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Italian Administration

The British in Eritrea

Autonomy and Independence




Eritrea in Antiquity

It is supposed that in antiquity Eritrea was the place were the kingdom of  Punt was located. The kingdom was famous for its incense and myrrh and it had close trade relations with Egypt. Well known is the relief in the Deir el-Bahri, Funerary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (r. 1473-1458 BC). On this relief there is a portrait of the king of Punt and his fat queen. Both king and queen are dressed in a way that is not very different from the royal Egyptian dress. We may  be sure that the cultural influence of Egypt in Punt has been considerable for centuries.


Almost all of Eritrea belonged from the 4th century B.C. until the 7th century A.D. the the Aksumite Empire. Its capital was Aksum, now in the province of Tigre in Ethiopia. Little is known about this empire but that it prospered because of its location on an important trade route between Egypt and India. For us it is important that from the 4th until the 7th century A.D. there was an Aksumite coinage in the Empire which gives us an idea of its political organisation. There will be a chapter about  the imperial symbolism of Aksum at the end of this article.


Modern Eritrea

The coast barring Ethiopia from the Red Sea was (partly) Ottoman from 1578 until the middle of the 19th century. [1] The Italians settled there in 1889 and founded a Colony after the Treaty of Wuchale with the Ethiopian Negus Menelik II. After the conquest of all of Ethiopia by Italian troops in 1936, Eritrea was incorporated in Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana (A.O.I) on the 9th of May. 


Italian Colonial Administration 1890 - 1941


In its first six years the colony was ruled by a military commander with the rank of general, of which there were three. On the five lira / one tallero pieces minted in 1891 there is the achievement of the Royal Italian Army consisting of the arms with the cross of Savoy on the breast of an eagle standing on a sceptre and a marshal’s baton in saltire from which is hanging the collar of the Order of the Annunciation. 



Two one tallero-coins.

Left: 1891, from the time of the Military Administration (1890-1896). Right 1918, from the time of the Civil Administration (1896-1936).


From 1896 until 1936 the colony was under a civil administration headed by a governor of which there were fourteen.

            In this time coins for the trade in Eritrea were minted on which is the Italian coat of arms on the breast of a crowned eagle which is the smaller royal achievement. The flag of the governor of Eritrea was white with the crowned arms of Savoy within a blue bordure. This flag is derived from the flag of the Italian State, adopted 1861, which was the green, white and red tricolore with the same arms in the middle. [2]


Flag of the Governor of Italian Eritrea 1896-1936


By decree of the 3rd of April 1919 a coat of arms for the colony itself was adopted. It is parted per fess, the first Argent, a lion passant Gules, on his shoulder a mullet Argent; the second barry wavy of six Azure and Argent. On the shield is an antique roman crown of nine points. [3]

            The white star is the symbol of the Italian armed forces.


From 1936 until 1941 a chief was added “of the fasces” (del Littorio) which was the symbol of the Italian state of the time.



Arms of the Colony of Eritrea, 1919.



Arms of Eritrea in the era of

Italian East Africa (1936-1941).

A chief of the arms of state added:  purpure, a fasces per pale within a garland of olive and oak, proper.



The British in Eritrea, 1941-1952





In 1941, the Italians were defeated by a British Commonwealth force. The British army garrisoned the country from this point until independence.






No.39 squadron was deployed to Eritrea in August 1947 supporting the British Army against the Shifta groups before moving to Fayid, Egypt in October 1947.


British Military Administration 1948-1949


1948 April


The 2nd Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, moved to Eritrea in April 1948. The battalion found no emergency upon its arrival apart from the activities of the Shifta. The battalion deployed patrols to combat the shifta with little to show for their efforts, although their presence did provide a morale boost to the civilian population. The battalion was initially based at Sembol Camp but moved to the airport buildings at Asmara a few weeks later.



The basis for the badge of the Royal Berkshires was the China Dragon, a device originally awarded to the Regiments predecessor, the 49th (Hertfordshire) Regiment of Foot as a result of its successful campaign in the 1840-43 Chinese Opium War. It was taken into general use at the time of the Cardwell army reforms of 1881 when the 49th (Hertfordshire) amalgamated with the 66th (Berkshire) to form the Berkshire Regiment. The officers badge consisted of a small metal China Dragon, upon a pyramidal coil of rope, signifying the 49th Regiments service as marines under Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Interestingly, a company of The Rifle Brigade, now also part of The Rifles, was similarly embarked as marines. After World War Two the officers badge was replaced by a metal design, as shown. The original Other Ranks badge was a plain China Dragon on a ground with the scroll Berkshire underneath; the Royal title was added in 1885 at the express wish of Queen Victoria after the Battle of Tofrek. In 1958, along with the other five regiments comprising the Wessex Brigade group, the badge was changed to one depicting the Wessex Wyvem.


From the early 1930s a red patch (known as the Brandywine Flash) was worn behind the badge of the Royal Berkshires in recognition of an action in which Company of the 49th were engaged during the American War of Independence. The Light Company of the 49th, in company with other Light Companies including that of the 46th, later to become the 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Cornwalls Light Infantry, carried out a daring night attack, using only bayonets, against an American force of 1500 resting in a forest near Paoli, close to Brandywine Creek. The Americans suffered heavily and, as a result, threatened to give no quarter in future to the troops who took part in the attack. To prevent innocent British troops being singled out for such punishment those who took part decided to dye their green feathers red so that they could be instantly recognised. After the Second World War the Brandywine Flash was changed in shape to a more prominent inverted triangle. It was later also worn behind the badge of both the DERR and the RGBW.


A detachment of Tempest F.6 fighters was deployed to Asmara between April and November 1948 to support the British Army against Shifta groups.



97 Company, Royal Army Service Corps, moved to Eritrea in 1948 where it was based at Asmara supporting the Headquarters of RASC.


1949 March

On 5th March 1949, the 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Berkshire Regiment held a Trooping of the Colours parade as the battalions amalgamated,


1949 June



No.8 Squadron sent a detachment of Brigands to Asmara in June 1949, the detachment withdrew from Eritrea in July 1951


1950 January

The South Wales Borderers arrived in Eritrea on 4th January 1950, and participated in operations against the Shiftas until they left on 16th September 1952.


1910 Flight was based in Eritrea at Asmara, Agordat, Barentu, Tessenas between 31/7/1950 to 9/1952.


1952 September

In consequence of a recommendation of the U.N. of 2nd of December 1950 the British retired from Eritrea and on 15th of September 1952 the country became a self governing part of Ethiopia.


Autonomous Territory of Eritrea  1952-1962


A coat of arms, flag and seal were laid down in Art. 21 of the Constitution of Eritrea. The flag was light blue, the color of the United Nations, and in the middle the national emblem which consisted of a twig and a crown of olive branches, also inspired by the emblem of the U.N.. The same emblem was on the seal, surrounded by the legend “Government of Eritrea” in Tigrinya and Arabic. 


Emblem of Eritrea 1952-1962:

A twig per pale, surrounded by a garland of branches of olive, Vert.


Ethiopian Rule 1962 - 1993



In November 1962 Eritrea was annexed by the negus Haile Selassie. Arms, flag and seal of 1952 disappeared. 

            The regime of Haile Selassie was not favourable for the Eritreans. Works were dismantled, the use of the Eritrean flag was forbidden and amharic was introduced as the official language. This imperialistic policy was the reason for the foundation of an islam oriented resistance movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front (E.L.F.). Internal disputes over strategy and tactics eventually led to the ELF's fragmentation and the founding in 1972 of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (E.P.L.F.). By the late 1970s, the E.P.L.F. had become the dominant armed Eritrean group fighting against the Ethiopian Government.

            After the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974 the armed resistance developed into an open war. Asmara and Massawa were captured by the E.P.L.F. and in this time the war cry of the movement “Never on Your Knees”  was formulated. This war cry was in the first place inspired by the international opposition the liberation movement met with.

            The emblem of the E.P.L.F., inspired by the symbols of other marxist oriented regimes, at first was a red star, charged with a flaming torch and a hammer and sickle in saltire. When the enthousiasm for marxist doctrine dwindled down because of the Soviet support of the Mengistu regime and the fall of the Sovjet Union, the red socialist star was omitted. Instead there came a garland of a belt of cartridges and a branch of olive, symbolizing war and peace. Because of the multi ethnic character of the movement its initials were written in tigranya and arabic. [4] 



Banner of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front.

Emblem: A star Gules, charged with a torch per pale and a hammer and a sickle in saltire. The star surrounded by a text in Tigrinya:  ka, qa, ba, ke and  ke, ha, ge, he. [5]



Emblem of the later E.P.L.F.:

A torch per pale and a hammer and a plow in saltire. Surrounded by a garland of a chain and a branch of olive. In base initials in Tigrinya and Arabic. [6]


Independence 1993 - present


Making the most of the weakness of Ethiopia after the fall of the communist government, the E.P.L.F. came to power in 1990. After a referendum  independence was proclaimed on the 24th of May 1993.



The emblem of the independent state of Eritrea of 1993 is a disc with a camel (Camelus dromedarius - Camelidæ) to the sinister, standing on a steppe like ground. Around the disc is a garland in the United Nations style and underneath a light blue banner with the name of the country in tigrinya, english and arabic in white lettering: “the state of ERITREA”.

            In this form the emblem is on the presidential flag of 1993.

            A newer version, given by the official website of the government of Eritrea, shows the emblem on a black circular background, the camel white, the ground of the natural colors, the garland and ribbon gold and the lettering red. The version on top of the government building in Aksum shows the emblem all in gold with black lettering on a blue disc.


 The camel has been adopted as the national emblem for its instrumental role in transporting supplies during the 1961-91 war of independence.



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© Hubert de Vries 2008.07.15. Updated 2009.04.21; 2018.10.10




[1]  About the Ottoman presence in Eritrea Pitcher (A Historical Geography of the Ottoman Empire, 1972) writes: Twice, in 1557 and 1578, the Ottomans advanced on to te Eritrean plateau and captured Debaroa, but they were driven out on both occasions, and peace was made with Abessynia in 1589. Arkiko and Masawwa’ remained in Turkish possession for some years more but by about 1650 Masawwa was handed over to a local Beja chief, who acted as the Porte’s reperesentative unde the supervision of the Paşa of Jiddah.

[2]  Not of the Italian army because its flag was a square tricolore with the arms in the middle.

[3]  Eritrea (Colonia) Troncato: nel 1° d’argento, alla leonessa illeopardita di rosso, ornata d’aoro e caricata sulla spalla sinistra di una stella d’argento; nel 2° fasciato ondato d’azzurro e d’argento. Lo scudo timbrato da corona antica romana (decreto Luogotenenziale, 3 aprile 1919 - RR.LL.PP.  8 Guigno 1919) (Rivista Araldica, 1933, p. 365.)

[4]  Hesmer, K.-H. Flaggen u. Wappen der Welt. Gütersloh 1992 p. 182.

[5]  After a picture of Frits Eisenloeffel, published in “Onze Wereld” nr. 9. september 1986.

[6]  From K.-H. Hesmer: Flaggen, Wappen Daten, Gütersloh, 1992.

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