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South of Rome–West of Ellis Island

Child Slavery in Sicily 1910

Tom Verso (January 13, 2008)
Sulphur mine carusi

“The cruelties to which the child slaves of Sicily have been subjected are as bad as anything reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery.” Booker Taliaferro Washington: “The Man Farthest Down”



Anthony Tamburri of the Calandra Institute posits: “We need to take [Italian American] culture more seriously. We simply cannot continue to engage in a series of reminiscences that lead primarily to nostalgic recall. Instead, we need to revisit our past, reclaim its pros and cons…we need to figure out where we came from”
One “series of reminiscences” leading to “nostalgic recall” and needing disengagement is the pastoral romanticism about the conditions in Italy at the time of the diaspora. Sadly, in my opinion, some our most outstanding writers and scholars such as Jerry Mangione, Ben Morreale, Donna Gabaccia, etc. have been instrumental, by errors of omission, of perpetuating images of Italy that lend themselves to “nostalgic recall.” In an effort to “revisit our past”, “reclaim its pros and cons” and “figure out where we came from” one can do no better than to read Booker Taliaferro Washington’s book “The Man Farthest Down.”
In the year 1910 Booker Taliaferro Washington– former African American slave and founder of Tuskegee Institute - traveled to Europe to acquaint himself, in his words: “with the condition of the poorer and working classes in Europe, particularly in those regions from which an ever-increasing number of immigrants are coming to our country each year.” In as much as, at that time approximately a hundred thousand Italians were arriving in New York every year, not surprisingly he traveled extensively in Italy. He published his observations and conclusions in a book he called: “The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe.” 
Mr. Washington presents an ‘oh-so-not’ romantic description of the horrific reality of diasporic Italy, including the de facto enslavement of sulphur mining children in Sicily. Child-slaves which Italian Americans have conveniently forgotten in their quest to meticulously reproduce St. Joseph Tables. After reading Mr. Washington’s book, one wonders: who exactly ate at those (dare I say ‘mythical’) St. Joseph Tables; other than “The Leopards?”
Mr. Washington devotes five and a half chapters to describing life and labor in Italy and Sicily. In chapter XI, “Child Labour and the Sulphur Mines”, he makes one of his most cogent and poignant observations: “Certainly there is no other country [i.e. Sicily] where so much of the labour of all kinds, the skilled labour of the artisan as well as the rough labour of digging and carrying on the streets and in the mines, is performed by children, especially boys.”
Mr. Washington recorded descriptions of child labor in Catania, Palermo and Campofanco. In Catania Mr. Washington describes macaroni production, metal tool making, mandolin fabrication, boat and tile manufacturing. His description of a “little girl” metal worker and boy tile makers captures the essence of the others.
He writes:
“About nine o'clock Saturday night my attention was attracted to a man engaged in some delicate sort of metal tool-making. What particularly attracted my attention was a little girl, certainly not more than seven years of age, who was busily engaged at this late hour in polishing and sharpening the stamps the man used. I could but marvel at the patience and the skill the child showed at her work. It was the first time in my life that I had seen such a very little child at work, although I saw many others in the days that followed.”
“I came across a tile manufacturing plant where almost all of the actual work was performed by the children, who ranged, I should say, from eight to twelve years of age. The work of carrying the heavy clay, and piling it up in the sun after it had been formed into tiles, was done by the younger children. I am certain that if I had not seen them with my own eyes I would never have believed that such very little children could carry such heavy loads, or that they could work so systematically and steadily as they were compelled to do in order to keep up the pace. I was so filled with pity and at the same time with admiration for these boys.”
In Palermo, Mr. Washington goes on to describe what reasonable may be characterized as ‘boy-mules’ - he writes:
“I remember, one day in Palermo, seeing, for the first time in my life, boys, who were certainly not more than fourteen years of age, engaged in carrying on their backs earth from a cellar that was being excavated for a building. Men did the work of digging, but the mere drudgery of carrying the earth from the bottom of the excavation to the surface was performed by these boys. It was not simply the fact that mere children were engaged in this heavy work which impressed me. It was the slow, dragging steps, the fixed and unalterable expression of weariness that showed in every line of their bodies.”
But all the exploitation of children that Mr. Washington saw in Catania and Palermo, as shocking as it may have been, was ‘a day in the park’ when compared to the “carusi” of the Campfranco sulphur mines. “Carusi is the name that the Italians give to those boys in the sulphur mines who carry the crude ore up from the mines to the surface.”
He describes the organization of the work in a sulphur mine:
“The actual work of digging the sulphur is performed by the miner, who is paid by the amount of crude ore he succeeds in getting out. He, in his turn, has a boy, sometimes two or three of them, to assist him in getting the ore out of the mine to the smelter, where it is melted and refined. The caruso is purchased by the miner from the parents.”
Then he describes the process of enslavement:
“The manner in which the purchase is made is as follows: In Sicily, where the masses of the people are so wretchedly poor in everything else, they are nevertheless unusually rich in children, and, as often happens, the family that has the largest number of mouths to fill has the least to put in them. It is from these families that the carusi are recruited. The father who turns his child over to a miner receives in return a sum of money in the form of a loan. The sum usually amounts to from eight to thirty dollars, according to the age of the boy, his strength and general usefulness. With the payment of this sum the child is turned over absolutely to his master.”
Mr. Washington a former slave himself concludes: “From this SLAVERY (emp.+) there is no hope of freedom, because neither the parents nor the child will ever have sufficient money to repay the original loan.”
READ AND WEEP- Life of the Sicilian boy-slaves:
“Strange and terrible stories are told about the way in which these boy slaves have been treated by their masters…one sees processions of half-naked boys, their bodies bowed under the heavy weight of the loads they carried, groaning and cursing as they made their way up out of the hot and sulphurous holes in the earth, carrying the ore from the mine to the smelter…
“The cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected, as related by those who have studied them, are as bad as anything that was ever reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery. These boy slaves were frequently beaten and pinched, in order to wring from their overburdened bodies the last drop of strength they had in them. When beatings did not suffice, it was the custom to singe the calves of their legs with lanterns to put them again on their feet. If they sought to escape from this slavery in flight, they were captured and beaten, sometimes even killed.
“As they climbed out of the hot and poisonous atmosphere of the mines their bodies, naked to the waist and dripping with sweat, were chilled by the cold draughts in the corridors leading out of the mines, and this sudden transition was the frequent cause of pneumonia and tuberculosis.
“Children of six and seven years of age were employed at these crushing and terrible tasks. Under the heavy burdens (averaging about forty pounds) they were compelled to carry, they often became deformed, and the number of cases of curvature of the spine and deformations of the bones of the chest reported was very large. More than that, these children were frequently made the victims of the lust and unnatural vices of their masters. It is not surprising, therefore, that they early gained the appearance of gray old men, and that it has become a common saying that a caruso rarely reaches the age of twenty five.”
“It seemed incredible to me that any one could live and work in such heat… in a burrow, twisting and winding its way, but going constantly deeper and deeper into the dark depths of the earth where the miners loosen the ore from the walls of the seams in which it is found, and then it is carried up out of these holes in sacks by the carusi.”
“All the ore is carried on the backs of boys. In cases where the mine descended to the depth of two, three, or four hundred feet, the task of carrying these loads of ore to the surface is simply heartbreaking. I can well understand that persons who have seen conditions at the worst should speak of the children who have been condemned to this slavery as the most unhappy creatures on earth.
Mr. Washington sums up:
“I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.”
Today a Google search of ‘Campofranco’ brings forth scores of web sites celebrating the beauty and pageantry of the town. Most interesting from the “reminiscent nostalgic recall” point of view is the complete absence of any reference to or signs of the sulphur mining days. Campfranco is seen today in an idyllic setting nestled in a valley between the panoramic mountains. How different is Mr. Washington’s description the Campofranco countryside:
He writes:
“For many miles in every direction the vegetation has been blasted by the poisonous smoke and vapours from the smelters, and the whole country has a blotched and scrofulous appearance which is depressing to look upon, particularly when one considers the amount of misery and the number of human lives it has cost to create this condition. I have never in my life seen any place that seemed to come so near meeting the description of the "abomination of desolation" referred to in the Bible. There is even a certain grandeur in the desolation of this country which looks as if the curse of God rested upon it. I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.”
I am sure that all the professors of Italian American studies nod their heads in agreement with Prof. Tamburri admonitions to “revisit our past [and] reclaim its pros and cons.” I wonder how many require their students to read “The Man Farthest Down”?


Slavery in Sicily

In a trip to my mother's hometown of Bronte, Provincia di Catania in eastern Sicilia I saw the last remnants child slaves. My mother who was born in 1916 in Bronte always told us kids that there had been slavery in Sicily in her youth and for many years before. While we were back visiting her hometown she introduced us to two old ladies who as children were sold by their families to rich people who used them as maids and cooks for the most part of their lives. This was common practice for poor families to sell their girls for domestic slavery. Poverty forces people to do horrible things

Sulfer Mines

Very interesting! My grandfather immigrated from Reisi in 1906. I was always told he was a foreman in a mine because he could read and write. I only recently learned that it was a sulfur mine. This article adds greatly to my knowledge. Would love to read and learn more.

my Dad was one of the kids

my Dad was one of the kids in the sulfur mines ---he told me of daily beatings -----he said that it was so hot that most wore only shoes to protect their feet -----my grandfather and several men stormed the compound where the kids were kept and set free about 100 -----my dad and grandfather then loaded a ship to America ---came in through New Orleans and was lucky enough to get a sponcer in St Louis to sign for them ----the sponsor was the sicilian mob -----at the age of 12 my dad worked for their sponsor for many years to pay off their debt ----he worked hard his whole life and died in 2001 at the age of 95

Slaves of Sicily

My god. I'd never heard anything about this. "Heart breaking" doesn't begin to take the measure of it. My own family, (from Calabria) seemed to have had total amnesia about it past, as though by deleting all consciousness of life in Italy they could "pass" as normal; They could trick us into thinking we were just like everybody else in this country. But other people had their stories and we did not. Even the good stories had been edited, I suspect for fear that they might veer into uncomfortable territory. The town I grew up in in Pennsylvania was about a third Italian. Today there is no trace that we were ever there.No monument, no shelf in the library. Even though Italian laborers built the victorian houses and played an important part in the growth of the industries. We don't have a sense of ourselves as worthy of attention. We make no demands. Maybe Washington's history tells us why.

Very, very sad and gut

Very, very sad and gut wrenching. I feel quite sick at the wickedness of man and filled with so much pity for child slaves then and around the world now.

clarification needed


Thanks for a great post of this historical information.

Your casually dismissive comment grouping authors Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, who dabbled in history with one book, and historian Donna Gabaccia, who has been at the forefront of situating Italian-American immigration, especially women and labor histories, within the larger Italian diaspora with several significant publications, warrants further elaboration on your part.


Clarification provided - I hope!


Thank you for your comment. -- First let me say emphatically, I was not “causally dismissing” anybody or any works! Indeed, it is because I have been so impressed with their works that I consider them. -- Regarding, “grouping” Donna Gabaccia with the others, I did not mean to imply that her work was in the same genera as Mangione and Morreale. Indeed, I chose those three because, while they are distinctively different writers, they each contributed, in my judgment, to a distortion of the Sicilian reality by ignoring facts which did not fit into their preconceptions. However, please note: I chose them as EXEMPLIFYING American writers on Sicily in these various genera; not limited to them. The “etc.” after Ms. Gabaccia’s name is most important. --

All three wrote distinctively different books connecting the immigrant experience in America with Sicilian culture: Mangione the biographic “Mount Allegro”, Morreale the novel “A Few Vituous Men” and Gabaccia the scholarly “From Sicily to Elizabeth Street.” I find it amazing that none of them (and again other writers such as them) remotely conveyed the description of Sicily that Booker Washington presents. Indeed, I believe Mangione uses the expression “Sulfur Sky” as a metaphor. And, the town of Sambuca Sicily, that Gabaccia bases her book on, is in the same province (Agrigento) and 30 miles from the sulfur mines of Campfranco. She makes references to the Sicilian economy at a time that Sicily was the worlds largest sulfur producer yet she does not mention sulfur. And, Gabaccia’s description of house living conditions stands in stark contrast with Washington’s. --

Again, I do not presume to criticize these three and all the other excellent writers and scholars who have written about Sicily. I simply note that Washington’s descriptions stand in stark contrast to what others have written. I’m not so much critical as perplexed. In future blogs, I will present Mr. Washington’s descriptions of other aspects of Sicily and Italy. He has a chapter on women. It should be interesting to compare his writing with Ms. Gabaccia’s in that respect. --

Thank you again for your input. --

Tom Verso

Brief comment in reply.

I do look forward to reading more of Mr. Washington's observations, as his vantage point may be specialized and, in some ways, especially clear. Not bogged down by certain kinds of personal connections. Also, I just wanted to mention, that a concurrent read of Danilo Dolci's Report from Palermo provides a nice support.

In my own life, we had few tales of Sicily, but one great grandmother, when asked if she missed her homeland reportedly spit on the ground and hissed, "Sicily, what did Sicily ever do for me? In Sicily I would be dead by now." We got the gist, if not the details.

Further clarification needed, and some provided!

Dear Mr. Verso, While I agree with you that some Italian-American writers have “contributed to a distortion of the Sicilian [and Italian at large, for that matter] reality by ignoring facts which did not fit into their preconceptions,” I need to point out a couple of things. First of all, Jerre Mangione is the author of three other “Sicilian” memoirs, namely, “An Ethnic at large,” Reunion in Sicily,” “A Passion for Sicilians” –which are not remotely as nostalgic as “Mount Allegro.” Especially in “Reunion in Sicily,” Mangione observes the way Sicilians responded to Fascism with a rather critical eye. As for Morreale, you seem to ignore that he’s also the author of the 1958 "The Seventh Saracen," entirely set in Racalmuto, a predominantly mining and agricultural town. One of the most dramatic scenes in the novel takes place in the sulphur mine, where the local priest takes the Italian-American protagonist with the promise that he would show him the “wonders” of Sicily. Morreale describes the descent into the mine shaft as a slow and painful journey into Hell. The miners work “naked except for a diaperlike cloth around their loins and large red handkerchiefs tied around their heads. They were singing, ending each line with ‘umph’ and a blow on the wall” (67). He then describes the effects that the visit has on the young Princeton-educated Italian-American protagonist, who is led to re-evaluate the meaning of his sense of belonging and community by tying it not only to the glories of Sicily’s past, but also to the hardships of Sicilians’ present: “Pride welled in his throat. He tried to swallow it down and he grew angry for feeling this pride, for he understood; it was a pride in belonging, being part of those who found it hard to earn a piece of bread” (70). The visit to the sulphur mine also prompts the protagonist to consider the role that chance has played in his life, and he starts wondering what would have happened if only his parents had not decided to leave Sicily and settle in the New World: “But for the accident of leaving, sheer accident, you would be naked in a sulphur mine,” he tells himself (71). Insomma, as you can see, Morreale actually dealt with the problem and, it seems to me, in a way that does not stand in such stark contrast to what Washington has written. While “The Man Farthest Down” is a must read, “in an effort to revisit our past,” we could start by re-reading our literature. Cordiali saluti, Chiara Mazzucchelli


I provide thousands of words describing horrific treatment of children. And, a one sentence reference to three American works, to ILLUSTRATE what I mean by “errors of omission” by the corpus of Italian American writers (not just those three), is the basis for the responses that I get. -- Again, it was not my intention to critique the three writers. – Again, the three works that I cite are excellent. Nevertheless, they, TO MY MIND, present a picture of Sicily that has come to be thought of as ‘typical’ or ‘representative.’ Ergo, I used them to illustrate my characterization of the corpus of Italian American writing about Sicily. -- To ILLUSTRATE further: a couple of years ago a delegation from Rochester, NY’s sister city Caltanissetta visited Rochester. While here, they did a presentation at a local college that has an Italian Studies program and a “Casa Italiana” cultural center. The presentation was about the children in the sulfur mines. It included both historical factual reports similar to Mr. Washington’s and dramatic poetry reading on the theme. The large audience which consisted of Sicilian immigrants, Americans of Sicilian descent, Italian Studies professors and students were socked. The lead presenter emphasized that Rochester Sicilians and descendents largely come from the sulfur mining region. Sister city visits are generally loving and upbeat. Why did they make such a negative presentation? What impressed me was the fact that these Sicilians (all university professors in Sicily) had gone to such effort to communicate to Americans the reality of Sicilian history even if that reality is ugly. At the reception afterwards repeatedly one heard: “did you know about the mines” and the response “no, I can’t believe it.”- -Mr. Washington’s book, like the sister city presentation, shows us that Sicily is a far more complicated culture than most Americans have come to believe. -- Nevertheless, the whole point of the article was about the children not the scholars. I’m reminded of why I dropped out of graduate school. The professors never seemed to connect with what I was talking about. -- Thank you very much for bringing my attention to Morreale’s book. He is one of my favorite writers and I am delighted to find that he dealt with this profound issue. I will get the book as quickly as I can. – And, I did not mean that “The Man Furthest Down” should be the ONLY book read in Italian American Studies courses. Rather, it is an important book that has, it seems to me, been ignored. I hope we can dialogue again. -- Very Most cordially yours Tom Verso


Dear Mr. Verso,

your piece on the tragedy of the carusi was very informed and useful, and I can only nod in agreement with most of your/Washington’s points on the topic. However, in order to illustrate your point, you made an incorrect statement which I simply could not let hang there in the cyberspace.

Hoping you'll enjoy Morreale’s book(s) and looking forward to dialoguing with you again, Chiara Mazzucchelli

Thank you

Thank you Joe and Chiara (if I may). As good scholars you 'held my feet to the fire.' I learned from both of you. Tom Verso

Sulfur, carusi et. al.

As an American of complete Sicilian descent, son of a sulfur miner, and intensely interested in my roots, the fact that it has taken me three years (since the last comment) to find this thread supports the idea that some Italian-Americans may have practiced 'selective memory'. Even though I knew my father had been a sulfur miner (and then a coal miner in the U.S.), I was a child when he died, and that, coupled with typical Sicilian reticence, ensured that I knew nothing about the 'carusi'. I first learned about them on a trip to Sicily, during which my landlord took me to a mining museum and through an abandoned sulfur mine, and told me about the 'death benefit' the pickmen paid to poor families for their 'carusi'. Since then, while there may be little coverage in English about the subject, I have found that Italian-readers (and the rarer Sicilian-readers) can find discussions on the subject, and there seem to be numerous vernacular songs or poetry about it in Sicily. Part of the disconnect may be that use of the the Sicilian language, which has poignant descriptions of the 'carusi', is discouraged by the Italian government; part may be due to the fact that many 'Italian-Americans', who visit Tuscany and Venice (rather than Sicily), barely remember that their parents or grandparents were Sicilian, and attribute to themselves the characteristics of 'cultured Italians', rather than the often sordid history of Sicilian peasants. I have written a short story about Sicily in which a pickman says of the 'carusi' situation: “This practice can only scorch the souls of the piconnieri as well those of the carusi”. Denigrators of the pickmen's practice may forget that being a pickman was no 'walk in the park'; that they were paid meager wages, on which they had to support their own families. My father was a pickman, as was his father. Apparently 'carusi' were not used in all mines , nor in every town, nor in every period of history. But I can't help but wonder, did he have 'carusi', and did 'having' them hurt him as it hurt them?