A History of the Sicilian Mafia
By John Dickie
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2004 John Dickie
All rights reserved.
The Genesis of the Mafia
SICILY'S TWO COLOURS
Palermo became an Italian city on 7 June 1860 when, under the terms of a ceasefire, two long columns of defeated troops snaked out from its eastern edges, and doubled back round outside the walls to await the ships that would ferry them home to Naples. Their withdrawal was the culmination of one of the most famous military achievements of the century, a feat of patriotic heroism that astonished the rest of Europe. Until that day, Sicily had been ruled from Naples as part of the Bourbon kingdom that encompassed most of southern Italy. Then, in May 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi and around 1,000 volunteers—the famous Redshirts—invaded the island with the aim of uniting it with the new nation of Italy. Under Garibaldi's leadership, this ragged but zealous force disorientated and defeated a far larger Neapolitan army. Palermo was conquered after three days of intense street fighting during which the Bourbon navy bombarded the city.
With Palermo liberated, Garibaldi then led his men—who were now growing in number and becoming an army in their own right—east towards the Italian mainland. On 6 September, the hero was welcomed into Naples itself by cheering crowds, and the following month he handed over his conquests to the King of Italy. He refused to take any reward, and headed back to his island home of Caprera with little more than his poncho, some basic supplies, and seed for his garden. A plebiscite quickly confirmed that Garibaldi had made Sicily and southern Italy into an integral part of the nation of Italy.
Even contemporaries thought Garibaldi's achievements were 'epic' and 'legendary'. But they soon came to seem like nothing more substantial than a dream, so tormented and violent did Sicily's relationship with the Italian kingdom turn out to be. The mountainous island had a long-standing reputation as a revolutionary powder keg. Garibaldi had succeeded largely because his expedition had triggered another uprising; the Bourbon regime rapidly collapsed in the face of it. It now became clear that the revolt of 1860 had been only the beginning of the trouble. The incorporation of 2.4 million Sicilians into the new nation brought in its wake an epidemic of conspiracy, robbery, murder, and score-settling.
The King's Ministers, mostly men from the north of Italy, had hoped to find partners in government from among the upper echelons of the Sicilian population, people who looked like themselves: conservative landowners with a sense of good government and a desire for ordered economic progress. What they found instead—they would often protest—looked like the face of anarchy: republican revolutionaries with strong links to semi-criminal gangs; aristocrats and churchmen with a nostalgia for the old Bourbon regime or a hankering for Sicilian autonomy; local politicians who were killing and kidnapping in a struggle for power with equally unscrupulous opponents. There was massive and enraged popular resistance to the introduction of conscription, previously unknown in Sicily. Many people also seemed to think that the patriotic revolution had entitled them not to pay any tax.
The Sicilians who had invested their political ambitions in the patriotic revolution were infuriated by what they saw as the government's arrogant refusal to allow them access to power—the power they needed to address the island's problems. In 1862, Garibaldi himself so despaired at the state of the new Italy that he came out of retirement and used Sicily as a base to launch another invasion of the mainland. His objective was to conquer Rome, which still remained under the authority of the Pope. But an Italian army stopped him in the mountains of Calabria, and he was even shot and wounded in the foot. (Rome would not become the capital of Italy until 1870.)
The Italian government responded to the crisis provoked by Garibaldi's new invasion by declaring martial law in Sicily. In so doing it set a pattern for the coming years. Unwilling or unable to find the support to pacify Sicily politically, the government repeatedly tried the military solution: mobile columns of troops, sieges of entire towns, mass arrests, imprisonment without trial. But the situation failed to improve. In 1866, there was another revolt in Palermo, similar in some respects to the one that had overthrown the Bourbons. As they had done when Garibaldi attacked in 1860, revolutionary gangs descended on the city from the surrounding hills. There were unsubstantiated rumours of cannibalism and blood drinking by the rebels; martial law was once again the response. The 1866 revolt was quelled, but it was only after ten more years of turmoil and repression that Sicily settled into life as part of Italy. In 1876, for the first time, politicians from the island entered a new coalition government in Rome.
A constant counterpoint to the strife in Sicily between 1860 and 1876 was the impression that the island's splendours made on the visitors who arrived in the aftermath of Italian unification. Palermo's extraordinarily beautiful setting could not help but strike new arrivals. One garibaldino who approached Palermo for the first time from the sea said it looked like a city built to fit a child's poetic vision. Its walls were enclosed by a band of olive and lemon groves, behind which lay an amphitheatre of hills and mountains. There was the same simplicity to its layout: Palermo had two straight, perpendicular main roads that met at the Quattro Canti ('Four Corners'), a piazza built in the seventeenth century. At each corner of the Quattro Canti, an elaborate façade of balconies, cornices, and niches symbolized the four quarters of the city.
Despite the damage caused by the Bourbon shelling, Palermo in the 1860s offered numerous attractions for residents and outsiders alike; foremost among them perhaps was the famous sea front. During the seemingly endless summers, once the intense heat of the day had faded, genteel Palermitani took moonlit carriage rides along the Marina, perfumed by its flowering trees; or they sampled ice creams and sorbets while promenading to the sound of favourite opera melodies played by the city band.
In the narrow, tortuous alleys off the main streets and away from the Marina, aristocratic palaces competed for space with markets, artisans' workshops, hovels, and no fewer than 194 places of worship. Visitors in the early 1860s were often struck by the sheer number of monks and nuns in the streets. Palermo also seemed like a stone palimpsest of cultures stretching back over many hundreds of years. Like the rest of the island, it was layered with the monuments left by countless invaders. For since the ancient Greeks, virtually every Mediterranean power from the Romans to the Bourbons had made Sicily its own. The island seemed to many as if it were a fabulous display case of Greek amphitheatres and temples, Roman villas, Arab mosques and gardens, Norman cathedrals, Renaissance palaces, baroque churches ...
Sicily was also imagined in two colours. It had once been the granary of ancient Rome. For hundreds of years thereafter, wheat grown on vast estates painted the imposing highlands of the interior in golden yellow. The island's other colour had more recent origins. When the Arabs conquered Sicily in the ninth century, they brought new irrigation techniques and introduced the groves of citrus fruit trees that tinted the northern and eastern coastal strip with dark green leaves.
It was during the troubled years of the 1860s that the Italian kingdom's ruling class first heard talk of the mafia in Sicily. Without having a clear idea of what it was, the first people to study the problem assumed that it must be archaic, a leftover from the Middle Ages, some symptom of the centuries of foreign misrule that had kept the island in a backward condition. Accordingly their first instinct was to look for its source in the golden yellow of the interior highlands, among the ancient grain-producing estates. For all its desolate beauty, the interior of Sicily was a metaphor for everything Italy wanted to leave behind. The great estates were worked by droves of hungry peasants who were exploited by brutal bosses. Many Italians hoped and believed that the mafia was a symptom of this kind of backwardness and poverty, that it was destined to disappear as soon as Sicily emerged from its isolation and caught up with the historical timetable. One optimist even claimed that the mafia would disappear 'with the whistle of the locomotive'. This kind of belief in the mafia's antiquity has never quite died, not least because many men of honour keep resuscitating it. Tommaso Buscetta, too, thought that the mafia began in the Middle Ages as a way of resisting French invaders.
But the mafia's origins are not ancient. The mafia began at roughly the time when beleaguered Italian government officials first heard talk of it. The mafia and the new nation of Italy were born together. In fact, the way that the word 'mafia' surfaced and became widely used is a curious affair, not least because the Italian government that discovered the name also played a part in nurturing the association that bore it.
As perhaps befits the mafia's own fiendish ingenuity, its genesis involves not just one story, but a knot of them. Untying those narrative threads and laying them out in the following chapters requires a little chronological dexterity; it means moving back and forth in the turbulent period from 1860 to 1876, and a brief loop back through the half-century before then. It also means borrowing the testimonies of the people caught up in the story, the people who were participants and onlookers in the mafia's beginnings.
It is best to start not with the word 'mafia'—for reasons that will become clear—but with what the early mafia did and, just as importantly, where it did it. For if the mafia was not ancient, then neither was the golden yellow of the interior the place where it was born. The mafia emerged in an area that is still its heartland; it was developed where Sicily's wealth was concentrated, in the dark green coastal strip, among modern capitalist export businesses based in the idyllic orange and lemon groves just outside Palermo.
DR GALATI AND THE LEMON GARDEN
The mafia's methods were honed during a period of rapid growth in the citrus fruit industry. Lemons had first become prized as an export crop in the late 1700s. Then a long citrus fruit boom in the mid-nineteenth century thickened Sicily's dark green hem. Two pillars of the British way of life played their part in this boom. From 1795, the Royal Navy made their crews take lemons as a cure for scurvy. On a much smaller scale the oil of the bergamot, another citrus fruit, was used to flavour Earl Grey tea; commercial production began in the 1840s.
Sicilian oranges and lemons were shipped to New York and London when they were still virtually unknown in the mountains of the Sicilian interior. In 1834, over 400,000 cases of lemons were exported. By 1850, it was 750,000. In the mid-1880s an astonishing 2.5 million cases of Italian citrus fruit arrived in New York every year, most of them from Palermo. In 1860, the year of Garibaldi's expedition, it was calculated that Sicily's lemon groves were the most profitable agricultural land in Europe, out-earning even the fruit orchards around Paris. In 1876, citrus cultivation yielded more than sixty times the average profit per hectare for the rest of the island.
Nineteenth-century citrus fruit gardens were modern businesses that required a high level of initial investment. Land needed to be cleared of stones and terraced; storehouses and roads had to be built; surrounding walls had to be erected to protect the crop from both the wind and thieves; irrigation channels had to be dug and sluices installed. Even once the trees had been planted, it took about eight years for them to start producing fruit. Profitability followed several years after that.
As well as being investment-intensive, lemon trees are also highly vulnerable. Even a short interruption to water supplies can be devastating. Vandalism, whether directed at the trees or the fruit, is a constant risk. It was this combination of vulnerability and high profit that created the perfect environment for the mafia's protection rackets.
Although there were and are lemon groves in many coastal regions of Sicily, the mafia was, until relatively recently, overwhelmingly a western Sicilian phenomenon. It emerged in the area immediately surrounding Palermo. With nearly 200,000 inhabitants in 1861, Palermo was the political, legal, and banking centre of western Sicily. More money circulated in the property and rental sectors than anywhere else on the island. Palermo was the centre for wholesale and consumer markets, and it was the major port. It was here that much of the farmland in the surrounding province and beyond was bought, sold, and rented. Palermo also set the political agenda. The mafia was born not of poverty and isolation, but of power and wealth.
The lemon groves just outside Palermo were the setting for the story of the first person persecuted by the mafia ever to leave a detailed account of his misfortunes. He was a respected surgeon, Gaspare Galati. Almost everything that is known about Dr Galati as a person—his courage most notably—emerges from the testimony he would later submit to the authorities, who subsequently confirmed the authenticity of what he wrote.
In 1872, Dr Galati came to manage an inheritance on behalf of his daughters and their maternal aunt. The centrepiece of the inheritance was the Fondo Riella, a four-hectare lemon and tangerine fruit farm, or 'garden', in Malaspina, which was only a fifteen-minute walk from the edge of Palermo. The fondo was a model enterprise: its trees were watered using a modern three-horsepower steam pump that required a specialist operator. But when he took control of it, Gaspare Galati was well aware that the huge investment in the business was in danger.
The previous owner of the Fondo Riella, Dr Galati's brother-in-law, had died of a heart attack following a series of threatening letters. Two months before his death, he had learned from the steam-pump operator that the sender of the letters was the warden on the fondo, Benedetto Carollo, who had dictated them to someone who knew how to read and write. Carollo may have been uneducated, but he had attitude: Galati describes him swaggering about as if he owned the farm, and it was widespread knowledge that he creamed 20–25 per cent off the sale price of its produce; he even stole the coal intended for the steam engine. But it was the way Carollo stole that had caused most worry for Dr Galati's brother-in-law; it showed that he understood the citrus fruit business well, and was intent on running the Fondo Riella into the ground.
Between the Sicilian groves where the lemons grew, and the shops in northern Europe and America where consumers bought them, a host of agents, wholesale merchants, packagers, and transporters plied their trade. Financial speculation lubricated every stage of the process, beginning while the lemons were still on the trees; as a way of offsetting the high initial costs and spreading the risk of a poor harvest, citrus businesses usually sold the crop well before the fruit was ripe.
Dr Galati's brother-in-law had followed this common practice on the Fondo Riella. However, when brokers bought options on the farm's produce in the early 1870s, they found that the lemons and tangerines that they had already paid for began to disappear from the trees. The Fondo Riella quickly acquired a very bad business reputation. There seemed no doubt that the warden Carollo was responsible for the thefts, and that the young man's intention was to drive down the price of the business so that he could then buy it out.
Upon taking control of the Riella fruit farm from his brother-in-law, Dr Galati resolved to save himself trouble and lease it to someone else. Carollo had other ideas. When prospective tenants came to view the fondo, he made his views abundantly clear to them as he showed them round: 'By Judas's blood this garden will never be leased or sold.' It was too much for Dr Galati; he sacked Carollo and hired a replacement.
Dr Galati soon came to know how the young warden felt about having 'the bread taken out of his mouth', as he was heard to say. Disconcertingly, some of Dr Galati's close friends, men who had no reason to know anything about his business, came to him and advised him in confidence to take Carollo back. The doctor stood firm.
At around 10 p.m. on 2 July 1874, the man whom Dr Galati had hired to replace Carollo as the warden on the Fondo Riella was shot several times in the back as he travelled along one of the narrow roads that passed between the lemon groves. The attackers had made a terraced platform out of stones inside another grove so that they could shoot him from behind the surrounding wall—a method used in many early mafia hits. The victim died in hospital in Palermo a few hours later. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Cosa Nostra by John Dickie. Copyright © 2004 John Dickie. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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