Alan Crosby: Sicily's long history of immigration

By Jon Bauckham, 21 May 2015 - 1:19pm

A week in Sicily led columnist Alan Crosby to dwell upon the island's turbulent history and the stories of people arriving and departing from its shores

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 21 May 2015
Alan Crosby
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I’m just back from a week in Sicily. As we drove through the remote mountainous areas, and the desiccated uplands (even in May, they were brown and shrivelled) I noticed many abandoned farmhouses and cottages, with overgrown olive groves, tumbledown walls and derelict outbuildings.

Sicily has a famously turbulent and violent history, which of course carried on until very recent times. It also had desperate poverty. These long-abandoned farms were probably emptied of their inhabitants a hundred years and more ago, when getting on for a million Sicilians emigrated, or more recently, in the 1950s and 1960s, when another mass exodus took place.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries the main destination was America. Sicilian families made up a high proportion of the New York Italian community (think Frank Sinatra, whose father was Sicilian), but many came to Britain, settling in places such as Glasgow, East London, and Ancoats in Manchester.

It was one of the great migrations in European history, changing the face of the island and of the communities to which the Sicilians, and tens of thousands from the impoverished south of the Italian mainland, came. It left haunted landscapes, but this migration is often overlooked in the history books and is relatively little known.

Now, tragically, Sicily is itself the destination of migrants fleeing oppression and grinding poverty. Less than 100 miles from Africa, it is the goal of the desperate crowds who, exploited by people traffickers and boat owners, make the perilous crossing to the nearest point of Europe. Many never arrive, as the TV pictures horribly remind us.

But for some, new lives are beckoning and, for the future, new genealogies and family stories are in the process of being created.
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

 

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