabria and the other from Lombardy, walked on during the day and at night slept in the branches of acacia trees. How frightening, the night sounds in East Africa! Some were like a witch’s laughter. And then there were the owls, the wild dogs, the sleepless lions. The night was dark and hostile.
They walked for days and were on the verge of succumbing when they reached the encampment.
Franco Mussi, his comrades, and the other soldiers were full of rage. They were furious at the officers who had sent them to confront the Ethiopian blades on the battlefield while those same officers, smart and elegant in their starched uniforms, stayed in the rear to watch. The officers hadn’t dirtied their hands with the soft soil of the hollow or with the enemy’s blood, so like their own. They had limited themselves to mouthing their stale, repetitive buzzwords, to saying Long live our homeland, long live Italy. But their Italy wasn’t the Italy of the battered and wounded Franco Mussi. Franco Mussi had enlisted out of need, because a cruel and treacherous disease had killed all his goats. Franco Mussi had nothing to call his own, not even his breath. Viva l’Italia was for well-to-do officers, possessed of money and protections—for the officers who limited themselves to issuing orders far from the battlefield.
“I’ll tell the whole truth once I get home. I’ll spill my guts about Dogali, about how those pomaded pretty boys of the Royal Army treated us. I’ll tell about our cowardly officers and our raggedy clothes. I’ll describe the officers’ arrogance and unbridled luxury. I’ll spill my guts.”
Franco wasn’t the only one who wanted to do that. But the army took the preventive measure of singling out potential troublemakers among the survivors and simply not releasing them from the hospital. The order to detain them was given by Prime Minister Agostino Depretis in person.
“How can they do this?” Franco Mussi protested. “How? I have to go home. I’ve got a wife waiting for me and a son I’ve never seen. They need me, I’m the head of their household.”
But Franco and others like him were considered hotheads and compelled to remain in the hospital for just as long as it took the government back home to prepare its propaganda; the nation didn’t want to hear cacophony and cockeyed words. Politics required silence about the failings of De Cristoforis and the other officers. “We must turn this defeat into a victory,” the politicians said.
And the director of this pathetic farce was Agostino Depretis. In his youth, the prime minister had been a brimming vessel of ideals, like everyone else. A devoted disciple of Giuseppe Mazzini, affiliated with his Giovine Italia (Young Italy) movement, appointed dictator pro tempore of Sicily by Garibaldi. A revolutionary career, but now old age was upon him and the taste for power still lingered in his mouth. And like so many before him, he bowed completely to what is called “reason of state.”
“I want some martyrs,” he said. And the propaganda machine was started up right away.
Four hundred and twenty dead soldiers became five hundred because the number sounded better in newspaper headlines. And all the fallen were promoted to the ranks of national heroes who had bravely fought to the death against the savage Ethiopian foe.
“Italy cannot abandon Africa,” the politicians said. “Italy must avenge its heroes, Italy must return to Dogali, because the fatherland always finishes what it starts.”
Franco Mussi, lying in his hospital bed, didn’t know what was happening. He couldn’t have imagined the flood tide of rhetoric that was diluting all thought. By the time he found out, a good while later, it was in his best interest to keep quiet, because nobody would have believed him. Army life had been nothing but a con from start to finish.
Once he got back to Zollino, however, he found that a bit of glory had attached itself to him too. His fellow zollinesi gave him a hero’s welcome, and there was a celebration in his honor.
At a certain point in the proceedings, Franco Mussi drank a glass of grappa; then he climbed up on a table, and with all the breath in his body, he too cried out, Long live our homeland, long live Italy! His truth, his rage, his feeling of helplessness—he’d swallowed all that with the grappa. In the end, he too came to terms with the devil of propaganda. And in the end, even he came to enjoy being a false hero of a false nation.