li Carusi
(the Mine-boys)










     'Carusi' is a Sicilian word whose meaning is 'children'.  It's derived from the Latin word 'carus' which means 'dear', and can be translated as 'dear little ones'. 


'Carusi' is plural.  The singular masculine form is 'carusu' (in Italian, 'caruso'), the feminine is 'carusa'.  In the vernacular, as my mother used it, it simply meant 'kids', and was often shortened to 'carú', as in "Carú', divertati!!" ("Kids, have fun!").


     But in Sicily, in the 1800's and early 1900's, the word 'carusu' had a much more ominous and tragic meaning.  It was used to signify boys who at a very young age were forced by circumstance to labor in the mines that produced one of Sicily's greatest resources at the time: sulfur.



     Above are the birth records of my father, identifying his father Gaetano Coniglio as a 'zolfaio' (sulfur mine worker), and of Joe Di Leo's mother, showing that her father Giuseppe Licata was a 'zolfataro' (a variation of the same word).  My eldest brother Guy was also born in Sicily, in 1913, and his birth record shows our father's occupation as 'zolfataio'.

      My father Gaetano and all my paternal ancestors were from the central Sicilian town of Serradifalco, in Caltanissetta province.  Joe's maternal grandfather was from the village of Montedoro, a stone's throw from Serradifalco.  My father and grandfather, as well as Joe's grandfather worked in the local sulfur mines, possibly the same one, though there were mines in both Serradifalco and Montedoro.

      The Sicilian word for sulfur is 'zurfaru'; the word for sulfur mine is 'zurf
àra'; and the workers are 'zurfarari'.

      My first introduction to the carusi and their story was by Signor Pietro Petix, shown above in the entrance to the former sulfur mine in Montedoro.   He also gave us a tour of the Musèu di la zurfàra (Museo della Solfara, in Italian), the town's Museum of the Sulfur Mine.  Near the entrance to the museum is a bas-relief sculpture showing the apprehension of family and friends awaiting the workers' return from the mine.



     Because of our heritage, Joe and I were asked in 2019 to present a talk on the carusi of Sicily.  In preparing for the presentation, we both learned illuminating but sobering details about these 'mine-boys'.  This page reflects the thoughts of both Joe and myself after our research of the widespread practice.




Sulfur (S) is an element, atomic number 16. 

It has been used by man since prehistoric times.

     Sulfur is one of the most common elements in the universe, and very common on Earth.  It’s sometimes found in its pure form as greenish-yellow crystals.  More commonly, it occurs in sulfur compounds within rocky ores.  It was known and used in ancient times in India, China, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

     It’s mentioned in the Bible, as “brimstone”, which means “burning stone”.

     Today almost all sulfur is produced by the 'Frasch' process, as a by-product when sulfur-containing contaminants are removed from natural gas and petroleum.


      Sulfur occurs naturally in volcanic areas.  Sicily is essentially a volcano with its head protruding from the Mediterranean Sea.  Many volcanic minerals abound in Sicily, and besides sulfur, its mines include salt and potash. There is not one manufacturing industry in the world that can work without sulfur. When the industrial revolution took place in the 1800’s, 90% of all the sulfur in the world came from Sicily.  The sulfur mines were generally located in the central interior region stretching from Castrogiovanni (Enna) to Girgenti (Agrigento).  It includes those in Lercara Friddi in Palermo province; Caltanissetta province at Montedoro and Serradifalco (Apaforte & Stincone); and Grottacalda mine in Enna province.

Sulfur was, and still is, used for a variety of products, including medicinal salves and ointments, vulcanized rubber, fertilizers, and the most widely produced industrial chemical, sulfuric acid.  But its greatest attraction to European nations during the burgeoning period of 'modern warfare' was its critical use in the manufacture of explosives.
Blogger Santina Lazzara writes: “The ‘modern’ opening of the Sicilian sulfur mines in 1802 was carried out by the British during the Napoleonic wars. It was characterized by the exploitation of labor, savage and inhumane to say the least.   Nevertheless, many farm laborers left the large estates, so great was the poverty in which they toiled in that sector.”


Many of the accounts in this presentation are from on-the-scene descriptions by John L. Stoddard in this book from the year 1898.

To quote Stoddard, “Steep, rock-hewn steps descend to depths at which the heat resembles that of a furnace . . . . . . “

      Stoddard  further stated that he "did not have the heart to look upon the misery which a descent into those infernos would have certainly revealed."


Allison Scola posted  the following in "Experience Sicily":

The history of the sulfur mining industry, one active since ancient times and very profitable for the owners, is dark. Sulfur mines were cruel places. For six days a week, often 12 hours a day, the terribly paid men and boys toiled. Temperatures in the underground, narrow tunnels hovered around 113 °F with very high humidity. As a result, the miners worked naked, with perhaps only a small apron covering their genitals. Boys, known as carusi, were employed because their size enabled them to move through the narrow shafts more easily.

The men were called picuneri (Italian 'piconiere'), or pick-men.

     The boys were called carusi.


How were the carusi selected? Generally, in three ways, all tied to the abject poverty of ordinary families in Sicily.


1) ABANDONMENTS: In the 1800’s, there were a large number of infant abandonments.  These children were left in community "foundling wheels", from which they would be sent to foundling homes.  Unscrupulous administrators would often ‘consign’ (sell) young boys to mine officials or to individual pick-men.

SUCCURSU DI MURTI: Many families were so poor that they couldn’t support all their children.  They would be forced to take a ‘succursu di murti’ (death benefit) for one of their sons.  This was essentially a life insurance policy paid in advance, in which a mine owner or a pick-man would pay a flat sum to the parents and then indenture the child as a carusu.   The boy was forced to work in the mine until the benefit was repaid, which, under the circumstances, rarely happened. The boys sometimes were paid a meager stipend which they could apply towards their debt.

3) FAMILY ENTERPRISES: Sometimes a pick-man would take his own sons or nephews to the mine to serve as carusi, sparing him the cost of paying his mine-boys.



Although the sulfur carriers were called carusi, and began their indentures as children, many spent their entire lives in that status. (This model is in the The Museum of the Sulfur Mine in Montedoro)

In 1910, visiting British physician Sir Thomas Oliver wrote a paper for the British Medical Journal entitled 'The Sulphur Miners of Sicily: Their Work, Diseases, and  Accident Insurance'.  He was “struck by the short stature and defective development of the men who transport the ore on their shoulders. Some of the men whom I measured, although 30 years of age and upwards, were only 4 feet high, and in mental development were but as children.”
He observed:
“so diminutive in stature are these men, and so deformed physically, that the government could hardly obtain conscripts for the army in a sulfur mining district.”

Oliver continued:

"The ore got by the men is carried on the shoulders of barefooted, scantily-clad boys up the steep and worn steps to the surface. As these carusi are not always given lights, the journeys up and down are made in the dark. Many are the sad accidents which have taken place owing to the carusi slipping. The boys and their burden roll down the steps, entangling in their descent other carusi who may be ascending.

"The carusi are often harshly treated by the picuneri and by the men generally.  Those who work in the small mines live at home or in lodgings, but at the large mines further away in the country the boys are housed with the men in barracks, the windows of which are barricaded during the day, so that sunlight never enters, and ventilation of the rooms hardly ever takes place.  No females are employed to look after the rooms or bedding; men and boys feed together in a canteen, their food being bread, oil, and macaroni, with vegetables, dried beans, and lentils.  The men have meat on Sundays, and they drink wine freely that day.  So tired are the carusi and the picuneri after their ordinary day's work in the mines in the country away from the ordinary attractions of the towns, that they retire early to rest.  A carusu pays six pence a day for his food.

Sulfur miners work nine hours a day [in 1910]. The boys can earn 1 franc a day [1 lira, or
.about $2.50 in today's dollars], or a little more, according to age and physical fitness; the men carriers 1.80 francs, and the miners 3 francs."

Santina Lazzara:
“This was colonial exploitation - all the proceeds went abroad, providing the enrichment of only the landowners where the mines were discovered and to whom the management of the workers was left. The workers were men of all ages, and especially children, the carusi.”


Joe Di Leo writes:  
  My maternal grandfather, Giuseppe Licata, was the oldest of 9 children born in 1863 in Montedoro, Sicily.  His birth records indicate that his father Salvatore's occupation was a zolfataio (sulfur miner).  Giuseppe also became a zolfataio. I know this as a fact because, as a child, my mom would tell me stories about her life as a young girl in Sicily.  She recalled walking to the nearby sulfur mine bringing lunch to her dad.  And at the end of the day, sitting on the steps of their home waiting for him coming home exhausted after a long day at the mine. At that time, he was in his thirties and worked, like his father did, as a picuneri.

In the United States, when crude oil began being extracted from deep under ground, the oil cracking process produced sulfur as a by-product. This was a far cheaper and safer way of obtaining sulfur, and so Sicily lost its global monopoly. The handwriting was on the wall. Sulfur mining was on the way out and America had open arms for those it needed to dig their ditches, pave their streets, build their buildings etc.

In 1906 Giuseppe could see that there was no hope for him or his family. A few of his siblings had already migrated to the U.S.  So at the age of 43 he packed up his meager belongings and along with his family boarded the Steam Ship Sicilian Prince and sailed to America.  After 14 days of travel in steerage they arrived in New York City in the month of February.  The children cried that it was too cold and wanted to return to their grandmother in Sicily. But like many of the immigrants that came in the early part of the 1900s, they never returned to see the family left behind.

In New York the family lived, for a short time, in a squalid basement flat on Elizabeth Street. Soon afterwards they moved to the coal mining town of Pittston PA.   Many immigrants from Montedoro settled there to work in the mines.  Giuseppe followed his cumpari into the mines.  You can say he went from working in a hole in Sicily to another hole in America.  After a few years he had enough of mine work and moved the family to Buffalo where they worked the canning factories and fields of Western NY.  It was migrant work but considered a blessing for the family.


The plight of the miners and carusi eventually became known around Europe, and many socially conscious investigators began to publicize the conditions (painting by Renato Guttuso).
These included the previously mentioned
Stoddard and Washington, and many Italian news periodicals and reformers like Sidney Sonnino. Louise Hamilton Caico, an Englishwoman who married a Montedoro businessman, also visited the local mine and urged reforms.

The minimum age was increased to 10 years by government decree in 1876. In 1905 it was raised to 14 years and in 1934 to 16.

The laws were not rigidly enforced, however, and in spite of these efforts, many of the worst practices lasted until the 1940’s and beyond.  The painting shown above, entitled 'La Solfara' (the Sulfur Mine) by Renato Gattuso graces the cover of the novella 'The Hunger Saint' by Olivia Kate Cerrone.  Her story about a Sicilian carusu is set in 1948.  In her research she uncovered the record below, from the Floristella sulfur mine in Enna, that showed an employee listed as a 'caruso' in 1955, who eventually 'graduated' to 'picconiere'.


In 1913, African American author Booker T. Washington toured Europe, investigating working conditions in various enterprises.  After visiting  Sicily, he wrote:
"The [American] Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States in America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the population in Sicily."

Regarding the carusi, Washington said: "From this slavery there is no hope of freedom, because neither the parents nor the child will ever have sufficient money to repay the original loan.
The cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected, as related by those who have studied them, are
as bad as anything that was ever reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery.

"These boy slaves were frequently beaten and pinched, in order to wring from their overburdened bodies the last drop of strength they had in them. When beatings did not suffice, it was the custom to singe the calves of their legs with lanterns to put them again on their feet. If they sought to escape from this slavery in flight, they were captured and beaten, sometimes even killed.
"I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulfur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life."  


After visiting his ancestral village, the sulfur-mining town of Lercara Friddi, author Louis Romano has written a gut-wrenching novel depicting the struggles of the family of a sulfur miner who dies in a mine disaster, and leaves the support of his family in the hands of a young son whose only recourse is to work as a carusu.
He exposes the laissez-faire attitude of civil officials and even the Roman Catholic church hierarchy, which favored the interests of British mine owners over those of their own poverty-stricken citizens.
Romano also describes the real-life worker uprising that took place in Lercara, against the injustices of the sulfur industry.  It was one of many strikes, work stoppages and riots that took place around Sicily, mostly to no avail.

      Slowly, efforts to improve the miners' lot started to take hold.  Mutual aid societies, the first organizations that might be called labor unions, began to appear, like the 'Società di Mutuo Soccorso dei Solfatai di Serradifalco' - Society of Mutual Aid of the Sulfurmen of Serradifalco, of which my grandfather was a founding member.  This society set working conditions for miners (unclear whether they included both the picuneri and the carusi), and provided for sick pay and funeral expenses.

     When Sicilians emigrated to new lives in the United States, Belgium, Canada and elsewhere, they generally settled in conclaves of their paisani from the same village, and formed clubs or societies modeled after the Sicilian
à, for example the 'Serradifalco club' my father joined in Buffalo.  Clubs representing émigrés from Montedoro, Mussomeli, Racalmuto and other Sicilian towns also flourished.

      Though viewed by some as no more than social clubs, they also provided many of the labor protections given by the original Sicilian


O, zurfaru, zurfaru!
Pani scuttatu a sudura di sangu


Oh, sulfur, sulfur!
Bread earned by sweating blood

O, zurfaru, zurfaru, lacrimi di sali,
agghiorna, scura, sempri a travagliari.

O, zurfaru, zurfaru, sangu di cristiani,
cuniglia cunigliati nni li tani.

Sunnu dda, al funnu, cu jèttanu l’arma,
cori gravusu di duru caci

Si senti nu cantu, po’ l’ecu si sp’risci,
di seculi ncupatu

Pirsi nni li vudedda di la terra,
assàcanu làstimi e lamenti.

Cantavanu a curpu di li picuna,
na vota. Ora, nuddu
chiù li senti.

Oh, sulfur, sulfur, salty tears,
dawn comes, dusk comes, always to work, to work!

Oh, sulfur, sulfur, blood of men,
rabbits burrowed in their dens.

They’re there at the bottom, losing their souls,
hearts weighed down by fumes most foul.

A song is heard, then the echo fades,
muffled for the ages. 

Lost in the bowels of the earth
they offer insults and complaints.

They sang to the beat of the picks,
once. Now, no one hears them anymore.

© Piero Carbone



      As the examples of Sicilian birth records shown on this page indicate, the Sicilian Civil Code, emulating the Napoleonic Code, required that the principle parties in civil birth, marriage, and death records should have not only their names and ages recorded, but also their occupations or status.

     In my genealogical research, I have reviewed thousands of these documents, written in Italian, not in the Sicilian language, and many of them give occupations such as zolfatarozolfataiozolfaro, zolfaiosolfataio, etc., all of which I originally interpreted as meaning "sulfur miner".  My father and grandfather were so designated in Serradifalco records.

     However, I have never found an occupation or status officially given as 'piconiere', and certainly not as 'caruso'.  This in spite of Sir Thomas Oliver's estimate that in 1910 there were 40,000 sulfur workers in Sicily.  Yet never was any of them officially recorded as a 'caruso'.  This has led me to conclude that 'zolfataio', etc. should be interpreted simply as 'sulfurman' or 'sulfur worker', and that many of them in fact had actually been carusi.  Joe Di Leo and I have asked contacts, many in Sicily, about this enigma but none have been able (or willing) to clarify it.  I believe clerks intentionally did not list 'caruso' as a status because of the vergogna, or shame that it would bring to the community.

    In the end, based on the research Joe Di Leo and I have uncovered, my conclusion is this: in the mid-to-late 1800's and beyond, in towns primarily in central Sicily, boys as young as 5 years of age were impressed as carusi.  Some went to the mines with their fathers or uncles, as part of a family enterprise.  Some were virtually 'sold' to mine owners or mine pick-men by unscrupulous foundling home officials.  Some were indentured by their poverty-stricken families who received the 'succursu di murti', with the possibility that the debt could be paid off by the boy or his family and he could eventually be released from his obligation.

      The fate of the carusi varied, and some probably escaped, if not from the mine altogether, at least from the 'job' of carrying ore, to the only slightly less onerous job of the picuneri, actually chopping the sulfur.   Some never paid off their debt, and grew to adulthood in the mines, still called carusi, though they were now men, physically stunted and twisted, and intellectually immature. And some did pay off their debt, but like the others, were so crippled mentally and physically by their years of subjugation that they had no choice but to remain in the horrendous job until they died.

     These conditions eased as Sicily moved into the twentieth century when laws were passed, ostensibly to increase the minimum age at which boys could be employed, and to improve their working conditions.  However, the laws were not always followed, and abuses continued in some mines until the 1940's.  The long-time practices involving the treatment of the carusi no doubt left an indelible mark on the character of anyone associated with these waifs.  A protagonist in my novella The Lady of the Wheel is Nino Alessi, a picuneri.  A passage in the book reads:

Though Nino had never been able to afford his own carusi, he was intuitively grateful that he had never been in the position of virtually owning another person.  "This practice can only scorch the souls of the picuneri as well as those of the carusi," he thought.

    The question still remains for Joe and I, probably never to be answered: "Was my grandfather a carusu?"




For more about the carusi of Sicily, see these references:

Camilleri, Andrea - 'il sonaglio'

Cerrone, Olivia Kate - 'The Hunger Saint'

Coniglio, Angelo F. - 'The Lady of the Wheel'

Montedoro, Caltanissetta, Sicilia - 'Museum of the Sulfur Mine'

Oliver, Sir Thomas - 'The Sulphur Miners of Sicily', British Medical Journal

Romano, Louis - 'Carusi: The Shame of Sicily'

Scola, Allison - 'Sicily's Sulfur Mines', experience sicily.com

Stoddard, John L. - 'Lectures: Supplementary Volume Number Four - Sicily and Genoa'

Washington, Booker T. - 'The Man Farthest Down'


Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri wrote abuut carusi in his novel 'il sonaglio' ('the rattle'). Here, from a recent article in an Italian periodical, is an excerpt presenting the sales pitch by a mine representative trying to recruit a family's sons.  A translation follows.


The drama of the "carusi" in the sulfur mines of Sicily

The incomparable
Andrea Camilleri

   In previous issues of our periodical, we have ded-icated various articles and poetry to the "carusi" of the sulfur mines in Sicily.
   A dark page of our history, due to the absolute poverty of a great number of families, and to many businessmen without scru-ples who for a few lire "hired" their sons to reduce them to slavery.
     In this issue we reprint a beautiful page taken from "Sonaglio" by Andrea Cam-illeri, which describes the shameful treatment of so many "carusi" and "little youths".


a thing called the "death benefit".
    'Benefit' signifies  'help' and 'death' means that you receive it and don't have to pay it back.
   This death benefit con-sists of two hundred lire, which I give you, cash in hand, at the moment you consign your son to me.
     If you give me two, its four hundred liri, if three, it's six hundred liri.
    What  does  a  carusu represent in your family? A burden.  He doesn't work and he's another mouth to feed.
    Given to me, the carusu works and earns, doesn't weigh on your shoulders and you find yourselves with so much money you couldn't dream of it.
   I'm at the Pace Hotel.  Bring me your sons and I'll pay you on the spot.
   I warn you,  the offer stands for three days. Don't let your luck run out.
(from 'il sonaglio'
                      by Andrea Camilleri)

   My name is Filibertu Al-agna and I come from the wealthy town of Alagona.
      Have you heard of it?
   It's a wealthy town be-cause it has five sulfur mines.
     Working  in  the  mines are well-paid grown men, carusi and picciutteddri.
     The  age  of  the carusi ranges from six to eleven years, the picciutteddri's from twelve to eighteen


   For every day of work they pay the caruso eighty-five cents, and even ninety to the picciutteddro.
   I'll explain to you how the business functions. Every caruso and picciutteddro is taken in custody by a picconeri, who takes care of him by giving him meals, withholding a few cents of the boy's pay.
  The picconeri  who is in charge of your son gives you



A Tale of the Sulfur Mines of Sicily
This article appeared on an Italian blog by Ugo Passanisi, at http://bit.ly/UgoPassanisi

It’s reproduced below, with my translation on the right.

I “carusi” nelle solfatare della Sicilia ovvero quando i bambini siciliani venivano venduti o “affittati” per lavorare nudi nelle miniere di zolfo anche 16 ore al giorno

Pubblicato il 12 maggio 2015

Un saggio rigoroso e commovente, fra  storia e letteratura –  di Ugo Passanisi 

Discutere il tema dei carusi significa rievocare una delle pagine più tragiche, umilianti e vergognose, ma anche meno conosciute della storia del popolo siciliano. Una storia, in ogni caso, peculiare della Sicilia che non trova alcun paragonabile riscontro in avvenimenti consimili in altre regioni del nostro Paese. Quella dei carusi è una vicenda che inizia nel 1700 e che si sviluppa per oltre due secoli fino alla metà del ‘900.  Inizia con i Borboni ai quali sopravvive, e continuerà in seguito anche dopo l’annessione del Regno delle Due Sicilie alla corona dei Savoia e alla proclamazione a primo re d’Italia di Vittorio Emanuele II.   Con il nuovo regime, infatti, nulla cambia per la Sicilia, anzi, le rivolte contadine contro il latifondo sono soffocate nel sangue dai garibaldini di Nino Bixio, come è avvenuto – ma non sarà il solo caso – con il processo sommario e l’eccidio di Bronte.  I grandi proprietari terrieri hanno mantenuto saldamente nelle loro mani il possesso del territorio, e sono andate deluse le grandi attese di riscatto riposte in Garibaldi e nel nuovo regime dai braccianti affamati di terra – i cosiddetti “picciotti” tanto esaltati dalla retorica risorgimentale – che pure, per questo motivo e con questa speranza  sono accorsi in massa sotto le sue bandiere. La Destra storica ha imposto ancora una volta la sua legge e, come sotto i Borboni, la miseria continua a regnare sovrana nelle campagne dell’Isola. Questa premessa è indispensabile per spiegare le ragioni profonde che, nella seconda metà dell’800 e nel primo ‘900, hanno determinato l’esodo massiccio di migliaia di siciliani, giovani, vecchi e bambini, non solo verso le Americhe, ma anche, per coloro che sono rimasti, dal contado alle miniere. E in questo contesto storico, in questa situazione sociale, perciò, non può cambiare, anzi riceve maggiore impulso la drammatica vicenda dei carusi. Ma, chi sono questi carusi ?  Con il termine carusi vengono indicati i bambini e i ragazzi costretti dall’indigenza economica delle loro famiglie a lavorare nelle miniere di zolfo.  Il termine pare sia derivato dalla consuetudine di rasare completamente la testa di questi giovanissimi lavoratori, probabilmente per i motivi igienici conseguenti alle condizioni di estrema sporcizia esistenti nelle miniere: tale taglio di capelli veniva di fatto definito nel dialetto tipico dell’epoca della zona di Caltanissetta come tagghiu carusu, mentre successivamente servirà a indicare genericamente i bambini dai 5 ai 12 anni circa. Ancora oggi, segnatamente nel catanese, ma anche in altre zone della Sicilia, le parole carusu, carusazzu, identificano il “ragazzo”, il “ragazzaccio”.

C’è da dire che, anche secondo la legislazione del tempo, era illegale impiegare nel lavoro manuale un minore di 12 anni in quanto la legge stabiliva, già allora, che la scuola dovesse essere obbligatoria per i bambini fino alla terza classe elementare. Tuttavia,  questa disposizione veniva largamente disattesa a causa della miseria nella quale vivevano le famiglie contadine che costringeva tutti al lavoro nei campi fin  dalla più giovane età, come è dimostrato dal fatto che l’analfabetismo raggiungeva, particolarmente nelle campagne, percentuali altissime, assai vicine al 100%. Del resto, le autorità governative dell’epoca si preoccupavano di tutto fuorché di farla rispettare, attente com’erano a non venire in conflitto con gli interessi economici della grassa borghesia costituita dai proprietari terrieri, da cui erano lautamente foraggiate, che traeva lauti guadagni dallo sfruttamento del lavoro minorile. Per lo stesso motivo nessun controllo veniva esercitato sulle condizioni di lavoro nelle miniere che erano durissime, addirittura inaccettabili secondo gli standard odierni di sicurezza, mentre il rispetto dei diritti umani, dell’infanzia e dei lavoratori, erano pressoché inesistenti. L’orario di lavoro, infatti, poteva arrivare anche a sedici ore giornaliere, e i ragazzi subivano abitualmente maltrattamenti e punizioni corporali se accusati di mancanze di qualsiasi genere o di scarso rendimento senza che alcuno avesse il potere di intervenire in loro difesa. Ai genitori dei ragazzi arruolati come manovalanza nelle miniere veniva corrisposto un pagamento anticipato, che poteva variare da 100 a 200 lire, chiamato “soccorso morto”.

In pratica si trattava di un vero e proprio prezzo di compravendita poiché la paga dei carusi era di pochi centesimi al giorno dalla quale veniva dedotto il costo del vitto fornito dal picconiere alle cui dirette dipendenze i carusi lavoravano, chiamato “spesa”, spesso costituito da alimenti di pessima qualità, o addirittura di solo pane, fornito inoltre ad un prezzo esoso.  Ai genitori dei ragazzi era quindi praticamente preclusa ogni possibilità di riscatto dei propri figli che divenivano, di fatto, proprietà esclusiva del picconiere che li aveva acquistati e che poteva disporre di loro a suo piacimento. Le condizioni di vita dei carusi hanno trovato larga eco nel passato nella letteratura siciliana. Le descrive ampiamente Giovanni Verga nel racconto “Rosso Malpelo”, e così ne parla Luigi Pirandello nella sua novella “Ciaula scopre la luna”: “Nelle dure facce quasi spente dal buio crudo delle cave sotterranee, nel corpo sfiancato dalla fatica quotidiana, nelle vesti strappate, avevano il livido squallore di quelle terre senza un filo d’erba, sforacchiate dalle zolfare, come tanti enormi formicai …. Ciàula si mosse sotto il carico enorme, che richiedeva anche uno sforzo di equilibrio. Sì, ecco, sì, poteva muoversi, almeno finché andava in piano. Ma come sollevar quel peso, quando sarebbe cominciata la salita?”

Ed è ricchissimo, poi, il repertorio poetico e di canti popolari dal quale traspare la cupa rassegnazione degli zolfatari alla loro misera sorte, anche se non ancora la rabbia e la ribellione contro lo sfruttamento che sarebbero maturati solo molto più tardi, nei primi decenni del ‘900, grazie alle lotte di sindacalisti agguerriti e combattivi.  Anche in tempi moderni la tragedia di questi ragazzi è stata rievocata da Andrea Camilleri  nel suo romanzo “Il sonaglio”.  In questo racconto il reclutatore di bambini così si rivolge a un gruppo di madri in ascolto: “Mi chiamo Filibertu Alagna e vengo da un paisi ricco che si chiama Alagona. L’aviti ‘ntiso nominari? E’ un paisi ricco pirchì havi cinco minere che sunno i posti indove scavanno veni fora il surfaro…. Nelle minere travagliano, pagati bono, òmini granni, carusi e picciotteddri. L’etati dei carusi va dai se’ all’unnici anni, quella dei picciotteddri dai dudici ai diciotto. Per ogni jornata di travaglio al caruso spettano ottantacinco cintesimi, al picciotteddro ‘nveci novanta. Vi spiego come funziona la facenna. Ogni caruso o picciotteddro veni pigliato in custoddia da un picconeri, il quale ci pensa lui a darigli da mangiari, naturalmente tinennosi qualichi cintesimo dalla paga. Ma ccà veni il bello. Il picconeri, in cangio di vostro figlio, vi duna ‘na cosa che si chiama soccorso morto. Soccorso significa aiuto e morto veni a diri che voi ve lo pigliate e non doviti arrestituirglielo.  Il soccorso morto consisti in ducento liri, arripeto, ducento liri, che io vi dugno manu cu’ mano, e per conto del picconeri, al momento nel quale mi consegnate vostro figlio.  Se minni date dù, io vi dugno quattrocento liri, se minni dati tri io vi dugno seicento liri. Mi state accapennu? Questi sordi addiventano vostri e vui ne potiti fari quello che voliti e non doviti renniri cunto a nisciuno. Pinsatici bono. Un caruso sino a deci, unnici anni, che vi rappresenta ‘n famiglia? Un piso. Non travaglia ed è ‘na vucca da sfamari. Dànnolo a mia, il caruso travaglia e guadagna, non vi pisa cchiù supra alli spalli e vui v’attrovati ad aviri ‘n mano tanto dinaro che manco in sogno. Parlatene a tutte le fimmine che accanoscite e parlatene coi mariti vostri. Io sugnu alla pinsioni Pace. Portatemi i figli vostri e io ve li pago subito. V’avverto: resto ancora tri jorni. Non facitivi scappari la fortuna.”

Dunque un discorso persuasivo ed estremamente convincente per chi, giornalmente, è costretto a tagliare col coltello la fame propria e quella della propria famiglia. E infatti Zina, una delle donne presenti, ne parla col marito Adelio, poverissimo pescatore la cui attività gli consente a stento di sopravvivere alla miseria più nera. Adelio esita, non vorrebbe privarsi del figlio che lo aiuta nel suo lavoro, ma la proposta è allettante e, alla fine, spinto dalla necessità, decide di chiedere consiglio al suo unico cliente, un certo Don Pitrino Vadalà. Ma come e dove nasce in Sicilia l’industria dello zolfo? Siamo nel cosiddetto altipiano dello zolfo, quello che da Caltanissetta va ad Agrigento. Se si guarda una cartina geologica della Sicilia dove i giacimenti di zolfo sono segnati a macchie rosse, si vede che le sparse tracce, partendo dai territori di Calatafimi e di Lercara Friddi e, nel catanese e nell’ennese, da Assoro a Licodia Eubea, a mano a mano si infittiscono tra Cianciana e Valguarnera, diventando un continuo lago rosso attorno ad Agrigento, da Aragona a Serradifalco. Già al tempo dei Romani abbiamo notizia che lo zolfo affiorante viene raccolto, e quello sotterraneo viene scavato, fuso, e poi solidificato in pani, come è attestato dalle lastre di terracotta col marchio di Racalmuto conservate al Museo Nazionale di Palermo, per essere poi impiegato in medicina e nel trattamento delle stoffe. 

Ma quella che è la storia vera e propria dell’industria zolfifera dell’Isola, dell’estrazione sistematica dello zolfo e della sua esportazione, comincia, come abbiamo detto, nel ‘700 sotto i Borboni con la prima rivoluzione industriale e con la scoperta di un nuovo metodo di preparazione dell’acido solforico che aveva larghissimo utilizzo nell’industria tessile e in quella bellica degli esplosivi. Lo scoprono per primi, e ne intuiscono le enormi potenzialità economiche, gli imprenditori francesi e inglesi. Una compagnia francese, in particolare, avrebbe voluto creare un’industria di lavorazione sul posto costruendo una raffineria di zolfo con due camere di sublimazione a Porto Empedocle.  La stessa compagnia richiese poi il monopolio di compravendita dello zolfo siciliano, ma poiché gli inglesi minacciavano di  bombardare i porti del meridione se questa richiesta non fosse stata respinta, Ferdinando II di Borbone, nel 1836, fu costretto a revocare la concessione e a sciogliere la società. Ciò stroncò una grande occasione economica per la Sicilia a tutto vantaggio degli esportatori stranieri, principalmente francesi e inglesi, i soli, insieme a pochissimi proprietari terrieri siciliani, a essersi arricchiti con lo sfruttamento del sottosuolo dell’Isola, senza che mai i proventi di questa ricchezza del nostro territorio fossero reinvestiti in Sicilia. Lo zolfo siciliano, di ottima qualità, imbarcato su velieri, veniva inviato a Marsiglia per essere poi lavorato all’estero per i mercati francese e britannico.  Ancora una volta la Sicilia venne trattata come una colonia da sfruttare  e dovette soccombere alla prepotenza dello straniero. Già sul finire di quel secolo attivissime erano le miniere di Palma di Montechiaro, Petralia Sottana, Racalmuto, Riesi, San Cataldo, Caltanisseta, Favara, Agrigento, Comitini, Licodia Eubea. Nel 1890 ne sarebbero state in esercizio ben 480 e nei primi anni del ‘900 le miniere attive sarebbero diventate 886 con circa 40.000 occupati. La febbre dello zolfo prende tutti: proprietari terrieri, gabelloti, picconieri, commercianti, magazzinieri, carrettieri, artigiani, carusi. Coinvolge imprenditori stranieri e speculatori di ogni nazionalità.

Attira masse di uomini dai popolosi paesi dell’interno dell’Isola, dai miseri centri del feudo, in questa sterminata landa dove, da secoli, le possibilità di lavoro dipendono dal capriccio del gabelloto e dei suoi sottostanti, dalla soggezione a costoro; dove le giornate lavorative si riducono a poche nell’arco  dell’anno; dove il contadino è angariato da tasse, decime e balzelli di ogni tipo a cui bisogna aggiungere le tangenti illegali; dove le squadre di lavoratori stagionali, mietitori e spigolatori, sono costrette al nomadismo; dove la vita, insomma, raggiunge inimmaginabili livelli di sfruttamento e di miseria. La miniera, dunque, appare come un miraggio nel deserto e offre una speranza di riscatto a una moltitudine di miserabili diseredati. E’ una febbre che cresce col tempo e si sviluppa nell’arco di due secoli fino al ‘900, quando, per la concorrenza sui mercati internazionali dello zolfo americano, decresce fino a sparire del tutto negli anni ’60, lasciando tutto come prima, peggio di prima, com’è destino di questa terra infelice, come avverrà – poiché la Storia si ripete  – negli anni ’90 con l’industria petrolifera e petrolchimica, com’è successo nel primo decennio del 2000 con l’industria automobilistica a Termini Imerese. Nel 1934 una legge dello Stato italiano vietò alle donne e ai ragazzi di età inferiore ai 16 anni di calarsi all’interno delle zolfare mentre già da qualche anno prima, nel 1927, era stata sancita per legge la demanialità del sottosuolo. Solo lo Stato poteva assegnare in concessione, perpetua o temporanea, lo sfruttamento dei giacimenti. Negli anni successivi alla seconda guerra mondiale, malgrado gli interventi governativi prima e regionali dopo, malgrado la nascita nel 1963 dell’Ente Minerario Siciliano, l’ E.M.S., continuò il declino dell’attività estrattiva dello zolfo e, a una a una, le miniere chiusero irreversibilmente. E un destino ancora peggiore è toccato alle miniere di sali potassici di Pasquasia, dapprima abbandonate e successivamente trasformate in un deposito di migliaia di tonnellate di amianto e, pare, di scorie nucleari.

Ma, in ogni caso, al di là della concorrenza americana, l’industria mineraria siciliana non poteva avere prospettive di sopravvivenza a causa della carenza di capitali da investire nella modernizzazione degli impianti di estrazione, delle infrastrutture, strade e ferrovie, per l’insufficienza dei porti, per la mancanza di spirito imprenditoriale, per la pochezza dell’industria chimica isolana. Quella della zolfara è stata, dunque, una storia triste di miseria, di sfruttamento indiscriminato, di sofferenze indicibili, di morte, di abbrutimento, di negazione della dignità umana.  Sull’altipiano sono rimasti l’amaro della delusione e della sconfitta, un mare di detriti, cumuli immensi di scorie, un vasto cimitero di caverne risonanti, di miniere morte, di tralicci arrugginiti, di binari contorti dei carrelli. Qui sono tornati a ricrescere i cespugli spinosi del deserto, sono tornate a strisciare le serpi, a volteggiare i corvi. Purtroppo la Storia, quella con la “S” maiuscola, non è mai servita a insegnare qualcosa agli uomini: solo oggi, forse, si comincia a comprendere che la vocazione di questa nostra terra, ricchissima di storia, di reperti archeologici unici al mondo, di splendide spiagge, di isole e arcipelaghi meravigliosi, di bellezze naturali e  architettoniche senza pari, non può essere quella industriale, ma che il suo futuro risiede soltanto nello sviluppo di un’agricoltura razionale, moderna e meccanizzata, e, soprattutto, di un turismo di qualità.

Si pensi, solo per un momento e per fare un esempio che è sotto i nostri occhi, che cosa avrebbe potuto costituire dal punto di vista turistico, e quale grandiosa occasione di sviluppo occupazionale avrebbe potuto rappresentare la valorizzazione della fascia costiera che, dalle foci del Mulinello e del Marcellino, dall’Hangar dirigibili di Augusta, passando per le rovine di Mègara Hyblaea giunge a Thapsos nella penisola Magnisi, al seno di Priolo e oltre: al suo confronto la tanto celebrata costiera adriatica farebbe la figura della parente povera. Porticcioli turistici, alberghi, ritrovi, night, luoghi di ristoro e di sport acquatici, pescaturismo, spiagge tropicali, un mare cristallino, tutto nell’ambito protetto della rada: un sogno, a fronte del quale rimane un deserto di rottami industriali arrugginiti, una terra avvelenata dai rifiuti tossici, un mare inquinato da veleni di ogni tipo, una costa deturpata per secoli, forse per sempre. E il cancro. Ma vediamo com’era organizzata, in quei due secoli passati, l’attività della miniera. In superficie, rintanati nei loro palazzi di Palermo, di Agrigento e di Catania, i proprietari dei terreni che, per legge, erano anche proprietari del sottosuolo, non ancora considerato proprietà demaniale, i quali, senza alcun rischio né preoccupazione, ricevevano dal gabelloto, cioè dal concessionario, l’estaglio, cioè una quota del profitto, che poteva raggiungere il 30% derivante dalla vendita del prodotto.  C’era poi una vasta categoria parassitaria che traeva profitto dal lavoro della miniera, costituita dagli sborsanti, cioè dai finanziatori, dai gabelloti, dai magazzinieri, dagli esportatori.  E poi i carrettieri, i fabbri, i bottegai, cioè coloro che oggi, insomma, chiameremmo l’indotto. Alla lavorazione dello zolfo estratto erano addetti i calcaronai, incaricati della preparazione dei calcaroni, cioè delle fornaci, gli arditori, preposti alla fusione dello zolfo, i vagonai  che spingevano i carrelli carichi sui binari, dall’imboccatura della miniera fino ai calcaroni. 

E tutto questo apparato poggiava principalmente sulle spalle di due soli lavoratori: il picconiere  e il caruso.  L’uno, che a colpi di piccone estraeva lo zolfo dalle viscere della terra; l’altro, che sulle sue spalle lo trasportava in superficie, a due o trecento e più metri d’altezza, arrampicandosi su gradini scavati nella roccia con pendenze ripidissime, servendosi di ceste contenenti fino a 35 chili di zolfo i più piccoli e fino a 80 chili i ragazzi più grandi.  Ogni picconiere impiegava in media da due a quattro carusi. Nella galleria la temperatura arriva a 50° c. Manca l’aria. Completamente nudi, grondando sudore e contratti sotto i gravosissimi pesi che portavano, una volta usciti all’aria aperta, spesso gelida, i carusi scaricavano il materiale nei carrelli che altri ragazzi spingevano fino alla bocca dei calcaroni, sempre correndo, incitati, spintonati, spesso frustati e bastonati come bestie con bastoni e tubi di gomma, in condizioni incredibili di crudele sfruttamento. Impossibile allontanarsi dal lavoro anche per pochi minuti, nemmeno per urgenti bisogni corporali. Se proprio non se ne poteva fare a meno, si doveva riportare la caldarella  piena, a dimostrazione dell’avvenuto bisogno e mostrarla ai sorveglianti. Dai verbali dei processi degli anni ’50 contro lo sfruttamento minorile, segnatamente di quello celebrato a Lercara in cui era imputato un certo Ferrara, proprietario di miniere della zona, emerge un quadro terrificante di abusi e di violenze, un vero girone dantesco di dannati. Naturalmente in questo processo tutti gli imputati si proclamarono innocenti attribuendo le accuse di malversazioni e di comportamenti illegali alle calunnie dei sindacalisti comunisti o a speculazioni politiche: inutile difesa, smentita dalle dettagliate testimonianze dei carusi e da ben 65 perizie mediche ordinate dal Tribunale a un collegio di medici palermitani.

Testimonianze agghiaccianti, come quella di Beniamino Minutella di 14 anni al Giudice Istruttore: “Ero addetto a scavare col piccone il piano dei fossati per abbassarne il livello al fine di procurare la fuoriuscita dell’acqua. Per eseguire tale lavoro ero costretto a stare con l’acqua che mi arrivava ai ginocchi, Il lavoro iniziava alle 16 e terminava alle 4 di notte. A causa dell’umidità e della polvere che si respira gli occhi si infiammano e bruciano al punto che si è  costretti ad andare all’aperto. Succede spesso che il Ferrara alle nostre rimostranze perché non ci fornisce gli stivali, ci risponda: state lì a crepare nell’acqua fino a farvi schiattare il cuore”. E questa la deposizione di Antonino Marsala di soli 11 anni: “Confermo le dichiarazioni rese al Pretore, Lavoravo 12 ore al giorno, dalle 6 alle 18. Fui sottoposto a bastonature dai sorveglianti perché non tenevo il ritmo che si voleva. In qualità di caruso ero addetto al trasporto di caldarelle di  zolfo del peso di 35 chili. Preciso che una volta, mentre mi trovavo in miniera,  Giuseppe Modica mi diede una pedata e mi ferì all’occhio sinistro producendomi una lesione di cui ancora porto la cicatrice. Non mi fece medicare e mi limitai a fasciare l’occhio con un fazzoletto e dovetti continuare a lavorare …” E di deposizioni come queste, più o meno tutte dello stesso tenore, ce ne sono 65 agli atti del processo. Ma quella che mi sembra, più di ogni altra, commovente ed emotivamente significativa è la seguente descrizione anonima del lavoro in miniera nella quale mi sono imbattuto nel corso delle mie ricerche su questo affascinante argomento storico: “L’ascensore inizia a scendere dopo un piccolo sobbalzo. Il rumore della ferraglia è assordante. Man mano il cielo sopra di loro sparisce. I loro volti sono rassegnati, accostati uno all’altro come bestie in quell’ascensore della miniera, che li ingoia come un verme senza fondo. L’ultimo sguardo a quel cielo .Chissà se lo rivedranno. Stretto al petto tengono quel misero involto di pane e olive. I carusi, bambini dagli 8 ai 12 anni, ben presto hanno lasciato i loro giochi. E non sono le ginocchia ad essere sbucciate, giocando a pallone, ma le mani spaccate dal lavoro. Visi smunti, impauriti, mentre scendono insieme ai grandi in quel buco nero. Il caldo aumenta man mano che si scende e l’aria è poca portata dagli sfiatatoi che scorrono lungo le gallerie. Nudi scavano nelle gallerie carusi e adulti. Vecchi e giovani sudati e impastati di quello zolfo strappato alla roccia. Muli insieme ai muli, ormai ciechi, che servono a tirare i carrelli col materiale al montacarichi. Chissà che colore ha il cielo oggi. Chissà cosa pensano i carusi mentre respirano a fatica in quella bolgia di polvere e buio. Inferno sulla terra. Morti prima di nascere. E quanti, stretti ai loro compagni, sono morti rimanendo sepolti da gallerie crollate o da quel maledetto gas. Trabonella, Gessolungo …. miniere una volta, ora cimiteri, dove nessuno ha portato mai fiori, dove le urla strazianti delle madri si sono perse ingoiate dal tempo.

Figli di questa terra, morti nel suo ventre, vi ricordo ogni volta che vedo quelle torri che ormai cedono arrugginite. Non una tomba su di voi, né terra benedetta.
Le conseguenze fisiche per i carusi utilizzati nelle miniere furono terribili e tali da segnarli per tutta la vita: cecità, rachitismo, deformazioni scheletriche, malattie irreversibili dell’apparato respiratorio dovute alla polvere, allo zolfo, e ai continui sbalzi di temperatura tra il caldo asfissiante della miniera e l’aria gelida esterna. Moltissimi i morti in giovanissima età, e, tutti quelli che sopravvissero, quasi tutti ingobbiti, dichiarati inabili al servizio militare. Innumerevoli gli incidenti e le vittime per le esplosioni di “grisou”, il gas micidiale e inodore la cui presenza nelle gallerie poteva essere rivelata solo dai cardellini che i minatori portavano con sé in piccole gabbie affinché, con la loro morte improvvisa, segnalassero il pericolo imminente. Ciò, tuttavia, spesso avveniva troppo tardi  perché gli uomini intrappolati nei bassi e tortuosi cunicoli potessero salvarsi fuggendo in tempo all’aperto. Una lapide posta nei pressi  di una miniera a cura dell’ Associazione “Amici della Miniera” di Caltanissetta riporta la seguente iscrizione: “Nella Valle delle Zolfare quel mattino pioveva. Correva l’anno 1881, erano le 6 del 12 novembre. 120 minatori che lavoravano nella miniera Gessolungo sezione “Calafato” di contrada Juncio, si accingevano a raggiungere i propri cantieri in sotterraneo percorrendo la galleria “Piana”, quando improvvisamente furono investiti da un violento incendio causato dallo scoppio di “grisou”prodotto dalla fiamma di una lampada ad acetilene.55 minatori, anche se feriti, riuscirono a raggiungere l’esterno e mettersi in salvo. Per gli altri 65 fu la fine. 16 di loro feriti gravemente morirono in ospedale. Gli altri 49 recuperati dopo venti giorni sono stati sepolti in questo luogo. Tra loro ci sono 19 “carusi” di età da 8 a 14 anni. Nove sono rimasti ignoti. Viandante, ricordali per le loro sofferenze, il sacrificio e la vita violentemente spezzata ed eleva una preghiera a Dio.Novembre 2001”

In un altro incidente in miniera in una sola volta morirono 150 carusi  e, sulla stele che li ricorda, 28 sono senza nome. Queste storie, questo mondo scomparso, quest’illusione che non migliorò la condizione della gente di Sicilia rivivono oggi grazie all’istituzione della Riserva posta fra Aidone, Piazza Armerina e Valguarnera, nell’ennese. Negli anni ’80, ad attività estrattiva conclusa, nacque l’esigenza di non disperdere quel patrimonio ma, anzi, di utilizzarlo come leva per lo sviluppo locale, offrendo ai turisti la possibilità di visitare quello che è considerato il parco di archeologia industriale più grande ed interessante del mondo, un vero e proprio museo all’aria aperta. Nei tre siti estrattivi di  Fioristella, Grottacalda e Gallizzi, 400 ettari immersi nei boschi tornano a colonizzare quell’area un tempo resa sterile dall’anidride solforosa liberata dalla combustione dello zolfo: natura e miniera oggi riescono a convivere dopo essere stati, per oltre due secoli, tra loro incompatibili. Infine, e per concludere, mi sia consentita un’annotazione personale e inedita a margine di queste mie ricerche. Contrariamente a quanto potrebbe far pensare l’allegro “trallalleru” del ritornello e il motivo accattivante, “Vitti ‘na crozza”, elaborata dal maestro agrigentino Francesco Li Causi, e resa famosa da Rossana Fratello nella colonna sonora del film di Pietro Germi “Il cammino della speranza”, è una canzone triste e, amio avviso, è zolfatara. Protagonista del canto è una crozza, un teschio, che racconta il suo dolore per non aver avuto, nel giorno della morte, nemmeno un rintocco di campana. Un’usanza, quest’ultima, imposta dalla Chiesa del tempo che vietava i rintocchi a morto per chi spirava tra le viscere della terra.  La morte in galleria era vista, dunque, come una punizione divina per i peccati commessi. Colui che moriva in miniera non aveva nemmeno diritto al funerale ecclesiastico e veniva portato direttamente al cimitero. Il cannuni su cui appoggia il teschio non è, perciò, la canna della temibile arma – cosa che non avrebbe significato –  ma, nel gergo solfataro, la vucca, cioè il boccaporto, l’ingresso della miniera, dove la crozza invoca disperatamente la pace dell’anima, irraggiungibile finché una mano pietosa non ne avrà ricomposto i resti. Questa è, lo so bene, solo una delle tante versioni e dei tanti significati che sono stati attribuiti nel tempo a questa famosissima canzone siciliana, la cui origine pare risalire all’800, e di cui esistono testi e interpretazioni tanto diversi tra loro. 

A me, però, da profano, è sembrata, non solo la più suggestiva, ma anche la più realistica, così come mi è sembrato doveroso, se la mia opinione è quella giusta, sottrarre questo meraviglioso canto all’equivoco che da lungo tempo l’ha avvolto e che, in ogni caso, ne ha fatto uno dei più noti motivi della nostra tradizione, a riprova di quanto la vicenda dello zolfo e dei carusi abbia inciso sulla letteratura, arte, costume e folklore della Sicilia, e segnato la vita della nostra gente. 

La chiusura delle miniere di zolfo, di salgemma e di sali potassici in Sicilia pose fine, come abbiamo visto, alla tragedia dei carusi, ma non a quella dei minatori siciliani. L’8 agosto 1956, infatti, si consumava in Belgio una delle catastrofi minerarie più tragiche della storia dell’Europa occidentale. Nella miniera di Marcinelle perirono 262 minatori, 136 dei quali, più della metà quindi, erano siciliani. Si trattava di poveri sventurati che avevano trovato il modo di continuare a corrodersi i polmoni nelle miniere di carbone belghe. Dieci anni prima, il 23 giugno 1946 il governo italiano aveva stipulato e sottoscritto con quello belga un accordo criminale e scellerato in forza del quale l’Italia avrebbe acquistato carbone dal Belgio a prezzo agevolato in cambio dell’invio di 50.000 minatori che, per un certo numero di anni, non avrebbero dovuto né potuto cambiare lavoro, pena l’arresto. In pratica, carne umana in cambio di energia. I minatori siciliani lasciarono la loro terra con tanti dubbi e tre sole certezze: la prima, che la guerra per loro non era finita; la seconda, che prima o poi si sarebbero ammalati di silicosi; la terza, che molti di loro non sarebbero più tornati a casa.

Quella che segue è la testimonianza di uno di loro, siciliano di Augusta, Salvatore Agrillo, resa in un suo scritto inedito dal titolo “Storia di un minatore siciliano” che ho avuto la ventura di poter leggere: “Vengo dal mare, dalla terra dei vulcani,da una terra secca e calcarea. Ero giovane e vigoroso. Avendo sentito parlare di lavoro all’estero, mi ci sono interessato. Mi decisi di andare a vedere questi paesi lontani dei quali sognavo. Presi la decisione di partire per il Belgio e le sue miniere. Con le carte in regola, annunciai la mia decisione ai miei genitori. Si opposero ma alla fine accettarono la mia decisione. Ho rassicurato tutti, i miei genitori, i miei fratelli e le mie sorelle. Dicevo loro che avrei fatto fortuna e che li avrei aiutati a vivere meglio perché la vita era molto dura a quell’epoca, nel dopoguerra. Presi il treno ad Augusta, la mia città natale, in uno degli ultimi convogli di lavoratori emigranti del 1946. Partii per il Belgio. Il convoglio attraversava lentamente l’Italia. Dopo alcuni giorni di viaggio e numerose peripezie il treno arrivò a destinazione, cioè Boussu. In quel posto, all’inizio rimasi deluso, tutto era nero; io che venivo dal paese del sole e dell’acqua colore azzurro. Ma mi rassegnai. Ero venuto lì per lavorare. Poi mi installai con i miei futuri colleghi di lavoro in piccole casette. Incominciai a lavorare alla “Sentinelle” e poi all’ “Alliance” e alcuni anni più tardi a “Vedette de Saint-Antoine”.

Nel frattempo ci fu un reclutamento per comporre una squadra di salvataggio e ne presi parte con fierezza. Continuavo a seguire i corsi di salvataggio e sopravvivenza e a lavorare. Lavorai per 17 anni nel profondo delle miniere. Qualche volta mi ferivo ma non gravemente. Però alcuni miei compagni persero la vita lì sotto. Nel ’59, alla “Sentinelle”, durante un’avanzata nel taglio della pietra, una falda di acqua sotterranea fu bucata e inondò parecchie gallerie che erano destinate a mettere dei cavalli condannati a lavorare nel fondo. Per un mese, curai, feci mangiare e pulii un cavallo. Ogni giorno mi occupavo di lui e un legame si era instaurato tra lui e me. Riconosceva i miei passi e il mio fischio. Era contento di vedermi ogni volta. Più avanti si è potuto far risalire il cavallo ed egli fu chiamato “Noè” perché era stato salvato dalle acque. Per questo atto ricevetti una medaglia d’argento contro la crudeltà verso gli animali.

Alcuni salvataggi hanno avuto meno successo. Un esempio fra gli altri fu “Marcasse”. Una perdita di grisou. Nessuno si salvò. Poi venne la catastrofe, la più terribile che il paese abbia conosciuto: “Le Bois du Casier à Marcinelles”.  Arrivata in autunno, la mia squadra del “grand trait de Frameries” lavorò un mese intero al salvataggio di questi uomini bloccati nel fondo della miniera. Sfortunatamente il numero delle vittime fu pesante. Più di 250 persero la vita. Numerose scene erano spaventevoli da vedere e ci sono voluti forza e coraggio per rimontare in superficie tutti quei corpi senza vita e renderli alle loro famiglie, le quali aspettavano questi uomini vivi con tanta speranza. Alla fine di questo terribile salvataggio, la squadra ricevette una delle più alte distinzioni per questo atto umanitario: il “Carnegie Hero Fund”. Dal Governo italiano ricevetti l’ “Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà”. La mia squadra e io ricevemmo dalle mani del Re Baudoin le congratulazioni, gli onori ed i ringraziamenti delle famiglie dei minatori defunti. E infine abbiamo ricevuto per quell’atto umanitario una Medaglia d’oro dal Governo belga. Sì, ho veramente amato  il mio mestiere di minatore di fondo e ne sono molto fiero. A tutti i miei colleghi vivi, quando verranno lì dove sono io ora, parleremo di nuovo tra di noi, di storie vissute a Bouviaux, di carbone e di grisou. Ecco la storia di un minatore di fondo chiamato Agrillo Salvatore.”
Una storia semplice e genuina, come l’uomo che l’ha narrata, e che non ha bisogno di alcun commento. 

   Ugo Passanisi

The "carusi" in the sulfur mines of Sicily: or when Sicilian children were sold or "rented" to work naked in the sulfur mines up to 16 hours a day

ublished 12 May 2015

A rigorous and moving essay, between history and literature - by Ugo Passanisi 

Discussing the theme of the carusi means to recall one of the most tragic, humiliating and shameful, but also less-known pages in the history of the Sicilian people.  A story, in any case, peculiar to Sicily that does not find any comparable activity in similar events in other regions of our country. That of the carusi is a story that begins in the 1700s and that develops for over two centuries until the middle of the 1900s. It begins with the Bourbons, which it survives, and will continue later even after the annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to the crown of Savoy and to the proclamation of Vittorio Emanuele II as the first king of Italy. With the new regime, in fact, nothing changes for Sicily, indeed, the peasant revolts against the latifundia are suffocated in blood by the Garibaldians of Nino Bixio, as happened (but it would not be the only case) with the summary trial and the massacre of Bronte. The large landowners have firmly held in their hands the possession of territory, and the great expectations of redemption placed in Garibaldi and in the new regime by land-poor laborers - the so-called "picciotti" so exalted by the rhetoric of the Risorgimento - have been disappointed. For this reason and with this hope they rushed en masse under his banners. The historical Right has once again imposed its law and, as under the Bourbons, poverty continues to reign supreme in the countryside of the island. This premise is essential to explain the profound reasons that, in the second half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, led to the mass exodus of thousands of Sicilians, young, old and children, not only to the Americas, but also, for those who remained, from the countryside to the mines. And in this historical context, in this social situation, therefore, the dramatic story of the carusi cannot be changed. But, who are these carusi? The term carusi refers to children and young people forced by the economic poverty of their families to work in the sulfur mines. The term apparently derives from the custom of completely shaving the head of these very young workers, probably due to the hygienic reasons resulting from the extremely dirty conditions existing in the mines: this haircut was in fact defined in the dialect typical of the Caltanissetta area as the ‘carusu cut’, while later, carusu will generally be used to indicate children aged 5 to 12 or so. Even today, especially in the Catania area, but also in other areas of Sicily, the words carusu, carusazzu, identify the "boy", the "bad boy".

It must be said that, even according to the legislation of the time, it was illegal to employ a child under 12 in manual labor, as the law established, even then, that school should be compulsory for children up to the third elementary class. However, this provision was largely disregarded because of the poverty in which the peasant families lived, forcing everyone to work in the fields from the earliest age, as shown by the fact that illiteracy, particularly in the countryside, reached very high percentages, very close to 100%. Moreover, the government authorities of the time were worried about everything except to make it respectable, careful as they were not to come into conflict with the economic interests of the fat bourgeoisie constituted by the landowners, from whom they were lavishly fed, who drew substantial profits from the exploitation of child labor. For the same reason no control was exercised on working conditions in the mines, which were very hard, even unacceptable, according to today's security standards, while respect for human rights, children and workers, was almost non-existent. The workday, in fact, could even reach sixteen hours, and the boys habitually suffered mistreatment and corporal punishment if accused of deficiencies of any kind or of poor performance without anyone having the power to intervene in their defense. The parents of the boys enrolled as laborers in the mines were paid an advance payment, which could vary from 100 to 200 lire, called "death aid".

In practice it was truly a purchase price, since the carusi pay was a few cents a day from which the cost of the food provided by the picconiere, pick-men for whom the carusi directly worked, was deducted and was called an "expense": poor quality food, or even just bread, also provided at a hefty price. The parents of the boys were therefore practically precluded from any possibility of redemption of their children who became, in fact, the exclusive property of the picconiere, who had bought them and who could dispose of them at will. The living conditions of the carusi have resonated in the past in Sicilian literature. Giovanni Verga describes them extensively in the story "Rosso Malpelo", and Luigi Pirandello talks about it in his novel "Ciaula discovers the moon": "In the hard faces almost extinguished by the black darkness of the underground quarries, in the body exhausted by the daily fatigue, in the torn clothes, they endured the lurid squalor of those lands without a blade of grass, pocked by sulfur mines, like so many enormous anthills…. Ciàula moved under the enormous load, which also required an effort to balance. Yes, yes, yes, he could move, at least as long as the way was flat. But how to lift that weight when the climb started? "

And the poetic repertoire of folk songs is very rich, from which transpires the dark resignation of the sulfur miners to their miserable fate, even if not yet the anger and rebellion against exploitation that would have matured only much later, in the first decades of the 1900s, thanks to the struggles of fierce and combative trade unionists. Even in modern times the tragedy of these boys was recalled by Andrea Camilleri in his novel "Il sonaglio". In this story, the child recruiter turns to a group of listening mothers: "My name is Filibertu Alagna and I come from a rich town called Alagona. Have you heard of it? It is a rich town because it has five mines that are the places where they dig the sulfur ... In the mines, work well-paid grown men, carusi and picciotteddri. The age of carusi ranges from six to eleven years, that of the picciotteddri from twelve to eighteen.  For each day of labor carusi earn eighty-five cents, and each picciotteddro earns ninety. I will explain to you how the deal works. Every caruso or picciotteddro ise taken in custody by a picconeri, who takes care of giving him food, naturally withholding a few cents from his pay. But here comes the beautiful part. The picconeri, in exchange for your son, gives you a thing called death benefit. ‘Benefit’ means ‘help’, and ‘death’ means to say that you take it and don't have to repay it. The death benefit consists of two hundred liri, I repeat, two hundred liri, which I personally hand to you, on behalf of the picconeri, at the moment in which you deliver me your child. If you give me two, I give you four hundred liri, if you give me three I give you six hundred liri. Are you getting me? This money is yours and if you wish you could do with it what you want and do not owe accounts to anyone. Think well on iy.  A caruso up to ten, eleven years old, what does he represent in your family? A burden. He does not work and is another mouth to feed. In giving him to me, the caruso works and earns, and doesn’t weigh on your shoulders and you find in your hands hand so much money you couldn’t dream of. Talk to all the women you know and talk to your husbands. I am at the Hotel Pace. Bring me your children and I will pay you immediately. I warn you: this offer ends in three days. Don't let your luck run out. " 

So, a persuasive and extremely convincing speech for those who, daily, are forced to cut their own hunger and that of their family with a knife. And in fact Zina, one of the women present, talks about it with her husband Adelio, a very poor fisherman whose activity allows him to barely survive the blackest poverty. Adelio hesitates, does not want to deprive himself of the son who helps him in his work, but the proposal is tempting and, eventually, driven by necessity, he decides to seek advice from his only client, a certain Don Pitrino Vadalà. But how and where does the sulfur industry come from in Sicily? We are in the so-called sulfur plateau, the one that goes from Caltanissetta to Agrigento. If we look at a geological map of Sicily where the sulfur deposits are marked with red dots, we see that the scattered traces, starting from the territories of Calatafimi and Lercara Friddi and, in the Catania area and in the Enna area, from Assoro to Licodia Eubea, gradually merge between Cianciana and Valguarnera, becoming a contiguous area around Agrigento, from Aragona to Serradifalco. Already in Roman times we have news that the surface sulfur is collected, and the subterranean sulfur is excavated, melted, and then solidified into loaves, as evidenced by the terracotta slabs with the Racalmuto brand preserved in the National Museum of Palermo, to be later used in medicine and in the treatment of fabrics.

But what is the true history of the sulfur industry of the island, of the systematic extraction of sulfur and its export, begins, as we have said, in the 1700s under the Bourbons with the first industrial revolution and with the discovery of a new method of preparation of sulfuric acid that was widely used in the textile industry and in explosives for war. The French and English entrepreneurs discover it first, and they sense its enormous economic potential. One French company, in particular, wanted to create a processing company on the spot by building a sulfur refinery with two sublimation chambers in Porto Empedocle. The same company then demanded the monopoly of buying and selling Sicilian sulfur, but since the British threatened to bomb the southern ports if this request had not been rejected, Ferdinando II of Borbone, in 1836, was forced to revoke the concession and dissolve the company . This crushed a great economic opportunity for Sicily to the advantage of foreign exporters, mainly French and English, the only ones, along with very few Sicilian landowners, to have enriched themselves with the exploitation of the subsoil of the island, without ever having reinvested in Sicily the proceeds of this wealth of our territory. The Sicilian sulfur, of excellent quality, loaded on sailing ships, was sent to Marseilles before being shipped abroad for the French and British markets. Once again Sicily was treated as a colony to be exploited and had to succumb to the arrogance of the foreigner. Already at the end of that century the mines of Palma di Montechiaro, Petralia Sottana, Racalmuto, Riesi, San Cataldo, Caltanisseta, Favara, Agrigento, Comitini, and Licodia Eubea were very active. In 1890, 480 would have been in operation and in the early 1900s the number of active mines would have risen to 886 with about 40,000 employed. Sulfur fever takes everyone: landowners, gabelloti (estate overseers), pick-men, traders, warehouse workers, carters, artisans, carusi. It involves foreign entrepreneurs and speculators of all nationalities.

It attracts masses of men from the populous towns of the interior of the island, from the poor centers of the fief, in this immense land where, for centuries, the possibilities of work depend on the whim of the gabelloto and his patrons, from subjection to them; where working days are reduced to a few over the year; where the farmer is entangled with fees, tithes and heavy taxes of every kind to which we must add illegal bribes; where the teams of seasonal workers, harvesters and gleaners are forced to nomadism; where life, in short, reaches unimaginable levels of exploitation and misery. The mine, therefore, appears as a mirage in the desert and offers a hope of redemption to a multitude of miserable dispossessed. It is a fever that grows over time and develops over two centuries until the 1900s, when, due to competition on the international markets of American sulfur, it decreases until it disappears completely in the 1960s, leaving everything as before, worse than before, as is the fate of this unhappy land, as will happen - since History repeats itself - in the 1990s with the oil and petrochemical industry, as happened in the first decade of 2000 with the automotive industry at Termini Imerese. In 1934 a law of the Italian State forbade women and children under the age of 16 to lower themselves inside the sulfur pits, whereas for some years before, in 1927, the violation of the subsoil had been sanctioned by law. Only the State could assign the exploitation of the deposits in perpetual or temporary concession. In the years following the Second World War, despite first the federal and later the regional governmental interventions, despite the birth in 1963 of the Sicilian Mining Authority, the EMS, the decline of sulfur mining activity continued and, one by one, the mines closed irreversibly. And an even worse fate has come from the potash salt mines of Pasquasia, first abandoned and subsequently transformed into a deposit of thousands of tons of asbestos and, it seems, nuclear waste.

But, in any case, beyond the American competition, the Sicilian mining industry could not have perspectives of survival due to the lack of capital to invest in the modernization of extraction plants, infrastructures, roads and railways, due to insufficiency of ports, due to the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, due to the small size of the island's chemical industry. That of the sulfur mine was, therefore, a sad story of misery, of indiscriminate exploitation, of untold suffering, of death, of brutalization, of denial of human dignity. On the plateau, the bitterness of disappointment and defeat remained, a sea of ​​debris, immense heaps of waste, a vast graveyard of resonant caves, dead mines, rusty pylons, twisted cart railways. Here the thorny bushes of the desert have returned to grow back, the snakes have returned to crawl, the ravens to circle. Unfortunately History, the one with a capital "H", never served to teach men anything: only today, perhaps, we begin to understand that the vocation of our land, rich in history, of unique archaeological finds in the world, of splendid beaches, of islands and marvelous archipelagos, of unparalleled natural and architectural beauties, cannot be industrial, but that its future lies only in the development of a rational, modern and mechanized agriculture, and, above all, of quality tourism. 

Just think for a moment and to give an example that is before our eyes, what could have constituted from the tourist point of view, and what a great opportunity for occupational development could have represented the enhancement of the coastal strip that, from the mouths of Mulinello and of Marcellino, from the airships of Augusta, passing through the ruins of Mègara Hyblaea joining Thapsos in the Magnisi peninsula, at the breast of Priolo and beyond: in comparison, the much-celebrated Adriatic coast would look like a poor relative. Tourist harbors, hotels, meeting places, nightclubs, places of refreshment and water sports, fishing tourism, tropical beaches, a crystal clear sea, all in the protected area of ​​the roadstead: a dream, against which remains a desert of rusted industrial scrap, a land poisoned by toxic waste, a sea polluted with poisons of all kinds, a coast disfigured for centuries, perhaps forever. And cancer. But let's see how the activity of the mine was organized in the past two centuries. On the surface, holed up in their palaces in Palermo, Agrigento and Catania, the landowners who, by law, were also owners of the subsoil, not yet considered state property, who, without any risk or concern, received from the gabelloto, that is, from the dealer, the sale, that is a share of the profit, which could reach 30% deriving from the sale of the product. Then there was a vast parasitic category that benefited from the work of the mine, consisting of the shippers, that is, the financiers, the gabelloti, the warehouse workers, the exporters. And then the carters, the blacksmiths, the shopkeepers, that is to say those who today we would call collateral. The calcaronai were employed in the processing of the extracted sulfur, in charge of the preparation of the calcaroni, that is, of the furnaces, the arditori, responsible for the fusion of the sulfur, the vagonai that pushed the loaded carts on the rails from the mouth of the mine to the furnace. 

And all this apparatus rested mainly on the shoulders of only two classes of workers: the pick-man and the caruso. The one, who extracted sulfur from the bowels of the earth with a pickaxe; the other, who on his shoulders carried it to the surface, from two or three hundred and more meters deep, climbing up steps carved into the rock with very steep slopes, using baskets containing up to 35 kilos of sulfur for the smallest and up to 80 kilos for the older boys. Each pick-man employed on average two to four carusi. In the tunnel the temperature reaches 50 ° c. No air. Completely naked, dripping sweat and loaded under the very heavy weights they carried, once they went out into the open air, often freezing, the carusi unloaded the material into the carts that other boys pushed to the mouth of the furnace, always running, incited, jostled, often whipped and beaten like beasts with sticks and rubber tubes, in incredible conditions of cruel exploitation. Impossible to leave work even for a few minutes, not even for urgent bodily needs. If you really could not do without it, you had to demonstrate your need and report that the sulfur-melting pot was full, and show it to the overseers. From the records of the trials of the 1950s against child exploitation, particularly of the one celebrated in Lercara in which a certain Ferrara, the owner of mines in the area, was accused, emerges a terrifying picture of abuse and violence, a true Dante's circle of the damned. Naturally in this process all the defendants proclaimed themselves innocent, attributing the accusations of embezzlement and illegal behavior to the slanders of the communist trade unionists or political speculations: useless defense, denied by the detailed testimonies of the carusi and by as many as 65 medical reports ordered by the Court to a college of Palermo doctors.

Chilling testimony, like that of Beniamino Minutella, aged 14, to the Instructor Judge: “I was involved in digging the ditch floor with a pickaxe to lower its level in order to get the water out. To carry out this work I was forced to stand in water that reached my knees. Work began at 4 pm and ended at 4 am. Due to the humidity and dust that you breathe your eyes become inflamed and burn to the point that you are forced to go outdoors. It often happens that to our grievances that Ferrara does not supply us with boots, he answers: you are there to die in the water until you make your heart break ". And this is the deposition of Antonino Marsala of only 11 years: "I confirm the statements made to the magistrate, I worked 12 hours a day, from 6 to 18. I was subjected to beatings by the overseers because I didn't keep the rhythm that was wanted. As a caruso I was in charge of transporting pots of melted sulfur weighing 35 kilos. I point out that once, while I was in the mine, Giuseppe Modica kicked me and injured my left eye, producing a lesion that still bears the scar. He did not make medicate me and I was limited bandage the eye myself with a handkerchief and I had to continue to work ... " And of depositions like these, more or less all of the same tenor, there are 65 in the records of the process. But what seems moving and emotionally significant to me, more than any other, is the following anonymous description of the work in the mines which I came across during my research on this fascinating historical topic: “The elevator starts to go down after a small jolt. The noise of the scraping metal is deafening. As the sky above them disappears. Their faces are resigned, juxtaposed to one another like beasts in that elevator of the mine, which swallows them like a worm without a bottom. The last look at that sky. Who knows if they will see it again. Tight to the chest they hold that miserable bundle of bread and olives. The carusi are aged 8 to 12, not long removed from playing children’s games. And the knees are not scraped from playing soccer, and the hands are split by work. Emaciated faces, frightened, as they descend along with the adults in that black hole. The heat increases as you go down and they is little flow of air from the vents that run along the galleries. Nudes dig in the tunnels caruso and adults alike. Old and young, sweaty and spattered with the sulfur ripped from the rock. Mules together with the actual mules, now blind, used to pull the carts with the ore to the elevator. Who knows what color the sky has today. Who knows what the carusi think as they breathe with difficulty in that pit of dust and darkness. Hell on earth. Dead before being born. And how many, close to their companions, died, remaining buried in collapsed tunnels or that damn gas. Trabonella, Gessolungo ... once mines, now cemeteries, where no one ever brought flowers, where the mournful screams of mothers were lost, swallowed by time.

Sons of this earth, dead in its belly, I remember you every time I see those now-rusty towers. Nary a tomb over you, nor sanctified ground.”
The physical consequences for the carusi used in the mines were terrible and such as to mark them for life: blindness, rickets, skeletal deformations, irreversible diseases of the respiratory system due to dust, sulfur, and the continuous temperature changes between the suffocating heat of the mine and the freezing cold air. Many died at a very young age, and all those who survived, almost all hunched up, declared unfit for military service. Countless accidents and victims of explosions of “grisou”, the deadly and odorless gas whose presence in the tunnels could only be revealed by the goldfinches that the miners brought with them in small cages so that, with their sudden death, they signaled the imminent danger. This, however, often happened too late for men trapped in the low and winding tunnels to save themselves by fleeing outdoors in time. A plaque placed near a mine by the "Amici della Miniera" Association of Caltanissetta bears the following inscription dated November 2001: "In the Valle delle Zolfare it was raining that morning. It was the year 1881, it was 6 am on November 12th. 120 miners working in the Gessolungo mine section "Calafato" in the Juncio district, were preparing to reach their underground sites by going through the "Piana" gallery, when suddenly they were hit by a violent fire caused by the explosion of "grisou" ignited by the flame of an acetylene lamp. 55 miners, though injured, managed to reach the outside and get to safety. For the other 65 it was the end. 16 of them, seriously injured, died in the hospital. The other 49 were buried in this place and recovered after twenty days. Among them there are 19 "carusi" aged 8 to 14 years. Nine remained unknown. Wayfarer, remember them for their sufferings, sacrifice and life violently broken, and raise a prayer to God. "

In another accident in the mine at one time 150 carusi died and, on the stele that commemorates them, 28 are nameless. These stories, this disappeared world, this illusion that did not improve the condition of the people of Sicily, live again today thanks to the establishment of the Reserve located between Aidone, Piazza Armerina and Valguarnera, in the Enna area. In the 1980s, after mining was concluded, the need arose not to forget that heritage but, rather, to use it as a lever for local development, offering tourists the chance to visit what is considered the largest and most interesting industrial archeology park of the world, a real open-air museum. In the three mining sites of Fioristella, Grottacalda and Gallizzi, 400 hectares immersed in the woods once again colonize that area once rendered sterile by sulfur dioxide released by the combustion of sulfur: nature and mines today manage to coexist, after over two centuries being incompatible with each other. Finally, and in conclusion, let me give you a personal and unpublished annotation in the margins of my research. Contrary to what the cheerful "trallalleru" of the refrain and the captivating motif might suggest, the song "Vitti 'na crozza" is a sad song and, in my opinion, it is the song of the sulfur miner. The song was written by Agrigento lyricist Francesco Li Causi, and made famous by Rossana Fratello in the soundtrack of the film "the path of hope" by Pietro Germi. The protagonist of the song is a skull, a death’s-head, who tells of his sorrow for not having had, on the day of his death, even the toll of a bell. That custom, imposed by the Church at the time, that forbade the death knell for those who died among the bowels of the earth. Death in the gallery was seen, therefore, as a divine punishment for sins committed. He who died in the mine was not even entitled to an ecclesiastical funeral and was taken directly to the cemetery. The cannuni on which the skull rests is not, therefore, the bore of a fearsome weapon - something that was not meant in the song - but, in solfataro jargon, the vucca, that is, the mouth, the entrance to the mine, where the skull desperately calls for peace of the soul, unattainable until a pitiful hand has recomposed the remains. This is, I know well, only one of the many versions and the many meanings that have been attributed over time to this famous Sicilian song, whose origin seems to date back to the 1800s, and of which there are texts and interpretations so different from each other.

To me as a layman, however, it seemed not only the most suggestive song, but also the most realistic.  So it seemed right to me, if my opinion is the right one, to remove this wonderful song from the misunderstanding that has clouded it for a long time.  And that, in any case, has made it one of the most famous motifs of our tradition, as proof of how the story of sulfur and carusi has affected the literature, art, customs and folklore of Sicily, and marked the life of our people.

The closing of the sulfur, rock salt and potassium mines in Sicily put an end, as we have seen, to the tragedy of the carusi, but not to that of the Sicilian miners. On 8 August 1956, in fact, one of the most tragic mining catastrophes in Western Europe occurred in Belgium. 262 miners perished in the Marcinelle mine, more than half of whom, 136, were Sicilian. These were poor unfortunates who had found ways to continue corroding their lungs in the Belgian coal mines. Ten years earlier, on 23 June 1946, the Italian government had entered into and signed a criminal and nefarious agreement with the Belgians under which Italy would buy coal from Belgium at a reduced price in exchange for sending 50,000 miners who, for a certain number of years,  could not change jobs, on pain of arrest. In practice, human flesh in exchange for energy. The Sicilian miners left their land with so many doubts and three certainties: the first, that the war for them was not over; the second, that sooner or later they would become ill with silicosis; the third, that many of them would never return home.

The following is the testimony of one of them, a Sicilian from Augusta, Salvatore Agrillo, rendered in his unpublished writing entitled "Story of a Sicilian miner" which I had the good fortune to read: "I come from the sea, from the land of volcanoes, from a dry and calcareous land. I was young and vigorous. Having heard of working abroad, I became interested in it. I decided to go and see these distant countries I dreamed of. I made the decision to leave for Belgium and its mines. With the papers in order, I announced my decision to my parents. They opposed it but in the end they accepted my decision. I reassured everyone, my parents, my brothers and sisters. I told them that I would make a fortune and that I would help them live better because life was very hard at that time, in the post-war period. I took the train to Augusta, my hometown, in one of the last convoys of emigrant workers in 1946. I left for Belgium. The convoy slowly passed through Italy. After a few days of travel and numerous adventures, the train arrived at its destination, that is Boussu. In that place, at first I was disappointed, everything was black; I came from the country of the sun and blue water. But I resigned myself. I came there to work. Then I installed myself with my future work colleagues in a small house. I started working in the mines "Sentinelle" and then in the "Alliance" and some years later in "Vedette de Saint-Antoine".

Meanwhile there was a recruitment to compose a rescue team and I took part in it with pride. I continued to follow rescue and survival courses and to work. I worked for 17 years deep in the mines. Sometimes I hurt myself but not seriously. But some of my companions lost their lives down there. In '59, at the "Sentinelle", during an exercise in cutting the stone, a layer of underground water was pierced and flooded several galleries that were intended to hold horses consigned to work at the bottom. For a month, I nursed, I fed and groomed a horse. Every day I took care of him and a bond was established between him and me. He recognized my footsteps and my whistle. He was glad to see me every time. Later the horse could be bridled and he was called "Noah" because he had been rescued from the waters. For this act, I received a silver medal against animal cruelty.

Some rescues have been less successful. An example among others was "Marcasse". A loss of life due to grisou. No one was saved. Then came the catastrophe, the most terrible that the country has known: "Le Bois du Casier à Marcinelles". Arriving in the fall, my team of the "grand trait de Frameries" worked a whole month to rescue these men stuck in the bottom of the mine. Unfortunately the number of victims was heavy. More than 250 lost their lives. Numerous scenes were frightening to see and it took strength and courage to reassemble all those lifeless bodies and bring them back to their families, who waited for these living men with so much hope. At the end of this terrible rescue, the team received one of the highest distinctions for this humanitarian act: the "Carnegie Hero Fund". From the Italian Government I received the "Order of the Star of Solidarity". My team and I received congratulations, honors and thanks from the families of the deceased miners from the hands of King Baudoin. And finally we received a Gold Medal from the Belgian Government for that humanitarian act. Yes, I really loved my job as a bottom miner and I am very proud of it. To all my living colleagues, when they come there, where I now live, we will talk again among ourselves, of stories lived in Bouviaux, of coal and grisou. Here is the story of a miner called Agrillo Salvatore." 
A simple and genuine story, like the man who told it, and which needs no further comment.


Ugo Passanisi



     The lyrics of "Vitti 'na crozza" ("I saw a skull"), mentioned in the above essay, are from an ancient, anonymous Sicilian poem or fable.  The melody was added for a 1950 theatrical film, and the song became a popular, light-hearted tune, its lyrics ignored or misunderstood by most listeners.  As Ugo Passanisi notes, the words actually convey the plaintive cry of the remains of a sulfur miner who was left to die in a mine after a disaster, refused final sacraments or even the tolling of church bells because of the superstitious church policies of the period. 

    Pietro Germi, the filmmaker, heard a version of the folk poem recited by Giuseppe Bisaccia, a sulfur miner in Favara, and asked songwriter Franco Li Causi to put it to music for the film "il camino della speranza" ("the path of hope").

    There are many versions of the poem/song; below, I present one version, with a translation.  The Sicilian word for skull, 'crozza', is a feminine noun, so  in the Sicilian lyrics, it is referred to as "idda" ("she"), but the reference is clearly to a sulfurman, and I have used "he" in the translation.

Vitti na crozza ‘n nu cannuni
E cu sta crozza mi mis a parlari
idda m'arrispunnì cu' gran duluri
muriri senza toccu di campani.

Si 'nn'eru, si 'nni eru li me anni
si 'nn'eru si 'nni eru 'un sacciu unni
ora ca su' arrivatu a uttant'anni
chiamu la morti e idda mi arrispuni
Cunzàtimi, cunzàtimi stu lettu
ca di li vermi su mangiatu tuttu
si nun lu scuntu cca lu me piccatu
lu scuntu a chidda vita a chiantu ruttu

I saw a skull in a mineshaft
and with this skull I began to converse.
He replied with great grief,
"Oh, to die without the tolling of bells.”

They went away, my years went away
they went away, I don't know where.
Now that I have reached eighty years
I call Death and she answers.

Make, make me my bed
because I am consumed by worms.
If I don't repent my sin here
I'll repent in the other life with a hoarse cry.

Here are two versions of the song (click the links), one by Franco Battiato,
and one I heard in person with my niece Jackie at the Sicilia Canta! celebration
in Hamilton, Ontario's LIUNA Station in September 2018, sung by Rita Chiarelli.


 'Cu lu scuru vaiu' is a traditional sulfur miner's folksong. 
It laments "I leave in the dark, I spend the day in the dark, I return in the dark" 

Click HERE for a version on

SICILIAN LINKS Sicilianità Is Sicily 'Italy'? The Sicilian Languge
Cognomi ~ Sicilian Surnames Ngiurii ~ Sicilian Nicknames Place-names as surnames Sicilian Coats of Arms
Foundlings The Sicilian Naming Convention

Given Names

Convert Latin given names to Sicilian
La Bedda Sicilia ~ My history of Sicily Heritage Path ~ original Sicilian records Civil Record Format ~ 1820 - 1910 I'm a Sicilian American
My Lectures on Sicilian Genealogy Sicilian Occupations in Civil Records Sicilian Records at the Buffalo FHC Orphans, Illegitimates, and Foundlings
Li Carusi ~ The Mine-boys Shortened Sicilian Given Names There is no letter "j" in Sicilian The Thing
  Womens' Surnames Masculine and Feminine Names  


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