HISTORY OF SOUTHERN ITALY 1830-1850
By Tom Frascella April 2013
Southern Italy’s political course was different than that of the rest of the Italian Peninsula for the period 1830-1850. By 1830 The Bourbon Dynasty was firmly entrenched once again and had demonstrated in the revolts of the late 1820’s that it could rely on substantial Austrian military support, 100,000 men, when necessary. The late 1820’s Carbonari led civil rights movement in the south had been crushed and the loosely knit organization was once again forced underground. By 1830 the regency of the Kingdom fell to the twenty year old Ferdinand II.
Ferdinand would rule from 1830-1859. His reign covers the entire period about to be discussed in this article and almost a decade more. To discuss southern Italy politically, socially or economically during this period must, by necessity, start with an analysis of the reign of this monarch. This is not as easy as it might appear. As the last significant monarch before the 1860 Garibaldi lead revolt Ferdinand’s reign has suffered from interpretation by historians influenced by the events post 1860. To be sure there are many areas in which his reign deserves criticism for its shortcomings. Power and wealth were held in the hands of a few. The poor, especially the rural poor had few if any prospects for improving their lives. Corruption at all levels of government was rampant and Ferdinand showed little interest in addressing it after his initial years on the throne. As a byproduct of this reluctance to reform the justice system, the small middle class and lower upper class would continue to press for greater civil protections in the form of constitutional rights. Ferdinand throughout his reign played a sort of dodge ball with the constitutional issues at times approaching it and then retreating. Eventually, his actions left him last of the European absolute monarchs at a time when all the others had recognized the shift in political winds.
Another area of failure was that there was a period during his reign in which he could have played a leading role in setting up a coalition of Italian States but resisted in favor of maintaining absolute control of his traditional southern domain.
While the above failures would contribute greatly to the eventual undoing of his dynasty it isn’t fair to focus only on his reign’s failures. Throughout his reign southern Italy was as a whole the most powerful and economically successful of the Italian States. Ironically, some of what initially would have appeared to be his more progressive, successful accomplishments had more negative impacts on the quality of life of his subjects by the end of his reign then his failures.
At the beginning of his reign his government was supported by 100,000 foreign Austrian peace keeping troops. These troops had been brought in by his father Francis to preserve the kingdom during the Carbonari revolts of the mid to late 1820’s. To his credit he decreased the foreign Austrian military presence eliminating it entirely within the decade. In so doing he replaced foreign troops with southern Italian soldiers and sailors. By 1840 Ferdinand II southern Italy had built up a modern army and navy totaling about 25,000-30,000 well trained men. This was the largest military force under one regent in Italy. By way of comparison twenty years later in 1860 prior to the start of the American Civil War the U.S. had a military of roughly 16,000 men. By 1860 southern Italy’s military was estimated at between 100,000-125,000 men. Southern Italy had the most formidable military resources on the Italian Peninsula prior to the 1860 revolt.
Ferdinand ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from his capitol in Naples. By way of personality he was somewhat of a fun loving individual who encouraged a popular sentiment among the common people of the city. His popularity did not extend into the rural areas of his domain with as much enthusiasm. To support his growing military and his life style required considerable funds be raised. The treasury of the Kingdom and been greatly depleted and plundered during the Napoleonic years. Ferdinand recognized that greater revenues must be generated. He approached this in a number of ways, first by increasing manufacturing and trade, and second by increasing southern Italy’s agricultural output.
Since Naples is a port his international trade focus undoubtedly created jobs and opportunities for the city. However, expansion of trade and export internationally in the Mediterranean region is complex and required both diplomatic and territorial expansion to new ports. For Italy the most available opportunity for expansion was eastward which meant toward the Middle East and North African markets.
While I can’t be sure of the direct connection, Ferdinand’s maritime efforts may have contributed to the outbreak of a Cholera epidemic in Naples in 1836 and again in 1837. Outbreaks of Cholera were not uncommon in many parts of the world during the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Our own country, the U.S. suffered outbreaks as well during this period. The Cholera epidemic of Naples however sets an interesting background for one of San Fele’s honored sons. In the preceding history section I mentioned that Giovanni Baptiste Jacobis and his wife Maria Giuseppina Muccia had moved to Naples from San Fele with their family during the Napoleonic period. Giovanni was a known Carbonari sympathizer, a fact that during the return of the Bourbon’s kept this career government administrator from significant employment the rest of his life. The family however, continued to live in Naples and raised five sons. One son became a man of letters, and one a civil attorney. Their three remaining sons became priests, two of those including Justin in the religious Order of St. Vincent DePaul.
St Justin De Jacobis
As I have previously written Justin was ordained a priest of the order of St. Vincent De Paul in 1824. He spent the next 13 years preaching, ministering to the poor and as an administrator in several posts in the Puglia region of Italy. He was especially involved in setting up several convents for religious women to serve and minister to the poor of that region. Religious women of the Vincentian Order are commonly known as the Sisters of Charity.
In 1837 Justin returned to Naples assigned as Superior to the Provincial House “dei Vergini” where he had been a seminarian. This was considered one of the most prestigious of positions available to the Orders members in Sothern Italy and speaks to Justin’s administrative skill. Justin immediately became deeply involved not only in his administrative duties but in the direct care of those stricken by Cholera. This is of course a very dangerous course of action as Cholera is a highly contagious disease. His extreme dedication and selfless devotion to the sick and dying did not go unnoticed by his superiors and the population of Naples. This devotion may have been viewed as all the more remarkable in that in 1837 his father succumbed probably to Cholera in the city. Throughout this time his faith and devotion to the Church the poor and the sick were unwavering. The last reported case of Cholera in the City coincided with a procession honoring Mary on her feast day conducted in 1837. Justin led that procession and many Neapolitans believed this was a sign from heaven. It should be mentioned that throughout his life Justin exhibited great devotion to Mary which is consistent with other saints from San Fele and is a San Felese tradition.
In 1839 the Church in Rome through the offices of the Propaganda Fide discerned from a number of its missionaries in Africa that there was an opportunity to send a mission to Abyssinia, and area previously closed to them. Justin was selected to head an apostolic mission to Ethiopia, the modern name for this region. Ethiopians at that time practiced one of two religions, Islam, or Coptic Christianity. The Coptic Church was very ancient in Ethiopia. However, the Coptic Church which is eastern does not recognize the authority of the Pope and had actively barred religious clerics of the “Latin” rite from entry or missionary work within its borders. This prohibition against Latin rite clerics had been in effect in the country for almost two hundred years. Justin eagerly accepted the challenge but declined to be installed as a Bishop which normally would accompany an appointment as an Apostolic delegate. I would point out that 2014 will mark the 175th anniversary of St Jacobis’ successful mission to Ethiopia where he is recognized as the founder of the Ethiopian Catholic Church.
Returning to the political history and what was going on in southern Italy in 1837 we find that riots did break out in Sicily demanding a constitution, but this was violently suppressed and Ferdinand began a long pattern of military and police suppression of ”liberal” or progressive thinking. His suppression included both exile and prison for any who too strongly advocated for a constitution. During this period southern Italy saw a number of its sons immigrate as political refugees to South America.
In addition to using his military as a method of internal control, the late 1830’s also saw Ferdinand’s willingness to use military power to gain international position.
Ferdinand II desire to expand industrial resources and trade required his expansion of southern Italian influence in the Mediterranean. Ferdinand began s series of military actions intended to increase the Kingdom’s naval control over what had been Turkish, Egyptian and Arab maritime areas especially in Crete and the Suez.
While Ferdinand encouraged progress in industrialization this was concentrated mostly along the coast. For the more remote areas like Basilicata the only industry for thousands of years had been agriculture. From an agricultural perspective rural southern Italy especially underdeveloped areas like Lucania presented two immediate opportunities for exploitation. Lucania is very isolated due to being primarily either mountainous or hilly in character. In fact 84% of Lucania falls under one of those two classifications. As a result throughout most of its history the landscape of Lucania has been heavily wooded with the major agrarian activity being herding. However the great forests of Lucania were mined almost to extinction twice in its history. The first deforestation occurred during the time of the Roman Empire and the second during the reign of Ferdinand II.
Most of the rural land of southern Italy in the 19th century was owned by either the Church or wealthy absentee landlords. To get at the wealth inherent in the land a program of encouraged deforestation was initiated with suitable hillsides converted primarily toward grain producing fields. In 1830’s Lucania cutting down the forests and increasing crop production must have presented a substantial labor challenge in the mountainous terrain. It should be noted that Lucania has traditionally been under populated. In 1830 Basilicata’s northern Provence of Potenza had a population of only 190,000- 200,000 people. Wood-cutting, as the Italians refer to lumberjacking must have been very difficult using hand axes and saws. The process further complicated by transporting the rough cut lumber over rocky mountainous dirt roads in mule drawn carts to the coast. Of note this wood harvesting enterprise did not employee any state of the art equipment until it reached the coastal plain. There steam powered lumber mills were developed to process the wood for export. The steam engines for these mills were designed and manufactured in southern Italy. This is another example that southern Italy had the capacity and position both in factories and engineering to develop and modernize early on in the global industrialization that was taking place.
As we have previously discussed in earlier website articles the world of the late 1700’s thru 1850 experienced a drop in global temperatures which disrupted the growing seasons of northern latitudes including Europe. Northern Italy had responded by increasing wheat production as a cash crop. Now with the reduction of forest land an increase in “cleared land southern Italy followed suit by increasing wheat production on its sloping landscape. The difference is that farming on uneven land is substantially more labor intensive especially when it is done primarily with brut force. Production therefore requires more labor per bushel. The problem then became where to find the labor.
The change in agricultural labor demand and the attempt to meet that demand had many consequences, both anticipated and unanticipated for the people of rural Lucania. First, the traditional landscape dramatically changed between 1830 and 1850 as forests gave way to fields. With that came the slow progressive erosion of soils, with an increase in landsides and flooding and a slow depletion of nutrients. The financial benefits of the harvests accrued to the wealthy not the peasants. The rural farmers became “sharecroppers” whose meager livelihood depended on crop yield and the international grain commodities market. In addition, their basic diets changed as hunting and herding gave way to grain and vegetable farming the peasant diet increased in grain and decreased in meat.
However, the greatest change during this period in Lucania was social/ cultural. The traditional social stratification, interactions, financial opportunity, age and support mechanisms of the region were dramatically altered and strained with the change in the labor demand. Prof. Stia in his book focuses on the lasting cultural and social impact of the extraordinarily high emigration Lucania of the 1860-1890. He pays particular attention to how the mechanism of “chain Migration” altered San Felese / Lucanian culture at a fundamental societal level. While I think he makes great points in his thesis I believe that the period and the changes he focuses on are secondary to the effects of the preceding 1830-1860 events.
With the increase labor demands the first major change, and most significant, in Lucanian society impacted the role of women in society, especially poor women. Peasant life in rural Lucania had never been easy. But when labor demands initially increased the only place to obtain the additional backs and hands needed for farming was from peasant women. Peasant women had to take to the fields in the thousands. These women were strong, they had to be. They had to care for their families and the fields as sharecroppers on the land owned by wealthy absentee landlords. Many of the men, especially the young men, were off woodcutting and therefore unavailable for plowing, sowing and maintaining fields. The distinction between male work and female work especially hard labor tasks began to blur toward equality. As has often been the case equality in the work place for women often means women have to work twice as hard.
However, in a relatively short period of t time the rural land workers of southern Italy responded to the increased labor needs the same way the northern Italian land workers had. They had babies and lots of them. By way of comparing Northern and southern Italian farming labor population growth between 1800 and 1850 we see in the north that the urban population of northern Italy remained essentially unchanged in that period. However, the rural farming population of northern Italy increased over this fifty year period by twenty per cent. Something akin to what happened in the North is mirrored in the south. Although the farming labor demand started later 1830 so we have a much shorter period of comparison. Again the urban population was relatively unchanged. However, from 1830-1850 the southern Italian rural Lucanian population increased thirty per cent. Basilicata in 1830 had a population of between 190,000 -200,000. Twenty years later Basilicata had an expanding population of between 240,000-250,000.
What we see when we look at the statistics is a Lucanian baby boom, an emerging first generation born to share-crop farming and tied to small plots of land. We also see a generation born to farming conditions which, because of erosion will produce less and less yield per acre. The system that was in place could only work as long as you have an international market and demand for the product. Also the erosion factor could be ignored as long as you can continue to expand available land. However, if either of those conditions failed an economic disaster would and as we know did occur. Understanding the way the Lucanian economic system was set up 1830-1850 helps us understand the beginnings of why the generation born in the 1840-1860’s becomes the generation that rebels in 1860 and subsequently the generation the immigrates.
The 1840’s was a decade where urban Naples and the wealthy landowners prospered, the military built up, overseas military adventures grew, and urban factory production began to take root. Besides the steam powered lumber mills, the 1840’s saw the building of one of continental Europe’s first railroads, from Naples to the Kings palace at Portici. The steam engine used to pull the rail cars was also designed and built in southern Italy. Telegraph lines were run from Naples to Sicily unifying the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by communication for the first time. We also see a country where the City of Naples led Europe in the development of academic programs in finance and banking. But still constitutional protections lagged behind economic growth which encouraged the wealthy and middle class to continue to advocate for constitutionally guaranteed rights throughout the decade.
By the late 1840’s as economic conditions and opportunities began to expand political advocates in growing numbers in many parts of Italy as well as throughout Europe were agitating for more constitutional rights. Political activists in southern Italy despite a decade of suppression started riots in several southern Italian locations in 1847. Mazzini’s Young Italy and Young Europe movements as well as growing middle class’ desire for greater constitutional rights built up over the course of the 1840’s lead to revolts all over Europe in 1848. The period saw a new “liberal” Republic rise in France headed by Napoleon III who was himself once a declared Carbonari.
Several of these civil rights riots in Italy would lead to the briefly successful Republic of Rome, headed in part by Mazzini. This initially successful revolt in Italy was aided by the return of the exiled Garibaldi as a military leader. As the Republican government was being set up in the former Vatican States, the Pope, was forced to flee and seek protection with Ferdinand in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies..
The1847 riots stirred the masses toward revolt in southern Italy and became the opening salvo in the 1848 European tempest. Some historians have indicated that the riots of southern Italy were the spark that set off the riots that spread across Europe the following year. Again the riots in the south were not a coordinated national event but regional in scope. The King at first tried to use military force to address the riots of 1847. This was especially true in the riots in Calabria and those in Palermo and then in other parts of Sicily. In April 1848 the King sent 20,000 troops to Sicily to put down the revolt. As part of the effort naval forces bombarded the city of Messina. The attack lasted for hours and extended for eight hours after the city had formally surrendered. The savage bombardment killed thousands of civilians and earned the King the nickname “RE Bomba.”But as these riots spread to outbreaks in Salerno and in Cilento the King became alarmed by what now appeared to be not just a local series of riots but one with a Continental overtone. As a result he shifted his stance and seemingly gave in to the Carbonari demands agreeing to terms for a Constitution. However, once things settled down within the Kingdom the King had the army dissolve the national parliament in 1849. The parliament had been formed to ratify a constitution that never came into being and Ferdinand went back to ruling as absolute monarch. His actions at this time confirmed once again that the people could not trust him to affirm his agreements, a sense that would undermine his dynasty ten years later. In the period 1848-1851 hundreds of southern Italians were force into political exile and thousands more were imprisoned.
The use of over twenty thousand troops to put down the revolts in Sicily helps illustrate why the Italian revolts failed. This fraction of the southern Italian army represented a force that exceeded the entire military compliment of the U.S. armed forces at the same time in history. This was enormous military force being used against essentially a civilian disorganized revolt. During this period not only the southern Italian revolutionaries lack external international support but often found that international support turned against them.
The widespread revolutionary outbreaks throughout Europe in 1848 have been compared to the conditions present in the so-called “Arab Spring” of this past year. Many historians acknowledge that the constitutional riots which began in Italy in 1847 were the spark that ignited similar riots across Europe. Sadly, the political communion of events did not translate into the various international groups working in concert. In fact, the revolutionary, liberal movement which swept Napoleon III into office actually led to the defeat of the liberal movement in Italy. Both the Pope and the liberal new republic of Rome appealed to Napoleon for support as 1850 rolled around. The liberal republican forces had every reason to believe that Napoleon would throw his support behind them. However, as we shall discuss in the next history installment that is not what happened.
Although I will write about St. Jacobis in detail in subsequent articles it should be noted that during the decade of the 1840’s Justin Jacobis’ mission to Ethiopia was achieving steady success bringing forward many converts. Among those was a well respected Ethiopian Coptic monk and scholar by the name of Ghebre Michael. Ghebre Micheal whose name means servant of Michael converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid 1840’s. Ghebre who was about ten years older than Justin became a devoted clergyman, disciple and companion to Justin. Ghebre Michael was ordained a priest by Justin in 1851. Because of the large number of converts and the number of young men seeking entry into religious life, Justin reluctantly accepted being made a Bishop in 1849. The need to have within the mission the authority to ordain priests caused Justin to abandon an almost a decade long refusal to accept the elevation in Church rank. Both Justin and Ghebre Michael were arrested in1853 and imprisoned. Ghebre Michael was severely tortured and marched around in chains for about two years. Ethiopian authorities tried to force him to renounce his Catholicism in favor of the traditional Ethiopian Coptic rite. Ghebre refused and in 1855 succumbed to the mistreatment. Ghebre Michael was beatified in 1926, thirteen years before Justin Jacobis and is considered a martyr for the faith.
Climate experts generally regard 1850 as marking the beginning a new climate shift and the end of a mini ice age that the northern latitudes had been experiencing for the better part of a century. This of course would not have been immediately recognizable to the populations of the time and they would have had no way of predicting the climate shift effects. Interestingly, our Lucanian immigration to the Americas got its start indirectly from the successful expansion of grain production of the 1840’s. This seems counter-intuitive until one looks at some very well done research out of McGill University in the 1980’s. It appears from that research that the expansion of the rural farm population created a large pool of labor that was idle in the non growing season. As had been the case in northern Italy people sought to exploit this idle work force for profit. As in northern Italy young rural boys were recruited as street musicians and exported under the supervision of “padrones.” This practice had been going on in northern Italy for more than half a century. Many European countries for various reasons had clamped down on accepting such children, finding the practice degrading and exploitative. However, the Americas had not formally done so. In the United States there was an effort to encourage taking these largely northern Italian street musicians and encouraging them to take up trade school classes to learn trades. This caused the padrones to have trouble holding on to their “workers.” In the southern Italian rural children the padrones found children of poorer more desperate circumstances, who culturally did not trust strangers. As a result these children would not talk to or go with the “do-gooders” who tried to attract them away from their street vending. So, this activity together with hundreds of southern
Italian political exiles represented the majority of the initial few southern Italians who started coming to the United States around 1850. Not surprisingly the majority of the rural children recruited were coming from the poorest of the rural regions of the south, Basilicata. These unfortunate children became by circumstance the pioneers upon their return to Italy who would introduce the rural community to what they had seen in America and the opportunities present. Many would go back to the U.S. as adults as contracted labor. This is a subject that I look forward to exploring in greater detail later in our writings.
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