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Sicily and the Sicilians

Karl Marx

Throughout the history of the human race no land and no people have suffered so terribly from slavery, from foreign conquests and oppressions, and none have struggled so irrepressibly for emancipation as Sicily and the Sicilians. Almost from the time when Polyphemus promenaded around Etna, or when Ceres taught the Siculi[286] the culture of grain, to our day, Sicily has been the theater of uninterrupted invasions and wars, and of unflinching resistance. The Sicilians are a mixture of almost all southern and northern races; first, of the aboriginal Sicanians, with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and slaves from all regions under heaven, imported into the island by traffic or war; and then of Arabs, Normans, and Italians. The Sicilians, in all these transformations and modifications, have battled, and still battle, for their freedom.

More than thirty centuries ago the aborigines of Sicily resisted as best they could the superior weapons and military skill of Carthaginian and Greek invaders. They were made tributary, but never wholly subdued by the one or the other. For a long time Sicily was the battle-field of Greeks and Carthaginians; her people were ruined and partly enslaved; her cities, inhabited by Carthaginians and Greeks, were the central points whence oppression and slavery radiated through the interior of the island. These early Sicilians, however, never missed an opportunity to strike for liberty, or at least to take as much revenge as possible on their Carthaginian masters and on Syracuse. The Romans finally subdued Carthaginians and Syracusans, selling into slavery as many of them as possible. On one occasion 30,000 inhabitants of Panormus, the modern Palermo, were thus sold. The Romans worked Sicily with numberless gangs of slaves, in order to feed with Sicilian wheat the poor proletarians of the Eternal City. For this purpose, they not only enslaved the inhabitants of the island, but imported slaves from all their other dominions. The terrible . cruelties of Roman Proconsuls, Praetors, Praefects, are known to every one who is in any degree familiar with the history of Rome, or with the oratory of Cicero. Nowhere else, perhaps, did Roman cruelty hold such saturnalia. The poor freemen and yeomen, if unable to pay the crushing tribute exacted of them, were pitilessly sold into bondage, themselves or their children, by the tax-gatherers.

But both under the Syracusan Dionysius and under the Roman rule, the most terrible slave insurrections took place in Sicily, in which the native people and the imported slaves often made common cause. During the breaking up of the Roman Empire, Sicily was visited by various invaders. Then the Moors got hold of it for a time; but the Sicilians, and above all the genuine people of the interior, resisted always, more or less successfully, and step by step maintained or conquered various small franchises. The dawn had scarcely begun to spread over the medieval darkness, when the Sicilians stood forth, already armed, not only with various municipal liberties, but with rudiments of a constitutional government, such as at that time existed nowhere else. Earlier than any other European nation, the Sicilians regulated by vote the income of their Governments and Sovereigns. Thus the Sicilian soil has ever proved deadly to oppressors and invaders, and the Sicilian Vespers[287] stand immortal in history. When the House of Aragon brought the Sicilians into dependence on Spain, they knew how to preserve their political immunities more or less intact; and this they did alike under the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons. When the French Revolution and Napoleon expelled the tyrannical reigning family from Naples, the Sicilians—incited and seduced by English promises and guaranties—received the fugitives, and in their struggles against Napoleon sustained them both with their blood and their money. Every one knows the subsequent treachery of the Bourbons, and the subterfuges or impudent denials by which England has tried and still tries to varnish her own faithless abandonment of the Sicilians and of their liberties to the tender mercies of the Bourbons.

At the present day, political, administrative, and fiscal oppression crushes all classes of the people; and these grievances therefore stand in the foreground. But nearly the whole soil is still in the hands of comparatively few large landowners or barons. The medieval tenures of land are still preserved in Sicily, except that the tiller is not a serf; he ceased to be such about the eleventh century, when he became a free tenant. The conditions of his tenure are, however, generally so oppressive, that the immense majority of agriculturists work exclusively for the advantage of the tax-gatherer and of the baron, producing scarcely anything beyond the taxes and rents, and themselves remaining either wretchedly, or, at least, comparatively poor. Producing the celebrated Sicilian wheat and excellent fruits, they themselves live poorly on beans the whole year through.

Sicily now bleeds again, and England looks calmly on at these new saturnalia of the infamous Bourbon, and his not less infamous minions, lay or clerical, Jesuits or Guardsmen[288]. The fussy declaimers of the British Parliament rend the air with their empty talk about Savoy and the dangers of Switzerland, but have not a word to say of the massacres in the Sicilian cities. No voice raises the cry of indignation throughout Europe. No ruler and no Parliament proclaims outlawry against the bloodthirsty idiot of Naples[a]. Louis Napoleon, alone, for this or that purpose—of course not for any love of liberty, but for the aggrandizement of his family or of French influence—may perhaps stop the butcher in his work of destruction. England will howl about perfidy, will spout fire and flames against: Napoleonic treachery and ambition; but the Neapolitans and the Sicilians must eventually be gainers, even under a Murat or any other new ruler. Any change must be for the better.

Written in late April and early May 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5948, May 17, 1860 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1563, May 18, 1860


[a] Francis II.—Ed.

[286] Siculi—one of the ancient tribes in Sicily.

[287] A reference to a popular rising in Sicily against the French Anjou dynasty, which conquered Southern Italy and Sicily in 1267. On the evening of March 31, 1282, the population of Palermo took the chimes for vespers as a signal to massacre several thousand French knights and soldiers. As a result, the whole of Sicily was freed from French domination and came under the King of Aragon.

[288] Popular unrest in Sicily against Francis II of Naples and his hirelings began in the autumn of 1859. The uprising that broke out in October was suppressed, but in the spring of 1860 disturbances broke out again. The Palermo uprising in May 1860 was again crushed by the royal forces. Peasant guerrilla units were operating all over the island, however, and they joined Garibaldi after he landed in Sicily with his "Thousand" volunteers.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.370-372), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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