History: 1891 Anglo-Italian Protocol Concerning the Scramble for Africa

The 1891 Anglo-Italian Protocol was signed between Great Britain on behalf of its colony Egypt, and Italy on behalf of its colony Eritrea. It was signed on April 15, 1891 in Rome. This agreement had as its official purpose the clarification of colonial borders and spheres of influence between Italy and Great Britain. Italy had recently acquired Eritrea, and Great Britain had colonized Egypt and was desirous of expanding its colony into Sudan and the rest of the Nile Basin area. Since both powers were expanding in the region at the same time, an agreement was necessary to reduce the risk of conflict between them and thereby support their effective and profitable exploitation of the region.

This agreement took place in the context of the “Scramble for Africa”, in which European powers rushed to grab up African land before the other powers did. Several big things happened in the region before the Protocol: in 1889, Ethiopia’s king Yohannes IV was slain in battle by Mahdist Sudan; in the same year, Ethiopia established a colony in Eritrea and signed a treaty with Menelik II, who went on to replace Yohannes IV. Britain was concerned with protecting the flow of the Nile and the interests of Egypt, so they warned foreign powers against interfering with their Nile influence. It was in this context that the 1891 Protocol was signed.

The Protocol acknowledged the legitimacy of Italy’s colony and included the Ethiopian highlands in their sphere of influence, while limiting Italy’s potential to exploit the White Nile’s resources in the event that they expanded in that direction.

Article 3 of the Protocol concerns the Nile and vaguely resolves the issue of how the Atbara’s resources would be shared between the two colonial powers. The upper reaches of the Atbara were near Kassala, which Italy had claimed. The majority of the river was controlled by Sudan. Italy agreed not to build anything on the Atbara River which would “sensibly modify” its flow into the Nile. The exact words of Article 3 are “the Italian government engages not to construct on the Atbara river, in view of irrigation, any work which might sensibly modify its flow into the Nile.”

The main beneficiaries of this Article were Great Britain and its colonies. The vagueness of the words “sensibly modify” limited the usefulness of the Article, since no specific volume of water was stated. Italy could hypothetically have used small amounts of water and claimed it was not “sensibly” modifying the flow. The Protocol was also signed without the later-discovered knowledge that the Blue Nile in Ethiopia is the most major source of the Nile. However, it clearly gave Britain a sort of diplomatic upper hand.

The Protocol was signed with no regard for third parties, notably Ethiopia. It served its purpose for Britain well, by establishing boundaries in its favor and giving Britain a diplomatic advantage in case of conflict over the Atbara. The concession may have helped secure Italy from conflict with Britain in British-dominated East Africa. As with the Wuchala Treaty that Italy signed with Ethiopia in 1889, the 1891 Protocol served to gain foreign recognition of Italy’s Eritrean colony. It indicates that the Italians were not preoccupied with trying to control the Nile, though they still had hopes of expanding into Ethiopia.

Since the Protocol only concerned two colonial powers, it was not binding upon Ethiopia in any way, and it lost all legal significance when the European colonial empires collapsed.

The 1891 Protocol was the first European agreement on the usage of the Nile waters, and it set a legal precedent that has persisted to this day, the precedent of Egypt and to a lesser extent Sudan being granted privileged access to the Nile’s resources. The Protocol only legally confirmed a Nile water usage pattern that had been in place for thousands of years, but which is now being realized as obsolete due to advancements in hydrological technology and increased development in Sub-Saharan Africa.