On December 28, 1908 at about 5:30 in the morning the greatest earthquake to ever strike the European continent in modern times struck Messina in Sicily.
Messina was home to about 180,000 at the time. It was Italy’s 3rd largest port of trade and the commercial center of Sicily.
Sicily was far away from the “new” Italy. In the Piedmont, birthplace of the Italian royal family people spoke of “going to Italy” when they had to leave their provincial home. Turin would become the industrial capital with Agnelli building cars and Gramsci leading the Italian Communist Party. Socialism was on the rise.
The intellectuals of Milan viewed Rome as a “city of waiters and prostitutes”, catering to German and English tourists who disdained them. Venice was considered a “tomb” which “should be shelled into the sea”; it represented only the past and not the future of a greater Italy. The elites didn’t even speak the language of the South; it was more important to impress those in Paris than in Rome.
In the South, the Mezzogiorno, Italy was a feudal society of landowners and peasants. One needed a “patron”, a person of local importance, to “recommend” if one wanted to advance socially and financially. The Italian government of the “liberal” Giolitti was far away, represented locally only by police and postal workers. The Liberal Party in power was also far from liberal; it was the socialists which were the left wing party.
Peasants in the south were mostly illiterate and uneducated. Malaria was rampant in the region as well as occasional outbreaks of cholera.
And then came the earthquake.
It measured about 7.5 on the Richter Scale and lasted maybe 40 seconds followed by days of smaller quakes.
Of the 180,000 living in Messina, approximately 100,000 died. Ninety percent of the buildings of the city were leveled. Messina disappeared.
The quake was followed by a 40 foot tsunami sweeping the Straits of Messina; the wave enveloped Messina and on the mainland Reggio Calabria, bringing further destruction. Telegraph lines were destroyed as was the railroad. Reggio also lost ninety percent of it’s buildings.
No one in the government knew what had happened.
A postman in Messina crawled out from the ruins of his house and walked 15 miles to a railroad station and post office which still had a working telegraph. People were doing nothing but digging for their families. The situation was made worse by gale like conditions and torrential rains pelting the ruins. Our postman sent a telegraph to his boss in the post office on the mainland. “Messina destroyed”. No one believed him. How could Messina be destroyed? The message was carried to Prime Minister Giolitti, who while in his third term had never been to Sicily; he declared “This fellow must be a mad man! How can Messina be destroyed?”
It wasn’t until the Russian Navy and Italian Navy torpedo boats notified the government at midnight of the disaster that anyone heard of the quake. It soon made headlines around the world.
The King arrived two days later to inspect the damage. People were living in caves and make shift shacks, without food, water, sanitation. Cholera soon broke out. The British and Russian navies lent a helping hand, doing what they could.
The Liberal government reacted with feigned rigor and “realism”. Martial Law was declared in spite of the fact that the Constitution permitted it only in the face of enemy troops. Looters were shot out of hand even when foraging for food.
The King’s cousin, the Duke of Aosta, quickly rejected the idea that welfare payments should be channeled to “peasants and poor workers”. The aim of the state, he made clear in phrases which echoed Liberal ideology must be that “fit men honorably earn their living and not become unused to work. It is immoral to subsidize a wave of vagabonds and render men lazy.” Sounds familiar.
After all, the poor, in the eyes of the government, had not lost much since they did not have much to lose. Government assistance, what there was of it, was confined to the middle classes and small proprietors who had after all “lost everything”.
The government and the press was indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Rome’s newspapers told lurid stories of the paisani from hill villages looting and sacking the town taking revenge on the urban center. Wild men coveting jewelry and taking it along with fingers and ears from both the living and the dead. Even the Socialists, who should have been more sympathetic spoke of the “beasts of prey” alive and well in Sicily.
The Liberal government of the time was far from achieving liberty, equality or fraternity let alone sorority, although it spoke glibly of “democracy”. The French journalist Jean Carrere spoke of the peasant population as being “lethargic and beaten” It was easy for him to understand, hearing the sentiments expressed by the ruling class, why these southerners were impervious to cheap nationalistic rhetoric about a homogenous and united people. The “reconstruction” of Messina, such as it was benefited only the rich.
The great current of the southern peoples away from Italy began in earnest after Messina carrying so many Italians away from their country. Millions would say goodbye to village and family, never to return.
In 1913, the year of peak departures, over 407,000 Italians entered North America, 149,000 South America and 308,000 left for other parts of Europe; Germany and France eached received more than 80,000.
Sicily alone bid farewell to 147,000 of it’s people that year.
My four grandparents as well as my wife’s joined the diaspora. None of them would ever see Italy again.
In 1958 there were thousands of Sicilians still living in the “temporary” housing of wooden huts provided by the state after Messina.