December 8, 2009

Precursors To The Fall: Early attempts to destroy the sovereign Kingdom of the Two Sicilies

Ferdinand II
By Lucian

When the Risorgimento is discussed it is usually in relation to Garibaldi and the invasion that ended the reign of the Bourbons and the independence of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. However, the Risorgimento was not a singular event, but a series of actions occurring over decades. There were earlier Revolutionary attempts to invade the South that were significantly less successful than the bloodbath perpetrated by the notorious Redshirts.

Two of these attempts were the failed assassination of the King of Naples, Ferdinand II, by Agesilao Milano on December 8, 1856, and the “Caligari” incident, which ended in embarrassment for all parties involved.

Agesilao Milano was a private in one of the regiments stationed in Naples. He was also a fanatical adherent to the teachings of Giuseppe Mazzini, and was initiated into the society of Young Italy. He proclaimed to his sponsors that he was determined to sacrifice his life for the cause. With reasoning that would have made Friedrich Engles proud, they urged him not to proceed with an assassination until they could set up a general uprising to follow it. He pretended to concede, but instead went rogue.

Agesilao Milano
At a military review in Naples, Milano left the ranks and attacked the King with his bayonet, nearly succeeding in killing him but for a pistol case turning aside most of the blow. The Count di Montemolino witnessed the assault and immediately rushed to aid the King, who whispered “Stand back. Keep silent.” By preventing the assassination attempt from being generally observed, he prevented the Swiss regiments from reacting automatically to a perceived military coup by the native troops, who would have responded to the Swiss soldiers reaction with artillery. Though slightly wounded, Ferdinand’s quick thinking prevented a chain reaction that would have sparked a civil war and resulted in enormous casualties, both military and civilian.

If this chain of events was planned by Milano, as some claim, it was masterful and would have facilitated a general uprising of the Liberals throughout the country. Merely the attempted assassination would likely have caused the death of the Monarch and incited a revolution whether the bayonet reached him or not. As it was, a conveniently placed pistol case and the Kings calm reaction foiled an otherwise brilliant plan.

Giuseppe Mazzini
It is said that Ferdinand wished to spare Milano’s life, but conceded to both internal and foreign political pressure that required the assassin to be executed. Truthfully, there were few other ways to deal with an assassin that wouldn’t make a Monarch appear weak. Unfortunately, without an anonymous summery execution and immediate cover-up there was no way to prevent such a man from becoming a martyr to his cause, and that is precisely what occurred. Milano’s actions and fate were used to stimulate revolutionary activity throughout the Kingdom.

One of the plots said to be inspired by Milano’s sacrifice was the “Calagari” incident. Mazzini himself met in Genoa with Carlo Pisacane to finalize the assault plans.

Several key components of the plot failed early on, including the failure to obtain the men and arms deemed necessary to hijack the steamer that the conspirators were traveling on. Despite this the captain and crew of the Caligari were convinced to cooperate without the use of violence, and proceeded to the island of Ponza where they managed to release approximately 800 prisoners, 323 of which joined them in their plans to “liberate” a section of Calabria.

Unbeknownst to the would-be liberators, Mazzini thought that the failure to deliver arms and men automatically aborted the mission, and did not prepare his agents in Calabria for their arrival. In addition to this, and much like their respective ideological counterparts today, they had not a clue about the “oppressed” foreigners they attempt to “liberate.”

After landing at Sapri on June 28, 1857, the invaders found themselves without local support and facing not only the Royal army, but also a hostile local population. Utterly defeated, the invaders were hunted throughout the mountains and slaughtered by the locals whenever possible. Eventually the leaders were arrested and condemned to death, only to have their sentence commuted by Ferdinand. (In my humble opinion, the locals had the situation under control and should have been left alone to finish it as they saw fit.)

As the Caligari was escaping it was intercepted by the Neapolitan frigate Tancredi and taken as a lawful prize. While the charge of filibuster (illegal mercenary) was obvious to most people, the British didn’t see it that way and demanded that the vessel and the two British crewmen aboard be returned to Great Britain and reparations made for their seizure. 

Again we see Ferdinand showing mercy on his enemies. The case of the two English subjects repatriated to Britain with reparations in order to appease the English government is a perfect example. A more ruthless leader would have made that entire crew “disappear” and blamed the invading force for it, giving the boat and reparations directly to the English government as an insincere gesture of cooperation. Britain was a military and economic powerhouse. They didn’t need an excuse to attack the Bourbons if they really wanted to. They would not have invaded to avenge two sailors involved in an illegal foreign combat action, not if the appropriate gestures were made afterward. Unfortunately, once it was generally known that the crew was captured alive by the Neapolitans the King had few other options but to appease Britain.

The Bourbon name has been as maligned as the Devil himself for ruling the last remaining absolute monarchy in Western Europe, and while a few may have deserved it, certainly not all of them did. Ferdinand could have done a lot more to discourage the troublemakers within his kingdom or the less powerful enemy agents outside of it, and if he had been as ruthless and evil as the Bourbon namesake, he would have.

On the other hand, there were obvious political influences at work from European powers far greater than Ferdinand’s kingdom, and in the end there is only so much that one can do by conventional methods. As is often the case in history, the more things change, the more they stay the same.