From the archive: Sicily and the Sicilians

This 1860 article by Karl Marx is a concise account of the struggles of the people of Sicily for freedom through centuries. So is the politics of it, in his last paragraph. Marx loathes the French emperor Napoleon III and says that he will do what he will do in Italy for dynastic and imperialist reasons. Marx nonetheless thinks that “any change” — even a French intervention in Sicily — “must be for the better”. Better than the ongoing slaughter of Sicilians by their own savage Bourbon government.

Throughout the history of the human race no land and no people have suffered so terribly from slavery, from foreign conquests and oppressions, and none have struggled so irrepressibly for emancipation as Sicily and the Sicilians.

Almost from the time when Polyphemus promenaded around Etna, or when Ceres taught the Siculi 286 the culture of grain, to our day, Sicily has been the theater of uninterrupted invasions and wars, and of unflinching resistance. The Sicilians are a mixture of almost all southern and northern races; first, of the aboriginal Sicanians, with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and slaves from all regions under heaven, imported into the island by traffic or war; and then of Arabs, Normans, and Italians. The Sicilians, in all these transformations and modifications, have battled, and still battle, for their freedom.

More than thirty cenulries ago the aborigines of Sicily resisted as best they could the superior weapons and military skill of Carthaginian and Greek invaders. They were made tributary, but never wholly subdued by the one or the other. For a long time Sicily was the battle-field of Greeks and Carthaginians; her people were ruined and partly enslaved; her cities, inhabited by Carthaginians and Greeks, were the central points whence oppression and slavery radiated through the interior of the island.

These early Sicilians, however, never missed an opportunity to strike for liberty, or at least to take as much revenge as possible on their Carthaginian masters and on Syracuse. The Romans finally subdued Carthaginians and Syracusans, selling into slavery as many of them as possible. On one occasion 30,000 inhabitants of Panormus, the modern Palermo, were thus sold.

The Romans worked Sicily with numberless gangs of slaves, in order to feed with Sicilian wheat the poor proletarians of the Eternal City. For this purpose, they not only enslaved the inhabitants of the island, but imported slaves from all their other dominions. The terriblc cruelties of Roman Proconsuls, Praetors, Prefects, are known to everyone who is in any degree familiar with the history of Rome, or with the oratory of Cicero. Nowhere else, perhaps, did Roman cruelty hold such saturnalia. The poor freemen and yeomen, if unable to pay the crushing tribute exacted of them, were pitilessly sold into bondage, themselves or their children, by the tax gatherers.

But both under the Syracusan Dionysius and under the Roman rule, the most terrible slave insurrections took place in Sicily, in which the native people and the imported slaves often made common cause. During the breaking up of the Roman Empire, Sicily was visited by various invaders. Then the Moors got hold of it for a time; but the Sicilians, and above all the genuine people of the interior, resisted always, more or less successfully, and step by step maintained or conquered various small franchises.

The dawn had scarcely begun to spread over the medieval darkness, when the Sicilians stood forth, already armed, not only with various municipal liberties, but with rudiments of a constitutional government, such as at that time existed nowhere else. Earlier than any other European nation, the Sicilians regulated by vote the income of their Governments and Sovereigns. Thus the Sicilian soil has ever proved deadly to oppressors and invaders, and the Sicilian Vespers 287 stand immortal in history. When the House of Aragon brought the Sicilians into dependence on Spain, they knew how to preserve their political immunities more or less intact; and this they did alike under the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons.

When the French Revolution and Napoleon expelled the tyrannical reigning family from Naples, the Sicilians, incited and seduced by English promises and guarantees, received the fugitives, and in their struggles against Napoleon sustained them both with their blood and their money. Everyone knows the subsequent treachery of the Bourbons, and the subterfuges or impudent denials by which England has tried and still tries to varnish her own faithless abandonment of the Sicilians and of their liberties to the tender mercies of the Bourbons.

At the present day, political, administrative, and fiscal oppression crushes all classes of the people; and these grievances therefore stand in the foreground. But nearly the whole soil is still in the hands of comparatively few largc landowners or barons.

The medieval tenures of land are still preserved in Sicily, except that the tiller is not a serf; he ceased to be such about the eleventh century, when he became a free tenant. The conditions of his tenure are, however, generally so oppressive, that the immense majority of agriculturists work exclusively for the advantage of the tax-gatherer and of the baron, producing scarcely anything beyond the taxes and rents, and themselves remaining either wretchedly, or, at least, comparatively poor. Producing the celebrated Sicilian wheat and excellent fruits, they themselves live poorly on beans the whole year through.

Sicily now bleeds again, and England looks calmly on at these new saturnalia of the infamous Bourbon, and his not less infamous minions, lay or clerical, Jesuits or Guardsmen. The fussy declaimers of the British Parliament rend the air with their empty talk about Savoy and the dangers of Switzerland, but have not a word to say of the massacres in the Sicilian cities. No voice raises the cry of indignation throughout Europe. No ruler and no Parliament proclaims outlawry against the bloodthirsty idiot of Naples.

Louis Napoleon, alone, for this or that purpose — of course not for any love of liberty, but for the aggrandizement of his family or of French influence — may perhaps stop the butcher in his work of destruction. England will howl about perfidy, will spout fire and flames against Napoleonic treachery and ambition but the Neapolitans and the Sicilians must eventually be gainers, even under a Murat or any other new ruler. Any change must be for the better.

First published in the New-York Tribune May 17, 1860.

Note: In 1860 Sicily and Italy’s South were ruled by a notoriously tyrannical regime in Naples. The Pope ruled central Italy under French protection. Austria ruled the area around Venice. In 1859-60 the Kingdom of Piedmont, the only more or less democratic state on the peninsula, had gained Lombardy (the area around Milan) thanks to an uneasy alliance with Napoleon III. In the end, Sicily and the South were liberated by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s volunteer Redshirts (with tacit, unofficial British support) in 1860-1, Venice joined Italy in 1866 and the Papal States after the defeat of France in 1870.