Putting Down New Roots

Thank Marco Polo for bringing noodles back from China and inspiring all those wonderful pasta variations.

Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.
Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.

Or maybe not.

In a recent programme for the BBC, ancient historian Michael Scott suggested that Arabs brought strips of semolina similar to tagliatelle to Sicily a century earlier.

With only a 100 miles or so of the Mediterranean separating Sicily from North Africa it’s not surprising that Italy becomes the route of choice for many wanting to migrate to Europe, and as far back as the 11th century BCE there were Phoenician settlements on the island.  Centuries later, another Phoenician colony, Carthage, was to become the greatest enemy of Ancient Rome.  Cue Hannibal and elephants.  With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes moved in from the north, but they were resisted in the south by Islamic armies drawn from southern and eastern Mediterranean states.  In the same decade that England feel to William of Normandy, another Norman invasion took Sicily.  It’s hardly surprising that Italy didn’t really unite as a country until Garibaldi.  Too many historic differences and interests in the mix.

Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico
Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico

For many that eventual unification was a disaster.  (Remember that line in my last post about how Southern Italians distrust their Northern compatriots?)  In the early years of the new nation, resources were allocated to industrial rather than agricultural areas, industry being seen as the key to future prosperity.  Unfortunately this policy favoured the northern cities, and attempts at greater agricultural productivity were thwarted by damage to the soil.  Soon the threat of poverty forced many to see abandoning their new country as a means of survival, and so began what became the largest voluntary migration the world had witnessed.

Genoa of course, being in the prosperous north, wasn’t so badly affected by the social and political unrest, but as Italy’s largest port it had a vital part to play in that mass migration.  Naples and Palermo were the ports of choice, being based in the south, but with 13 million Italians leaving over a 35 year period between 1880 and 1915 it was a case of any port in a storm, and vessels such as Ferruccio, Konig Albert, and St Michele loaded up with passengers in Genoa.  Some went further afield and sailed from France.  Roughly one in three of those who left were headed for America.

Conditions on the transportation ships varied according to the wealth of the passenger, but considering most of this migration was driven by poverty, most faced very cramped accommodation – if you’ve seen the film Titanic you have a reasonable idea.

For most of those leaving it was the right decision – Italians have done well in many of the countries that received them, including the UK.  Given our current phase of xenophobic politics I wonder if we’d be so welcoming now, and now is important because migration is once again a hot topic for Italians.

In Maddalena young African men beg with caps
In Maddalena young African men beg with caps

That narrow gap between Africa and Italy is still there, and the tiny island of Lampedusa, once a popular holiday destination, has seen itself transformed into a holding destination for those seeking a better life in Europe as Italians actively rescue thousands trying to make the crossing in all manner of unsuitable craft.  Sadly many don’t make it to this new Ellis Island.

As European politicians argue over how to handle the challenge (and Britain chooses to close her eyes and ears while shouting “Brexit” above all else) it was gratifying to hear the Mayor of Palermo, who having seen 400,000 migrants arrive in Sicily (which includes Lampedusa) over 2 years, go on to say:

Welcome, is the best guarantee for safety



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