“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.