Child Labour And the Sulphur Mines in Sicily

From “The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe”, 1912, written by Washington, Booker Tagliaferro, 1856-1915


THERE is one street in Catania, Sicily, which seems to be given over to the trade and industry of the poorer people of the city. It is not mentioned in the guide- books, and there is perhaps no reason why it should be. Nevertheless, there are a great many interesting things to be seen in that street — strange, quaint, homely things — that give a stranger intimate glimpses into the life of the people.

For example, on a street corner, tucked away in one of those snug spaces in which one sometimes finds a crowded fruit-stand, I discovered, one day, a macaroni factory. Within a space perhaps three feet wide and ten or twelve feet in length one man and a boy conducted the whole business of the sale as well as the manufacture of macaroni, from the raw grain to the completed article of trade. The process, as it was carried on in this narrow space, was necessarily a simple one. There was a bag of flour, a box in which to mix the paste, and a press by which this paste was forced through holes that converted it into hollow tubes. Afterward these hollow tubes were laid out on a cloth frame which, because there was no room inside, had been set up in the street. After leaving this cloth frame the macaroni was hung up on little wooden forms for inspection and for sale.

One of the most curious and interesting places on the street was an apothecary’s shop in which the apothecary manufactured all his own drugs, and acted at the same time as the poor man’s physician or medical adviser. This man had never studied pharmacy in a college. His knowledge of drugs consisted entirely of the traditions and trade secrets which had come down to him from his predecessor in the business. His shop was filled with sweet-smelling herbs, gathered for him by the peasants, and from these he brewed his medicines. The skeleton of a fish hung over the counter from which medicines were dispensed, and the shelves behind were filled with many curious and musty bottles.

The apothecary himself was a very serious person, with a high, pale forehead and the absorbed air of a man who feels the weight of the knowledge he carries around with him. All these things, especially the smell of the herbs, were quite awe-inspiring, and undoubtedly contributed something to the efficacy of the medicines.

It is a very busy street in which the apothecary, the macaroni manufacturer, and the others are located. In fact, it seems as if work never stopped there, for it is full of little shops where men sit in their doorways or at the open windows until late at night, working steadily at their various trades, making the things they sell, and stopping only now and then to sell the things they make. The whole region is a hive of industry, for it is the neighbourhood where the artisans live, those skilled workmen who make everything by hand that, in our part of the world, we have long since learned to make by machine. In fact, in this street it is possible to get a very good picture, I suspect, of the way in which trade and industry were carried on in other parts of Europe before the age of steam.

About nine o’clock Saturday night — the night upon which I arrived in Catania — I was walking down one of the side streets in this part of the city, when my attention was attracted to a man, sitting in his doorway, working by the light of a little smoky lamp. He was engaged in some delicate sort of iron work, and, as near as I could make out, he seemed to be a tool-maker.

What particularly attracted my attention was a little girl, certainly not more than seven years of age, who was busily engaged in polishing and sharpening the stamps he used. I stopped for a moment and watched this man and child, working steadily, silently, at this late hour of the night. I could but marvel at the patience and the skill the child showed at her work. It was the first time in my life that I had seen such a very little child at work, although I saw many others in the days that followed.

I have often heard it said that people who are born under the soft southern skies are habitually indolent, and never learn to work there, as they do in more northern latitudes. This is certainly not true of Sicily, for, so far as my experience goes, there is no other country in Europe where incessant labour is so largely the lot of the masses of the people. Certainly there is no other country where so much of the labour of all kinds, the skilled labour of the artisan as well as the rough labour of digging and carrying on the streets and in the mines, is performed by children, especially boys.

There is a law against Sunday labour in Catania, but the next morning, as I passed through this same quarter of the city, I found the majority of the people still busily at work. I stopped to watch a man who was making mandolins. This man lived in one room, which was at the same time a workshop, kitchen, and bed- room. There was a great heap of mattresses piled high upon the bed in one corner. A little charcoal brazier, on which the cooking for the family was performed, stood upon the work- bench. The ceiling was hung with finished instruments, and the pavement in front of the house was piled with others in various stages of completion. This room was occupied by a family of five, all of whom, with the exception of the wife and mother, were engaged, each in their different ways, in the work of manufacturing mandolins. All the skilled work (the setting of the decorations and the polishing of the frames) was performed by the boys, but a little girl who was standing near seemed to be making herself handy as a helper in the work of the others.

In this treeless country, where there is almost no wood of any kind to be had, the most useful building material, after stone and plaster, seems to be tile. Not only the roofs but the floors of most of the buildings are made of this material, and its manufacture is consequently one of the principal minor industries of the country. One day, while I was wandering about in the outskirts of Catania, I ran across a plant where two men and three little boys were at work mixing the clay, forming it into octagonal shapes, and piling it out in the sun to dry. The two men were at work in the shade of a large open shed, but I could not make out what they were doing. As nearly as I could see, almost all of the actual work was performed by the children, who ranged, I should say, from eight to twelve years of age. The work of carrying the heavy clay, and piling it up in the sun after it had been formed into tiles, was done by the younger children.

I am certain that if I had not seen them with my own eyes I would never have believed that such very little children could carry such heavy loads, or that they could work so systematically and steadily as they were compelled to do in order to keep pace with the rapid movements of the older boy, who was molding the tiles from the soft clay. The older boy could not have been, as I have said, more than twelve years of age, but he worked with all the skill and the rapidity of an experienced piece-worker driven at the top of his speed. I was so filled with pity and at the same time with admiration for this boy that, as I was unable to speak to him, I ventured to offer him a small coin in token of my appreciation of the skill with which he worked. So intent was he on his task, however, that he would not stop his work even to pick up the money I proffered him, but simply thanked me and nodded his head for me to place it on the bench beside him.

These instances of skilled labour among children are by no means exceptional. At another time I remember stopping to look at a little boy who, it seemed to me, could not be more than eight or nine years of age, working side by side with a man, evidently his father, together with several other men, all of them engaged in building a boat. The boy I speak of was engaged in finishing off with a plane the hardwood rail of the sides of the boat, and as I watched, him at his task I was again compelled to wonder at the ease and skill with which these little fellows use their tools.

All these things, as I have said, gave me an idea of the manner in which the trades were carried on before the extensive use of machinery had brought the factory system into existence. It showed me also the easy way in which, in those days, the industrial education of children was carried on. When the work in the handicrafts was performed in the house, or in a shop adjoining the house, it was an easy thing for the father to hand down to the son the trade he himself had practised. Under the conditions in which trades are carried on in Sicily to-day children are literally born to the trade which their fathers practise. In these homes, where the shop and the home are crowded together in one or two rooms, children see their fathers and mothers at work from the time they are born. As soon as they are able to handle a tool of any kind the boys, at any rate, and frequently the girls also, are set to work helping their parents. As the father, in his turn, has probably inherited the accumulated traditions and skill of generations that preceded him in the same trade, his children are able to get from him, in the easiest and most natural way, an industrial education such as no other kind of school can give.

Whatever may be the disadvantages of the people of Sicily in other respects, they have an advantage over the Negro in learning the skilled trades, the value of which it is difficult to estimate. Everywhere one sees the evidences of this skill with the hand, not only in the public buildings, but in some of the common objects of daily use. I have already referred to the way in which the ordinary little two-wheeled carts, which take the place of the ordinary farmer’s wagon in this country, are decorated. I have seen in Catania men at work practically hew- ing these carts out of the log. I do not know to what extent the frame of the wagon is hewn out in this way, but, at any rate, the spokes are. Every detail is worked out with the greatest possible skill, even to the point of carving little figures or faces at the ends of the beams that make the frames. Likewise the harness of the donkeys that draw these carts Is an elaborate and picturesque affair which must require a vast amount of patience and skill to make. The point I wish particularly to emphasize here Is that all this skill In the handicrafts, which has become traditional In a people, Is the best kind of preparation for every kind of higher education. In this respect the Italian, like the Japanese and Chinese, as well as every other race which has had centuries of training in the handicrafts, has an advantage over the Negro that can only be overcome when the masses of the Negro people have secured a training of the hand and a skill in the crafts that correspond to those of other races.

Not only are children, especially boys, employed at a very early age In all the trades I have mentioned, but young boys from fourteen to sixteen perform, as I have said, In the mines and elsewhere an incredible amount of the crude, rough work of the community.

I remember, one day in Palermo, seeing, for the first time in my life, boys, who were certainly not more than fourteen years of age, engaged in carrying on their backs earth from a cellar that was being excavated for a building. Men did the work of digging, but the mere drudgery of carrying the earth from the bottom of the excavation to the surface was performed by these boys. It was not simply the fact that mere children were engaged in this heavy work which impressed me. It was the slow, dragging steps, the fixed and unalterable expression of weariness that showed in every line of their bodies. Later I learned to recognize this as the habitual manner and expression of the carusi, which is the name that the Italians give to those boys who are employed in the sulphur mines to carry the crude ore up from the mines where it is dug and to load it into the cars by which it is conveyed to the surface.

The work in a sulphur mine is organized in many respects, I learned, like that of a coal mine. The actual work of digging the sulphur is performed by the miner, who is paid by the amount of crude ore he succeeds in getting out. He, in his turn, has a man or a boy, sometimes two or three of them, to assist him in getting the ore out of the mine to the smelter, where it is melted and refined. As I myself had had some experience as a boy in work similar to this in the mines of West Virginia, I was interested in learning all I could in regard to these boys and the conditions under which they worked. In the case of boys employed for this work, the Sicilians have a custom of binding out their children to the miner, or picconiero, as he is called. Such a boy is then called, in the language of the country, a caruso. As a matter of fact, a picconiero who buys a boy from his parents to employ him as a caruso actually purchases a slave. The manner in which the purchase is made is as follows : In Sicily, where the masses of the people are so wretchedly poor in everything else, they are nevertheless unusually rich in children, and, as often happens, the family that has the largest number of mouths to fill has the least to put in them. It is from these families that the carusi are recruited. The father who turns his child over to a miner receives in return a sum of money in the form of a loan. The sum usually amounts to from eight to thirty dollars, according to the age of the boy, his strength and general usefulness. With the payment of this sum the child is turned over absolutely to his master. 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.

Strange and terrible stories are told about the way in which these boy slaves have been treated by their masters. Before coming to Sicily I had met and talked with persons who described to me the processions of half-naked boys, their bodies bowed under the heavy weight of the loads they carried, groaning and cursing as they made their way up out of the hot and sulphurous holes in the earth, carrying the ore from the mine to the smelter. All that I had heard elsewhere was confirmed later by the details furnished by official reports and special studies of conditions in the mining regions, made at different times and by different persons. In these reports I learned that the mines had been in the past the refuge of a debased and criminal population, whose vices made the bleak, sulphursmitten region where the mines are located as much like hell as it looks.

The cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected, as related by those w^ho 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 over- burdened 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. As they climbed out of the hot and poisonous atmosphere of the mines their bodies, naked to the waist and dripping with sweat, were chilled by the cold draughts in the corridors leading out of the mines, and this sudden transition was the frequent cause of pneumonia and tuberculosis.

In former years children of six and seven years of age were employed at these crushing and terrible tasks. Under the heavy burdens (averaging about forty pounds) they were com- pelled to carry, they often became deformed, and the number of cases of curvature of the spine and deformations of the bones of the chest reported was very large. More than that, these children were frequently made the victims of the lust and unnatural vices of their masters. It is not surprising, therefore, that they early gained the appearance of gray old men, and that it has become a common saying that a caruso rarely reaches the age of twenty- five.

It was with something of all this in my mind that I set out from Palermo a little before day- light one morning in September to visit the mines at Campofranco, on the southern side of the island, in the neighbourhood of Girgenti. My misgivings were considerably increased when, upon reaching the railway station to take the train, I found that the guide and interpreter who had been employed the night before to accompany us on the trip had not made his appearance. We waited until all the porters at the station and the guards on the train were fairly in a fever of excitement in their well-meant efforts to get us and our baggage on the train. Then, at the last moment, with the feeling that we were taking a desperate chance, we scrambled aboard and started off into a wild region, which no guide-book had charted and, so far as I knew, no tourist had ever visited.

The train carried us for some distance along the fertile plain between the sea and the hills. It was just possible to make out in the twilight of the early morning the dim outlines of the little towns we passed. At length, just as we were able to catch the first gleams of the morn- ing sun along the crests of the mountains, the railway turned abruptly southward and the train plunged into a wide valley between the brown and barren hills.

At Roccapalumba we left the main line of the railway, which turns eastward from there in the direction of Catania, and continued our journey with the somewhat ruder comforts of an accommodation train. From this point on the way grew rougher, the country wilder, and the only companions of our journey were the rude country folk, with an occasional sprinkling of miners. At the little town of Lercara we entered the zone of the sulphur mines. From now on, at nearly every station we passed, I saw great masses of the bright yellow substance, piled in cars, waiting to be carried down to the port of Girgenti for shipment to all parts of the world, and particularly to the United States, which is still the largest market for this Sicilian gold.

The nearer the train approached our destination, the more uncomfortable I grew about the prospect that was before us. I felt very sure that I should be able to reach Campofranco and perhaps see something of the mines, but whether I should ever be able to get out again and what would become of me if I were compelled to seek shelter in some of the unpromising places I saw along the way was very uncertain.

Fortunately, Dr. Robert E. Park, of Boston, who was travelling with me, and who accompanied me on nearly all of my excursions of this kind, was with me on this trip. Doctor Park had a pretty thorough mastery of the German language, and could speak a little French, but no Italian. He had, however, an Italian grammar in his satchel, and when we finally found ourselves at sea, in a region where neither English, German, nor French was of any help to us, he took that grammar from his satchel and set to work to learn enough Italian between Palermo and Campofranco to be able to make at least our most urgent wants known. For four hours he devoted himself industriously to the study of that beautiful and necessary language. It was a desperate case, and I think I am safe in saying that Doctor Park studied grammar more industriously during those four hours than he ever did before in his life. At any rate, by the time the train had crossed the rocky crest of the mountains which divide the north and south sides of Sicily, and before we disembarked at the lonesome little station of Campofranco, he could speak enough Italian, mixed with German, French, and English, to make himself understood. Perhaps another reason for Doctor Park’s success was the fact that the Italians understand the sign language pretty well.

The mines at Campofranco are on the slope of the mountain, just above the railway station. A mile or more across the great empty valley, high up on the slope of the opposite mountain, is the village from which the mines get their name, a little cluster of low stone and cement buildings, clinging to the mountainside as if they were in imminent danger of slipping into the valley below.

A few hundred yards above the station great banks of refuse had been dumped into the valley, and a place levelled off on the side of the mountain, where the furnaces and smelters were located. There were great rows of kilns, like great pots, half buried in the earth, in which the ore is melted and then run off into forms, where it is cooled and allowed to harden.

I confess that I had been very dubious as to the way that we were likely to be received at the mines, seeing that we did not know the customs nor the people, and had very scant supply of Italian in which to make known our wants. The manager, however, who proved to be a very polite and dignified man, could speak a little French and some English. He seemed to take a real pleasure in showing us about the works. He explained the methods by which the sulphur was extracted, insisted upon our drinking a glass of wine, and was even kind enough to loan me a horse and guide when I expressed a desire to rent one of the passing donkeys to convey me to some of the more inaccessible places, farther up the mountain, where I could see the miners had burrowed into the earth in search of sulphur. On the vast slope of the mountain and at a distance they looked like ants running in and out of little holes in the earth.

It was at the mouth of one of these entrances to the mines that I got my first definite notion of what sulphur miners look like — those unfortunate creatures who wear out their lives amid the poisonous fumes and the furnace heat of these underground hells. There was a rum- ble of a car, and presently a man, almost stark naked, stepped out of the dark passageway. He was worn, haggard, and gray, and his skin had a peculiar grayish-white tinge. He spoke in a husky whisper, but I do not know whether that is one of the characteristic effects of the work in the mines or not. I was told that, in ad- dition to other dangers, the sulphur has a bad effect upon the lungs. It was explained to me that the sulphur dust gets into the lungs and clogs them up, and that is what accounts for the groans of the carusi, so frequently spoken of, when they are tugging up the steep and winding passageways with the heavy burdens of crude ore on their backs.

It had been many years since I had been in a mine, but as I entered the dark, damp gallery and felt the sudden underground chill, the memories of my early experiences all came back to me. As we got farther into the mine, how- ever, the air seemed to grow warmer. Sud- denly a door at the side of the gallery opened; a blast of hot air, like that from a furnace, burst out into the corridor, and another of those half-naked men, dripping with perspiration, stepped out.

We passed at intervals along the main corridor a number of these doors which, as I dis- covered, led down into parts of the mine where the men were at work. It seemed incredible to me that any one could live and work in such heat, but I had come there to see what a sul- phur mine was like, so I determined to try the experiment.

The side passage which I entered was, in fact, little more than a burrow, twisting and winding its way, but going constantly deeper and deeper into the dark depths of the earth. I had known what it was to work deep down under the earth, but I never before so thoroughly realized what it meant to be in the bowels of the earth as I did while I was groping my way through the dark and winding passages of this sulphur mine.

It is down at the bottom of these holes, and in this steaming atmosphere, that the miners work. They loosen the ore from the walls of the seams in which it is found, and then it is carried up out of these holes in sacks by the carusi.

In the mine which I visited the work of getting the ore to the surface was performed in a modern and comparatively humane way. It was simply necessary to carry the ore from the different points where it is mined to the car, by which it is then transported to the smelter. In those mines, however, where the work is still carried on in the old, traditional fashion, which has been in vogue as far back as any one can remember, all the ore is carried on the backs of boys. In cases where the mine descended to the depth of two, three, or four hundred feet, the task of carrying these loads of ore to the surface is simply heartbreaking. I can well understand that persons who have seen conditions at the worst should speak of the children who have been condemned to this slavery as the most unhappy creatures on earth.

From all that I can learn, however, the conditions have changed for the better in recent years. In 1902 a law was passed which for- bade the employment of children under thirteen years in underground work, and to this was added, a little later, a provision which forbade, after 1905, the employment of children under fifteen in the mines.

So far as I am able to say, this provision was carried out in the mine I visited, for I did not see children at work anywhere inside the mine. I saw a number of the poor little creatures at work in the dumps outside the mine, however. They were carrying refuse ore in bags on their backs, throwing it on screens, and then loading the finer particles back into the cars. Once having seen these gangs of boys at work, I could never mistake their slow, dragging movements and the expression of dull despair upon their faces.

It is said that the employment of boys in the sulphur mines is decreasing. According to law, the employment of children under fifteen years of age has been forbidden since 1905. As is well known, however, in Italy as in America, it is much easier to make laws than to enforce them. This is especially true in Sicily. The only figures which I have been able to obtain upon the subject show that from 1880 to 1898 there was an enormous increase in the number of children employed in and about the mines. In 1880 there were 2,419 children under fifteen years working there, among whom were eight girls. Of this number 88 were seven and 163 were eight years of age, while 12 per cent, of the whole number were under nine years of age. In 1898, however, the number of children under fifteen years of age was 7,032, of whom 5,232 were at work inside the mines. At this time the Government had already attempted to put some restrictions on the employment of children in the mines, but the age limit had not been fixed as high as fifteen years. The sulphur mines are located on the southern slopes of the mountains that cross Sicily from east to west. About ten miles below Campofranco the two branches of the railway, one running directly south from Roccapalumba, and the other running southwest from Caltanisetta, come together a few miles above Girgenti. On the slopes of the broad valleys through which these two branches of the railway run are located nearly all the sulphur mines in Sicily. From these mines, which furnish some- thing like 70 per cent, of the world’s supply of sulphur, a constant stream of this yellow ore flows down to the sea at the port of Girgenti.

After leaving Campofranco I travelled through this whole region. In many places the mountain slopes are fairly honeycombed with holes where the miners in years past have dug their way into the mountain in search of the precious yellow mineral. For many miles in every direction the vegetation has been blasted by the poisonous smoke and vapours from the smelters, and the whole country has a blotched and scrofulous appearance which is depressing to look upon, particularly when one considers the amount of misery and the number of human lives it has cost to create this condition. I have never in my life seen any place that seemed to come so near meeting the description of the “abomination of desolation” referred to in the Bible. There is even a certain grandeur in the desolation of this country which looks as if the curse of God rested upon it

I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that expect to see in this life.

As I have already said, however, there are indications that in the sulphur mines, as else- where in Sicily, the situation of the man farthest down is improving. I pray God that it is so, for I could not picture an existence more miser- able than the slow torture of this crushing labour in the hot and poisonous air of these sulphur mines.

Let me say also that I came away from the sulphur mines and from Sicily with a very much better opinion of the people than when I entered. I went to Italy with the notion that the Sicilians were a race of brigands, a sullen and irritable people who were disposed at any moment to be swept off their feet by violent and murderous passions. I came away with the feeling that, whatever might be the faults of the masses of the people, they were, at the very least, more sinned against than sinning, and that they de- serve the sympathy rather than the condemnation of the world. The truth Is that, as far as my personal experience goes, I was never treated more kindly in my whole life than I was the day when, coming as a stranger, without an introduction of any kind, I ventured to visit the region which has the reputation of being the most wicked, and is certainly the most unfortunate, in Europe. I mean the region around and north of Girgenti, which is the seat at once of the sulphur mines and the Mafia.

If any one had told me before I went to Sicily that I would be willing to intrust my life to Sicilians away down in the darkness of a sulphur mine, I should have believed that such a person had lost his mind. I had read and heard so much of murders of the Mafia in Sicily, that for a long time I had had a horror of the name of Sicilians; but when I came in contact with them, before I knew it, I found myself trusting them absolutely to such an extent that I willingly followed them into the bowels of the earth ; into a hot, narrow, dark sulphur mine where, without a moment’s warning, they might have demanded my life or held me, if they cared to, for a ran- som. Nothing of this kind occurred; on the other hand, I repeat, every Sicilian with whom I came in contact in the sulphur mine treated me in the most kindly manner, and I came away from their country having the highest respect for them. I did not meet, while I was there, a single person, from the superintendent to the lowest labourer at the mines, who did not seem, not only willing, but even anxious, to assist me to see and learn everything I wanted to know. What is more, Campofranco was the only place in Europe where I met men who refused to accept money for a service rendered me.

From “The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe”, 1912, written by Washington, Booker Tagliaferro, 1856-1915