Adding Cultural Context To Your Family History

The excerpt below was tak­en from a fam­i­ly his­to­ry we wrote for a Sicil­ian fam­i­ly. It serves as a good exam­ple of how adding cul­tur­al con­text to your fam­i­ly his­to­ry can make it more inter­est­ing and enable you to under­stand these ances­tors with­in their his­tor­i­cal time and place.

The leit­mo­tif of Sicily’s mod­ern his­to­ry has been an end­less quest for lib­er­ty and auton­o­my.”  Its posi­tion in the Medit­ter­anean, as well as the rich­ness of its resources, made it a desir­able con­quest for many nations. Cen­turies of dom­i­na­tion by one group after anoth­er left the island’s resources deplet­ed and its peo­ple, deprived of lib­er­ty and hope for so long, with­out of any real hope for change. In 1713, after 300 years of feu­dal­is­tic Span­ish rule, the Duke of Savoy was crowned the king of Sici­ly.  The Sicil­ian peo­ple were hap­py for they hoped to final­ly have a king who was going to reside on the island for they thought that if he took up res­i­dence there he would see the plight of the peo­ple and be more apt to help. The fol­low­ing year a Sicil­ian Par­lia­ment was cre­at­ed, yet the tax­a­tion of the island’s poor­est res­i­dents con­tin­ued to be exces­sive.  The Duke attempt­ed to under­stand the deep-root­ed prob­lems in Sici­ly but, in the end, his attempts at change were super­fi­cial and inad­e­quate to cre­ate many last­ing changes.  He filled the major­i­ty of the gov­ern­men­tal posi­tions with peo­ple from Savoy or Pied­mont, not with edu­cat­ed Sicil­ians, whose con­de­scend­ing atti­tudes towards the locals soon dashed any hopes that real change would occur.  In the midst of all of this, the papa­cy, in it’s pow­er strug­gles with the Duke, denied Sicil­ians the Catholic rites unless they defied the King’s author­i­ty.  Once again, they were stuck in the mid­dle of a pow­er strug­gle between two par­ties that cared lit­tle for the dam­age they wrecked on the island and even less about its inhab­i­tants.[1]

Between 1719–20, the Span­ish and Aus­tri­ans fought for con­trol of the island, destroy­ing valu­able prop­er­ty and crops, and Sici­ly once again became the bat­tle­ground for for­eign gov­ern­ments. The Aus­tri­ans won yet the Span­ish con­tin­ued in their desire to rule the region. By 1734, after con­quer­ing Naples, Charles III pro­claimed him­self the ruler of Spain and Sici­ly. Dev­as­tat­ed by all the wars, Sici­ly was in dire need of a ruler who would take their needs into con­sid­er­a­tion.  Instead, feu­dal­ism once again became the way of gov­ern­ment. In all fair­ness, Charles III did reestab­lish the Sicil­ian par­lia­ment which gave the peo­ple some say in the gov­ern­ment of their island. He ruled until 1759 when he turned the rule of the island over to his nine-year old son, Fer­di­nand.  Because of his age, Fer­di­nand had a coun­cil of advi­sors and viceroys in Sici­ly to car­ry out his deci­sions.[2]

By 1763, the island was in a ter­ri­ble famine. The peo­ple were starv­ing yet riot­ers who dared demand food for their fam­i­lies were sum­mar­i­ly exe­cut­ed. Upris­ings were fre­quent and the response bru­tal. While Paler­mo saw some attempt at beau­ti­fi­ca­tion towards the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry, the rest of the island was plunged even deep­er into pover­ty. Beau­ti­fi­ca­tion was not what they need­ed, food and the fair dis­tri­b­u­tion of land was. Rov­ing groups of ban­dits began to ter­ror­ize the coun­try­side in an attempt to “redis­trib­ute the wealth.” Ban­dit­ry became a form of “upward mobil­i­ty” and came to be seen by some as the only means of self improve­ment and jus­tice for the com­mon peo­ple. Some his­to­ri­ans feel that these ban­dits were used to set­tle dis­agree­ments among the rur­al nobil­i­ty, as well as believe that what lat­er came to be known as the Mafia had its roots in these prac­tices.[3] “In Sici­ly, the bad social and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions strength­ened the Mafia.”[4]

Sici­ly saw some improve­ment in liv­ing stan­dards dur­ing the lat­er decades of the 18th  cen­tu­ry but by the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry rev­o­lu­tion was in the air. Around this time, Spain went to war with France. With Napoleon Bona­parte such a for­mi­da­ble ene­my, Sici­ly end­ed up pro­vid­ing most of the finances, as well as the grain, need­ed to feed the Span­ish troops. The British became involved in an attempt to pro­tect Sici­ly and through their influ­ence King Fer­di­nand abol­ished feu­dal­ism and set up a gov­ern­ment sim­i­lar to Britain’s. Even free­dom of the press was grant­ed, a lux­u­ry they had nev­er before enjoyed. How­ev­er, this mat­tered lit­tle for the aver­age per­son because most of them were not lit­er­ate. After Napoleon lost the Bat­tle of Water­loo in 1816, the British with­dew their sup­port and King Fer­di­nand pro­ceed­ed to denounce the Sicil­ian con­sti­tu­tion once again. He then gave him­self the new title of Ruler of the King­dom of the Two Sicilies rather than the King of Naples and Sici­ly.[5] Napoleon­ic influ­ence brought manda­to­ry mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion between 1802–1814. Con­scrip­tion was not pop­u­lar, espe­cial­ly since those from the rur­al areas of Sici­ly bore the brunt of fight­ing a war in which they had lit­tle stake.  How­ev­er, ser­vice in the Ital­ian army dur­ing this peri­od did seem to help unite peo­ple from the diverse regions of the King­dom.[6]

Sig­nif­i­cant peas­ant rebel­lions occurred dur­ing the years 1820–1822, 1848–1849 and 1859–1860. The col­lec­tion of the Paler­mo state archive [Archiv­io di Sta­to di Paler­mo] lacks some civ­il records for these years of rebel­lion, records pur­port­ed­ly destroyed. Often though, a sec­ond copy of such records can be found in an Ital­ian town archive.

The cholera epi­dem­ic of 1836–37 made a bad sit­u­a­tion worse. Not only was the loss of life trag­ic for the island’s peo­ple, the pub­lic upris­ings and sub­se­quent exe­cu­tions of par­tic­i­pants added to the dev­as­ta­tion and hatred of the Span­ish.  It was thought that cholera was brought by sol­diers from else­where in Italy.[7] Decades of on and off rebel­lion occurred before Giuseppe Garibal­di brought his 1000–1800 vol­un­teers to the island in May of 1860. His intent was to make Sici­ly part of a uni­fied Italy. After Garibal­di promised land to any Sicil­ian who joined in the fight, many Sicil­ians donned red shirts and fought for their sur­vival. By August of 1860, after only four months of war, the Span­ish Bour­bons were oust­ed from the island.[8]  While the com­mon ene­my had been defeat­ed, there were still many deep-root­ed prob­lems to over­come.

[1]     Con­nie Man­drac­chia DeCaro, Sici­ly: The Tram­pled Par­adise, pp. 11–12, 63–65, 89.  Quote can be found on page 89.

[2]      Ibid, p. 65.

[3]     Lucy Riall, The Ital­ian Resorg­i­men­to: State, soci­ety, and nation­al uni­fi­ca­tion (Rout­ledge, 1994), pp. 54–56; and Spencer di Scala, Italy from Rev­o­lu­tion to Repub­lic, pp. 34, 154–155, 173.  This source dis­cuss­es the unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of land in Sici­ly and well as the role the Mafia played in Sicil­ian his­to­ry.

[4]     Spencer di Scala, Italy from Rev­o­lu­tion to Repub­lic, p. 154.

[5]        Con­nie Man­drac­chia DeCaro, Sici­ly: The Tram­pled Par­adise, pp. 67–75.

[6]        Alexan­der I. Grab, Napoleon and the Trans­for­ma­tion of Europe (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2003), pp. 163; dig­i­tal images, Google Books ( accessed 2 July 2009).

[7]        Lucy Riall, The Ital­ian Risorg­i­men­to: State, Soci­ety and Nation­al Uni­fi­ca­tion, pp. 191–192.

[8]     Lucy Riall, The Ital­ian Resorg­i­men­to: State, soci­ety, and nation­al uni­fi­ca­tion, pp. 1, 57, 71, 191–192, 207.  This schol­ar refers to event loca­tions gener­i­cal­ly as Italy when dur­ing cer­tain times she ref­er­ences Sici­ly was not yet unit­ed into what we now know as Italy.  Also, the civ­il records of the town of Polizzi Gen­erosa micro­filmed at the provin­cial archives in Paler­mo, are miss­ing birth and death records for 1821-most of 1822 as well as 1859–1861.  How­ev­er, these records can be found with­in the civ­il archives of this par­tic­u­lar town.   See also  “The Sicil­ian Insur­rec­tion.; Rein­force­ments for Garibal­di Pro­ject­ed Attack on the Main­land,” The New York Times, 2 July 1860, Web edi­tion (  accessed 1 July 2009); cit­ing p. 1; and Con­nie Man­drac­chia DeCaro, Sici­ly: The Tram­pled Par­adise,  p. 75 and Spencer di Scala, Italy from Rev­o­lu­tion to Repub­lic, pp. 120–121.