Read an Excerpt
MAFIA: INSIDE THE DARK HEART (Chapter 1)Why the Mafia Developed
Criminal organisations start because there is an opportunity to make money illegally. It is the creation of an organisation rather than reliance on individual effort that distinguishes the major crime boss from the petty criminal. Neither an unlocked house or motor vehicle nor a visible purse in a handbag requires an organisation to profit from someone’s carelessness. But smuggle people, provide prostitutes, run protection rackets, control illegal gambling, distribute drugs or sell arms illegally and there is a need for something bigger.
The biggest criminal organisation the world has ever known, the Sicilian Mafia, was not created with criminal intent in mind. It started as an ‘alternative’ form of local government in the Sicilian countryside during the nineteenth century in response to the collapse of the ruling Bourbon Empire, which comprised the whole of the south of Italy, together with Sicily. Its replacement by the government and army of Piedmont, the most northerly of present-day Italian regions, which would at that time have been as cogent to Sicilians as Belgium would have been to Australians.
It is perhaps ironic that the two men whose decisions and actions caused the upheaval in the Sicilian countryside and were the catalyst for the Mafia are regarded as heroes worthy of remembrance in statuary both in Italy and Britain.
There is not a town or village in Italy that fails to honour the role of Giuseppe Garibaldi in the formation of the Italian nation with a statue or an eponymous road or piazza. More surprisingly, however, it was an action by Admiral Horatio Nelson almost 50 years before Garibaldi arrived that was the real catalyst for change in Sicily, and which indirectly spawned the Mafia.
When Nelson defeated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the Sicilians, and especially the Bourbon King Ferdinand, were so grateful that they gave him a 30,000-acre estate and awarded him the Dukedom of Bronte. This gesture was so well received in England that Patrick Brunty, the father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, changed the family name to Brontë!
Unfortunately, Nelson never had time to enjoy his estate, but it stayed in his family until it was sold back to the Sicilians in 1980. The British occupied Sicily from 1806 to 1815 under the governorship of William Bentinck. They introduced many useful changes to the island’s administration, such as a bicameral system of government and a new constitution, but, like all later invaders, they did not understand that by altering the traditional way of life they were opening doors for changes other than their own to be introduced. Feudalism was an anathema to nineteenth-century Britons and while its abolition would threaten the way of life of the aristocrats and their retainers it also actually harmed the apparently downtrodden peasants whom the British were hoping to liberate. No one was realistically going to let the peasants set up their own smallholdings in the first decade of the nineteenth century. They tried to introduce the changes just 20 years after Figaro, the play on which Mozart’s opera was based, had been banned. It dared to challenge the social hierarchy: servants were servants and masters were masters. More importantly, when the abolition of feudalism was passed into law, the peasants lost their traditional feudal rights, which for them was a disaster.
At the time, the British held the same inflated opinion of their way of life as the Americans do today, when it came to transplanting their domestic institutions onto an alien culture. What worked well in England in regard to landownership was not going to work as well in Sicily, but the English did not understand this.
But British rule gave confidence for outside investment and many English families bought into the development of sulphur mining and the wine industry in Marsala.
The Sicilian aristocrats had remained comfortable and saw it as their duty to look after their serfs, who in turn were grateful for any handouts from their lords. The now more liberal British did not approve of this, but, with so few troops and little interest in creating socio-political upheaval, change had to await the arrival of Garibaldi 50 years later, who insisted on abolishing feudalism and so again, unwittingly, changed the system to the disadvantage of the group he was trying to help.
To implement the abolition of a centuries-old system and institute change was virtually impossible for 17,000 British troops, none of whom could speak Sicilian dialect. Neither was there a ‘popular’ revolt since the peasants, being 100 per cent illiterate, had no means of knowing that the law had indeed changed and that there was now an opportunity to no longer work at the grace and favour of employers. So, as they do to this day with laws that are not considered ‘suitable’, the Sicilians ignored them and the peasants went to work as they had always done.
At that time, the huge estates were among the richest and most fertile in Europe and their unique value lay in the citrus crop. Originally developed by the Saracens when they occupied the island in the ninth century, the fruit had been enormously profitable, especially since Dr Lind had shown that it could prevent scurvy. This small discovery transformed long-distance voyages, which contributed massively in particular to the wealth of Great Britain.
As far back as 1834, the west of Sicily had exported almost half a million cases of oranges, lemons and limes a year, and by the end of the century this total had risen to three million. It was a high-investment but high-profit crop. It took about ten years before trees produced fruits large enough for export and in that period, because their water supply was critical, they became a common target for vandals who had not been satisfied by the pizzu payments. The word ‘pizzu’ meant ‘the bird’s beak’ and the term arose from an old Sicilian tradition allowing the baron, and subsequently his employees, his ‘right’ to scoop some grain from the threshings of the peasant. Decades of hard work could be undone if the water supply for the irrigation of an estate was dammed, diverted or otherwise interfered with. But what was a threat to some was also an opportunity for others to profit and so, in some ways, the landowners had become prisoners of their own possessions.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Palermo, the capital city, was the ‘party town’ of Europe, mainly because of the ease of access and the gentle winter climate. The then huge number of European royals spent their winters there and this drew the increasingly affluent Sicilian aristocrats away from their estates to the centre of social activity. When the aristocrats left the countryside, the management of their estates was put in the hands of trusty employees who, in author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s words, were the ‘new men’ of the early Mafia. These gabellotti, as they came to be known, were virtually estate managers and their primary role was to provide protection against vandalism and ensure profitability. Their primary helpers were overseers called campieri and protection was supplied by their own guards, called ‘the boys’ – picciotti.
The feudal system that they advanced had been in place since the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century and when the aristocratic migration to Palermo left a social vacuum, the new men became central to the community. There was little evidence of the State in the countryside, and the police, who were so poorly paid that they took what they could squeeze from the peasants, were practically powerless; they certainly were not about to upset or challenge the new Sect and so the gabellotti and their employees became the local rulers. Long before Britain had a middle class, Sicily had developed one.
Another important factor in the social equation was the priests, nuns and monks, who acted as a bridge between the gabellotti and the desperately poor peasants, doling out charity along with the new men as a glue to keep the community together.
When, by the 1860s, to the horror of the ruling classes, Garibaldi attempted to resurrect the law to abolish feudalism, the situation was slightly different. Garibaldi was a hero. He was not a ‘foreigner’, like the British had been. He had got rid of the Bourbons, who had used Sicily like a cash cow, and he was, at least to the Sicilians, the dawn of their independence. Italy had had very few heroes since the Romans and here was a man who seemed to defy bullets, wore a poncho and a large hat with an ostrich feather in it, and cracked a whip. He was an early-day Che Guevara: a brilliant soldier and general, who had experience of helping in South American revolutions but was a useless politician. He had come to the notice of Camillo Cavour, the real architect of Italian unification, in the early wars with Austria in the north and after a failed occupation of Rome.
After tasting power at the top table of Europe, Cavour craved a place for himself, but this was not going to come to pass unless he had a country bigger than Piedmont. He saw that opportunity in making the geographic entity that was the Italian peninsula into a political force. Originally his aim was more modest – to unite the North with Central Italy, leaving Rome to the Popes and the South to the Bourbons. He realised that if he ordered the Piedmontese Army to march towards Rome, the Austrian and French forces would interpret the move as a threat to the Vatican and would intervene to protect the Pope.
His tactics, however, changed when Garibaldi put forward the idea of invading Sicily and the South. Unknown to Cavour, this idea had been planted in Garibaldi’s mind not only by Sicilians but also by fellow Freemasons and it was their cause of ‘freedom’ that he was supporting rather than Cavour’s unification agenda. Garibaldi had been approached by the Carbonari, the original secret society in the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilys, which wanted independence for Sicily. Cavour, therefore, saw an opportunity in allowing an acknowledged adventurer to sail down to Sicily in an attempt to get rid of the Bourbons. If Garibaldi failed, Cavour could stand back and claim that he had not helped Garibaldi by supplying money, men, arms or transport (even though he had made it very easy for him to obtain all four). He could easily wash his hands of the whole affair and denounce Garibaldi as a loose cannon. But if Garibaldi succeeded, then Cavour was halfway towards unifying Italy without alarming the rest of Europe. It was a win-win situation, with Garibaldi as the fall guy.
Although Garibaldi was said to have arrived in Sicily with his famous ‘thousand’, who were supposed to have been a motley collection of largely rich European Romantics, revolutionaries, ardent Freemasons and the barking mad, this is quite wrong. He originally intended to go with only 500 men in order to lead the Sicilian population in a popular uprising, never intending to challenge the Bourbon Army directly in the battlefield. But the response from all over Europe, especially from students and Masonic lodges, was so great that after interviewing every man personally he did take a thousand. But it was the 22,000 Sicilians who joined him when he landed who made victory over a relatively competent Bourbon army possible.
There had been rumblings of discontent with Bourbon rule for at least 20 years before Garibaldi arrived and it was obvious at all levels of Sicilian society that the Bourbon rule had run its course. The Sicilians wanted independence; what went on north of the Messina Strait, and on the continent of the peninsula and the rest of Europe, was not even on their radar.
The nature of the Sicilian countryside meant that bandits had been an ever-present threat in the west, but this was exacerbated when the 1848 rebellion was brutally crushed by the Bourbons, an action which did not help their popularity. With nothing to lose and everything to gain if Sicily became independent, the survivors of that rebellion formed the bulk of the 22,000-strong force and subsequently were described as the squadristi. As well as bandits, the group was made up of fugitives and the private armies of the countryside, the gabellotti, campieri and picciotti. They were discreetly supported by the rural clergy but not by the established Church.
Garibaldi could thank the British for an immense stroke of luck that allowed a safe landing rather than a total defeat by the Bourbons. The British Navy were in the port of Marsala when he arrived and the crews were ashore either visiting the Marsala winery or sitting on the seafront eating ice cream. Since England at that time ‘ruled the waves’, the Bourbon ships, which were sitting offshore, could not fire towards land for fear of injuring a British sailor. So when one of his ships ran aground at the landing, instead of being blown out of the water he was able to disembark his troops safely, the shambolic landing being watched with some amusement by the British sailors.
His second piece of luck, courtesy of the British, occurred when he arrived in Palermo. He was being hotly pursued by one of the better Bourbon generals, who would certainly have expelled his group from the town, but when the Bourbon general arrived he was prevented from attacking Garibaldi by a British naval lieutenant, who informed him that peace had been arranged by the British and American Consuls because they did not want any of their nationals in Palermo injured by Bourbon shells!
There was then a hastily arranged plebiscite in which the Sicilians were asked to vote on whether or not they wished to join Piedmont. The vast majority of the voters had no idea either what or where Piedmont was, but the results were rigged with a little help from the Sect and there was a 99 per cent acceptance.
Garibaldi became a world celebrity thanks to the chronicle compiled by the most famous writer of the time, Alexandre Dumas; his later biography of Garibaldi, written with as much imagination as fact, cemented Garibaldi’s status for all time. The immensely wealthy Dumas had a luxury yacht, the Emma, and was writing travel articles for Le Constitutionnel magazine, but when he arrived in Sicily at the time of the invasion he wired his employers to say that he wanted to write about what was going on on the island. They were not interested, so he sent his articles to La Presse, whose circulation went through the roof. His book about Garibaldi was also a bestseller, though it was more related to something like The Three Musketeers than what actually happened. But it made Garibaldi a legend.
The Piedmontese backing of Garibaldi was a thinly disguised land grab, devoid of both legal and moral justification. This has happened all over the world in the last 200 years and we accept that change is a part of history and revolution is a major force for that change. In the view of the Vatican, as well as the Bourbons and the Austro-Hungarians, their subjects did not have the right to rebel against their legitimate sovereigns because God had chosen monarchs to rule and only He could question their right to carry out His will. This concept had initially created tensions with liberal Piedmont, but, by the middle of the nineteenth century and in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it had run its course and its protagonists were fighting against the tide.
Once the Piedmontese were established in Sicily, they took a very tough line to suppress crime, brigandage and popular revolt, just as the Americans have in Iraq. The occupying force was the 9th Division of the Piedmontese Army; it brought in higher taxation (for their keep) together with conscription (for up to eight years) into their army in the North, which was to the young Sicilians a foreign land. So, as they set about trying to dismantle the Sicilian way of life, tensions at all levels of society grew.
The aristocrats in Palermo might have been enchanted by the fashionable, French-speaking young men from Piedmont, with their blue uniforms with smart red piping, but to most Sicilians this was just another army of occupation that they had to get on with. Were they any different from the Normans, the Angevins, the Saracens, the French, the Austrians, the English or the Bourbons? Well, they had brought the concept of a united Italy, but this did not capture the hearts and minds of any Sicilians. The rural community in particular saw absolutely no need for them and what they objected to most of all was the conscription of their sons, on whom they depended to work the land and look after them when they were old.
At least for some, life in the country had become better after the aristocrats had delegated the running of the estates to managers. Rural and small-town Sicily had settled into a pattern of life acceptable to the workers, the clergy and the gabellotti, who were renting and administering the estates and their surrounding community. Even the few state officials at local level were content with the way of life that had been established and did not want interference from the Piedmontese. So it was to the ‘new men’, the underclass who rose to become the middle class – the Mafia – that everyone turned, especially those who had mistakenly fought for independence alongside Garibaldi only to see their dreams betrayed.
Thus, building on a rural system that had taken shape in the 1830s, what became the first Mafia evolved and consolidated in the 15 to 20 years after Garibaldi’s invasion.
Apart from the Piedmontese, there were two other problems that had to be solved, both created by the arrival of Garibaldi. The first was how to handle the break-up of the feudal system and the second was how to manage the break-up of the Church lands, which the first Prime Minister of the new nation, Francesco Crispi, a virulent anti-cleric, had decreed.
It was the different approach to these problems that defined the Mafia as a west Sicily phenomenon rather than a way of life for the east of the island. One of the great differences between life in east and west Sicily were the bandits, and there were a number of logical reasons why the bandits were all but confined to the west.
While bandits had long been the scourge of Sicily, declining only briefly during British rule, their number increased in the post-Garibaldi years because many young men were taking to the hills in order to evade the draft into the Piedmontese Army. Furthermore, since the population base of the island was in Palermo (west) and since this was where most crime was committed, it was logical that the main jail on the island was there. The countryside in the west is heavily wooded, with hundreds of caves and ravines, which made it easy for bandits to live in the open with little fear of capture. The countryside in the east, on the other hand, is far more open and thus unattractive for a fugitive living rough.
Another big difference was that the bandit problem made land reform very different on the two sides of the island. Very few west Sicilians lived on their own in the countryside because night attacks by bandits looking for food and shelter would have made life impossible. There are thus very few small villages in west Sicily because most people preferred to live in the safety of large villages that came to be known as agrotowns. Although it meant that they might have to walk many kilometres to and from work, carrying tools, it was better than living in fear on your own with your family in the countryside at night.
In the east, there was no system of absentee landlordism and so there was no need for private armies; for this reason, the east welcomed land reforms because the landowners realised that whatever investment was made in machinery, cattle or trees would be safe; those in the west knew that any investment they made had a high chance of either being stolen or vandalised by bandits.
As stated previously, it was virtually impossible for a peasant to buy a smallholding in the west because the gabellotti who controlled the community saw to it that peasants could not get loans for down payments and, if they somehow succeeded and had the gall to actually buy land, then their trees and machinery would be vandalised. On the other hand, land purchase in the east was encouraged because the local governments wanted to promote the transition from a feudal to a capitalistic structure. The new landowners in the east all realised that production from the land in future would entail capital investment, crop diversification and longer tenancies.
So when land reform eventually took place in the west, creating numerous small plots with multiple owners, expertise in both vandalism and protection developed. The gabellotti, with their private armies of campieri and picciotti, had had several decades of experience in understanding and developing the organisation of protection and so were in the right place with the right product at the right time.
And that is how the agricultural system of nineteenth-century west Sicily spawned an organisation that had another hundred years to perfect the industry of protection before moving on to the far more lucrative drug trade.
MAFIA: INSIDE THE DARK HEART Copyright © 2008 by A. G. D. Maran.