At a Glance:
Bird names: 1
Southern Europe, Mediterranean, East Africa
Content note: this profile contains discussion of ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism.
Moltoni’s Warbler (Sylvia subalpina)
Colonial expansion after the early 20th century often is relatively overlooked. The earlier eras of the heyday of the British East India Company and the later Scramble for Africa sparked by Belgium’s King Leopold II’s land grab in the Congo receive far more attention in the popular consciousness. But colonial aspirations didn’t end after these periods– far from it. Countries which were later entries into the race for colonies were just as eager to conquer distant lands as the powers of the day. Italy falls into this category. Up into the late 1800s, Italy was preoccupied with unifying the various kingdoms of the Italian peninsula, but as the country emerged as a single nation, they too turned their attention to colonies abroad.
Edgardo Moltoni (1896-1980) was born in this recently coalesced nation as it began to eye potential colonies in Africa. He would most of his career focused on building the museum infrastructure in Italy, especially after the almost total loss of the collections of Milan during the bombings of WWII, but he made a major mark on ornithology for his studies of the birds of Italy’s African colonies. The fascist regime of Mussolini aggressively pursued a policy of “spazio vitale“- literally “living space”, an expansion of Italian territory to claim lands once controlled by the Roman Empire, promoting Italian emigration to these areas as a means of spreading what they considered to be their superior Italian culture. This policy, like its German analogue of Lebensraum, combined settler colonialism with ethnic cleansing, attempting to replace the populations of regions like Libya and Eritrea with Italian colonists.
Colonial expansion is often a very good deal for biologists who are willing to participate in it. Cataloging the biodiversity of newly conquered lands has long been a career boost for countless naturalists, from British India, the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State, the steppes of Central Asia, and the American West. Italian science was no exception.
In his role as deputy director of the Museo di Storia Naturale di Milan (MSNM), Moltoni cataloged and described birds from throughout Italy’s new empire: Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. He embarked on expeditions in Libya himself, where photos from the MSNM archives show Italian soldiers assisting with specimen preparation. Only a few years before Moltoni’s expeditions in 1935 and ’37, these same soldiers may have been part of the brutal “pacification” of the area, in which somewhere around half the population was confined to concentration camps, most of the livestock slaughtered to destroy local livelihoods, 12,000 people executed, and poison gases deployed against civilians.
The Horn of Africa– the area including Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia– was another key colonial pursuit, and multiple Italian expeditions in the area surveyed all manner of its biodiversity, returning to MSNM and other Italian museums with their precious specimens in hand. It was from these collections that Moltoni set out to craft his magnum opus: a multi-volume work of all the birds of the region, to be published in Italian. This was work of both immense scientific and propaganda value: by describing the rich natural diversity of the region, such works, which are a common feature of expansionist efforts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, were at least partly intended to create greater support at home for continued colonial efforts abroad.
IIn the end, Moltoni was unable to complete his work: in 1943 the collections from which he worked were destroyed, leaving he fourth and final volume incomplete. However, it is not the loss of the collection alone that cut the work short. One of Moltoni’s students, Pierandrea Brichetti, eventually confirmed that the main reason the final volume was never produced was because by this point, Italy was clearly losing its African colonies. With these lands no longer under colonial control, there was no further enthusiasm for completing a survey of their avifauna.
Moltoni, insofar as the records available show, was not a soldier of colonialism himself in the mold of Bendire or Belcher. He was entangled with a brutal colonial occupation at a degree of remove– never necessarily raising a gun himself, but nevertheless profiting off of others doing so. This doesn’t make his benefiting from colonialism any less uncomfortable in its own way, though. Museums around the world were built on such endeavors, and the foundations of biology are rooted in them. Such a sin is all the more unpleasant to reckon with, as we are all in some measure implicated in it ourselves.
Brichetti, Pierandrea. 1980. Edgardo Moltoni (1896-1980). Rivista italiana di ornitologia 50(4). pp. 173-178. [link]
Chiozzi, Giorgio. 2012. Il contributo del Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano all’esplorazione zoologica dell’Africa. Natura 103(1). pp. 159-186. [link]
“Moltoni, Edgardo”. 2011. Dizionario biografico degli Italiani 75. [link]
Violani, Carlo. 1981. Obituary: Edgardo Moltoni. Ibis 123. pp. 251-252. [link]