All down the ages Tripoli has been the gateway through which weapons, cutlery, and cotton have entered, and slaves, ostrich feathers, and ivory have come out of inner Africa by plodding caravan. Since the sons of Ham first found their way across the wilderness of Shur, this region has been the terminus of three historic trade routes. The first of these runs due south across the desert to Lake Tchad and the great native states of Kanem, Sokoto, Bagirmi, and Wadai; the second follows a southwesterly course across the Sahara to the Great Bend of the Niger and the storied city of Timbuktu; while the third, going south by east, long carried British cottons and German jack-knives to the natives of Darfur and the Sudan. Is it any wonder, then, that, fired by the speeches of the expansionists in the Roman senate, all Italy should dream of a day when the red-white-and-green banner should float over this gateway to Africa and endless lines of dust-coloured camels, laden with glass beads from Venice and cotton goods from Milan, should go rolling southward to those countries which lie beyond the great sands? But, lost in the fascination of their dream, the Italians forgot one thing: modern commerce cannot go on the back of a camel.
No longer may Tripolitania be reckoned the front door, or even the side door, to central Africa. As the result of French and British encroachment and enterprise, not only has nearly all of the Tripolitanian hinterland been absorbed by one or the other of these powers, but, what is of far more commercial importance, they have succeeded in diverting the large and important [Pg 92] caravan trade of which the Italians dreamed, and which for centuries has found its way to the sea through Tripoli, to their own ports on the Nile, the Senegal, and the Niger, leaving to Tripolitania Italiana nothing but its possibilities as an agricultural land.
The statesmen who planned, and the soldiers and sailors who executed, the seizure of Tripolitania, were obeying a voice from the grave. Though the overwhelming disaster to the Italians at Adowa in 1896, when their army of invasion was wiped out by Menelik’s Abyssinian tribesmen, caused the political downfall of Crispi, the greatest Italian of his time, his dream of Italian colonial expansion, like John Brown’s soul, went marching on. With the vision of a prophet that great statesman saw that the day was not far distant when the steady increase in Italy’s population and production would compel her to acquire a colonial market oversea. Crispi lies mouldering in his grave, but the Italian Government, in pursuance of the policy which he inaugurated, has been surreptitiously at work in Tripolitania these dozen years or more.
Never has that forerunner to annexation known as “pacific penetration” been more subtly or more systematically conducted. Even the Pope lent the government’s policy of African aggrandisement his sanction, for is not the Moslem the hereditary foe of the church, and does not the cross follow close in the wake of Christian bayonets? Italian convents and monasteries dot the Tripolitanian littoral, while cowled and sandalled missionaries from the innumerable Italian [Pg 93] orders have carried the gospel, and the propaganda of Italian annexation, to the oppressed and poverty-stricken peasantry of the far interior. Under the guise of scientists, Italian political and commercial agents have been quietly investigatingof the regency from end to end, while the powerful Banco di Roma, an institution backed with the funds of the Holy See, through its branches in Tripoli and Benghazi, has been systematically buying up arable farm-lands from the impoverished peasantry at a few lire the hectare, which quadrupled in value with the landing of the first Italian soldier.