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.

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