Victoria’s Puppeteers in Italy



By Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                       August 2014



The Victorian Age encompasses the time of the reign of Queen Victoria of England 1837-1901. During her reign England was already a Constitutional Monarchy and the regent held little direct political power. However, this period covers the time immediately after the French Napoleonic Wars. England was the only major Western European Government that did not collapse and or become displaced by Napoleon’s early successes. As a result after Waterloo England emerged not only as a victor but as the most stable political government in Western Europe. This naturally placed England in a position of European leadership, a position fully appreciated by England’s very capable government Ministers.

 The cost of England’s victory over France both financially and in lives lost was staggering. England had been for centuries a global commercial power. Supported by the most powerful navy in the world England had through its foreign colonies and through most favored nation trading agreements been supplied the raw materials that had sustained its industry and economy for several hundred years. Although Europe’s hard won early 19th century peace offered England unprecedented global commercial and territorial expansion careful husbandry of its military resources was a necessity.

 By the end of the Napoleonic Wars “industrialization” made unprecedented and rapid technological advancement. England and its government embraced industrialization more than any western power at the time. In order to develop and maintain global commercial primacy England’s government devised certain national and international models/principles which dominate English foreign policy for the better part of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


The principles can be reduced to three;

1)      England needed to secure uninterrupted access to the raw materials that its industry required.

2)      England needed to protect and secure its developing technological advantages.

3)      Once the raw materials were converted into “product” England had to secure, maintain and develop domestic and foreign markets for those products. Once in those markets it had to maintain its advantage over potential “industrializing” competitors.


 How English foreign policy accomplished this globally is a topic that has filled volumes. Our interest is in how English goals affected English foreign policy of the period toward the Italian peninsula. We have already considered that as Napoleon’s forces descended toward The Kingdom of Naples, England was quick to transport the Bourbon regime to Sicily. There with the support of its navy and ground forces it blocked Napoleon’s advance to the island. In so doing England protected its access to the sulfur mines of Sicily and assured “most favored nation” trading advantages going forward.

 We have also discussed how as the Napoleonic threat dissolved a number of Western European nations returned to some semblance of Monarchy and autocratic rule. Freed from the threat of Napoleon, the Bourbon regime was restored in southern Italy and emerged over the decades of the 1830 and 1840’s as the most autocratic of all the European monarchies. The autocratic regimes began to follow strong nationalistic policies quite independent and sometimes in conflict with English interests. The Bourbon regime eventually reduced or eliminated the English “most favored” trade advantages and sought new markets for its limited but highly prized sulfur production. Although limited in production volume the Sicilian sulfur production represented 95% of the world’s supply of the mineral in the mid-19th century.

 The English as early as the late 1830’s were very concerned by the emerging economic direction of the Bourbon regime. Their displeasure was voiced quite directly with a not so veiled threat that they might support Carbonari rebellion if matters were not resolved more favorably. Of course supporting the Carbonari/ Constitutionalist movement in the south if the Bourbon regime did not rethink its economic direction. However, simple support of political change did not provide an assurance that a more constitutional body would be more receptive to English interests. What would obviously be required was political manipulation which assured an English friendly replacement. That opportunity did not present itself initially and as a result when the rebellion of 1848 broke out the British were not fully prepared to aggressively support either side in the conflict.

 With respect to the politics of the 1848 Carbonari Rebellion, England provided sanctuary for Mazzini and other prominent Carbonari in exile, and supported at least publicly the constitutionalist movement in Italy. It also supplied small arms to Carbonari factions in Sicily. But when it came to Mazzini’s plan to send supporting Carbonari forces from north Italy to southern Italy, England was not prepared to see the Bourbon regime collapse in 1848. Instead of supporting the Carbonari landings they alerted the Bourbon’s and insured the collapse of the Carbonari attempt.

 Eventually even the short lived success of the Carbonari in central and northern Italy collapsed under French and Austrian pressure. Among those Carbonari that escaped after the collapse was Giuseppe Garibaldi who eventually made his way to the U.S. The presence of Austrian and French interests in the continued “partition” of the Italian peninsula clearly added to and complicated the English actions. While wanting to secure southern Italy’s natural resources England also did not want to risk direct military action which might lead to a new European conflict. Although England was reaching the height of its global power it was not prepared to use “gunboat diplomacy”.

 Despite England’s intervention on behalf of the Bourbon’s during the rebellion by 1851 it was clear that the Bourbon regime was intent on engaging in an economic program not in England’s best interest and dangerously close to the emerging fortunes of expansionist Russia. This increased the pressure on the English government to construct if possible a non-direct, non-military diplomatic approach to solving the strategic trade problem with the southern Italian Bourbon regime.  English politicians realized that it had to create an environment in which its domestic population and the international community turned away from the Bourbon Government. It is about this time that English political leaders through the English press began a ten year program to color the Bourbon regime as an oppressive and tyrannical government unfit to exist and whose existence was an affront to morality.

 The early cornerstone of the campaign to discredit and politically isolate the Bourbon regime from the rest of Europe starts with William Ewart Gladstone’s (“Two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen on the State Prosecutions of the Neapolitan Government”), which was published in 1851. It is abundantly clear from the content and tone of the letters that the Bourbon regime is to be painted in the British press as a “rogue” government. In the letters Lord Gladstone gives a running account of his visit to Naples in 1850 and his observations and declared “revulsion” to the political suppression being inflicted by the Bourbon government on the southern Italian Carbonari/Constitutionalists.

 While it is true that following the failed landing the Bourbon regime began a cruel and oppressive campaign to ferret out Carbonari and Carbonari sympathizers among its population, it was also true that the English had put the Bourbon’s in position to do that.

 In addition a government taking severe repressive actions against real or perceived threats against its own survival is not an extraordinary circumstance in European history.



                                                                                            William Ewart Gladstone


 While the trampling of civil and human rights by the Bourbon’s provides nothing to condone, neither is it unique to this autocratic government. So the tone of Gladstone’s letter and his “revulsion” are suspect from the outset as politically motivated. In addition, with limited inspection in the short time he spent in southern Italy Gladstone appears to have no trouble doubling or tripling the number of actual prisoner/persons arrested and punished by placing the number at upwards of 30,000 by 1850.

 The major thrust of his letters is that the Bourbon regime had a morally bankrupt judicial system. That this corrupt judicial system was in turn used to project the semblance of law/fairness while actually providing no opportunity of justice whatever. That within the actual judicial system, perceived anti-government individuals were guilty by accusation not by weight of evidence. For those lucky enough to be given even the semblance of judicial trial there was no opportunity to confront their accusers or to challenge the weight, sufficiency or validity of any evidence presented against them.

 Gladstone concludes that; “the effect of all this is, total inversion of all the moral and social ideas. Law, instead of being re-spected, is odious. Force, and not affection, is the foundation of government. There is no association, but a violent antagonism, between the idea of freedom and that of order.” He goes so far as to declare the regime as the “negation of God erected into a system of government.”

 From Gladstone’s 1851 letters there is an unrelenting British government inspired public propaganda campaign against the Bourbon regime that continues through the decade of the 1850’s. To be clear it is not the content of the letters or even the rather strident anti Bourbon tone. The actions of the Bourbon government in its repressive policies should be condemned in the strongest terms. Those southern Italians who suffered under this repression, including the hundreds if not several thousand who were killed either by execution or languishing in horrible penal conditions deserve to have their sacrifices acknowledged and remembered. They were truly martyrs in the cause of civil liberty and deserve to be honored as such. I simply cannot accept that the British had any real concern for these “victims”.

 The principle reason I challenge the British political motivation has to do with the context of the time in British history. Besides the obvious commercial expansion that the British were promoting the 1840’s and 1850’s it is also the time of the Irish Potato Famine. I hardly think it was necessary for British politicians and the press to look all the way over to southern Italy to find examples of a government denying basic civil and human rights. I also don’t think that Britain had to look to Italy to find a judicial system that imprisoned masses of people on accusation not evidence.

 I cannot find in this time frame in British history, given their actions in Ireland, a “moral” high ground from which they could be critical of the Bourbon regime. During this same period over a million Irish were allowed to starve in a land that produced more than enough agriculture to feed its population. In addition, hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes, tens of thousands were imprisoned for political reasons and tens of thousands more in debtor prisons. I also don’t think you can ignore that several million more Irish were forced to immigrate with little more than the clothes on their backs in order to have a chance of survival. By comparison of scale, there really is no comparison. And yet, it is the Bourbon regime that is painted as the “negation of God erected in a system of government”.

 As we shall see as the history of southern Italy unfolds in future articles this British propaganda campaign of the 1850’s against the Bourbon regime will have extreme negative and far reaching impacts on the entire culture of southern Italy and its people for decades if not generations to come. Many of those negative impacts while maybe unintended nevertheless have created grave difficulties for our ancestors and continue into the present.


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