An introduction to Sicilian emigration


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Between 1876 and 1915, nearly 1.4 million Sicilians emigrated. A similar exodus occurred in the 1950s, when nearly half a million (over 10% of the population) left home in search of a better life.

Why did so many Sicilians emigrate? Where did they go? What forced people to leave behind family, friends, property and occupations to move, more often than not, to the other side of the world. It is a long, fascinating and tragic slice of Sicilian history, that incorporates millions of tales of poverty, bravery, natural disasters, wars, intolerance, romance and dreams come true.

Our story begins in earnest in 1861, the year in which Italy became a united country. The new Kingdom of Italy had an uneasy start, especially in the south. The Sicilians had been amongst the first to fight for and believe in the risorgimento. Garibaldi and his mythical mille had landed in Marsala on Sicily's west coast to begin the process of unification. By the time he arrived at the Straits of Messina, this number had swollen to 10,000. 

The hopes of the Sicilians were short-lived, however. The new government introduced heavy taxation and imposed seven-year military service. Conscription particularly hit agricultural areas, where young men provided an invaluable contribution to the subsistence farming activities of their families. Rather than sign up, many chose to emigrate in search of a new life elsewhere.

Worse was to come. The government brutally repressed a revolt in Palermo in 1866 and then, in 1880, the phylloxera vine blight arrived from France, decimating vineyards across the island. Life was becoming increasingly difficult for those working the land, and a new trade union movement called the Fasci emerged to represent their interests. This too, however, was bloodily repressed by the government in Rome, who sent 30,000 troops to quell the unrest.

Liners sailed from Palermo and Messina several times a month, headed for the New Worlds.

Sicily’s misfortunes continued relentlessly. In 1908, a terrible earthquake ripped through Messina, killing 90,000 people and flattening the city. Faced with years of rebuilding, thousands chose to emigrate, mostly to the Americas.

At this point, it should be pointed out that Sicily was by no means unique in Italy. Figures show that between 1876 and 1900, for example, some 14 million Italians emigrated. Only around a quarter of a million of those were Sicilian, however, a relatively insignificant number when compared with the three million Italians who emigrated from the northern regions of the Veneto, Fruli-Venezia-Giulia, Piemonte and Lombardia in the same period (a fact that might seem strange now that the north of Italy is one of the richest parts of Europe). Only at the beginning of the 20th century did Sicily become the Italian region with the highest level of emigration.

During the build up to the 1st World War, Italy became increasingly belligerent, ever in search of a military triumph that would validate its claim to be a significant European power. Conscription was once again introduced and, in 1911, Italian armed forces invaded Libya. Rather than fight for their country’s colonial aspirations in the deserts of North Africa, many more thousands of young Sicilian men chose to emigrate.

Social deprivation and natural disasters weren’t the only reasons why Sicilians were emigrating in such large numbers, however. Business, too, played a large role. Already by the mid- to late 19th century, shipping companies had understood that there was money to be made from emigration. They set up offices all around Sicily, even in the most remote parts, and began a publicity campaign extolling the riches on offer for those who emigrated to the United States, South America, Australia and even Alaska (where many of Marettimo's fishermen headed). Crammed with desperate and impoverished Sicilians, liners sailed from Palermo, Castellammare del Golfo and Messina several times a month, headed for the New Worlds.

As more and more Sicilians left, a new phenomenon, known as chain migration, took hold. Those who had already made the move abroad sent word back to their relatives and friends in Sicily, recounting their new, relatively prosperous status, and listing the opportunities that awaited those who would join them. Wives, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and friends sold what little they had, purchased tickets, and sailed off to be reunited with their loved ones. Each Sicilian who arrived in the New Worlds sent back for others and emigration numbers rose exponentially.

Up until the 1st World War, the vast majority of Sicilian emigrants chose the United States, but a significant number had opted for Argentina, Venezuela, and other South American countries. A relatively small percentage went to Australia.

At the end of the war, Italian institutions were conspicuous by their absence and the vacuum was filled by unscrupulous Mafia bosses and corrupt local politicians.

 Between the 1st and 2nd World Wars, however, Australia quickly overtook the United States as the destination of choice for many emigrating Sicilians. There were two main reasons for this. First, the American Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 imposed limits on the number and the kinds of people who were allowed entry. Stricter medical tests were introduced, and would-be immigrants had to demonstrate that they could read and write in their own language. This ruled out the vast majority of Sicilians, about 70% of whom were illiterate at the beginning of the 20th century. Secondly, Australia’s economy was developing rapidly and was in great need of labour.

Sicily, like most of Italy, was devastated by the 2nd World War. Liberated by the Allies in 1943 (Operation Husky), the island was left largely ungoverned. At the end of the war, Italian institutions were conspicuous by their absence and the vacuum was filled by unscrupulous Mafia bosses and corrupt local politicians. The economy was in tatters, the shipping industry was seriously depleted, and poverty was extreme. A new wave of emigration to Australia began.

At the end of the 1940s, the Australian Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, introduced an assisted immigration programme. Under the slogan “Populate or Perish”, Calwell’s aim was to increase immigration into Australia by 1% each year. Agreements were drawn up with several European countries, including Italy, by which the Australian government would subsidise the cost of the sea passage for those prepared to make the arduous journey. 

Calwell’s programme remained in place until 1971, by which time the first generation of Italian-born immigrant population of Australia - many of them Sicilian - had risen massively from around 33,000 in 1951 to nearly 290,000 (figures from the 1971 census). This number is even more remarkable if one considers northern Italy's miracolo economico between 1950 and the mid-1960, which saw tens of thousands of Sicilians move to Lombardia and Piemonte to work in industrialised north.

Today, according to the Italian Foreign Office, around five million Italians live and work abroad. Many of them are Sicilian: as ISTAT (the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica) notes, some 250,000 Sicilians have emigrated since 1970 and around 20,000 (mainly young) Sicilians leave their island every year, either heading to the north of Italy or abroad (most usually in Europe). The story of Sicilian emigration continues.

Sicilian emigration to America >>
The Marettimari of Monterey >>
From the Aeolian Islands to the Antipodes >>

Villas in Sicily >>

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