Massawa - Encyclopedia




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MASSAWA, or Massowah, a fortified town on the African coast of the Red Sea, chief port of the Italian colony of Eritrea, in 15° 36' N. and 39° 28' E. Pop. about 10,000. The town stands at the north end of the bay of Massawa and is built partly on a coral island of the same name - where was the original settlement - and partly on the islets of Tautlub and Sheik Said, and the neighbouring mainland. Massawa Island is from 20 to 25 ft. above the sea, its length does not exceed z m. and its breadth is about 4 m. The harbour is formed by the channel between the island and the mainland. It affords good anchorage in from 5 to 9 fathoms. The town possesses several good public buildings, chiefly built of coral, as are the houses of the principal European and Arab merchants. Landward the town is guarded by forts erected by the Italians since 1885. Water was formerly scarce; but in 1872 an ancient aqueduct from Mokullu (5 m. distant westward) was restored and continued by an embankment to the town. A railway connects Massawa with Asmara, the capital of the colony. Besides the Abyssinians, who speak a Tigre dialect corrupted with Arabic, the inhabitants comprise Italian officials and traders, Greeks, Indians, Arabs from Yemen and Hadramut, Gallas and Somalis. Massawa is the natural port for northern Abyssinia but commerce is undeveloped owing to the lack of rapid means of communication. The trade done consists mainly in exporting hides, butter, Abyssinian coffee and civet, and importing European and Indian cotton goods and silks. It increased in value from about £65,000 per annum in 1865 (the last year of Turkish control) to from 240,000 to 280,000 between 1879 and 1881, when under the administration of Egypt. Under the Italians trade greatly developed. The returns for the five years1901-1905showed an average annual value of £1,800,000, about two-thirds being imports.

The island of Massawa has probably been inhabited from a very early date. It appears to have formed part of the Abyssinian dominions for many centuries. It was at Massawa (Matzua, as it is called by the Portuguese chroniclers) that Christopher da Gama and his comrades landed in July 1541 on their way to aid the Abyssinians against the Moslem invaders. Captured by the Turks in 1557, the island remained a Turkish possession over two hundred years. A military colony of Bosnians settled at Arkiko (a port on the bay 4 m. south of Massawa Island) was appointed not only to defend it in case of attack from the mainland, but to keep it supplied with water in return for $1400 per month from the town's customs. For some time at the close of the 18th century Massawa was held by the sherif of Mecca, and it afterwards passed to Mehemet Ali of Egypt. The Turks were reinstated about 1850, but in 1865 they handed the island back to Egypt for an annual tribute of 22 million piastres. In February 1885 Massawa was occupied by an Italian force, the Egyptian garrison stationed there being withdrawn in the November following (see Egypt; Italy; Abyssinia). The port was the capital of the Italian colony until 1900 when the seat of administration was removed to Asmara (see Eritrea).

For a description of the town in 1769 see the Travels of James Bruce. At that time the governor, though appointed by the Turks, paid one half of the customs receipts to the negus of Abyssinia in return for the protection of that monarch.

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