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:


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 and can cause skin lesions: 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.

IMG_20150401_104648This 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.

IMG_20150401_104033Sulphur causes a lung disease called silicosis. The Sicilians who started working under ground at the age of 6 died, on average, aged 40.

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.

IMG_20150401_104020Above ground, it was re-set into the blocks in the photo on the right. These blocks were a dazzling yellow so I think, if this photo were in colour, they would look exactly like giant gold ingots.

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.

IMG_20150401_104323Today 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.

Veronica Di Grigoli is an author and translator and blogs about Sicily at The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife. Her new comedy novel of the same name is now available on Amazon.


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.

Veronica Di Grigoli
Veronica Di Grigoli
Veronica Di Grigoli is the author of “Sicilian Card Games: An Easy-to-Follow Guide” and the comedy novel “The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife.” Her blog of the same name has a large and devoted following because of its hilariously insightful accounts of life in Sicily, its inspiring ideas for things to do on holidays in Sicily, and its entertaining presentation of the history of the island. Di Grigoli studied Classical History at Cambridge University and fell in love with all things Italian... including one man in particular! She now lives with her Sicilian husband and son in a fishing village close to Palermo.

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  1. My grandfather Basilio Giallombardo (also called Calogero, a nickname from his childhood) immigrated to the US in 1909. I believe a strong motivation to leave was the devastating Messina earthquake of 1908. He had been to the U.S. in 1902 as a young single man, but returned to his family in his hometown of Sant’Agata di Militello. We have traced his heritage back 4 more generations, all from SA.

    By 1909 he had married, had a baby son who died, and then a new baby daughter. I think he was desperate to care for his family- and perhaps the pain of losing his first born child and the fear of this terrible earthquake drove him to leave his work as a charcoal maker, knowing his wife and baby daughter would wait until he could earn enough to bring them to Cleveland, OH. It would take four more years.. We have his writings in Sicilian verse which express his feelings about leaving Sicilly and how life in America was equally challenging..

    • It must be very special to have those poems where he expressed his feelings. I often think how courageous those first-generation Sicilian immigrants must have been and how intimidating America must have seemed to them at first.

    • Salve Sig. Lirosi.
      Basta andare su google translation e fare un copia incolla per avere la traduzione in Italiano:

      Se lei cerca su google le keywords “minatori sicilia” vede un attimo cosa le propone come foto google.

      Un saluto,

  2. There are two things I would recommend people read about the sulphur mines, Pirandello’s Ciaula Discovers the Moon and Booker T Washington’s, Man Furthest Down. They tell you all you need to know about the terrible hardship of sulphur mining in Sicily.

  3. My grandfather and his four brothers all came to America between 1904 and 1909. Three stayed in the USA but two returned home to Sicily. My great uncle Domenico is reported to have said when he reached America “Ha! These streets are not paved with gold. I am going back home.” He actually stayed for 10 years but eventually went back to Sicily to marry and never returned to the USA. My grandmother at the age of 16 with a 6 month old infant made the crossing by herself to reunite with my grandfather. They never became US citizens because they thought one day they would go home too.

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