Garibaldi, Italian Unification and Sicily – by S. Ben Piazza

Sicilian history is full of many interesting events and personalities over the past many centuries and millennia, going back to the deeds of the Sikanian king Kokalous, followed many centuries later by Archimedes, Aeschilus, Epicarmus, Al Idrisi, FrederickII and many, many more who succeeded one after another and who, in their way, impacted, for better or worse, on the future of this the largest of the Mediterranean islands.

Another individual who occupies similar position in the history of Sicily, although, albeit, in a more perverse way is the person of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the disastrous role that he played before, during and after his conquest of Sicily and Southern Italy, ostensibly as an effort to achieve unification of the Italian peninsula under one ruler, namely Victor Emanuel II, King of Sardinia and Piemonte.

Today, if one goes to Sicily and visits any of the towns there, one will hardly find an inhabited center where a street, a square or similar other public area is not dedicated to Garibaldi. And yet, there is more about Garibaldi than it meets the eyes or history, for that matter.

What I am about to tell you, will, more than likely, surprise and shock the reader, however, all that one needs is to ask this simple question: “Why are we here and not in Sicily?”. The answer to that question is quite simple! Our parents, grandparents as well as our great grandparents were forced to abandon the ancestral home towns of Southern Italy by the millions out of shear economic necessity brought about by the most important political event that occurred on Sicily as well as on the Italian peninsula during the middle part of the 19th century. And that event was nothing more and nothing less than the tragic dismantling of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the ensuing Italian unification that replaced it along with the ascension of Victor Emanuel II as the first King of a united Italy.

For those who may not be too well versed with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, it suffices only to know that it consisted of better than half of the Italian peninsula. And it comprised not only Sicily and adjacent islands but also Calabria, Lucania, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia, Abruzzi and Molise. Besides being the largest independent state on the Italian peninsula, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was, by far, the richest and most industrialized to the extent that no need existed for massive migration, as later turned out to be the case. In point of fact, this Southern Kingdom, besides France and Great Britain, was one of the most progressive states in Europe, and certainly, the richest on the entire Italian peninsula.

Prior to the invasion by the Piemontese of the north and their proxy in the person of Giuseppe Garibaldi, many on the Italian peninsula had been rooting for a national movement under the guise of so called “Risorgimento” whose final aim was the complete and ultimate unification of Italy under one ruler. This movement had lately gathered momentum and, to a substantial degree, had garnered much popular support, even though it was fundamentally anticlerical and backed by numerous secret societies whose purpose and intent were jealously guarded and never fully disclosed.

By itself, the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piemonte was an inconsequential military and economic state. However, over a period of time and with the aiding and abetting of such naval powers as Great Britain, both Camillo Benso di Cavour, the Piemontese Prime Minister, and King Victor Emanuel II of Savoy had been carrying out an inexorable campaign, calculated to suborn both the political as well as the economic independence of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This was perpetrated, not directly, but largely, through their surrogate in the name of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Until then, Garibaldi had been uniformly regarded as an international adventurer and freebooter, better known for his paramilitary forays and terrorism carried out against civilian populations in South America, particularly in Brazil and Uruguay.

When Garibaldi finally landed in Marsala, Sicily, his landing party consisted of 752 irregulars, volunteers who had gathered initially in Quarto (near Genoa), while originating from different areas of Italy as well as other countries. Although relatively puny at first, this disparate band of irregulars was quickly joined by the Sicilian patriot Rosolino Pilo who, in the meantime, had assembled a veritable military force of 10,000 local “picciotti”, and who, along with a significant part of the Sicilian population actively subscribing to “Italian Unification”, it virtually guaranteed, in a matter of months, the defeat of the Sicilian King, who sought refuge in Gaeta from where he found final exile in Austria, never to return to his beloved Kingdom.

No sooner had Garibaldi met with King Victor Emanuel II at Teano (outside Naples), ceding to him his conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the extent of the duplicity and true intentions of the Piemontese King became quickly palpable and immediately obvious. One of his first actions was the prompt seizure of the vast local gold treasury, exceeding the unbelievable sum of something like 600,000,000 lires of those days. Although by every right, the treasury was the property of the Sicilian people, it was nonetheless promptly removed from its local safekeeping and re-deposited in Turin, increasing by several folds the assets of the Sardinian banks, who, instead of equally sharing the “theft” and “loot” amongst the regions now comprising the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, began sharing it only with the Piemontese entrepreneurial class who promptly began investing in new industrial complexes in their region as well as the nearby region of Lombardy. Additionally, the demanial(public) lands of the South, for centuries upon centuries freely cultivated by generations of local peasantry, were, instead, privatized, causing the immediate dislocation of hundreds of thousands of farmers as well as an ensuing pauperization of the local working classes.

This disaster, being already of immense impact on the conquered lands, was further aggravated by the lack of available capital, now necessary more than ever, for local southern enterprises and industries to fairly compete with the ever increasing modernization of the Northern industries. The combination of these events were, in turn, responsible for the sudden economic depression that ended up visiting the South, not only then, but continuing on even to this very day. A parallel example of this is the situation that evolved during the recent unification of the two Germanys. The now antiquated industrial plants of the East, no longer a match against the highly advanced industries of the West, simply shut down and producing, in its wake, massive unemployment and mass migration to the West as well as abandonment of towns and villages on scale never seen before. One redeeming thing about the German experience, though, was the fact that while no capital theft had occurred, the Central Government made every effort to mitigate the anticipated dislocation by offering all sorts of incentives to West German industries to relocate in the former East. Unfortunately, much of that effort came to nothing, as relocation, instead, began being directed to Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, the Czech Republic and similar other places where the cost of labor was much lower and less expensive.

Returning to our subject at hand, suffice only to recount that even Garibaldi, years later, could not help commenting about the disaster that he had been partially instrumental in causing by recounting to one of his close confidants: “The outrages and injustices perpetrated against the southern people are immense and immeasurable. I do not feel that I was personally responsible, for I have a clear conscience on the matter. However, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t today take the same route that I took years ago, for I fear I would be stoned to death, having I engendered nothing but squalor and hate in the process”.

Of course, we now know what happened as result of the ensuing squalor and hate. It gradually transformed itself into one of the most massive migrations of southern peasants and pauperized workers to both North and South America as well as Australia. It is no mere accident that most Italians who migrated to the new world were Southerners. It was the very economic disaster and squalor that had been engendered by the unjust policies of the now unified state of Italy that had been the chief culprit and prime mover.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here. For as the huge numbers of dispossessed Southerners continued migrating to the Americas, Australia, as well as other parts of the world, large sums of moneys in the form of bank deposits to their families and relatives left behind in Southern Italy began accumulating in the Italian Treasury. Unfortunately, those deposits were not wisely or competently used to improve the now depressed South, but only used to continue fueling the ever increasing industrialization of the North, thus pushing the Southern economy on a free fall, to permanent depression and rapid demise. Something that continues on to this very day, exacerbated, now even more so, by the economic as well as cultural holocaust that befell the same lands engendering a new wave of emigration and abandonment of ancestral home towns. This time made more palpable and more destructive by the ensuing inroads of a stultifying public education system as well as national media and other sundry governmental programs that purposely debase the local customs, traditions and home grown languages.

The irony to all this now, though, is its current corollary, particularly prevailing in the extreme north of the country which some johnnies come lately have artificially dubbed “Padania”. In this continuing highly industrialized area of the North, the pressing talk is no longer “Unification” but rather “Secession” from the Italian State. The reason given is that it pays a greater share of the taxes than other areas of the country, particularly those in the South. In other words, the same people that once despoiled and pauperized the South, sending it into an economic tail spin to nowhere, now proclaim self serving economic interests as good reason for disconnecting themselves from the rest of Italy. Truer ungrateful barbarians couldn’t have spoken more eloquently!!! Sadly, there is no one in the North today who remembers or is even reminded that it was the sacrifice of millions of earlier, mostly Southern Italian emigrants, settling elsewhere, that made the North the economic power house that it is, while making Italy the fifth largest economy in the world.

S. Ben Piazza

With courtesy of Prof. Frank Cannomito, L’Altra Sicilia USA

The Editor
The Editor
Times of Sicily | Sicily in English

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  1. I have written a book about the origination of my parents family which started in Sicily. How may I get permissin to use this article as the preface of how Sicily as a nation was pre 1884 when my Dad was born. This article would be beneficial to the description Mom and Dad told us children as we were growing up. Thank you for any assistance you may give me. Truly, Biagio Joseph Sava

  2. WOW! Thank you! I have been working on my husband’s family history, full of wonderful immigrants to the United States from the Sicilian town of Montemaggiore Belsito. I have laid awake many nights since starting on this project, wondering what circumstances would cause this family-oriented, traditional, culturally rich group to pull up all roots and make that unbelievably hard move to dirty coal mines and horrible prejudices. I have had general explanations, but yours is by far the best I’ve seen. THANK YOU!!!!

  3. Nice article and gives a more complete explanation of the exodus from Southern Italy. My grandparents were Sicilian and came to the US in 1905. I wrote a book relating to this subject titled, “Garibaldi’s Forgotten American: The Obscure Life of William De Rohan.” I am in totaly agreement with your argument that the north has exploited Sicily. But the Teremoto of 1908, that killed over 100,000 in the south, as well as other seismic activity around Etna at the turn of the century, also played a role in the emigration. Still, Italy has done few favors for Sicily. Enough is enough.

  4. Thank you for writing and working to publish this article on behalf of those of us with Sicilian ancestry and those who simply love Sicily.

  5. It never fails to dismay me when I think about how a relatively few people with the power of money and political authority can destroy the lives of millions of people-indeed, whole countries. One has to believe that there must be a purpose and some sort of higher, if unseen, good that comes out of all the apparent evil perpetrated by these power hungry mega egotists.

  6. A HUGE thank you very much for both the author (S. Ben Piazza) and the editor (Prof. Frank Cannomito) for sharing with the world wide web readership such an insightful essay about Garilbaldi and the “unification” of Italy via the looting of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.


    I wonder if you could tell me what to read so that I can (perhaps) start to understand what the so called unification of Italy was really all about, and how it really happened. Above all, who Garibaldi was, actually. I thank you in advance for an answer.

  7. Thank you very much, Giovanni !!

    Yes! The book written by Pino Aprile has been available in English since November 2011. I have already added his book to my wish list.

    Well, I cannot thank you enough for referring me to the Pino Aprile book. I am Brazilian and have had an interest for Garibaldi and the Italian Unification since I statred reading Henry Makow, who explained to me there is something rotten in the history of the world…

    Then again, Giovanni, thank you so much. It is high time I started to learn Italian.

    GOD bless you,

    Al Fontaine, of Curitiba (State of Parana) – BRAZIL.

  8. I think it is too simplistic to say ‘Kingdom of the Two Sicilies good, Italy bad’. I would totally agree that there is a lot wrong in the relationship between Rome and Sicily, but there was also manifestly a lot wrong between Sicily and Naples, after all the monarchy was based in Naples and many estates were ruled in a latifondi-like style. It is easy to forget the unrest and revolution of 1848-9 in the name of liberal political reform. The revolt sent Ferdinand II into a panic and the limited reforms stopped. The Bourbons were inheritors of the Spanish vice-regal legacy that had neglected Sicily for centuries (and I speak as a lover of Sicily and a hispanophile). I’ll finish by quoting A History of Sicily, one of whose writers is the renowned Dennis Mack Smith. Concerning protest in the 1840s: ‘It became more political only when a demand for Sicilian autonomy acted as the focus of many different animosities against Naples.’ In many ways the modern Italian state follows the long list of previous rulers who have mistreated and misunderstood Sicily.

    • Hi Andy,
      very quickly but will come back on this, I agree 100% it is too simplistic to say ‘Kingdom of the Two Sicilies good, Italy bad’. Personally I think the “before-Garibaldi” was not good and G-d knows how things would have evolved.
      In my opinion though, and I guess this is the point, the task of many historians today, is to spread light into the “Risorgimento”. Many things are still unknown to the mass and at school we all study about Garibaldi like if it would be our Napoleone Bonaparte….
      This is the issue here. We want the truth! What about Fenestrelle! That is not yet on the history books at school and this was a lager not a “prigione di stato” like wikipedia writes!
      What about Bronte:
      In this article is mentioned a book… Lucy Riall – Under the Volcano – Revolution in a Sicilian Town (Oxford University Press)
      We want all this in the book at school and we want to read and hear on TV what was the real Risorgimento for Sicily..
      May be one day you could read that book ( i will find the time too) and we review for Times of Sicily 😉

  9. Lucy Riall is something of an expert on the Risorgimento – I must read the book. I totally agree with your comments Giovanni. The La Stampa piece is very interesting – the classic case of perfidious Albion, absentee landlords under the Bourbons, popular uprising and betrayal by Bixio in the Risorgimento. I remember DH Lawrence once commented that they only gave Nelson the Duchy because he killed a few people in the Naples uprising!! I guess every country has its historical ‘sacred cows’, Nelson is one for the English and Garibaldi for the Italians. It’s a good thing that modern historians try to redress the balance.

  10. It’s not simplistic. Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was good, a mob from Piedmont supported by the English Masons was bad. “Andy Edwards” is a typical example of policy “divide Sicily and Naples and then conquer and rule them both”. All that would not be possible without shallow and naive people unable to recognize a lie.

  11. I heard the stories from my aunts and and great uncle George about how my great grandmother who was Sicilian royalty had to flee as a girl with their family from Sicily and that they lost all their land and wealth and my grandfather grew up in virtual poverty in Calabria after Gsribaldi. My great uncle George said the greatest suffering was the lack of work and that one of the greatest things about America was that he could work as much as he wanted and provide everything his family needed. My grandfather shared his love of America. My grandfather came first in 1910 and returned to Italy only to marry my grandmother in 1914 right before the war. He was drafted and was captured 2 years into the war and spent the rest of the war in an Austrian prison camp. He barely survived. Neither brother once back in the states never returned, as did my father’s father and his brothers who came in the late 1800s. Would love to know the details.

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