A NEW BEGINNING LUCANIAN EMIGRATION
BY: TOM FRASCELLA APRIL 2014
At the start of writing this history for the San Fele Society my original intent was to focus solely on our ancestors’ main period of U.S. emigration 1850-1930. The purpose, in my mind, was to tell the story, in summary form, of the causes and experiences of our immigrant forefathers. However, once I started to print this history many members of the society requested that I start further back. They requested that I begin the history at the founding of the San Fele community in the 11th century A.D. On consideration I decided that this was the right direction for the website history to take. Our full history needed to be approached and explained in order to put everything in proper perspective.
Now starting this eighth year of this writing I find the history at a point where we can focus on the decade of 1850-1859. This is the time that I have come to identify as the very beginning of Lucanian and subsequent southern Italian mass immigration to the United States. I am aware that most writers on the subject begin the story of Italian mass immigration to the U.S. at the earliest in 1880. Largely the immigration from the Italian peninsula to the U.S. prior to 1880 has been ignored by most writers on the subject. However, to leave that chapter out would be inconsistent with the history and documents associated with our ancestor’s passage and arrival.
The decade 1850-1859 was an extraordinary time in Italian history and in particular the history of southern Italy. Throughout this decade the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the Bourbon Monarchy, was the most powerful independent State in Italy. The Kingdom possessed the largest treasury, largest and best equipped army and largest navy on the peninsula. The Kingdom saw the decade of the 1850’s begin with the crushing of the armed Carbonari revolt of 1848 and concluded with new civil strife advancing in Lucania in 1858 and in Sicily starting in 1859. Incredibly, in a mere two additional years, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would no longer exist and the unification of Italy as a single nation State had begun. Italy would be forever changed.
However, rather than the Unification event being a time of jubilation and hope for many of our ancestors it was an experience of tragedy and despair. That experience in desperation, would over the next several decades spread and envelope the majority of Italians living in southern Italy and result in the exodus of 9.5 million southern Italians distributed worldwide.
But the tragedy that would become southern Italy fate was first felt most pointedly in Lucania. As a result our San Felese immigration story starts in the 1850’s at least a generation or two earlier than the bulk of other southern Italian regional immigration. Statistically Italian Immigration to the U.S. amounted to 4.5 million souls, 80% from southern Italy. This mass migration of people, the largest to the U.S. from a single source, happened in progressively larger numbers from 1850 -1930. In the first decade, 1850 to 1859 only 10,000 arrived and by 1880 a total of 75,000 had reached U.S. shores. Among those early immigrants of the first three decades were thousands of Lucanians, including thousands of San Felese.
In order to examine Lucanian immigration I should start with a geographic description of where Lucania is. To most individuals Lucania is an unknown, undefined region of southern Italy. Frequently in the newspaper and academic accounts of the 1850-1880’s Lucanians are not mentioned or misidentified as either Neapolitans or Sicilians. This may in part be because the region lacks a major city as a center. A second reason is that over the centuries Lucania has had a somewhat fluid boundary based upon who was describing it. In the early period before the founding of the Greek or Roman Empires the southern third of the Italian peninsula was inhabited by a Celtic tribe known as the Samnites. The sub-tribes or Samnite clans therefore form the indigenous base of the southern third of Italy. For several hundred years starting around the time of Alexander the Great this portion of Italy absorbed both Greek culture and a considerable Greek population. As the Roman Empire began to blossom and move southward they viewed the lands of southern Italy as a foreign place and a people to defeat and conquer. The Roman attitude toward the south can be seen in the famous Latin story of the rape of the Sabine women. The Sabines were a clan within the Samnite coalition. Through the later centuries with the influx and mixture of other people and invasions the term Lucania became most associated with the land just south of Naples which lies between the east and west coastal plains of the peninsula. In other words, the region composed of the southern Appenine Mountains. It is a mountainous region in which most of the population is to be found living in small rural villages and towns. In modern times Lucania has been reduced further by redrawn maps and generally now refers to the region that falls within the Italian State borders known as Basilicata.
There has never been a time when Lucanians, a fiercely proud and independent people, have been viewed as fully part of the Italian mainstream. During Roman ascendency the region was considered part of Magna Graecia. Throughout the Roman period, the Romans considered the region occupied/conquered territory where Greek, not Latin, was the first language and the population was “Greek”. After the fall of Rome in the fifth century southern Italy was the only part of Italy that aligned with the Eastern, Byzantine Empire and remained so through the 11th century. Thereafter the southern part of the Italian peninsula followed a separate and distinct history of independent political allegiances. In more recent times the relative poverty and isolation of the area has helped foster a view by some Italians that the region is separate and different, outside the mainstream of “national” trends and thought. Often, the people of this region have born the less than kind view of their fellow Italians as being the Italian equivalent of “country Bumpkin types”. The term “rustica” often is attached as a way of describing their many endeavors. For centuries the accomplishments of the people of the region tend to be recognized only when they leave the region. This has given rise to the phase that “to succeed you must leave””. However, starting about 160 years ago conditions in the region dramatically worsened. As a result of the decline of the region Lucanians began to accept that they had to “leave to survive”. So by the decade of the 1850’s Lucanian emigration began.
I believe that the history of the region, which I have tried to give a fair if brief summary in my previous writings, over time created a distinct and interesting culture and social climate. The people of the region present a complex portrait unique in Italy. It is not easy to capture the feel and sense of the Lucanian nature.
However, if I am going to write about early Lucanian emigration something should be said of the character and life view of the people as they confronted the trials and tribulations of that mid 18th century time. We have to understand first, that the early emigration from Italy by Lucanians occurred under the most crushing and pressing of circumstances. The earliest departures were by people who often had no choice. We also have to understand that they often arrived to a greeting in the U.S. that was far from welcoming and often discriminatory. Their forced exodus and experiences had a very hard edge to it. I have managed to find a description of the Lucanian character, written by a Lucanian poet of the last century Leonardo Sinisgalli. The quote may seem a little hard but I think it fits with the early Lucanian immigrant character as it must have existed in the mid 1800’s. Believe it or not this description will be applied by many Americans to this early Lucanian émigré.
A little should be written about Leonardo Sinisgalli for those who are not familiar with him. Mr. Sinisgalli was born in Montemurro, Basilicata Italy in 1908. Interestingly, you could call Montemurro the place where the first pangs of our common migration experience were felt. Although Sinisgalli did not immigrate to America as a youth he did experience what I will call the Lucanian emigration program. First many of his family were forced to emigrate to both the U.S. and South America which fits into the common Lucanian experience of departure and separation. He personally experienced the effects of the ancient Lucanian family structure as it was fractured by emigration. No region of Italy experienced greater per capita permanent departures than Basilicata. Second to support his family Senisgalli’s father spent long periods, years, working manual labor jobs in both the U.S. and South America, going home only for visits, not resettling in Montemurro until 1922. So like many Leonardo grew up without the presence of a father in the home during his formative years.
In spite of his father’s absence Leonardo excelled in primary school in Montemurro and was recognized as a gifted student especially in mathematics. As a result of his recognized academic abilities he was sent at age nine to Caserta for pre-university courses and later to Benevento to attend pre-university technical school. In the Lucanian mountains students especially gifted students did not have an opportunity to achieve higher education beyond earliest instruction within the village. Leonardo went to Caserta, to attend what was a “boarding school”. It is hard to imagine a youngster of nine and his family having to make this separation sacrifice. Another example of the adage you “leave to succeed”. Following his pre-university studies having received top grades at each institution, he enrolled at the University of Rome as a math major. He graduated from the University of Rome with a degree in engineering and was invited to join the university staff working for Enrico Fermi. A testament to just how brilliant he was. However, he declined the opportunity, did his military service as an artillery officer and in the early 1930’s began to explore his passion for art and poetry instead.. He won his first poetry award in 1934. Because of his cumulative life experiences I have found his writing captures the Lucanian spirit tempered by the isolation and separation as it existed in the late 19th early 20th century. So I will use his definition of the Lucanian character here and to help as our history moves forward.
Leonardo Sinisgalli’s description of the Lucanian character;
“They live well in the shade. They make their nests wherever they happen to be, their words are few. While they work, they don’t speak, they don’t sing. Where there is a crowd the Lucanian slips away, where there is too much noise, the Lucanian withdraws into himself.”
Going forward I believe the description helps in understanding the actions and approaches to the challenges our ancestors faced. That is why I placed it here at the start of the Lucanian emigration story.
Southern Italy 1850-1860
As previously written the winds of the Carbonari based revolution swept across parts of Europe including the regions of Italy with varying success starting in 1848. As it effected Italy this period is sometimes referred to as the “first Italian War of Independence”. This war did not go well in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. With the help of intelligence supplied by the British the Carbonari’s planned landings in southern Italy were anticipated and destroyed on the beaches. The war failed miserably in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the local Carbonari were forced into hiding. With the landings defeated the Bourbon Monarchy of Sothern Italy was able to quickly crush the revolt within its borders. By 1850 the Bourbon military victory against the Carbonari permitted a period of oppressive political action by the Bourbons against any citizen perceived to be in opposition to the crown.
Mass jailing of citizens on suspicion of treason and executions of known Carbonari sympathizers were the order of the day. British support of the regime was based in part in the desire to secure the bulk of the Italian sulfur production in Sicily. If the British thought that by aiding the Bourbons they would gain advantage in securing a greater percentage they quickly found that not to be true. Southern Italy continued to exercise greater control over both the quantity of sulfur exports and the market price of Sulfur. Faced with imprisonment many Carbonari in the south were forced to seek foreign exile or as in Lucania take refuge in the mountains.
Since their initial plan to secure greater sulfur exports failed the British then proceeded to employ a number of different political strategies targeted at the same goal. Starting around 1850 Britain began a campaign which was meant to put pressure on the Sothern Italian Bourbon government. First they began to publicly and aggressively paint the Bourbon government in the British press as brutally suppressive of Italian Civil Rights. Using the testimony of exiled Carbonari in England they pressed home their point in public newspapers. Interestingly, the English political establishment publicly decried the very Italian political circumstance they had help create in the south. Second, their ambassadors not so subtly suggested to the Bourbon authorities that in future political civil difficulties Britain might shift its support to the Carbonari cause. If this was meant to pressure the Bourbon’s into an export policy change it had the opposite effect of intensifying Bourbon suppression of perceived internal threats. The Bourbon administration became more determined to eliminate any future Carbonari threat. Around 1853 Britain appears to have also reached out to several of the Northern Italian city States to obtain advice and political influence in their negotiations with the south.
Britain also turned its attention to the expanding presence of Russia in the Crimea. Britain was especially concerned by the increasing size of the Russian fleet and its warm water ports. Southern Italy increasingly was viewing Russia as a potential major trading partner and an interested sulfur purchaser. Russia’s obvious expanding interests were not deemed in England’s best interest.
By 1853 we see the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-1856). During which conflict Britain’s destroyed the Russian Mediterranean fleet and destroyed Russia’s major Crimean port. Russia thereby was eliminated as an international competitor and major trading partner for Italy’s sulfur.
By 1856 we see in Italy a proposal originating with the Piedmont monarchy, with British support, that the independent Italian States form a united federation. The Bourbon monarchy of course had no interest in such a united federation. From the Bourbon regime’s view they were the largest and richest independent State in Italy. They had a well equipped and trained army of 100,000 and a sizable navy. For them there was nothing to politically be gained by joining a federation in which they would have to give up some of their autonomy and independence.
1856 is also an interesting year on the international political scene for the British Empire. Britain had successfully blocked Russia’s southern expansion and in the process cut off southern Italy’s emerging trading partner. Northern Italy, with clandestine British support, pardoned and invited back from exile Carbonari hero Giuseppe Garibaldi who like his mentor Mazzini had to this point been pro Republican and anti monarchy in his political leanings. Suddenly Garibaldi is convinced in Piedmont that the path to Italian unification is through a Constitutional Monarchy with Piedmont at its head. It should be noted that Garibaldi’s shift of support for a monarchy created a rift between him and his mentor Mazzini. Interstingly two construction proposals caught the British off their guard, the first was the advancement of the Hargous canal proposal at the isthmus of Mexico and second the French proposal to build a canal across the Suez with the support of the Egyptian authorities.
With the two canal proposals Britain once again saw its vast commercial empire at risk. Britain ruled the waves which protected its trade routes worldwide. It held treaties and interests to support those routes. If the canals were built, not only would they cut travel time for shipping in half, they would render the existing trade routes useless. In addition, the proposed canals because of prevailing winds were not useful for Britain’s aging sailing fleet. One of the things history records is that Britain did everything in its power to slow or frustrate the canal efforts politically, economically and by supporting local insurgents to disrupt the building process. They were so successful that by the time the projects did move ahead twenty years later British companies controlled both projects. The main point being that Britain maintained its far flung empire by vigorously supporting political factions and events that aligned with its interests. That support included events which were progressing in the internal politics in Italy.
It is clear that by as early as 1856 an Italian plan began to develop in Piedmont, with secret British support, to encourage yet another Carbonari uprising in Sicily. This plan for revolt however, if successful, would sever Bourbon control of Sicily and place Sicily under their control of the Piedmont monarchy which would need to rely on British naval support.
This brings us to 1857 and the poor isolated rural mountain communities of Lucania/Basilicata in southern Italy. Central Basilicata had been an area of considerable Carbonari discontent, including supporting the early stages of revolt in the late 1840’s.
As a result of the collapse to the revolt and subsequent suppression by the Bourbon government by the early 1850’s some local men from the area found it expedient to hide in the mountains, on the run, or to flee beyond the jurisdiction and reach of the Bourbons.
It was a hard life for these insurgents living off the meager bounty of the land and occasional opportunities of petty theft that Basilicata afforded. In a central Lucanian region with a population of roughly 250,000 people the early insurgent numbers were estimated in the early 1850’s in the 400 to 500 range. There were so few of these poor souls living this banished lifestyle that for the most part they were ignored more than hunted by the law. Nevertheless, they were considered “outlaws” or in Italian “Brigandi”.
In the Fall of 1857 central Basilicata/ Lucania began to experience an all to common event in the region, earth tremors. Central Lucania is geologically unstable and active. This region experiences a major earthquake every 50 years or so and a catastrophic earthquake with massive loss of life and property every 350-500 years. On December 16, 1857 the region experienced a catastrophic earthquake event. This was followed by months of severe aftershocks.
This earthquake is sometimes called the Great Neapolitan Earthquake and Sometimes called the Potenza Earthquake of 1857. The epicenter of the earthquake or area of greatest damage and loss of life was in and around Lucania’s only city and Capitol Potenza.
More modern examination of the records of the event now suggest the region actually suffered two very strong major earthquakes, one whose epicenter was near the town of Caggiano and the other near the town of Montemurro. The localized destruction of property, and infrastructure occurred on a scale that is unimaginable. The numbers of dead and or seriously injured make the term decimated inadequate. The Bourbon response to this unprecedented disaster is best described as non-existent. The survivors in central Lucania existed in a state of shock or what today we would call P.T.S.D. Disease and starvation quickly followed the actual earthquake event. Civil authority collapsed. In desperation some people began to raid government storerooms and treasuries which finally got the Bourbon government’s attention. In 1858 they sent in 5,000 troops to restore civil orde, not rebuild.
I identify this tragic natural earthquake disaster and its aftermath as the beginning of the mass emigration from Lucania. This very human response should not come as a surprise as major catastrophic events often create severe refugee problems. Specifically, the refugees of this disaster fell in four groups. I’ll break the groups down based on their size.
By mid 1859 the irritant presence of Bourbon foreign troops in Lucania resulted in the swelling of insurgents to almost two thousand local militants/Brigandi in the mountains of Lucania. While some of the militants were Carbonari, most were simple rural farmers forced by the destruction caused by the earthquake to seek desperate avenues of survival. They were well aware that their numbers and lack of weapons made it virtually impossible to resist the 5,000 heavily armed and well trained forces of the Bourbon monarchy. This was especially true considering that the full Bourbon military reserve numbered some 100,000. However, with no real alternatives open conflict started in Lucania. It was a people’s revolt where the majority consisted of the lower class, the peasants of the region. If it had to be described I would do so with the line” freedom’s just another word for nothing left to loose”.
What if any, part the rebellion in Lucania played in the political actions taking place in other parts of Italy I am not sure. It may be that it was a convenient distraction, or represented a potential militant ally. Whatever, the perception of the Lucanian’ revolt in late 1859 a Carbonari lead new and planned revolt broke out in Sicily and quickly spread to many Sicilian towns and villages. What was clear now is that this new Carbonari based revolt in Sicily was being closely watched, directed and supported from the Piedmont. The Bourbon Monarchy which already had 5,000 troops in Sicily responded to the civil outbreaks there by sending 10,000 more troops tasked to aggressively restore order.
By the close of the decade 1859 Italy had witnessed the first two salvos, Lucania and Sicily in what would become Italy’s Second War of Independence. This would become shortly thereafter as the War of Unification.
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