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Tunisia, Contested: Italian Nationalism, French Imperial Rule, and Migration in the Mediterranean Basin.


This article explores the contradictions in Italy’s relationship with the Mediterranean basin, taking Tunisia as a focal point. Tunisia was a paradoxical case at the intersection of Italy’s foreign policy: it was a former Roman imperial colony with a strategic location, but it also possessed a large and vibrant Italian emigrant settlement, like the Italian “colonies” of Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, New York, and San Francisco. This situation caused much confusion in debates over how Italy should develop its international influence. Faced with a choice of priorities, the Italians of Tunisia called for Italy to concentrate on establishing territorial colonies in the Mediterranean, rather than cultivating Italian emigration worldwide. In 1881, France surprised Italy by seizing control of Tunisia, skewing Italian policy and fomenting a sense of weakness and insecurity. Italy’s “loss” of Tunisia encouraged the belief that Italian imperial motives were more deserving and more sincere, and Nationalists used the wealthy and successful Italian community of Tunisia as a model of what Italians would be able to achieve in neighboring Libya. Fascist representations of Italians in Tunisia, however, finally discredited the Italian expatriates’ claims to rights and representation under French colonial rule. This case study thus illustrates how Mediterranean Europe and North Africa became enmeshed in multiple layers of competition and integration through trends in colonialism, migration, and the formation of transnational communities.

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