The Meaning of ‘Mafia’

By Stephen Basdeo

The early 1860s in Italy was a decade of hope.

King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had, with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s help, unified the whole of the Italian peninsula under his rule, where previously the region had been divided into a number of small petty kingdoms, often ruled by foreigners.

It seemed like the dream of the Italian radicals – that of the Risorgimento (‘rebirth’) – had finally been realised, a sentiment that is reflected in the Cango degli Italiani (1847), which is now used as the Italian national anthem:

Noi fummo da secoli [We were for centuries]

Calpesti, derisi [Downtrodden, derided,]

Perché non siam popolo, [Because we were not one people,]

Perché siam divisi. [Because we were divided.]

Raccolgaci un’unica Bandiera, una speme: [Let one flag, one hope gather us all]

Di fonderci insieme Già l’ora suonò. [The hour has struck for us to unite].

Yet the dream turned sour and far from a unification it looked increasingly as though Piedmont-Sardinia had merely conquered or colonised the rest of Italy – Victor Emmanuel even retained the regnal number ‘II’, instead of opting to be named Victor Emannuel I of Italy. Some of the tax and conscription measures passed by the new government prompted angry rebellions in the southern part of the peninsula and banditry became rife, which of course made the government send troops into the region to put down the bands of brigands that flourished there.

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Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

If the southern part of the mainland had its problems, Sicily was deemed to be virtually lawless. Sicilians had often been viewed by northern mainlanders, if not with contempt and suspicion, at least as an exotic ‘Other’. They were to all intents and purposes a separate people with their own customs. Law enforcement here was practically non-existent which, as in the region of Naples, still suffered from endemic banditry.

According to Robert M. Dainotto, about this time a new word appeared in the Italian language which was ‘shrouded in mystery, eerie in sound, mysterious in origin, menacing in the images it evoked’.

The word was mafia.

It is true that the word had been around before; a record from the Inquisition in 1685 lists a case of alleged witchcraft as maffia, and a successful but short lived play by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca entitled The Mafioisi of Viccaria (1863) used the word to describe a set of law-breakers.

The word originally signified a state of mind, an attitude that was opposed to all forms of central and governmental authority, and only later was it applied to paramilitary groups which had been hired by Sicilian landowners to protect their estates from brigands. It was a marriage of convenience; it gave men from the poorer classes a wage and an escape route from dire poverty while more affluent citizens could carry on their businesses without hindrance from brigands.

Yet these ‘mafia’ paramilitary groups soon became aware of just how powerful they were – they sought to gain the upper hand over the Sicilian propertied classes by controlling local businesses and taking a cut out of their takings, while in some cases they even ejected business owners and farmers from their properties.

The first notable instance we have of a mafia-style group taking extorting money from and then taking control of a thriving business occurred in the 1870s. Just like they are today, back in the 1800s, Sicilian lemons were popular with consumers, and anyone who bought into the citrus business could make themselves a nice profit.

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Italian lemon grove

So Dr Gaspare Galati thought when he inherited an already thriving large lemon grove with state-of-the-art irrigation pumps in 1872. The warden of the farm, a man called Benedetto Carollo, began taking many of the lemons under Galati’s nose and selling them for his own gain. Carollo’s main purpose, however, was to run the business into the ground so others could buy the farm for a negligible amount. Carollo was sacked and his replacement was shot; the perpetrator was identified as a man named Signor Giamonna, who according to the local authorities was a pillar of the community. Although Giamonna attempted to murder the new warden, Giammona visited him at his sickbed and apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’, after which the replacement warden retracted his accusation and Giamonna never faced any consequences for his attempted murder.

In 1875, feeling exasperated and powerless, Dr Galati abandoned the lemon grove and it was taken over by Giamonna.

In the same year, a Professor of History named Pasquale Villari decided to turn his attention to the problem of lawlessness in Sicily. In his Southern Letters (1875), he attributed the rising crime rate in Sicily to the dire economic inequality of the region and to the fact that the policies of central government were widely disliked, and he used the word ‘mafia’ to describe the groups of law-breakers and paramilitary ‘protection’ groups which flourished in the region.

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Pasquale Villari

Dr Galati decided to get in touch with Villari and relate his experiences with these new mafia-style groups, detailing their strange rituals and outlining their crimes in exact detail. Giamonna’s mafia group seemed all-powerful and sinister, willing to even resort to murder if they were crossed.

It was in Villari’s Southern Letters, therefore, that the Mafia, as we understand it today, was born.

The information for this post is taken from a reading of Robert M. Dainotto’s The Mafia: A Cultural History (2015), particularly chapter one.

 

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Salvatore Giuliano (1922-1950): The Last Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

Since the unification of Italy in 1861, the island of Sicily, as well as the southern half of the mainland, has always had an ambivalent relationship with the Italian state. Fiercely independent, they have often resented central government interference in their affairs. Moreover, the island of Sicily has always had a reputation for criminality. It is, after all, the island in which mafia gangs first emerged. This is what happened after the German and Allied invasions of Italy in 1943: the German puppet state called the Italian Social Republic controlled the northern half of the country, while the southern half continued as the legitimate Kingdom of Italy. But with all of the turmoil, government infrastructure and law and order began to break down. It is at this point in time that Salvatore Giuliano (1922-1950), the ‘last people’s bandit’, flourished in Sicily.

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Giuliano on the lookout

Giuliano was born in Montelepre, Sicily to a peasant family on 16 November 1922. He received a rudimentary education by attending the local school, but he was forced to leave the school in 1935 to help his father on the farm when his older brother joined the army. He soon grew tired of farm life, however, and decided to set up his own business in trading olive oil. When World War Two broke out, he supplemented his income by working as a labourer building roads, although he left this job after a dispute with his employer.

During the war, Giuliano often traded on the black market. Indeed, the existence of the black market was vital for many of the peasants so that they could obtain cheap food, and up to seventy per cent of food was supplied to Sicily through the black market. After the Allied Invasion of Sicily, however, the authorities were determined to stamp this out using both of Italy’s police forces, the Carabinieri and the Polizia. On 2 September 1943, Giuliano was stopped at a Carabinieri vehicle check point. His baggage was searched and he was found with two sacks of grain. Giuliano offered to just give up the grain to the authorities in return for his release, but the officer was having none of it. Giuliano therefore drew his pistol and shot the officer dead. Afterwards, he took the mountains and hid out there for a while.

TheSicilian
Mario Puzo’s “The Sicilian” (1984) based upon the life of Giuliano.

Deprived of both his legitimate and illegitimate incomes, Giuliano became an outlaw, and soon gathered about him twenty men in similar circumstances. He genuinely only ever stole from rich travellers, although this was for practical reasons as well as humanitarian ones. The rich had more money that could be plundered, whereas it was pointless taking from the poor peasants as they had very little. He then redistributed this stolen money to the poor, like a true Robin Hood, which earned him allies among the local populace. The rich were just a convenient cash cow, however, and his main enemies were members of the Carabinieri, and throughout his career he and his men killed over eighty seven of these law enforcement officers.

He became something of an international star, and held numerous interviews with journalists. The noted U.S. journalist Mike Stern published many of his pictures of Giuliano in the American press. In addition, poems and songs were sung about him. For this reason, Eric Hobsbawm says that Giuliano was the last true Robin Hood type of outlaw.

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Mike Stern’s Article on Giuliano for the American Press (Courtesy of the Giuliano Project)

After the war, prominent Sicilian politicians began agitating for Sicilian independence: in their eyes the island had always been treated badly, it had a different culture, and it had been neglected under fascism. Union with Italy had not benefitted it either socially or economically. Demands for autonomy were denied by all three of the main political parties in central Italy: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Consequently, instead of being a small scale highwayman, eking out a living by plundering, in 1945 he got political and publicly declared his support for the Sicilian Independence Movement. As we noted earlier, Sicilians’ relationship with the central Italian government has always been fraught with tension. His main enemy was still the Carabinieri, and now his attacks upon them were justified because they were the representatives of the central Italian state.

The Carabinieri responded to these attacks by often imprisoning and interrogating members of his family. Indeed, his home town of Montelepre was placed under siege and occupied by the law. But still they could not catch him; neither the family nor the villagers would betray him. The only way to apprehend him was to do what law enforcement officers have always had to do when they need to arrest bandits: they convinced one of Giuliano’s gang, Aspanu Pisciotta, who had been Giuliano’s closes friend, to betray him.

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Giuliano liked to pose for the camera (courtesy of Giuliano Project)

Consequently, on 5 July 1950, Pisciotta shot Giuliano while he was sleeping, although the police lied and told the public that Giuliano died in a gun fight with a fellow gang member. Hardly anyone believed the official account, however. The Carabinieri commanded that the funeral be held in private, so as not to heroise the young outlaw in the public eye any further than he was already.

Pisciotta was never granted immunity by the authorities. And he was killed by poison in his cell on 10 February 1954 by a member of the mafia. The last member of Giuliano’s faithful band of men was released in 1980.

Giuliano, as the last ‘good outlaw’ the world has ever seen, was quickly mythologised in popular culture: the film Salvatore Giuliano was released in 1961; Mario Puzo, the author of the Godfather, has written a novel entitled The Sicilian (1984), which was made into a film a few years later in 1987, starring Christopher Lambert as Giuliano, while the opera Salvatore Giuliano opened at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in 1985.


Further Reading

Billy Jaynes Chandler, King of the Mountain (Northern Illinois University Press, 1988)

Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London, 1969)

Gavin Maxwell, God Protect Me from My Friends (London, 1956)