There is today widespread recognition that colonialism was ultimately about the institutionalization of an imaginary of profound social inequality anchored in relations of production and asymmetries of power that were justified by ideologies of racial superiority. The assertion of the final alterity of the colonized was crucial to this imaginary and entailed the construction of a social and political order founded on a multidimensional polarity. But the taxonomies of difference that structured these polarities were never as fixed or impermeable as the colonizers imagined them to be. It was in actuality precisely along the indeterminate boundaries between those categories of rule—at the crossroads of politics and culture—that everyday challenges to colonial hegemony were vitally posed, casting doubt on its founding myths and forms of power. My intention in this essay is to explore this cultural politics of colonialism in the context of Italian Eritrea. The emphasis will be on the period after the demise of a settler colonial project, which came to an abrupt end in the face of peasant resistance and Italian military defeat at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The rupture of the settler project and the forced political retreat made it particularly difficult to sustain the distinctions on which colonial power rested. The subsequent fashioning of a new colonial project was indelibly marked by the experience of defeat that haunted the Italian colonial imagination, which makes Eritrea a particularly propitious context for examining the “tensions of empire.”

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