The Princely Prisoner Who Shocked an Italian Island
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the “Black man” is not just a spooky tale.
By Silvia Marchetti
“The Black man is coming! O’Negus is coming! Damn him!” the village kids shouted as guards neared the turquoise waters at Santa Maria beach on the Italian island of Ponza. The men were escorting prisoner Ras Imru Haile Selassie for his daily swim and stroll.
Every day between 1936 and 1943, the Ethiopian soldier-prince captured by Mussolini during the second Italo-Abyssinian War was allowed some physical activity away from his jail dwelling. He became such a fixture — and, supposedly, a nuisance — to the bathing youths that the now elderly people of Ponza still remember him.
We were frightened because he looked scary. We had never seen a Black man like him before.
A Ponza local
The kids nicknamed him U’Nir, “Black One” in the local dialect, says 87-year-old island native Silverio Mazzella. Whenever they saw him coming, they jumped out of the water. “We were frightened because he looked scary. We had never seen a Black man like him before.” The prisoner’s skin color stood in contrast to the long white tunic he wore. “I’ll never forget those baggy pants, the white turban and earrings he wore, and the fact that he walked around barefoot made him even more exotic,” Mazzella says, noting how they hated the Ethiopian because “he spoiled our summer fun.”
The Negus, a title used back then for Ethiopian leaders, had been made regent in 1935 by his cousin, the emperor, who appointed him commander of the resistant Ethiopian army. Ras Imru bitterly fought till the very end against Mussolini’s colonial troops, but he eventually succumbed a year later and was made a prisoner by the fascists. Mussolini decided to take him back to Italy as a trophy of war and exiled him to the breathtaking tropical paradise of Ponza in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. There he was held prisoner at a merchant family’s boarding house that has since been turned into a cozy beach resort. Ironically, when the fascists were overthrown and Ras Imru was freed, that same dwelling with elegant stone columns briefly became Mussolini’s prison in 1943.
Ponza’s children of the time spun tales and played mean tricks on the “evil Black man” for allegedly spoiling their beachy adventures. Ponza had long been used for exiling white political dissidents and anti-fascist intellectuals, but the locals regarded Negus as an outsider and a “second-class” prisoner. Mazzella’s mother had cows and brought milk to the confined prisoners, but she refused to go near the Ethiopian.
The tale of the Black man eventually became part of Italian folklore — so much so that mothers still warn babies that the “Black man” will come take them away if they don’t stop crying. To boost the success of the Abyssinian colonial campaign and denigrate the defeated side, the regime composed nationalist songs. “Beautiful Abyssinian girl with the little black face, we have come to conquer you,” chimed one. Fascism even launched “the Negus’ Lollipops,” made of licorice and coffee and decorated with the image of the fiery prince. And then there were the so-called “Negus Farts,” firecrackers that proved popular with Italian youths.
Over time, the Ethiopian prince came to symbolize the grandeur of fascist Italy. “Mussolini’s Ethiopian war occurred at the climax of fascist colonial power. It was an element of national pride back then to have defeated what were perceived as barbarian and primitive people in need of civilization,” says Ponza historian Silverio Capone, a former culture councillor who has organized exhibitions about the atoll’s colonial prisoners. One of Capone’s uncles took part in the fascist siege against the Ethiopian rebels in 1936, boasting of how Ras Imru’s soldiers still used arrows and spears to fight and therefore had been vanquished by Italy’s military supremacy.
Ponza still reflects a strong colonial heritage, and a hint of fascist nostalgia. Popular newborn girl names on the island include Adwa, after the Italian colony in Ethiopia, and Victoria, a typically fascist name meaning “victory” in Italian. The most popular evening drink spot is Bar Tripoli, one that has forever echoed the Italian invasion of Libya.
Yet one of Ponza’s greatest tourist attractions is Ras Imru’s beach hotel, which lures history lovers longing to spend a night in the “Black man’s” bed and sun themselves on the picturesque beach against a backdrop of fishermen’s boats and seafood taverns. Hotel owner Silveria Aroma, granddaughter of the couple who hosted the Ethiopian prince, says her granny used to put her to bed with tales about Ras Imru. “Gran was just a little girl mesmerized by his looks, the long beard and mustache and especially this hole he had in his nose where a ring had been,” Aroma recalls, noting how the Ethiopian prisoner had it pretty good — with a floor all to himself, a cook and a cleaning lady. But most of all, Aroma’s grandmother “remembered him as a sweet and kind person who threw candies at children from his balcony.”
After liberation, Ras Imru resumed his aristocratic role, becoming Ethiopia’s ambassador across the world. He often visited Italy, setting aside any bitterness he felt over how he had been treated in order to embrace better bilateral ties.
- Silvia Marchetti, OZY Author Contact Silvia Marchetti