Citrus fruits, scurvy and Cosa Nostra: Analyzing the origins of the Sicilian mafia

The Sicilian mafia is a powerful organized crime syndicate known across the globe, but its origins are murky. A surge in demand for citrus fruits in the 1800s could provide clues as to how it first emerged. Economic lecturers Alessia Isopi and Arcangelo explain.

The Sicilian mafia is arguably one of the most famous – or infamous – institutions in the Western world. After its first appearance in Sicily in the 1870s it soon infiltrated the economic and political spheres of Italy and the US and has, at times, been considered a serious threat to the rule of law in both countries.

But despite the fact that we’ve seen plenty of evidence of mafia activity, both in real life and on screen over the past 140 years, the reasons behind its emergence are still obscure.

While some analysis by academics has focused on weak institutions, predation and the poor state enforcement of property rights, others – particularly when it comes to the Sicilian mafia – have suggested that the legacy of feudalism was an important driver, along with the development of latifundism (a system according to which agriculture is dominated by large estates) and a loss of social capital and public trust in the government which was dominated by a foreign occupation.

These theories provide plausible explanations for the origin of the Sicilian mafia as a whole – but they fail to explain the considerable variation in the growth of the criminal organisation across different areas within the Sicilian region – especially when those areas experienced very similar socio-political conditions.

Working with Ola Olsson, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, we recently published a study in the Journal of Economic History, in which we analysed the rise of the Sicilian mafia using a unique dataset drawn from the Damiani Inquiry in 1886. This was a parliamentary inquiry conducted between 1881 and 1886 that examined the conditions of the agricultural sector and of peasantry in every region of Italy. Our analysis emphasises the economic or market-related factors behind mafia organisation and focuses on local factors – rather than the overall political system under the oppressive Bourbon state in Sicily.

We found that the growth and consolidation of the Sicilian mafia is strongly associated with an external surge in the demand for lemons from 1800 on wards after the discovery of the effective use of citrus fruits to prevent scurvy by James Lind.

Lawless: 19th-century Palermo. B. Rosaspina via Shutterstock

Sicily already enjoyed a dominant position in the international market for citrus fruits – and the increase in demand resulted in a very large inflow of revenues to areas focused on citrus production during the 1800s. Citrus trees can be cultivated only in areas that meet specific requirements (mild and constant temperature throughout the year and an abundance of water) – and this guaranteed substantial profits to the relatively few local producers in areas of Sicily that conformed to these requirements.

A combination of high profits, a weak rule of law, a low level of interpersonal trust and widespread poverty made lemon producers a suitable target for criminals. Neither the Bourbon regime (1816–1860), nor the newly-formed government after Italian independence in 1861, had the strength or the means to effectively enforce private property rights. So citrus farmers resorted to hiring private security providers to protect themselves from theft and also to arrange intermediaries between the retailers and exporters in the harbours.

A lot of this information can be found in the archives of the Damiani Inquiry. Questionnaires were sent to 179 pretori (lower court judges) asking, among other things: “What is the most common form of crime in the district? What are their causes?”

Oranges and lemons

When we looked at the archive, we found that mafia presence in the 1880s was strongly associated with citrus cultivation – no other crop or industry appeared to have the same robust impact on mafia activity. Our findings are supported by anecdotal evidence reported by the English author John Dickie in his 2004 book: Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia and by the Italian historian Salvatore Lupo in his book Il Giardino degli Aranci (The Orange Garden).

Influential: John Dickie’s history of the Sicilian mafia. Amazon

Dickie named a Dr Galati as the first person persecuted by the mafia. Detailed records of his story can be found in Galati’s memoir: I casi di Malaspina e la mafia delle campagne di Palermo (Cases of Malaspina and the mafia in the campaigns of Palermo), and reported in the Bonfadini parliamentary inquiry, details of which are held in the national archives in Rome.

Galati’s attempts to sack his farm warden, a “man of honour” (mafioso) affiliated with Antonino Giammona, the boss of Uditore, a borough of Palermo, resulted in two replacement wardens being shot. The first was shot dead and the second, having recovered from three bullets in the back, cut a deal with Giammona.

Galati, who had reportedly spent more than 25 years building up his business in the area, fled to Naples from where he sent a detailed account of his troubles to the Minister of the Interior in Rome. Of 800 people living in Uditore, he wrote, there had been 23 killings in 1874 alone, including two women and two children. Another ten people had been wounded.

‘Men of honour’

Like Galati’s wounded warden, the safest option available to people under pressure from the mafia was to establish a relationship with their leaders – and get the most out of these connections. Niccolò Turrisi Colonna, for example, a landowner and politician whose 1864 study, Public Security in Sicily, warned that the Italian government’s brutal attempts to crush unlawfulness would only make matters worse by alienating the populace, is widely thought to have been a close associate of the aforementioned Giammona. He is also thought by some to have been the head of the mafia.

Emanuele Notarbartolo, major of Palermo (1873-1876), killed by the Sicilian mafia in 1893. Palermoweb

Another prominent Sicilian, Prince Pietro Mirto Seggio, hired as main warden for his farm a man named Giuseppe Fontana, the main suspect in the death of Emanuele Notarbartolo – an aristocrat, banker and a former mayor of Palermo. Notarbartolo’s assassination in 1893 is thought to be the first major mafia homicide in Sicily of a person not affiliated with a crime gang.

The Greco family – which was to become one of the biggest criminal enterprises in Italy and, in the 20th century, in the US, got its start thanks to the rent of a lemon grove extracted from the wealthy Tagliavia estate.

The ConversationLike so many industries, legitimate or otherwise, the Sicilian mafia had humble beginnings, with its roots in the land. The boom in citrus fruits came at the right time for some of the more unscrupulous individuals in rural Sicily to take advantage of the lawless times and establish themselves as the real power in the land. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Alessia Isopi, Lecturer in Economics, University of Manchester and Arcangelo Dimico, Lecturer in Economics, Queen's University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Sicily braces for rare Mediterranean cyclone as storms continue

Sicily's residents are bracing for the arrival of a cyclone later on Thursday, the second this week after a deadly storm hammered the Italian island, killing three people.

Sicily braces for rare Mediterranean cyclone as storms continue
Cars and market stalls submerged in Catania, Sicily, after heavy rain hit the city and province on october 26th. Photo: STRINGER/ANSA/AFP

A rare tropical-style cyclone known as a “medicane” is set to reach Sicily’s eastern coast and the tip of mainland Calabria between Thursday evening and Friday morning, according to Italian public research institute ISPRA.

“Heavy rainfall and strong sea storms are expected on the coast, with waves of significant height over 4.5 metres (15 feet),” ISPRA said.

The Italian Department for Civil Protection placed eastern Sicily under a new amber alert for Thursday and the highest-level red lert for Friday in anticipation of the storm’s arrival, after almost a week of extreme weather in the area.

A total of three people have been reported killed in flooding on the island this week amid storms that left city streets and squares submerged.

On Tuesday, parts of eastern Sicily were ravaged by a cyclone following days of heavy rains that had sparked flooding and mudslides, killing three people.

Television images from Tuesday showed flooding in the emergency room of Catania’s Garibaldi-Nesima hospital, while rain was seen pouring from the roof inside offices at the city courtroom.

Thursday’s storm was set to hit the same area around Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, even as residents were still mucking out their streets and homes.

Schools were closed in Syracuse and Catania, where the local government ordered public offices and courts closed through Friday.

The mayor of Catania on Tuesday shut down all businesses and urged residents to stay home.

Antonio Navarra, president of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper this week that Sicily was at the centre of extreme weather events, including heatwaves and cyclones.

“We’re trying to understand if, with climate change, these phenomena will become even more intense, if they will change their character as their frequency intensifies,” he said.

READ ALSO: Climate crisis: The Italian cities worst affected by flooding and heatwaves

Cars submerged in Catania, Sicily, after storms hit the city and province on October 26th. Photo: STRINGER/ANSA/AFP

Other forecasters have said the “medicane” is the latest evidence that the climate crisis is irreversibly tropicalising the Mediterranean, after the island’s south-eastern city of Syracuse this August recorded a temperature of 48.8C, the hottest ever seen in Europe.

“Sicily is tropicalising and the upcoming medicane is perhaps the first of this entity, but it certainly won’t be the last,” Christian Mulder, a professor of ecology and climate emergency at the University of Catania, told The Guardian on Wednesday.

“We are used to thinking that this type of hurricane and cyclone begins in the oceans and not in a closed basin like the Mediterranean. But this is not the case,” he said.

“This medicane is forming due to the torrid climate of north Africa and the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Aegean Sea has a temperature of 3C higher than the average, while the Ionian Sea has a temperature of almost 2C higher than the average. The result is a pressure cooker.”

The storm is expected to leave the area between Saturday and Sunday.