Sulphur, Sicilians, and the Exodus to the USA

There is not one manufacturing industry in the world that can work without sulphur. When the industrial revolution took place in the 19th century, 90% of all the sulphur in the world came from Sicily.

These are Sicilian sulphur miners:

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Why are they working naked? It was 40 degrees centigrade above ground and down in the mines it could get above 45 degrees, which (for you Americans) is 113 degrees fahrenheit. There was also 100% humidity and they were engaged in hard labour for up to twelve hours at a time. Sulphur gives off suffocating hydrogen sulphide gas which makes it hard to breathe: it was once called brimstone and thought to be smoke from the fires of hell. The human body cannot survive these conditions with clothes on.

There were not only men down in the mines. Little boys would go to work with their fathers from the age of six. Children this young worked as miners in Sicily even after the second world war.

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This precious mineral was so coveted by the British and the French that they almost came to war over which country would have all of Sicily’s precious reserves. Meanwhile the Sicilians worked for such low wages that, technically, they counted as slaves. They fuelled the industrial revolution of Northern Europe yet failed to partake in any of the profits at all.

I think a country in possession of a global monopoly, which fails to make any profits from it, can only be explained by extraordinarily bad government.

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Sulphur causes a lung disease called silicosis. The Sicilians who started working under ground at the age of 6 died, on average, aged 40.

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Sicily has vast sulphur deposits partly because it was once under the sea, and partly because it is a volcanic island fed with sulphur from deep within the earth. Some of the sulphur was taken out in rock form, but to extract the smaller traces as well, part of the mining process involved dissolving the sulphur into fluid.

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Above ground, it was re-set into the blocks in the photo below. These blocks were a dazzling yellow so I think, if this photo were in colour, they would look exactly like giant gold ingots.

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When crude oil was extracted from deep under ground, the oil cracking process produced sulphur as a by-product. This was a far cheaper and safer way of obtaining sulphur, and so Sicily lost its global monopoly.

Thousands and thousands of sulphur miners and their families lost their livelihood. Like the Irish at the time of the potato blight, Sicilians moved to America in a mass exodus.

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Today there are 5 million Sicilians living in Sicily, and 17 million “Sicilians” living in the USA.

Some of their descendants visit Sicily today and cannot understand why their grandparents left an island that looks like paradise. Yet I doubt if those first generation immigrants ever gave a second thought to the brimstone of hell they had left behind.

Mineral exhibition at Villa Ramacca, Bagheria, Sicily

All of the images in this article came from a special exhibition on minerals and geology displaying the private collection of geologist Mario Tozzi. It was held at Villa Ramacca, a spectacular 18th century Sicilian villa. Their owner is hoping to find a place for a permanent museum.

Instructions for playing 12 Sicilian card games, plus where to buy packs of cards

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70 thoughts on “Sulphur, Sicilians, and the Exodus to the USA

  1. Once again Veronica, you’ve knocked it out of the park. This is exactly what happened in Cianciana, our little town. And I think you are right about the Sicilians who immigrated. They may have thought wistfully about their childhoods or the food and family but there was very little desire to go back.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Hi, Love your blogs so thank you for this one as well. However, I do wonder if the reason they worked naked wasn’t just to do with the heat but that any cloth or boots would rot in the sulfurous atmosphere. They would have come out of the mine minus any clothes they walked in wearing. I could be talking nonsense though. Candy

    On 1 April 2015 at 13:41, The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would like to know whether the sulphur mines played any roles in antiquity, and – even more special – in the late bronze age = approx. 1250 BC. I heard that the pre-Greek Sicels and Sicani painted walls of caves and huts with sulphuric colour yet I never could find any reliable source for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do know there were lots of sulphur deposits right up at ground level in ancient times. You still see them all over the place at the top of Etna. So maybe the Romans didn’t need to go underground to mine it?
      I doubt they needed anything like the quantities that were desired in the industrial revolution. Do you know what they used it for? I think it was used in glass making??? and metal working??? Do you know?

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      1. I think you should get an award for your interesting questions!
        I’ve just found out that the Romans used sulphur to make fireworks at the circus games, and also as explosive incendiary devices in warfare – early bombs/gunpowder.

        This web page has a lot of info about Roman deep shaft mining techniques:
        http://www.unc.edu/~duncan/personal/roman_mining/deep-vein_mining.htm

        This is the best, apparently sulphur was mined a great deal by the Romans in Sicily:
        http://www.academia.edu/9306599/Sulphur_exploitation_and_landscape_in_Roman_Sicily_between_IV_and_VI_century_AD
        (It’s written by a Sicilian researcher so the English is strange, but it’s very interesting)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My family emigrated from Aragona, Sicliy near the sulfur mines in the early 1900’s. Your post and these pictures are fascinating. Thank you for your insightful and interesting stories form Sicily!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your compliments!
      Do you know if your family were sulphur miners in the past? I suppose even if they weren’t, the mass exodus of the miners probably put the other workers out of business too – the shopkeepers, farmers etc who no longer had any customers. I think some areas of Sicily were literally emptied out.

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      1. The family history says that my grandfather went to work in the sulfur mines at the age of 6. He immigrated to the US in 1903 at the age of 33 and died at the age of 71. I’m glad that he was able to be out of the mines, and live a longer life.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I hope the second half of his life was happy enough to make up for the first half, which must have been so tough. The idea of little children living that kind of a life makes me cry. I’m glad to hear he got out and was one of the success stories.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s impossible for our modern sensibilities to grasp the sheer drudgery, not to mention danger and suffering, that many people endured day in and day out back in the “good old days” just to earn a living. These photos are a stark reminder of just how good most of our lives are now. I remember visiting a textile mill museum exhibit in Lowell, Massachusetts where they insisted we wear ear plugs before entering. Only one quarter of the looms were operating and when I slipped the earplugs out for a second, I was brought to tears by the sheer slamming agony of the noise. Of course many of the girls ended up deaf in later years from their years in the mills.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I toured an old pottery in Staffordhire in England a couple of summers ago, thinking of all the olden days jobs, it must have been quite healthy (coming from a family of Welsh coal miners who chose coal mining “for the sake of their health because so many workers in the tin works died before they were adults”)
      Well anyway, the entire factory went deaf in no time and apparently right up to the eighties, there were swarms of old women in the region who would lipread and talk silently to each other – including the ones who weren’t deaf!
      and not only that. They all used to get lung cancer too as the place was full of toxic fumes coming off the kilns, and maimed by dangerous moving parts of machinery.
      Really I think there was nothing good about the good old days unless you were an aristocrat!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. I read a book years ago something like “The Good Old Days Really Weren’t” and talk about an eye opener. I mean we know life was difficult but just the enormous amount of work involved in laundry, for instance. EGAD! The women were absolute laborers unless they had help. No thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There used to be a TV programme in England where families would volunteer to live exactly as people did at certain periods in history, doing hand laundry etc as well as wearing period costumes – they were followed by the cameras like a reality show.
        They all talked about how incredibly hard it was. They basically had no leisure time at all.

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  6. Fascinating – and such tragic – history. I think an example like this very much supports the efforts of many governments today to nationalize natural resources or at least keep the governing share in the hands of local companies.

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    1. So long as the government is good. I think the mines were actually owned by local companies, but they were just so bad at forming contracts and negotiating prices. I see this still happening, where members of the local councils make contracts with private companies that are suicidally un-advantageous to themselves… they just cannot see it. My mind repeatedly boggles at how naive they are.

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    1. Apparently just about any chemical make today either has sulphur in it, or needs sulphur at some stage in making it. It makes fertilisers, fungicide and pesticides, it goes into foods and wines as preservatives, it makes paints adn dyes, lots and lots of medicines. It is also made into sulphuric acid which is used by water purifying plants, for mineral extraction in mining more minerals and for oil cracking to get…yep, more sulphur. Like I said, there’s basically no industry that can operate without it.

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      1. Yes – re South Sea islanders but I didn’t know much about who replaced them. I was pleased to find out that many of the Italians became share farmers as they were determined not to be indentured workers. It makes lots of sense after reading your post.

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  7. How very sad but a very interesting read. We are lucky to be living in the times we are. Although there are still so many sad things happening now around the world, the past sounds appalling and I worry what the future will bring as we destroy the planet day by day. (How depressing!Tomorrow’s Twiiter #FriFotos theme is JOY, off to dig out some photos to cheer myself up!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes I very much agree. I grew up with my Welsh grandfather’s stories of coal mining so I was well aware of how lucky I was from a very early age indeed.

      While researching this I saw an article (with amazing photos) about sulphur miners in Indonesia who were working in similarly hellish conditions and getting serious illnesses. They did at least have clothes on, which is making me wonder more about the nudity of Sicilian miners – the fact they didn’t even wear shoes when the ground must surely had hurt and cut their feet makes me think their lack of clothes was at least partly a result of extreme poverty.

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  8. I understand that it may have been too hot to wear clothes in the mines, but even underwear was too much? I would think that containing some body parts would be more comfortable, but that’s just my opinion. The miners’ poor working conditions and benefits remind me of present day sweat shops.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your comparison with sweat shops. I saw a documentary on Al Jazeera recently about workers in China suffering horrible illnesses as a result of dirty work they had to do making designer jeans. It may not be quite so wretched as these miners but it is still close to slavery.

      I found a mini documentary on You Tube which explained at last the real reason why they had to work naked. Apparently the sulphur dust would be absorbed into their clothes and react with their sweat, causing caustic burns on their skin.

      Like

  9. Apparently there is a film about the boys forced into mining called La Discesa di Acla’ a Floristella (Floristella being one of the mines) made in 1992. And a law was passed in 1959 stipulating that the miners had to wear clothes and shoes.
    I read that the boys forced into mining were referred to as ‘carusi’ and were ‘rented’ by the miners from the boys’ parents. The miners paid the parents and the carusi had to work in the mine for a fixed time, therefore they lived like slaves for the “rental” period. Besides the formal condition of slave, there were many similar legal arrangements that were very similar arrangements to slavery. So the Carusi were virtual slaves. The working conditions were horrendous and there was a real lack of freedom. The “renter” paid poor families an amount equivalent to the salary for some years of work, that salary was very low. So the boy was essentially ‘rented’ and had to work for the stipulated time. He received only his food. If the boy tried to run away, fell ill, or died, the family had to return the amount or provide the services of another child. As the family was involved in the forced labour scheme, there was virtually no way for a boy to escape. When a runaway boy was caught, as was often the case, he was severely punished, usually beaten with a stick. So sad.
    There is a monument in Comitini to miners who lost their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to see that documentarym, it woulds really interesting – though probably very upsetting too.

      BTW Carusi is just the Sicilian dialect word for “boys” in the East and south of the island. (In the Palermo area the word is piciotti).

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  10. For anyone who speaks Italian, I have just found this fascinating film on You Tube:

    It shows how some of the sulphur mines in Sicily were still using mining techniques in the 1950s adn 1960s which were used in British coal mines in the 1880s.

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  11. Good post on an industry I knew nothing about. But I’ve read about what’s called the curse of resources (I think I’m remembering the phrase correctly), where a country with some valuable natural resource suffers for it instead of profits from it. More powerful countries come in and exploit the resource–along with whatever local labor it needs. For an example, think of the African countries that have diamonds, or oil. So yes, blame the government, but often it’s a matter of power and money, and the screwed-up government’s not much more than a symptom.

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    1. But Africa is generally characterised by lazy and greedy politicians just like Sicily, so I think their wasting of their natural resources fits the same model as the Sicilian one.
      Some countries make excellent use of their natural resources – China and the Middle East for example, and also Britain before they were pretty-much exhausted. I think perhaps we characterise African countries as resource-rich because they have little else, whereas other resource-rich regions have built a whole working economy on top of them, so we almost forget the resources they made such sensible use of to get their industries started.
      If I were to write an article about the curse of resources I would call it “The curse of a government that does not understand how to make profitable use of resources”

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  12. Superb reporting! Here are some additional links about sulphur and Sicily.

    1) http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art145.htm

    2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carusu
    “The horrific conditions in Sicilian sulfur mines prompted Booker T. Washington βˆ’ himself an African American born a slave – to write in 1910: “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.” He had traveled to Europe to acquaint himself, in his words: “with the condition of the poorer and working classes in Europe”.[3] As an eyewitness, he described the plight of the carusi as follows:
    …”From this slavery there is no hope of freedom, because neither the parents nor the child will ever have sufficient money to repay the original loan. […]
    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” ”

    3) http://www.iitaly.org/bloggers/1066/child-slavery-sicily-1910

    4) Why the Carusi Matter
    http://www.timesofsicily.com/carusi-matter/

    5) Sulphur and debt in Sicily (start on p.74)
    http://tinyurl.com/nafvhvf

    6) http://tinyurl.com/pcf58b2
    written in the 1890’s

    7) Queer Things about Sicily (1928)
    http://tinyurl.com/oz8ndea
    keep in mind that the prevailing elite classes in Italy and Europe has a distorted idea of Sicilians – in a word, they were essentially racist opinions. Two SUPERB books that debunk these Sicilian myths are “The Pursuit of Italy A History of A Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples” By David Gilmour. and “Terroni: All That Has Been Done to Ensure That The Italians of The South Became “Southerners”, by Pino Aprile (published in Italian, and available in Englidh translation from Borddihera Press, NY). The latter book is not easy to find. It’s a fairly recent publication and apparently had a large impact in Italy. Essentially, The Kingdom of Two Sicily’s was compelled to become “2nd rate”. It was used by the conquering north. Gilmor’s book points this out in detail, occasionally quoting from Aprile’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello. I have just returned from the Brandywine Valley in Delaware where we visited a fascinating museum about the DuPont’s family rise to wealth through the manufacture of gunpowder. And one of the three key ingredients used was sulfur. From Sicily. I couldn’t help but think of these miners as I looked at a basket of yellow chunks of sulfur and thought of what went on to bring it to our shores.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I just found this blog and this post. Yes, you got it right that those who left Sicily in the early 20th century had no desire to return, mostly because of the terrible conditions there.
    My mother’s family came from southwest County Cork, Ireland to the USA because of the potato famine and my father’s family of illiterate and hardworking people emigrated from the interior mountains of Sicily about 100 years ago. And while they never went back, I, as a grandchild of the immigrant generation, have always been curious. So this coming week I will make my third visit to Sicily in the past five years. I now know dozens of loving cousins there, have researched some of my family history (peasants and nobility both) and I look forward to visiting this belissima island, significant “warts” and all.
    When I retire in a couple of years, maybe I’ll be able to spend more time there, although I will always be American, with children and family in the states. I have that luxury that my grandparents did not.

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    1. I was told by a third-generation Sicilian American recently that the Irish and Sicilians in America really saw eye-to-eye with each other because they had lived through similar suffering and left their home countries for similar reasons. And being Catholics as well gave them similar values. I guess your parents may have gone through this kind of bonding?
      I think seeing Sicily as a visitor gives you the chance to enjooy all the best of it without getting sucked down into the heavy economic and political problems we’re still struggling with.
      Anyway, have a great holiday!

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  15. I read your article with great interest, and profound sadness. I have been researching my maternal ancestors and discovered just today the marriage registry for my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, both from Riesi. In the document that I found on Antenati, my grandfather is listed as a sulphur miner. I am happy to say that he immigrated with his wife and many friends and relatives to the USA and lived to be 101 years of age. I have a picture of him in a military uniform, which is confusing. Can you tell me if Italy/Sicily had mandatory military service? Thank you again for this very informative article.

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    1. That’s such a great story about your grandafather! My poor old grandad was a coal miner in Wales and didn’t have such a lucky escape.

      Well, my husband did military service in the early 1990s and Italy has had it for a long time, but I dont know how far back it goes. Do you have a rough date estimate for when the photo in military uniform was taken? And is it definitely military – Italians are a bit uniform crazy and they have about 7 different police forces with military-looking uniforms.
      I have a few friends who are history experts – if you want to scan in the photo I could probably find out the whole story behind it! (if you want to do that, drop me a message from the contact form so that I can switch this over to private email chatting….)

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    1. Hello Stephanie, I read your reply and had the same response of great sadness about the situation with the miners. I did write above that my grandparents came from the province of Caltanisetta and they were from town of Riesi also! They settled in Boston, and I’ve never met anyone else whose ancestors came from Riesi. Can we get in touch with private email chatting to discuss this?

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    2. It’s a wonderful book. I knew many Italian families from Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts. I n Massacusetts there is a very large chapter of the Sons of Italy organization..

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  16. I never knew this about Sicily. My grandparents immigrated in 1903 and 1906. From what I know, my grandfather was a tailor and do not know about the mines. They hailed from Valledolmo. Great story. Thank you…

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  17. MY FATHER (NOW DECEASED, AGED 85 IN 1981) WORKED IN THE SULPHUR MINES IN ARAGONA . WHILE HE MENTIONED THE MINES A FEW TIMES WE HAD NO IDEA OF ITS CRUELTY. I GUESS HE MANAGED TO ESCAPE WITH THE GREAT MIGRATIONS DUE TO POVERTY THAT BEFELL THE MINERS IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY. HE ALSO SERVED IN THE AMERICAN ARMY IN WWI AND WAS WOUNDED IN BATTLE.
    WE ARE A LARGE FAMILY OF 12 CHILDREN. I LOST A BROTHER IN WWII, ANOTHER BROTHER GRADUATED FROM THE MILITARY ACADEMY AT WEST POINT AND IS A RETIRED GENERAL, ONE SISTER WAS MARRIED TO A LOCAL US CONGRESSMAN AND I SERVED IN THE US ARMY SPECIAL FORCES 1962-1965. THANK YOU FOR YOUR GREAT WORK.

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    1. What an impressive and accomplished family! It is amazing what people can achieve in a country that gives opportunities. I wonder what the family would have done back in Sicily?
      I have no doubt your father couldn’t bear to talk about such horrible memories.

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  18. Excellent article. You mention “can only be explained by extraordinarily bad government” for a reasoning of the “slave” conditions.
    The Sicilians have never had a semblance of a unified nation. Too many immigrants with emotional baggage that divided the population for corruption and exploitation. It the most efficient way to destroy a sovereign nation from within.

    I’m very please that humanity is kind enough to repeat the past. Sometime it’s better to enslave others with the least amount of bloodshed. After all, war is expensive and exploiting useful idiots is free through social media.

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    1. Abnsolutely right. However, do you think that conitions in the USA were any better? Take a look at how all immigrants…including the Sicilians, suffered when they came to America,. It is all documented.

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  19. Absolutely right. However, have you ever considered the deplorable..life-threatening conditions in the USA which were faced by the Sicilian people..and all immigrants for that matter? It is VERY well-documented.

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