FIRE, BRIMSTONE AND THE DEVIL’S TREASURE
BY: TOM FRASCELLA DECEMBER 2013
Volcanic regions frequently contain large and accessible deposits of Sulfur, in ancient times the mineral was called Brimstone. One of the most active volcanic regions in the world lies in southern Italy stretching from the bay of Naples to the island of Sicily. Almost four hundred volcanic vents surround the city of Naples alone. Therefore, not surprisingly, large deposits of sulfur exist in the region.
Sulfur is known as a key ingredient in the smelting of cooper and the making of bronze. Archeological evidence has confirmed that Sulfur has been mined on the island of Sicily for over 3,000 years. This mineral together with salt have been mined and exported throughout the Mediterranean world for thousands of years. What may not be appreciated is that Sicily was not a source but rather the world’s primary source of Sulfur from 900 B.C. until 1900 A.D. Although there was always a steady demand for the mineral in ancient times as new uses for the mineral were discovered during the Middle Ages demand began to sky rocket.
The first major new European use for the mineral was as a component in the compound that makes gunpowder. This discovery was followed by sulfur becoming a component in medicines and a key component in many manufacturing processes for dyes, bleaches and alkaline compounds. By the 1700’s Sulfur had become not only an important mineral but a strategic resource. No western nation engaged in Empire building or industrial growth could survive and prosper without sufficient supply of this raw material. As England and France emerged as global superpowers in the 18th century maintaining Sulfur imports became national necessity. As almost 100% of the world’s Sulfur came from the Island of Sicily both England and France recognized that their national interest demanded keeping the supply open and available.
As the world entered the 19th century both industrial countries went to great lengths to stockpile the mineral and to insure an uninterrupted commercial flow of the mineral. The increasing demand for the mineral at first greatly added to the coffers of the Kingdom of Naples. As the great European conflict of the early 19th century arose between Napoleon’s France and England, demand for securing the mineral placed the Kingdom of Naples in the superpower’s cross-hairs.
As a result it was not long before Napoleon launched a successful invasion of the Kingdom of Naples forcing the Bourbon King to flee. Napoleon replaced the Bourbon monarch with Napoleon’s brother Joseph. England recognized the threat and so the Bourbon King was rescued from the French forces by the British navy. The British removed the Bourbon King to the island of Sicily where he was protected by both the British navy and army from the further advancement of the French.
This defensive move by the British protected their access to the Sulfur mines in Sicily. However, the French gained as well. As was mentioned above there were large deposits of Sulfur in the Neapolitan region including Lucania . So both military super powers were able to maintain control over adequate Sulfur resources for their military and industrial needs during the conflict.
With the defeat of Napoleon the British were able to secure highly lucrative leases and trading contracts. The restored and grateful Bourbon government was reestablished in what became known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The weakened Bourbon monarchy whose treasury had been looted by the French occupation was forced to rely on British support. In turn the British received very favorable trading rights when the two countries entered into the treaty of 1816. But the heavily one sided treaty was eventually resented by the Bourbons and British influence at the Bourbon Court began to wane as early as the late 1820’s. In an attempt to remove themselves from British dependence the Bourbons began to rely more heavily on Austria for military support. As we have previously written at one point around the 1830 Austria had almost 100,000 troops in southern Italy at the request and in the pay of the Bourbon King.
By the early 1830’s the Bourbon dynasty began to implement a plan to reduce and or eliminate its dependence on foreign military support. Its ability to strike a more independent posture was hampered only by a lack of fiscal resources. As we have previously written a plan to bolster the Bourbon treasury had two key elements. First create greater cash crops by the deforestation/agro-growth of Lucania and second by increasing production of Sulfur in Sicily to supply expanding European markets. Between 1816 and 1830 England controlled and purchased the majority output of Sulfur from Sicily. However, between 1830 and 1836 production rose from about 30,000 tons to 66,000 tons a year. France became a growing market, eventually obtaining 44% of production share by 1836. Because production had increased sale of Sulfur to other countries did not represent an immediate economic threat to England until 1836.
In 1836 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies secretly and quickly instituted laws which in effect created a sulfur export monopoly controlled by the government. In effect they “nationalized” export and emasculated the treaty of 1816. In the year 1838 France actually purchased 8,000 more tons of Sulfur directly from Italy than was sold to England. England was forced to go to secondary markets such as Malta to purchase additional Italian sulfur to meet its needs.
England immediately recognized the threat to its national and economic position. They began to increase diplomatic/political and economic pressure on the Italian regime to rescind the creation of the export monopoly referred to as the “Company”. For the next ten years England and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies walked a political tightrope regarding securing adequate supplies.
Increased import costs of the sulfur fueled higher manufacturing costs for English products and resulted in an inflationary impact on the economy. The British were quick to recognize the dangers presented to the economy and a number of studies were commissioned by Parliament. As early as 1838 various economic, political and military options were openly discussed to “rectify” the problem. In many ways the situation is somewhat analogous to U.S. dependence on Mideast oil. What is most interesting is that some of the English dialogue in 1838 begins to mention the fact of political unrest and opposition to the Bourbon regime in the south. The British recognized early on that the political opposition, the “Carbonari” movement in the south could be used to further British interests in the region. They recognized that they could use the threat of democratic revolt as a political weapon. Over the next decade the alternatively offered the monarchy assistance against the pro democratic forces or offered assistance to the Carbonari movement.
For almost a decade Britain played a diplomatic push and pull with the Bourbon regime . England went so far as to become a political safe haven for “Carbonari” in exile. England in the 1840’s allowed and seemed to support the exiled Carbbonari as they plotted yet another attempt at unification and democracy throughout Italy. It is from London that Carbonari leader Giuseppe Mazzini directed the movement through much of the 1840’s.
Mazzini encouraged democratic reform well beyond the Italian peninsula. While in England he helped organize movements based on Carbonari principles in numerous European countries. 1847 became the year of European Carbonari revolt. The “revolts” sprang up across Europe but were most successful in France. In Italy Carbonari revolts took place in northern, central and southern Italy at this time as well. In previous Italian revolts the carbonari actions were ultimately defeated by Austrian and French intervention on the side of the ruling regimes. In the 1847 revolt the revolts were widespread and occurred in France and Austria taking their attention away from affairs in Italy. As a result the revolts in northern and central Italy free from foreign intervention had great success. In the Bourbon kingdom of the south however this was not the case.
Initially, in the early phases of the Italian revolt, 1847-1848 the Carbonari of the south organized and revolted as had their brothers in other parts of Italy. Mazzini from London even helped organize a small invasion force to aid the southerners who were facing the largest local military opposition in the Bourbon army. However, the date, time and location of the landing became known to the Bourbon’s who met the landing with overwhelming advantage, cutting the Carbonari force down on the beach and executing it officers.
This defeat was both demoralizing and disturbing to the local Carbonari. The Carbonari had survived half a century under Bourbon rule by maintaining strict secrecy and fraternal bonds among its members. Recognizing that the Bourbons had been aware of their most important and secret strategy was a catastrophic blow to their plans. It also seemed to suggest that there had been a breach of their security at the highest levels. They were confronted with the possibility that spy for the Bourbons existed among them. This breach immobilized them and the revolt in the south was crushed. Ultimately in turn the revolt in the other parts of Italy failed as well as the French and Austrians eventually intervened again..
Eventually it came to light that there had been no betrayal among the loyal Carbonari in the south. What happened was that British intelligence was intercepting Mazzini’s mail in London. When the British became aware of the invasion plans they provided the detailed information to the Bourbons. In essence British intelligence efforts provided the information that lead to the defeat of the democratic forces in the south and the retention of power by the Bourbons during the uprising of 1847.
The British government’s action in support of the Bourbons appears to have been motivated by a desire to make the Bourbon government beholding and possibly more generous as a trading partner once again. The opposite occurred. Emboldened by their easy defeat of the Carbonari, the Bourbon government set out on a ruthless suppression of the Carbonari movement. Wholesale executions and imprisonment of suspected Carbonari became the order of the day in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for the next half decade. In addition the government redoubled its efforts to establish the largest, best equipped and trained army on the peninsula. Support of that force however took money and Britain’s gamble fell flat to the internal fiscal needs of the Bourbon regime.
By 1850 Britain had realized their mistake and a concentrated effort began to emerge attacking the policies and programs of the Bourbon regime. The British press turned British public opinion against the Bourbon Monarchy. The media campaign focused on public attacks on the Bourbon’s suppression of civil/political rights in southern Italy. In later articles more will be written about this and its consequences in Italy.
However before concluding this article I should say something about the impact that intensifying sulfur mining had on both Sicily and on Sicilian miners.
Most of the land in Sicily in the period 1830-1850 was owned by large landowners or the Church. Most of the benefit from the production of Sulfur enured to these large land holders. Very little of the sulfur ore on Sicily is accessible by surface mining and so mine shafts following the ore veins down to 50-150 feet were dug. With the encouragement of the authorities mine shafts were dug randomly across the island on any property that contained the deposits. The techniques for mining and the conditions of the miners changed little from ancient times until the 19th century in Sicily. The miners especially child laborers worked under horrific conditions. Raw ore was delivered to the surface, carried by child labor up long narrow dark shafts. The child laborers, some as young as seven, were called carusi. The carusi worked eight to ten hour shifts in sweltering mine heat. The heat was so intense that many of the children either worked naked or with simple loincloths about their private parts. When they reached the surface they dumped their forty to fifty pound loads into smelting Kilns called calcarones. The calcarone was generally built close to the mine shaft. The children would repeat the process until their shift was complete. Often, as the mines were in the countryside the children would after their shift return to the mines to eat and to sleep. The conditions were dangerous and unhealthy beyond belief. The average life expectancy for carusi was less than twenty five years. They lived under conditions where they spent little time in the open air and daylight.
Photo of Sicilian Carusi late 19th
century child laborers
Photo courtesy of Interlicchiafamily.net
Once the calcarones were loaded, they were fired and a lengthy smelting process began. The process took days and gave off a number of dangerous gases including sulfuric acid. The gases would escape on the wind and settle on nearby farms and forests destroying all vegetation. As a result the area around a mine often looked like the entrance to hell, which in fact it was. The increasing demand for production resulted in an increasing number of mines and miners. By the beginning of the 20th century so much farm land had been destroyed in Sicily because of the smelting process that the island had trouble producing sufficient crops to feed its population.
The above describe conditions had always been a part of the mining process in Sicily however increased demand for production greatly intensified between 1830 and 1860 in order to feed the Bourbons need for foreign revenue. After Unification exploitation of the resource and the Sicilian rural population continued for the benefit of the new government. There were only occasional public denouncements of the conditions under which these children suffered. The denouncement did however lead to legislation in1876 requiring that the carusi be at least ten years old before being allowed to work in the mines. The legislation was rarely enforced.
I would note that Lucania, had its own deposits of sulfur and only avoided having its children exploited as carusi because cheaper and easier deposits of sulfur were found in America and Asia in the late 19th century. As we shall see it was one of the very few affronts to the southern Italian population that Lucania avoided.
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