Great Neapolitan Earthquake 1857   Part 2

                                                  THE RESPONSE AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE



BY: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                 January 2015



Today we are used to and contribute to worldwide relief efforts for large scale natural disasters. America and American based relief agencies frequently reach even remote parts of the globe in rescue and relief efforts. In 1857 however such international relief efforts were unheard of. In fact, due to slower and less sophisticated communications, much of the world would remain largely ignorant of such occurrences or the human tragedy which might be playing out. The world was a larger place, more mysterious, remote and separated by the geographic distances involved. When the earthquake of 1857 struck few outside of Europe/Italy and a small scientific community were even aware that the event had occurred.

 In rural southern Italy responses and relief from any tragedy including large scale natural disasters depended primarily on whatever resources were available in the form of local self-help. In the case of the 1857 earthquake in Basilicata we are quite fortunate to have Mallet’s report. Any report which detailed the damage and made observations of an earthquake is an unprecedented document for the times. Dispatched by the London Scientific community to study this earthquake event, Mallet’s report was not only the first attempt at scientific earthquake analysis but also the first international mission launched for such investigation.

 As to the state of international response to the devastation from the Potenza earthquake Mallet does mention that in the initial part of his investigation he encountered reports of English volunteer relief efforts. Individual Englishmen bringing food and other relief to towns that had suffered damage. He explains that these voluntary efforts were organized by English businessmen who were living in Naples. Mallet also mentions that while these efforts were modest in scope they were gratefully received by the effected population. He went on to say that as a result of the relief and kindnesses shown by his countrymen he was well received by the Italian villagers who had benefitted from the care packages.

 However, when reading Mallet’s report it becomes quite obvious that these positive relief actions and friendly receptions are localized to the more coastal region of the southwest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. His reported instances of international relief efforts do not go geographically further than reports of relief in the Campania region. There are no reports of relief reaching Basilicata where the focus and major destruction had occurred.

 Mallet’s report on conditions within Basilicata is also notably absent any report of direct aid reaching the affected area from the national Bourbon regime. Any references contained within his report of help within the principle zone of destruction involves only that made by local officials or local organized efforts.

 So in the winter of 1857-1858 the only help that the people of Basilicata could count on and received was that which they could provide from their own meager local resources. In the depths of a natural catastrophe which would in the matter of a few weeks or months claim the lives of one in ten men, women and children, the people of Basilicata were alone. In the isolated towns and villages of mountainous Basilicata communities of relatives lived died and suffered together. This isolation and self- reliance however was how it had always been in Lucania. The many disasters, natural and man-made through the centuries gave rise to a communal sense of inter-dependence that most people today don’t understand.

 This inter-dependence was a part of their culture.  So when our Lucanian ancestors began to arrive in the Americas shortly after the earthquake of 1857 they carried with them this age-old communal interdependence as they faced the challenges of mid-19th century America.   They expressed this concept in the funny sounding southern Italian dialect word pronounced “goomba”. In fact the word was probably introduced into American slang by those early Lucanian immigrants. Unfortunately, this word and its meaning have changed over time such that it no longer means what it originally did. Today it is sometimes heard as a derogatory slang reference to someone of Italian-American ethnicity. Most modern Italians, for whom the expression does not exist, explain it as a dialect form of the Italian word “compari” or companion/comrade.

 When I was a young the word “goomba” was defined by my Lucanian grandparents’ generation differently. Essentially they defined it as a combination of concepts “compari” companion, comrade someone whose ancestry was from the same village and “campanile” Italian for Bell Tower. Campanile is defined as a bell tower that stands alone unattached. Historically, it was the bells of the town that alerted the people to danger to which they would then rush in to address. Up in the mountains in isolated villages only those within hearing of the bells could be depended upon to respond. Hence a “goomba” was someone from your ancestral core group upon whom you could depend in times of emergency, for aid.

 An interdependence on their core community was very much all most Basilicatan’s had in village by village response to the earthquake disaster of 1857. As previously written exact figures for the dead and injured from the quake were never “officially” accumulated to any degree of accuracy. This has made point by point discussion difficult. The number of dead was probably close to 20,000+ and those with serious injury a multiple of that. As would be expected the closer to the epicenters of the quakes the greater the damage and death tolls were. Totals also rose in more densely populated areas.

 In the underestimated “official” reports deaths are recorded from Melfi and Venosa in the north as far as Craco in the south. The official report does record some high death tolls and massive destruction in communities as close to San Fele  as the neighboring town of Auletta which officially had some 500 houses either completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair but does not comment on deaths. Interestingly, the official count does not list any deaths in San Fele from the quake only property damage. The lack of reported deaths in San Fele in the official report should not be relied upon as accurate. It would seem hard to believe from the extent of destruction and the conditions of the structures in San Fele and surrounding communities that deaths did not occur there as well. Mallet reported that eyewitness reports and the extent of earth movement signs seemed to indicate that the earthquake reverberation passed under the north side of Mt. Pierno which would be on the opposite side of the valley from San Fele but nevertheless some deaths were probable. Unfortunately his investigation did not bring him to the actual town of San Fele. He passed by it at the northern border of the commune.

 Local and county response to the quake itself was of course proportional to the degree of damage sustained by each community. Where there was relatively little property damage or loss of life the response could be measured, and repair paced with the resources available. Where damage and death was more substantial however a more extreme response was needed but less likely to be available. The most immediate and sometimes only response to those heavily damaged areas was rescue and or recovery of the dead and injured.

 Rescue and recovery of dead and injured was a process which took months working with only handheld tools, no medicine and limited supplies. The horror of having to listen to the cries for help of the trapped until they went silent because they could not be reached is hard to imagine. The sight of wolves roaming the debris littered streets scavenging for corpses in the rubble is the stuff of nightmares.

 In the winter of 1857-1858 some villages were so ruined that the inhabitants could not survive there even short term. Those individuals had to seek shelter elsewhere immediately.  In other villages damaged structures were used to shelter the survivors temporarily until rebuilding could begin or rescue and recovery completed.

 As most people know communities which have suffered a natural catastrophic loss face two problems, first, the complete disruption of normal social and civil life as it was known before. Second, the displacement of populations.

 In any natural disaster if a community is so devastated as to have lost all of its sheltering capacity or most of its population the survivors frequently seek out shelter elsewhere, either on a permanent or temporary basis. As an example in Robert Mallet’s report as he goes through the earthquake region he notes several towns that are ethnically Albanian/Italian. This is a result of the previous Great Earthquake to hit the area some five hundred years ago. In that earthquake many villages suffered such high death tolls as to for practical purposes cease to exist. When the Ottoman Empire invaded Albania many Albanian refugees fled to Italy where the King of southern Italy offered sanctuary. He located them in villages scattered throughout the south that had been deserted a generation before after that Great earthquake.






 In the earthquake of 1857 many Lucanian villagers found themselves in similar displacement circumstances. An immediate consequence of not being able to provide the basic civil resources and necessities of shelter or food is that people seek those basic necessities elsewhere. Elsewhere sometimes meant with relatives living in other towns, nearby towns less damaged or larger communities where jobs or resources were more available. Depending on circumstances some of these victims of the quake would never return to their ancestral home. For many there was no reason to. Interestingly, many southern Italian surnames reflect that the holder’s ancestors may have located from towns other than where modern documents say they originate. There are many San Felese surnames, for example, that reflect the holder may have a connection to neighboring towns, like Cancellaro, Ricigiliano, etc.

 According to the “official” documents created by the Bourbon regime the greatest damage and loss of life in general occurred in Potenza Province. Unfortunately, many communities that were known to have suffered extensive damage were for some reason ignored in the reports. Even where deaths and damage were reported the figures are probably off by a factor of two at least.

 For example there are only eleven communities listed in the Potenza damage report. In those eleven villages the official record of damaged properties cites six thousand homes destroyed or collapsing. Obviously the report leaves out hundreds of small towns and villages known to also have been badly damaged. So a true picture of the location and degree of destruction alludes the researcher even today. The British press was highly critical in 1858 and 1859 of the Bourbon regimes failure to properly ascertain the scope of damage. In the British press this was portrayed as proof of the lack of concern and interest to allocate proper resources for the relief of the suffering. The british press felt that the Bourbon response to the tragedy was that if you deny the problem exists, you do not have to do anything about it. Whether that is a fair assessment or not I cannot say.

 The official report has the same deficiency with regard to dead and injured.  Only sixteen towns in Potenza Province were mentioned where again hundreds were actually affected and suffered casualties. However even with the gross under-reporting of affected communities 9,123 are listed as killed and 1,063 listed as injured in Potenza Province alone. While the figures seem to be off by quite a lot even these figures suggest a one in ten ratio of dead and injured to survivors. As stated previously the area was decimated. San Fele did not make the official report either for damage or dead and injured. Only eight communities in Matera Province were listed with 61 listed as killed and 42 injured, Craco is indicated as having 3 killed.

 When spring came around employment became a serious problem in some locations. In the small villages of rural Lucania farming is the chief occupation and all others are connected in some fashion to agriculture or support of agriculture. However the majority of the land was owned by wealthy absentee landlords for whom the locals labored. If the local population was too decimated there was insufficient labor to produce the output of crops and revenue required to sustain local ecomonies. The insufficiency of labor in turn cascaded though all of the village occupations creating local economic collapse.

 Those that survived were then forced to seek employment opportunity elsewhere, sometimes in a nearby village, sometimes in distant cities or even in other countries. Again, many of these displaced people never returned to their ancestral homes.

 As Americans we only need to look at the aftermath of Katrina to draw a parallel. Tens of thousands displaced and many never returned to their original communities including New Orleans.

 From this 1857 displacement it appears that a small number of Lucanians ventured pretty far to seek out areas not impacted by the earthquake. Some migrated toward the City of Naples, some possibly found employment on the docks. Many times people who have lost everything, literally will take any kind of work to survive. One of the least desirable of occupations in the mid-19th century would have been hired on as merchant seaman on sailing vessels. It is believed that some of the first Lucanian men to reach American ports got here in that fashion following the quake of 1857.

 There was another distinct type of population displacement which occurs in highly impacted communities suffering catastrophic natural disaster. Many children were either orphaned in the event or suffered the loss of support of their parents. The plight of these children deserves some special note. The adage “It takes a village to raise a child” was very much the way of isolated rural Basilicata in the 19th century. However what happens when a community loses most of its resources, parents die or cannot support their children? Unfortunately, the weakest are always most at risk for losing the battle of survival. Many of these children would get scooped up by predators, social agencies or religious based institutions. Even the well-meaning agencies of the mid-19th century were not equipped to handle large numbers. Often care amounted to placement on farms outside the region which were looking for cheap labor. What occurred would probably today be called child trafficking.

 One particular child trafficking situation occurred when children were picked up, taught to play simple songs and play cheap instruments and transported to foreign cities. In those cities they would be put out on the streets, essentially to beg for coins. However most western European cities had enacted laws against this type of enterprise by the 1850’s. The U.S. had not specifically created such laws and so some of these orphaned children made it to U.S. port cities as well. I will be writing more about this in later articles but for now it would suffice to say that the earliest Lucanian immigrants arrived as indentured child street musicians or free or indentured cheap adult labor. They were refugees from a natural disaster that most Americans didn’t even know had occurred. Nevertheless these initial few who came to America were critical to the next generation of Lucanians. Despite coming to America in the most destitute of circumstances some managed over the course of the next few years to return to Basilicata with a message of hope that was America.




                                             Conditions at San Fele in the winter 1857-1858


 It would appear from Mallet’s journal that after visiting the Melfi/Venosa region in February 1858 he wanted to return to Naples via Eboli. The mountain passes in the Melfi area however were snowed in and he learned that the pass further south which I believe we refer to as the Crocelle Pass might be passable. As a result Mallet started off in this direction with his mule train in tow, his direction would take him near San Fele. As a result we have some glimpse of conditions in the area at that time.

 Apparently as he passed beyond the hamlet of Pierno he found the passes in this area blocked by snow and ice.  So the pass that would have allowed him to reach the town of Bella was blocked. Mallet wrote;

 “As we commenced to ascend now the exposed northern steeps of Monte Croce, the depth of snow rapidly increased, and before we had reached the Taberna of Caputo, upon the sloping back of the great spur, between Monte Fieno and the little vallone of Pierno, at 11:00 a.m., we were brought to a standstill, in snow two to two and a half feet deep. A train of muleteers with produce, which we had seen before us, were here also brought up. All trace of road or path was lost”.

 Mallet goes on to describe the weather conditions:

 “The air , though lightsome and still, was filled with a fine powdery crystalline ice, whose minute falling particles rapidly filled outside pockets and boots, with some pounds of heavy ice. The snow, where it lay in pits and hollows, showed its density and depth, by the starchy blue aspect it bore; and we were still five or six miles from the summit of the ridge. The opinion of the leading muleteer, of the train we had come up with, who had been snowed at Caputo, for three weeks the preceding year in April, was that a heavy fall of snow might be expected that night, and that unless we could make good the passage before sunset, it would become impracticable”.

 My interpretation of the Taberna of Caputo is that it was a “taberna” owned or in some way connected to the Caputo family. Mallet describes the taberna as a traveler’s accommodation as follows;

 “Taberna de Caputo, nothing but a rude and ponderous mule shed, with a single sleeping-room, in which a man and his wife lodge, and have charge of a supply of flour and wine, maintained here by the government, to prevent starvation in those who may be snowed up, upon the solitary steeps”.

 The consensus reached was that it might be possible for the dozen or so muleteers with additional labor from Pierno/San Fele to dig out a path through the 1-2 mile stretch that was blocked. Apparently, Mallet decided to fund this endeavor and offered the muleteers five piasters each and one piaster for each local laborer they could recruit. Some of the muleteers then went down to the hamlet of Pierno and its adjacent hamlets to recruit. The remaining muleteers obtained shovels and hoes from the taberna to start work.

 What I found interesting is Mallet’s description of the San Felese that arrived to perform the excavating project;

 “The men, ( the muleteers) started off downward, plunging through the snow towards the vallone of Pierno, to some hamlets said to be there, in about an hour, groups of wild-looking fellows, with their large hoes, began to pass upwards. At last we had collected about fifty hands, in addition to the muleteers”.

 When the task was complete and Mallet went to pay off the San Fele laborers he described the scene this way; “The scene of snow and desolation at the top of the ridge, where I paid off my wild band of excavators, was worthy of the pencil of a Carravaggio”.



 2006 Photograph looking east to the Crocelle Pass from the town of Pierno.  Mallet would have crossed to the north, left of the photo, and gone up into the mountains to the north, heading west. Note that the area appears little changed in the past 160 years.


 Robert Mallet traveled extensively in the area most devastated by the earthquake of 1857. He had an opportunity to see firsthand populations trying to cope with extreme conditions throughout the area. However, I should note that in no other instance does he describe the population of any other village as “wild-looking”. It would appear that the “look” of these people caused Mr. Mallet some concern, maybe even some degree of fear. In my readings this reaction is not isolated commentary on San Fele. In many historical contexts San Felese seem to elicit some degree of fear or concern from strangers, especially those that may pose threats. This can be seen as far back as the Aragonese Kings sending in religious knights to collect a peace tax in the 13th century rather than the regime’s own soldiers. It is interesting to read this fear evoking perception evolve in various contexts moving forward including to some extent as to early arriving immigrants from Luncania. I will write much more about that moving forward.

 Also of note is that Mallet’s report does show that even at the height of the catastrophe merchant trade is moving through the Basilicatan mountain passes. However this trade was not meant to benefit the locals who were in the throes of this great disaster but rather for the benefit of the larger southern Italian economy.

 Of course, it was not long before a local population that hungry, dislodged and desperate saw in their desperation those government stores and merchant mule trains as opportunity. Raiding by locals soon began and was immediately denounced by the government as banditry. Instead of sending meaningful help the Bourbon government sent troops to punish desperate people that they labelled criminals for trying to survive.

© San Felese Society of New Jersey

Contact Us         Home