Sicily’s Sulfur Mines, Part II

“La Zolfara” is a striking painting by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso. Created in 1953, it captures the inside of a sulfur mine and the men and children who worked in it. In yesterday’s post, I referred to sulfur as brimstone because I wanted to conjure images of “fire and brimstone,” the idea of which very well may have come from the sulfur mines of Sicily. The history of the sulfur mining industry, one active since ancient times and very profitable for the owners, is dark. Sulfur mines were cruel places. For six days a week, often 12 hours a day, the terribly paid men and boys toiled. Temperatures in the underground, narrow tunnels hovered around 45 C/113 F with very high humidity. As a result, the miners worked naked, with perhaps only a small apron covering their genitals. Boys, known as carusi, were employed because their size enabled them to move through the narrow shafts more easily.

As John Keahey describes in his book, Seeking Sicily, the boys were “essentially ‘sold’ by their families to adult miners who use[d] them to haul to the surface the rock the men bust[ed] out of the mine walls with their picks and sledgehammers. These miners had complete control over the boys’ lives … they could beat the youngsters if they didn’t work fast enough, work them long hours, and, if they wanted, even sexually abuse them.” A caruso could start this service as early as age 6, and often would become deformed and sickly because of the abuse to their frail, growing bodies as result of constantly crawling and bending as well as working in darkness for long periods.

There are no bones about it: their tenure was a form slavery that lasted 8-10 years, if they survived that long. And most, after fulfilling the contract continued to work in the mines because they knew nothing else. This child labor practice, although illegal in Italy since the 1860s, went on at least until the 1920s, and some say, through to WWII, when the Americans put a stop to it once and for all.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Henry Barth says:

    The horrific conditions in Sicilian sulfur mines prompted Booker T. Washington − himself an African American born a slave – to write in 1910:

    “I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.” He had traveled to Europe to acquaint himself, in his words: “with the condition of the poorer and working classes in Europe”. As an eyewitness, he described the plight of the carusi as follows:

    “From this slavery there is no hope of freedom, because neither the parents nor the child will ever have sufficient money to repay the original loan. […]

    “The cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected, as related by those who have studied them, are as bad as anything that was ever reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery. These boy slaves were frequently beaten and pinched, in order to wring from their overburdened bodies the last drop of strength they had in them. When beatings did not suffice, it was the custom to singe the calves of their legs with lanterns to put them again on their feet. If they sought to escape from this slavery in flight, they were captured and beaten, sometimes even killed.

    “The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States of America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.”

    Booker T. Washington, The Man Furthest Down

    1. Thank you Henry. I had read much of this, and I wanted to cite it. I am happy you have. It’s a dark chapter, but a very important one to discuss.

  2. JOSIE WELLS says:


    1. Yes, Josie, it’s very sad. It was a different time for Sicily. Unfortunately, there are places in the world this sort of thing still exists. Thankfully though, Sicily has changed and evolved and today, things are vibrant and children are loved and celebrated as the bearers of a brighter future for everyone.

  3. Jane Adams says:

    I have been watching the movie “Barabbas” (1962) about the man who was released in place of Jesus Christ. Part of the movie depicts the time of Barabbas’ life when he was imprisoned in the sulfur mines of Sicily. A cave in is also depicted. I then found your site and was struck by the colors in your artwork. Thank you for your informational site.

    1. Allison Scola says:

      Thank you, Jane for stopping by and this interesting information about the film!

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