March 30, 2010

Freedom Won and Lost: The Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez
By Niccolò Graffio

“Freedom cannot be granted. It must be taken.”
– Max Stirner: The Ego and His Own, 1845.

Americans in general today certainly take for granted the freedoms they still possess. This is not an unfair or inaccurate statement to make. How many Americans, for example, take the time out of their busy schedules watching television, surfing the Net, playing video games, “hanging out” in bars/clubs or just gaining weight to engage in such innocuous activities as educating themselves on the latest bills before their legislators? How many of them go further and contact their legislators to offer them their opinions on these bills? How many even bother to just vote on Election Day? You get the point, I’m sure. Every day things go on among our elected officials that will ultimately affect our daily lives, positively or negatively, and most seem content to remain blissfully detached from these proceedings.

One thing I’ve noticed Americans do like to do, politically speaking, is complain. Americans complain a lot! They complain at the workplace; they complain at the barber shop/hair salon; they complain at barbeques. They’ll complain anywhere they can find an ear to bend. Everyone likes to complain about politics, it seems; few are willing to do anything about it.

It wasn’t always this way. If one takes the time to read books on American history, one will realize that decades ago a greater percentage of Americans became actively involved in politics than now. One can’t help but notice those times in history when Americans were most involved in politics were lean times, economically speaking, like the Great Depression. Affluence appears to breed indolence.

In other parts of the world today, we see something different. In Greece, for example, the government is teetering on the verge of insolvency. During the bull market earlier in this decade corrupt local officials took advantage of the economic boon to throw long-established principles of accounting out the window and spent more than they were taking in, foolishly believing they could “rob Peter to pay Paul”. Now that they are stuck along with most everyone else in the midst of a severe global recession, the Greeks are finding to their dismay the rest of their neighbors in the EU consider their government bonds toxic.

As a result, officials in Athens have been forced to invoke drastic austerity measures to prevent (or at least forestall) an impending implosion of the Greek economy. This has touched a raw nerve among many in the Greek populace, who feel (probably correctly) they are being made the scapegoat for the corruption and incompetence of government officials. Many have taken to the streets in protest. The potential for violence is there! Certainly an enraged electorate is something no elected official in Greece is looking forward to on Election Day.

As a result of our historic national prosperity, Americans, especially when comparing themselves to foreigners, tend to view themselves as superior. That somehow our national greatness is inherent and has always existed. Nothing could be further from the truth! Throughout much of this country’s history the bulk of its citizenry have struggled to earn a living. Furthermore, the relative isolation of this country (to the land-hungry empires of Europe) was in large part responsible for keeping it safe from foreign domination.

America, in fact, began as a “political experiment”; a republic born of compromise between rival factions. Had it not also been for its alliances with Spain and France, there is no doubt in this writer’s mind the vast armies of Britannia would have quickly ground it down into the dirt, and men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have, in all probability, found themselves facing a rope!

American history, then, is the story of a political experiment that succeeded. The following is the story of one that failed.

The Kingdom of Sicily was founded in 1130 by Roger II, Count of Sicily, a man of Norman and Italian extractions. His reign as king lasted from 1130-1154 and in its early stages was characterized mainly by suppression of rebellions, fending off foreign invasions and contending with a belligerent Pope, who initially refused to recognize Roger’s title as suzerain of the newly-formed kingdom.

Having finally secured his new kingdom, Roger built up an armada and went about conquering surrounding territories, creating a fledgling empire with its center at Palermo. His expeditions eventually brought him into conflict with the Byzantine Empire to the east, and though his fleets raised hell throughout the imperial dominions, they failed to capture Constantinople, the capital. Roger died in 1154.
Roger established a short-lived dynasty that ended in 1189 with the death of his grandson William II, nicknamed “the Good”. The throne was seized by Tancred of Lecce, an illegitimate son of Roger III, Duke of Apulia, the eldest son of King Roger II of Sicily. After seizing the throne, Tancred had William’s widow, Queen Consort Joan of England (sister of King Richard the Lionheart) imprisoned.

When Richard arrived in Sicily with his army on his way to battle the Muslims in the Holy Land, he demanded Tancred free his sister and return her dowry. When Tancred refused Richard attacked his dominions, eventually securing her release. When Richard left for the Holy Land in 1191, Tancred found himself facing the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his wife Constance, who was a daughter of King Roger II of Sicily by his third wife Beatrice of Rethel, and his rightful heir.
The Sicilian Vespers (1822) by Francesco Hayez
Though an epidemic caused Henry to temporarily withdraw his armies to the north, and Constance for a time was taken hostage by Tancred, his death in 1194 along with the premature death of his young son (and co-ruler) Roger III effectively ended his attempt at establishing a dynasty. When Henry returned later that same year, Tancred’s other son William III was taken prisoner to Germany and Henry had himself proclaimed King of Sicily, ending Norman rule in Sicily.

The accession of Henry and Constance to the throne of Sicily saw the establishment of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Their son Frederick II was crowned King of Sicily (as King Frederick I) at the age of three in 1197, with his mother Constance relinquishing her title as Queens to remain as regent. He would go on to become King of Germany and Burgundy as well as Holy Roman Emperor.

Frederick was a renowned patron of the arts and sciences, though he was a notorious religious skeptic at a time when much of Europe was in thrall to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1224 he founded the University of Naples. At the time of his death in 1250 he was the preeminent monarch in Europe. However, within four years of his death, his son Conrad IV, heir to the thrones of Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire, would himself be dead and Hohenstaufen rule would begin to crumble in Sicily. By February 26th, 1266, with the death of King Manfred at the Battle of Benevento, the island would be in the hands of Charles I (also known as Charles of Anjou).

Charles was an energetic, ambitious ruler who was determined to be master of all Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike the Norman and Hohenstaufen rulers before him, Charles made Naples his capital. Sicily was to be his springboard for an eventual invasion of Byzantine lands to the east.

To finance his military campaigns, Charles heavily taxed his subjects and debased the currency. This all but ruined trade on Sicily. He also brought in French nobles loyal to himself and put them in various positions of authority. Though historians paint Charles as a tough but fair ruler, more often than not he was anywhere but on Sicily, leaving his French nobles to run affairs. The Sicilians chafed under their rule, which was characterized as cruel, oppressive and rapacious. Circumstances were rife for rebellion!

While all this was going on, external forces were conspiring against Charles’ ambitions as well. Emperor Michael VII Palaeologus, restorer and ruler of the Byzantine Empire, attempted to reconcile the Orthodox Church of his domains with the Catholic Church centered in Rome. The purpose of which was to drive a wedge between the Pope and the rulers of the Latin states now occupying formerly Byzantine-held lands. Michael also intrigued with Pedro III, King of Aragon.

When Charles of Anjou defeated Manfred, title to his kingdom passed to his daughter Constance, who was wife of Pedro. Pedro now had claim to the Kingdom of Sicily. Through the machinations of Giovanni da Procida, a Campanian physician and diplomat, Pedro was able to further stir up discontent amongst native Sicilian nobles to Angevin rule. Procida then travelled to Constantinople to seek the aid of Emperor Michael, who refused to enter into intrigues with Pedro unless it had the blessings of the Pope. Giovanni da Procida was able to secure the consent of Pope Nicholas III, who feared Charles’ growing power in Southern Italy.

What happened next is subject to debate among historical scholars to this day. That Pedro and Michael conspired to end Charles’ rule of Sicily there can be no doubt. How much their intrigues contributed to the rebellion there against Angevin rule remains an open question. The events surrounding the rebellion itself are also far from certain. The opinion of many historians (and this writer) is the insurrection occurred parallel to the intrigues of Pedro and Michael, who simply took advantage of a good thing.

According to one version the inhabitants of the city of Palermo were holding Easter Monday festivities just outside the town when French soldiers arrived to check for weapons, which Sicilians were forbidden to possess. The Frenchmen took the occasion to molest their women, which triggered a murderous riot that mushroomed into a full-blown insurrection!

Another version has it that a group of drunken French soldiers “crashed” a Sicilian wedding, harassing and vexing those in attendance before committing an outrage against the bride! Pandemonium predictably followed suit.
The Sicilian Vespers (1865) by Michele Rapisardi
A popular version of events, one advanced by the late British historian Steven Runciman, has it that during the Easter Monday festivities a group of drunken French soldiers attempted to mingle with the locals. The Sicilians coldly kept their distance from the Frenchmen. One of their group, a sergeant named Drouet, spied a comely young Sicilian lady and forcibly pulled her out of the crowd. His attempts at l’amour accomplished nothing but to incite the fury of her husband who was standing nearby. Pulling out a dagger, he rushed the overbearing Drouet and stabbed him to death! When his comrades attempted to come to his aid, they were quickly surrounded by a larger group of Sicilians who fell upon them with daggers and swords, dispatching them all.

At that moment the bells of the Vespers began to ring in Palermo. The Sicilians, realizing nothing but the most hideous and brutal reprisals awaited them, decided to “go for broke”. Raising their weapons, they shouted in the Sicilian language: “Moranu li Franchiski!” (“Death to the French!”). Racing through the streets of Palermo, they struck down every Frenchman they came across, while simultaneously exhorting their fellow townsmen to do the same. Since the French by this time were universally hated, it was not a hard thing to do. No one was spared: men, women and children. By the next morning every Frenchman in the city of Palermo was dead. It should be noted many modern historians think the magnitude of the slaughter was probably an exaggeration.

Whatever the truth, the insurrection quickly spread over the whole island. Most French officials were killed, though those who had ruled wisely were spared and allowed to depart in peace. Example: William Porcelet, the Vice-Justiciar of Western Sicily, had won the love of the Sicilians for his fairness and benevolent rule. The rebels escorted him and his family with honors to Palermo, allowing them to board a ship bound for Provence. Likewise the town of Sperlinga, at the heart of Sicily, allowed the French garrison there to retire safely to Messina.

By May the whole island was in rebel hands. Each major town proclaimed itself a commune answerable only to Papal authority. Charles of Anjou’s fleet which he had amassed just outside Messina in preparation for an invasion of Constantinople was put to the torch.

Significantly, the rebels decided on establishing a rudimentary version of a federal republic. They appealed to the Pope for protection. Unfortunately, by this time Nicholas III was dead and Martin IV, a lackey of Charles of Anjou, occupied the Papal throne. No aid of any kind would be forthcoming.

With Charles amassing a fleet in preparation for a punitive expedition to Sicily, and no one else to turn to for aid, the Sicilians reluctantly petitioned Pedro III for help. Conveniently sitting at the head of a large fleet near Tunis just 200 miles from Sicily, Pedro sailed for the island. Marching up the coast, he arrived in Palermo on September 2, 1282. Needless to say, the Sicilians weren’t exactly enthusiastic about replacing one foreign king with another. However, since Pope Martin IV had reasserted Charles’ right to the island, and Pedro promised to honor the islanders’ ancient privileges, they agreed to recognize him as their suzerain. One September 4th, 1282, Pedro III was crowned King Pietro I of Sicily by a mandate of the Sicilian people.

Charles would spend the rest of his reign as King of Naples trying to reestablish his control over the island of Sicily, and would fail every time. He would exhaust his forces in the endeavor, thereby sparing the ailing Byzantine Empire from almost certain destruction. The Sicilian Vespers triggered a war in the central and western Mediterranean regions that lasted until 1302, when the rulers of the kingdoms of Naples and Aragon signed the Peace of Caltabellotta, the last of a series of treaties that basically maintained the status quo. Charles II (son of Charles I) was recognized as King of Naples, and the island kingdom of Sicily, now known as the Kingdom of Trinacria, passed to Federico III, third son of Pedro III of Aragon. A house divided, the Kingdom of Sicily would remain under foreign domination.

As mentioned earlier in this article, America’s only reason for existence was the aid extended to it by the French and Spanish, as well as its isolation relative to Europe. Sicily, sadly, is located at the center of the Mediterranean, historically making it a coveted spot for empire-builders. One is left to wonder how different the history of that region might have been had the Sicilians, like the Americans long after them, found a benefactor for their fledgling republic.

Further reading:
Steven Runciman: The Sicilian Vespers; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995.

March 28, 2010

The Lessons of Abu Tabela

Paolo di Avitabile
Oct. 25, 1791—March 28, 1850
By Lucian 

Paolo di Avitabile was born in Agerola, near Amalfi. He was a Neapolitan soldier who reached the rank of Lieutenant and was recommended for promotion and decoration by General Delaver after displaying great courage and being wounded twice during the siege of Gaeta. Unfortunately, in his case, the General was ignored and Avitabile was instead transferred to a light infantry division under the same rank. He resigned in disgust at his treatment, but went on to become a successful mercenary in the east, and eventually became the governor of Wazirabad and then Peshawar. He was also a scholar and engineer, and worked closely with Lehna Singh Majithia, the renowned Sikh engineer. After his adventurous career he returned with his fortune to his homeland in Naples, where he married a local girl but then died under suspicious circumstances.

Although Avitabile was interesting and successful, you may be wondering why he is special enough to be remembered as a significant figure in Southern Italian history, especially since he became a mercenary and political figure outside of his European homeland. The answer is because Paolo di Avitabile was also known as the legendary figure Abu Tabela.

After seven years as an efficient governor of Wazirabad, the former mercenary was appointed governor of Peshawar, a predominantly Muslim Afghan province which the Sikhs had great difficulty governing. It was here that, in a corruption of his name, he became known as Abu Tabela. His leadership in Wazirabad was described as firm and just, but his rule of Peshawar as so brutal it was shocking to many Europeans, as is evidenced by the following quote by Sir Henry Lawrence: “he acts like a savage among savage men, instead of showing them that a Christian can wield the iron sceptre without staining it by needless cruelty.” So sure were men like Lawrence of their own cultural superiority that they failed to understand that the inhabitants of Peshawar were not Christian, they were not motivated by the same things and did not react in the same ways.

Unlike the squeamish Sir Lawrence, many average inhabitants of Peshawar were happy with the way Governor Avitabile maintained order and he was very popular among them. This is a clear example of how Europeans at the time had as little understanding of these people as most Westerners do today. We either mimic cultures that we do not fully understand, or attempt to force our culture onto those who consistently reject it. I am not attracted to Islam and feel no need to appease its adherents or adopt their ways, but neither do I feel the need to mold them into replicas of myself. Our leaders do not seem to be able to control Muslim regions, perhaps this is because they insist on believing that the people in them think as we do, even when it is obvious that they do not. We should not have to alter a thousand year old culture to fit our business model, or force our version of morality on them in their own homelands. The current approach of Western governments has never worked well in these places, and is a waste of time and resources. Conversely, Abu Tabela was successful because he understood his subjects, and in return, the Muslims had no trouble understanding him.

General Avitabile's tomb
S. Martino di Campora
I admire Avitabile because, even though he worked for both the Persian Shah and the Maharajah, he never betrayed Europe. In Peshawar, Avitabile controlled the southern entrance to the Khyber Pass, where he rendered vital assistance to British forces twice during the First Anglo-Afghan War, first in 1839 and again in 1842. He personally advanced large sums of money to the British campaign treasury to help pay their soldiers in addition to providing supplies and transportation.
Avitabile wasn’t appreciated when he was a soldier in Europe, but he did not forget his roots, and helped Europe when he could. The suspicious circumstances of his death are sad; as they also bring the possibility that he was not appreciated upon his return to Europe either. The legal battles over his inheritance and many claims by distant relatives made the term “Avitablile’s cousin” a popular saying in Campania. It is a pity that indifference and greed can get in the way of our admiration for people of honor and loyalty such as Paolo di Avitabile.
His rule of Peshawar carved a place for him in local folklore. Even today parents in the region control unruly children by invoking Abu Tabela's name. During times of high crime and violence, honest citizens of the city make wishes for Abu Tabela’s return to reestablish law and order. I understand how they feel; I miss him too.

March 26, 2010

A Night of Remembrance

Honoring the Dead of the Triangle Fire
From left to right: Caterina, Serafino, Lucia and Rosarea Maltese
By Niccolò Graffio

Yesterday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, NY.  The Triangle Fire Memorial and Historical Association held a tribute at Christ the King H.S. here in Queens in memory of the 146 victims who perished in the blaze.  I was fortunate enough to attend.

The reflective event began with an introduction by M.C. Anthony Como, Esq. and an invocation by Msgr. Nicholas W. Sivillo of Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church in Middle Village, Queens.

The crowd was welcomed by retired New York State Senator Serphin R. Maltese.  I was always an admirer of Senator Maltese, not for the least of which is the fact that, like yours truly, he was born and raised in the (formerly) Italian-American neighborhood of Corona, Queens.  How could one not admire a native son who made good?
Mr. Serphin Maltese welcoming those who came to pay their respects
In his address Mr. Maltese revealed to us his personal connection to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.  He lost his grandmother Caterina (aged 38) and two blood-aunts: Rosarea (18) and Lucia (14), fully half his family at the time, to the inferno!  His grandfather, Serafino Maltese, was left alone to raise his two sons: Paul (Senator Maltese’s father) and Vito.  Incredibly, Serafino Maltese stoically never spoke of this to his children or grandchildren.  Senator Maltese only learned of it much later when he researched the fire.  Since grief counseling was unknown at the time, one can only imagine the staggering psychological burden his grandfather was forced to shoulder by himself! 

Without question, though, the most moving part of the evening was the reading of the list of names of the victims.  Sitting there listening and realizing a large percentage of them were only teenagers; one would have had to have been a psychopath not to feel something.
Reading of the list of names of the victims
Above photos courtesy of Niccolò Graffio
After the reading of the list of names, a number of personages addressed us, including Vincent C. Maltese (V.P. of Italian Charities of America and brother of Serphin), and Cav. Tony Di Piazza, Chairman of ACINY (Associazione Culturale Italiana di New York).  Marketing director, blogger (and Sicilian nationalist) Sotiris VanVakys read to us some original research he conducted on the identities of some of the victims.

After the remarks, we watched an excerpt from the movie Pane Amaro (It: “Bitter Bread”) by Gianfranco Norelli concerning the Triangle fire.  This movie is a documentary on the Italian-American experience and it’s definitely on my list of things to get soon!  The melodic voices of Christ the King’s Concert Chorus beautifully punctuated the evening.

If there was one thing that disappointed me, it was the low turnout.  For such a horrific event that had such an everlasting impact on the history of this city, I expected many more people.  Many might think I’m asking too much, considering the fire occurred 99 years ago, but I disagree.  I’m especially disappointed with our people.  If the dozens who were there last night could make it there’s no other reason than apathy why hundreds more couldn’t have made it.

There’s an old saying that goes: “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”  To their credit, the Maltese family knows.  They are a blessing to the memory of their ancestors.  How many others can say the same?
Memorial plaques mark the spot of the tragedy. 
Mourners brought flowers and candles to remember the victims
Photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo

March 25, 2010

A Nightmare on Greene Street: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Scene at the morgue
By Niccolò Graffio

Sitting there in the motorman’s class, I listened intently to the instructor as he attempted to impress upon us the importance of safety in the workplace.  Picking up a soft cover book about the size of a notebook, he waved it in front of the class, trying to garner the attention of the know-it-alls who invariably find such lectures boring.

“This is a copy of New York City Transit’s code of safety rules.” he loudly announced.  “We have a saying about this book: ‘This is a book written in blood!’  When I first came on this job, this book had only four pages.  As you can see, this book is now a lot thicker.  Every time someone was killed on this job, another page was added to this book.”  Suddenly he had everyone’s attention.  His grim meaning was abundantly clear to all: the job of transit worker is not an easy one.  In fact, it’s a very dangerous one!

Sitting here in front of my computer, I realize it’s been years since I heard that lecture.  I didn’t stay with MTA New York City Transit (long, boring story).  Yet the memory of that instructor’s words still lingers in my mind.  Even though people to this day still get injured (even killed) on the job, we as Americans nonetheless have a tendency to take for granted the fact workplace safety has improved dramatically since our parents and grandparents earned a living. 

The word “sweatshop” conjures up images of a place where people work long, hard hours for little pay under unsafe working conditions.  Though sweatshops today are most often associated with Third World nations, it wasn’t that long ago the landscape of these United States was dotted with them.  In fact, despite numerous Federal, state and local laws prohibiting them, quite a number of them still exist in shadows.  Whereas today’s sweatshop worker in America is typically an illegal alien, in times past legal immigrants (and occasionally native-born Americans) were most commonly exploited.

As one can imagine, the potential for abuse and tragedy exists in such places.  This article deals with one such tragedy, and the way it helped shape workplace safety in America today.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was located in the Asch building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan. The Asch building was a ten-story structure, with the factory occupying the top three floors. The building was owned by two partners: Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. It produced women’s blouses or “shirtwaists” as they were known at the time. The factory employed almost 500 people with the vast majority of them being either Southern Italian/Sicilian immigrants from Italy or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  The typical employee was a female between the ages of 13 to 23.  Though Blanck and Harris owned the building, work was subcontracted out to individuals who in turn hired the girls and women.
(L-R) Bodies being laid out on the sidewalk. Inside the Triangle Shirtwaist factory after the fire. The bodies of seamstresses, who jumped from the factory floors to avoid being burned alive, outside the building. Relatives identifying bodies in the morgue.
There had been labor problems at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory prior to the fire.  The ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) had been founded only 11 years earlier to combat exploitation of skilled female employees of garment factories.  In 1909 an incident at the factory triggered a walk-out by the employees.  The ILGWU helped them stage a protest while simultaneously helping them avoid trouble with union-busting thugs and the police.  

The following year thousands of garment workers city-wide staged a general strike, forcing concessions from employers to allow workers to establish a grievance system.  Since there was little if any oversight at the time by the government, owners frequently disregarded the concessions and continued operating their factories under exploitative and unsafe conditions.  Though some of the Triangle factory’s employees by 1911 were members of the ILGWU, the place was still a non-union shop.

At 4:45 PM on Saturday, March 25, 1911 hundreds of girls and young women were finishing up their shift and preparing to go home for the day.  They had been working overtime to fill up backorders.  The floors of the factory were littered with containers of flammable liquids (used in clothing manufacture) and piles of garments.  To this day, no one is quite sure how the fire started, but start it did.  Literally within a matter of minutes it engulfed the top three floors of the Asch building.

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to use a phone to warn workers on the tenth floor of the inferno.  Many of these people were able to flee to the roof.  Among these people were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire.  The people on the ninth floor, however, were not so lucky.  They were tipped off to the conflagration by the fire itself!  Pandemonium quickly erupted as terrified girls charged en masse towards the available exits, only to discover most of them locked!  The single exterior fire escape quickly buckled under the weight of all the workers trying to flee simultaneously, causing them to tumble headlong onto the pavement over 100 feet below.

Two heroic elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, are credited with saving many lives by bringing their elevators up to the ninth floor three times each.  Unfortunately, Mortillalo’s elevator soon buckled under the intense heat.  In Zito’s case, desperate workers pried the doors to the elevator open and jumped to their deaths down the shaft. The weight of all the bodies made it impossible for him to make another trip.

The workers still trapped on the ninth floor rushed to the windows hoping to be rescued by firefighters who had arrived on the scene. In a cruel twist of fate, however, they saw the ladders of the fire trucks were unable to reach the top floors of the building. Water from their fire hoses was also unable to reach the fire on the top floors. In what would become the most unforgettable scene of the Triangle factory fire, scores of workers (most of them girls!), many on fire, made the conscious decision to leap to their deaths in order to avoid being burned alive! Others, in a last, desperate hope for salvation, tried jumping into the safety nets of firefighters, which shredded due to the crush of the falling bodies. All this witnessed by hundreds of horrified onlookers!  

Future New York State Assemblyman Louis Waldman, who was a witness to the nightmare, described it thusly:
“One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire. 
"A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames. 
"Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies. 
"The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.” – Louis Waldman: Labor Lawyer, E.P. Dutton & co. pp. 32-33.
Whoever was unable to escape or did not choose to leap to their deaths was eventually overcome by smoke or fire.  In total, 146 people, most of them young women and girls, were killed that day.  In a moving scene, 25 of the dead were found huddled together in a cloakroom.  

The Bellevue Morgue was so jammed with bodies that a makeshift morgue had to be set up on an adjoining pier by the East River to allow family members to identify their lost loved ones.  Six unidentified victims were buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens, a non-denominational cemetery, in Brooklyn.

Outrage quickly followed the fire.  The ILGWU proposed a day of mourning for the victims.  On April 5th approximately 500,000 people lined the streets of 5th Avenue in Manhattan to watch 75,000-100,000 people march in protest.  Many called for Max Blanck and Isaac Harris to be brought up on criminal charges, which they eventually were, in fact.

The defendants: Max Blanck and Issac Harris
Indicted for numerous counts of manslaughter, the two partners hired celebrated criminal attorney Max Steuer.  Steuer’s argument was no one could prove his clients knew the exit doors were blocked or locked.  Steuer was able to imply the testimony of one witness, fire survivor Kate Alterman, was rehearsed.  He then concocted the specious argument that since her testimony was rehearsed (which he never proved, by the way), it, and the testimony of other witnesses had to be false or perjured.  The jury bought it and acquitted his clients.  Though he would enjoy a long and effective career as a trial attorney, Steuer’s name became a term of reproach among labor activists.

In a sick injustice, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were paid $60,000 more than their reported losses by the insurance company.  Two years after the Triangle Factory fire Blanck would again be arrested for locking the factory door during working hours.  He would be forced a pay a big fat fine of $20!

Most of those who perished in the fire were Jewish, but scanning the list of the deceased I counted what looked like 43 Italian-sounding names.  Unquestionably most of those were from Il Mezzogiorno.  Their sad fate forever woven into the tapestry of our people’s experiences here in America.

The Asch building has been renamed the Brown Building of Science and is now owned by New York University.  It stands as a mute reminder of that horrifying day over a lifetime ago.

Though the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire was not the first workplace disaster in American history, the disgust the sight that so many dead girls elicited would greatly add impetus to the already burgeoning labor movement here.  The fire was invoked by labor activists and their supporters who were now able to force ever greater government oversight into the workplace to protect the rights of workers and their safety.  It would remain the greatest workplace disaster in New York City history until September 11th, 2001.

Further reading:

March 22, 2010

A Year in Review

When I launched Il Regno a year ago I knew what I wanted to do, but had little idea of what results to expect. When considering how to promote a Duosiciliano (Southern Italian) ethnic consciousness, I wanted to do something different from the mainstream Italo-American organizations and activists, something that was ours and not simply a channel for fashionable sociopolitical movements. Not only did I find other like-minded people and groups that I hadn’t known about, but also they found me.

Our blog was noticed right away. Greek-American organizations were immediately receptive to our emphasis on our Hellenic heritage and rallied to our cause. I have been invited to several of their functions and am always grateful for the opportunity to attend them.

Southern Italian organizations like the Partito del Sud soon followed and reached out to us as well. In fact, one of my personal highlights was being made an honorary PdS representative in the States and presented a Bourbon flag and autographed copy of National Secretary Antonio Ciano’s book I Savoia E IL Massacro Del Sud. I would like to especially thank Antonio Iannacco, Natale Cuccurese, Agostino Abbaticchio, Enzo Riccio and Alberto D'Arienzo for their moral support and friendship.

After receiving many inquiries about Il Regno it became obvious that I had a lot of work ahead of me, but I have help from some good people, and together we’ve made it through our first year. We couldn’t have near the amount of correspondence as some other groups, but I found this to be far more difficult to keep up with than I thought it would. Clearing out the SPAM alone is a full time job. I also discovered that the Nigerian Lottery is really easy to win, you don’t even have to buy a ticket; I win every day.

One of my readers pointed out a logo from the Italian anti-nuclear movement that is eerily similar to our own, only with a smiley face in the center. I don’t know what to make of it. It is unlikely that they got it from us and I know that we didn’t get ours from them. I was inspired by Indo-European symbolism of the sun and it’s relation to the Mezzogiorno, and of course I thought the traditional red and yellow of Southern Italy were fitting colors to use for it. Lucky for us, we didn’t even consider using a smiley face.

We had some very popular posts, and found out that you can’t always predict which ones will get the most attention. The popularity of the "Gynekokratia" post was a pleasant surprise; it was reprinted on several blogs and newspapers. “Who we are” and Niccolò Grafio’s “A Most Illustrious Corpse” were also well received, and caused several interesting discussions.

We have had a few events and plan to have more. I’m proud that we were able to raise some money for the earthquake victims in Abruzzo during our Battle of Bitonto Commemoration last May.

In addition to our events, we also have plans to publish our own bulletin, so keep your eyes opened for these and other exciting developments

Il Regno has continued to grow and evolve while maintaining its original purpose. Fighting for our cause gives me great pleasure and I hope that all of you continue to visit and make our efforts worthwhile. Thank you.

Forza e Onore,
Giovanni di Napoli

March 17, 2010

March 17th, 1861: Anniversary of Shame

By Giovanni di Napoli

On my way to work today I made a detour to the Italian Consul General’s office in NYC. In a small but symbolic gesture I unfurled the Bourbon flag of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies at the front gate to display my displeasure with the Italian state's plans to celebrate, over the course of the next year, the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, which will be on March 17, 2011.

My friend and I observed a moment of silence to reflect on the tragic historical event and pay our respects to those who fought, suffered and died in defense of their homeland. In a final act of defiance, before leaving, we saluted the heroic memory of King Francis II and Queen Maria Sophia and read the proposed national anthem for the future independent Southern Italian nation, Ritornati dal passato ("Back from the past"), attributed to Riccardo Pazzaglia.

Let God save you, dear homeland
that stretches out in this ancient sea of heroes,
cradle of thought
that, born in Greece,
in this land flourished anew.
Erased from history,
we are once again flying your flags.
On the sacred towers of Gaeta
we write again the word: Dignity.
Soldier of the Volturno,
you that fell here,
no one for a hundred years
has engraved your name.
The children you never knew
will return honor to you.
Back from the past,
those who believe in us this time will win.
Go ahead, drummer,
beat like you once did:
without luck
but not without courage.
Fate that betrayed us
now reunites us.
Back from the past
those who believe in us
this time will win.

As a descendant of the Southern Italian Diaspora community in the United States I find it difficult not to feel revulsion over the planned state-sponsored festivities in honor of Italy's coming anniversary. They are a reminder of why my ancestors (and those of millions of others) left our ancestral homeland to come to America. They glorify the events and personages that caused incalculable hardships on the
Mezzogiorno and the loss of our distinct ethnic identity. They reinforce the myths of Italian unification, which by nature require the wholesale vilification of Southern Italy.

Everyone knows that the victors write history, and the history of the South is no exception; it is written from the conquerors perspective. Despite the subjugation, colonization and legacy of oppression, the conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Piedmont has been made out to be a boon, instead of a bane. With the limited space available it's impossible to recount the whole story here, but I would like to give a few examples of what I mean.

For starters, it is generally accepted that the nineteenth century political and social movement for Italian unification called the
Risorgimento ("Resurgence") was fought to liberate Italy from foreign (i.e. Austrian) domination. If this was the case then why was King Francis II of the Two Sicilies considered "foreign" but his cousin, King Umberto of Savoy, was not? If, as some people claim, it was to save a backward and oppressed people from a corrupt and abusive despot than how do they explain the fact that Sardinia, a possession of Piedmont for 150 years, was actually poorer and worse off than the regions of the Two Sicilies? Considering the large numbers of Southerners killed, and many more disenfranchised and scattered by the war and subsequent occupation, it is difficult to see how the rule of Piedmont was superior to that of the Bourbons.What's also conveniently forgotten is the fact that Charles of Bourbon drove the Austrians out of Southern Italy more than a hundred years before their Northern neighbors did, therefore restoring the sovereignty of the ancient Regno, first established in 1130 by Roger II. Unlike the South, Northern Italy was never a unified nation, even after the touted battle of Legnano (1176) during the War of the Communes. Sure some towns joined forces and rebelled against Emperor Frederick I ("Barbarossa") but they never formed a nation. Also, we mustn't forget that certain towns, Lodi for example, remained loyal to the Empire.

As the Sicilian Traditionalist Baron Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola pointed out in his
Men Among the Ruins:
"The League of Communes was not followed by a national unification, not even of the purely political, schismatic, and anti-aristocratic type that was first exemplified in France by Philip the Fair. The Communes were followed by the Seignories, with their suspicious figures of petty, tyrannical princes and condottieri–while in Florence we could witness the unprecedented case of the elevation of a money-lending family to the status of a princely dynasty: thus, the Medici were entrusted with the political government of the city. Generally speaking, what ensues is political chaos, struggle, and turmoil–in the name not of the nation, but rather the faction and the most extreme particularism." [Men Among the Ruins, Inner Traditions, 2002, p. 185]
The truth of the matter is the Risorgimento was a war against Tradition and religion by subversive forces consumed with false notions of progress and humanism. Much like their later communist brethren, who had no problem with murdering millions of kulaks to create their “workers paradise,” the Mazzinians, Jacobins, Carbonari, etc. had no problem with murdering thousands of so-called "brigands" (some estimates put the figure as high as one million dead) for a unified Italy.

The more we examine the
Risorgimento, the less romantic it becomes, and the more it appears to be a period of bloody conquest hidden behind the facade of social progress. Like them or not, the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies were a major part of Southern Italian history. In order to get a better idea of who we are, we need to know our history.

Consider these words from a recent correspondence:

“For better or for worse, the truth is that unlike other dynasties, the Bourbons lawfully ascended to the throne by recognized rules of succession (even if we argue about international law, war and the law of noble succession) and heavily invested in the betterment of the kingdom, its infrastructure and its trade and commerce. Once the Bourbons came on the scene positive results came about. Naples was an Enlightenment city with academic ties to England and France and became the third largest economy and power after London and Paris. I can tell you that proof is in the fact that I myself have seen English and French publications of the period that praised the country for its wide access to education for all classes and the government’s willingness and ability to build and foster industrialization through both native efforts and through attracting competent foreign investors who brought new emerging technologies…The Bourbons certainly endowed more departments for research and development in the universities in Naples and Palermo than the next hundred years of governments did. Our ancestors had the first train and tracks in Italy, the first gas lights and exported more cotton, silk and wine and minted double the amount of coins than all of northern Italy combined. If you point that out today many people are shocked because they have been fed the image of our people as illiterate cafoni, cammorristi and mafiosi and they are used to images of a post 1865 underdeveloped country. What is interesting is that after the 1850’s when the geopolitics of Europe changed the anti-Naples propaganda began and British in particular began seeking to create incidents with the government and to accuse the government of corruption and excessive violence against dissidents. The Bourbons spoke Neapolitan and ate Neapolitan food. Several queens made presepio figurines and their own Christmas decorations. They had a real and visceral rapport with the people because they were born there and were linked to many ancient Southern families. This was and is maddening for their detractors because unlike other ruling families imposed from the outside they did not simply overtax the people and separate themselves from the people. For this reason the House of Bourbon remains a great symbol of a proud native Southern tradition. Since they were the last lawful rulers of an independent country, in a way a large part of our history stops with them. I guess that’s why in the 1960’s the Neoborbonici focused on them to build a consensus to reclaim a tangible identity. So for a lot of us, it is not just that we liked the dynasty itself, but we’re inspired by that entire lost world of our ancestors.”
My views concerning the Risorgimento and Italian unification may cause people to think that I despise Northern Italians, but that is untrue. Like most people, many Northerners know only what they were taught. Northerners who are honest about the past, or who have no ill will toward the South, I would be happy to befriend. As for Northerners who want to be separated from us, I can understand that, I feel the same way. The problem is with those who wish to dominate and exploit us, and they are as active today as they were in the past. Anti-Southern sentiment continues to be kept alive in modern Italy in order to falsely justify the invasion and to counter any possible claims for restitution. Today Italy is willing to spend Billions in reparations and aid to hostile nations like Lybia, but has done precious little to acknowledge its actions against Southern Italians, who are supposed to be part of the Italian nation.The culture of greed and exploitation imposed by the Risorgimento has not only oppressed the South, but has finally eaten away at the native communities of the North as well. Not satisfied with exploiting Southerners, cheap labor has been imported in such excess that foreigners have formed political blocks that compete with native Italians for resources. Concessions are given to outsiders at the expense of Italians themselves, especially the poor.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was doing well enough before Garibaldi and the House of Savoy chose to interfere with them and didn’t need to be “rescued” by bullets or cannon balls. The egalitarian promises made by the invaders were as empty as such promises usually are, and now they have the gall to celebrate 150 years of occupation and socioeconomic failure.

I refuse to celebrate what Piedmont and their allies did to my ancestral homeland, and will not ignore the troubled legacy their false promises have left us today.