Friday, 5 January 2018

Garibaldi in Sicily, 1860

(The failure of the revolutions of 1848-9 had left the Austrians still in charge of Milan and Venice and the rule of Pope Pius IX in Rome backed by a French army. But then in 1859 the Piedmontese Prime Minister, Count Cavour, had persuaded the Emperor Napoleon III of France to intervene in Italy and drive the Austrian from Milan. Garibaldi supported the Piedmontese cause, despite his republican beliefs and his disgust that his home town of Nice was being handed over to the French as part of the deal. Peace had been signed with the Austrian, but what would happen now?)

The people of Sicily had always resented the rule of the Bourbon dynasty in Naples, and in spring 1860 news came of yet another revolt there. Garibaldi was determined to intervene; his supporters obtained two small ships, and on May 5th he secretly set sail.
The great question must be: how much did Cavour and King Victor Emmanuel know of Garibaldi’s activities? The King was said to be sympathetic: Cavour actually ordered Garibaldi’s arrest, though this may have been no more than a gesture. But of the famous “Thousand” men who sailed with Garibaldi, hardly any were regular Piedmontese soldiers; the great majority being idealistic young middle-class volunteers. Cavour had furthermore prevented Garibaldi from arming his men from the “Million rifles fund”, or from the store of arms held in Milan, leaving the expedition with little more than antiquated single-shot muskets. The expedition set sail with insufficient food, fuel or ammunition, and furthermore the uprising it was intended to support had already been suppressed before they landed, so the chances of success did not look great.

So what exactly was Cavour’s game? When G. M. Trevelyan wrote his great history of Garibaldi and Italian unification back in 1909, he simply gave up on this question. “I do not pretend to have fathomed his motives”, Trevelyan wrote, and then suggested, “Cavour was, at least in some degree, an opportunist waiting on circumstance, and unwilling to commit himself or his country until the last possible moment”.  Later historians tend to believe that Cavour neither wanted nor expected Garibaldi to succeed: he just wanted him out of the way. Cavour was now waiting while the little states of northern Italy; Tuscany, Parma and the rest, fell without fighting under his control, but he did not share the idealistic vision of Italian unity held by the likes of Garibaldi and Mazzini. Although he knew Paris and London well, he had never ventured south of Rome, and, even if he had visited Sicily, he would probably have been unable to understand the dialect spoken there. Furthermore he was deeply concerned about the diplomatic situation. Austria, although defeated in 1859, remained very much stronger than Piedmont, and would be supported by Russia and Prussia; and French support for Piedmont was extremely flaky. Everyone knew that Garibaldi’s ultimate ambition was to take Rome as the capital of a unified Italian state, but the Pope still held Rome with the support of a French army. Any threat to Rome could lead to war against France, and what would happen then? But, as it happened, a new factor now appeared on the international scene. In Britain the Tory government had been replaced by a Whig-Liberal one, with Palmerston as Prime Minister and Lord John Russell as Foreign Secretary. Russell was open in his support of Italian unity, and even the “Times” newspaper now backed Garibaldi. The British navy dominated the western Mediterranean, and their attitude was to prove crucial, as we shall see. Another factor benefiting Garibaldi was that King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies (nicknamed "King Bomba" for his bombardment of Palermo back in 1848) had recently died, and been replaced by his less brutal but less effective son, Francis II.
   Knowing that his expedition was seriously under-equipped, Garibaldi interrupted his voyage to land at the little port of Talamone, where the commandant of the fort of Orbetello was persuaded, in the name of King Victor Emmanuel, a quantity of rifles and ammunition, as well as three antiquated cannon dating back to the Napoleonic era. As the ships sailed on, they found the northern coast of Sicily well-guarded, and diverted to Marsala at the western extremity of the island. Here the Neapolitan general, Letizia, had driven away some rebels and disarmed the population, but then, astonishingly, retired to Palermo.
   Marsala had a substantial British presence, with merchants engaged in exporting the wine which bears the town’s name; and because of this two British warships had anchored just offshore (one bearing the well-known children’s author, Captain Marryat). They were surprised on May 11th to see Garibaldi’s ships, flying the Italian tricolour with the Cross of Savoy; but it was their presence which deterred a nearby Neapolitan warship from opening fire while the Redshirts came ashore and occupied the town. There was no resistance, but the locals were mostly too timid to give the expedition any assistance.
   Despite the absence of any good maps of the island, Garibaldi advanced inland, and on the 15th encountered General Landi’s troops in a strong position at Calatafimi. Despite being outnumbered, the Redshirts attacked uphill, protected only by a few farming terraces. “Here we make Italy or die”, Garibaldi told them; and by sheer enthusiasm they gained the summit and the Neapolitan fled.
   It was a decisive victory, because now all the centuries-long resentment of the Sicilian peasantry against their foreign oppressors and landlords came to the fore and, crucially, most of the village priests now came out in support of Garibaldi. Soon, much of Sicily was in a state of anarchy. Telegraph cables were cut, and Landi’s men had to endure constant guerrilla sniping on their retreat to Palermo. Locals who came out to fight alongside Garibaldi’s men proved of little use in actual battles (their tendency when meeting professional troops being to fire their weapons into the air and then run away), but they provided him with intelligence on enemy movements, the villagers gave his men much-needed food and shelter, and when counterattacked at Monreale, guided them out of danger along mountain paths. As a result, on May 26th Garibaldi reached Palermo from the south-eastern side, where the defences were weakest.
   Garibaldi’s thousand Redshirts were by now reduced to 750 actives, with the uncertain assistance of about 3,000 locals; mostly poorly-armed peasants. Defending the city were up to 20,000 regular troops: riflemen, cavalry and artillery; and there were Neapolitan warships in the harbour. But there were a great many potential rebels in the city, and also present was Admiral Mundy with a British naval contingent. British and American naval officers, together with the correspondent for the “Times” newspaper, met Garibaldi, spoke sympathetically with him and promised to deliver his post. In fact, the person who seemed least informed about Garibaldi’s plans was the Neapolitan commander, General Lanza.

Garibaldi’s men attacked before dawn at the Porta Termini, where they had to demolish a barricade whilst under ill-directed artillery fire, and charged through into the heart of the city, where they were joined by large though disorganised groups of supporters. The Neapolitan troops showed no enthusiasm to engage in street-fighting, but instead relied on shelling rebel-held districts, while the city’s government retreated to the old royal palace. This method of fighting disgusted Admiral Mundy, who after three days of fighting persuaded Lanza to agree to an armistice on May 30th, and a meeting aboard his ship. This was fortunate for Garibaldi, whose men were virtually out of ammunition. On June 6th the Neapolitan government ordered the evacuation of all its troops, and ten days later a Piedmontese army arrived to take control. Cavour had been careful to dissociate himself from Garibaldi’s adventure, but then moved rapidly to exploit the situation.

G. M. Trevelyan ends the second part of his splendid three-volume life of Garibaldi with the fall of Palermo. The third volume describes how Messina was taken and the expedition crossed the straits to the toe of Italy and marched up through Calabria to take Naples without a shot being fired. (Again, this could not have happened without at least the passive support of the British fleet in the Mediterranean).  Meanwhile Cavour, moving fast, defeated the feeble Papal army and advanced to meet Garibaldi at Teano in October. No-one was able to predict Garibaldi’s response, but in fact he hailed King Victor Emmanuel as King of a united Italy. Meanwhile back in Sicily, Garibaldi’s lieutenants sternly repressed peasant anarchy and a referendum was held, which duly produced an improbably huge majority for union with the rest of Italy.
   Venice remained under Austrian control, and the Pope in Rome was still guarded by French troops. Pius IX not only refused to recognise the new state, but forbade Catholics to hold office in it or even to vote in elections. But the fundamental union of Italy had been achieved, and at astonishing speed, thanks to Garibaldi and his thousand Redshirts.
   The peasants of Sicily, however, gained little or nothing from all this. They continued to live in grinding poverty, and from their point of view they were still living under foreign occupation. Vast numbers of them took the opportunity to emigrate to America. Many historians date the rise of the Mafia to the Unification.


The story of Garibaldi’s campaign and what followed is told in that brilliant novel, “The Leopard”, by Giuseppi di Lampedusa, and in the stories of another Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia.   

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