When Italy captured Libya from the Osmannic Empire in 1912 they basically took over a 680,000 square miles large patch of sand. Unlike neighbouring Tunisia Libya was not a very fertile land. The Libya of classical times had served as part of Rome's North African granary, but climate changes and general neglect following the disintegration of Roman society had turned the land into a desert. Libya held little promise as an economic asset for Italy, and initial evaluations about Libya's potential as an outlet for Italian emigrants were decidedly pessimistic. Indeed, it appears that a major motive for the Italian capture of Libya was to forestall Libya becoming part of French North Africa.
Apart from the coastal strip, Libya was not peaceful until the 1930s - Tripolitania was only fully subjugated in 1925, and Cyrenaica - where the best farmland, such as it was, could be found - only fell under full Italian control in 1932. The Fezzan (the great Libyan interior) only fell to the Italians in 1930. Cyrenaica and the Fezzan fell to a successful campaign waged by Graziani, reputedly with great ruthlessness - as much as 90% of Libyan livestock was slaughtered by Graziani's men and many native Libyans were imprisoned in great camps. Other native Libyans fled to neighbouring countries. Although Italo Balbo's rule (see below) brought more peaceful times and many refugess returned, there were still about 60,000 displaced Libyans in Tunisia in 1939.
It was consequently something of a backwater which came under Italo Balbo's governorship in 1934. It's been speculated that Mussolini had Balbo appointed as governor of Libya in order to remove a possible political rival from the center of power in Italy. 1934 was also about the time when notions of empire took the front seat over purely economic considerations over the feasability of developing Italy's overseas territories into true colonies. Libya would remain a liability to the Italian treasury - in 1935, the exports of Libya amounted to 61,000,000 lire whereas the imports were worth 398,000,000 lire, Balbo's various schemes for developing Libya's economy notwithstanding.
Balbo came to be the proponent of colonization by demographics, the transfer of Italian settlers to North Africa intended to permanently alter the demographic make-up of Libya.
Italo Balbo with Italian settlers, 1938. Photo from the RAI's website
Balbo spent the first years of his governorship proposing a series of administrative changes - for example, the coastal parts of Libya were to be divided into four provinces - the Misurata, Tripoli, Benghazi and Derna - which were to become parts of Italy proper, much like Algeria administratively was split up into departments which were part of metropolitan France. At first the colonization went slowly:
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Year Persons 1931 1,102 1932 1,328 1933 3,586 1934 3,675 1935 1,281 1936 959 1937 1,556 1938 20,000 1939 10,802
reason why Mussolini ordered that future transfers of emmigrants to Libya were to be conducted more quietly.
The immigration data, above, only account for Italians relocated to Libya as part of government-funded programmes. Military personnel, civil servants etc. who did not relocate permanently, or who relocated without their families, are not included in the numbers above. According to the 1931 census, there were 37,300 Italians and naturalized Italians in Libya as of April 21st that year. As of April 21st 1936, this number had increased to 63,722. The estimated number of Italians in Libya was 140,000 by the end of 1940, still not counting military personnel, civil servants and so on.This should be held against an overall population of Libya of 654,716 in 1931 and 732,973 in 1936. The major ethnic groups in Libya's population were, apart from the Italians, Arab-Berbers, Black Africans and, interestingly, about 28,500 Jews in the 1936 census, mostly settled in Tripoli. One black African tribe in Benghazi (unnamed in the articles I've read) retained its own language and culture, otherwise the black population was fully integrated with the rest of Libya's population in language, religion etc.
The Italian colonization of Libya as envisioned by Italo Balbo was overwhelmingly agricultural - settlers were intended to grow the land from large collective-style communal farms (called 'demographica' in Fascist nomenclature) with everything provided by the state - housing, roads, and all-important water from very deep wells dug with modern techniques. Under this scheme, farmers would initially surrender all their crops to the central colonial authority, and gradually buy their way out of the debt incurred by all the things provided by the state until they would finally own their farms. The average demographica farm plot was 80 acres in size - very respectable by European standards. The settlers were hand-picked by a Fascist emigration agency, underlining the planned nature of the programme. About 2/3 of them were North Italians.
The Italian settlers were to concentrate on vines, olives, tobacco and various other cash crops, as well as the usual range of cereals - raising livestock would remain the province of the indigenous population. Native Libyans also formed a small part of the demographica communes. It would be interesting to compare the Italian plans for the development of Libya with similar plans for the economic and demographic development of Italian East Africa.
The Italian plans for developing Libya into a self-sufficient part of Italy and an outlet for immigration were cut short by the war. The demographica of Cyrenaica were evacuated in 1942 because of the war; most remaining colonists relocated to Italy proper. By 1947 there were only an estimated 40,613 Italians left in Libya, and their numbers continued to dwindle into the 1950s.