The History of Solfatare in Sicily and Their Children
Solfatare and children are a big part of history in Sicily. Sulphur mining has been a prominent industrial activity for about a century in Sicily, since about 1830. During that period, Sicily produced 90% of the world sulphur: it was a real monopole. The largest mines were all in central Sicily, mainly around the cities of Caltanissetta and Enna.
The sulphur trade was so important that a railway was even built with the purpose to transport sulphur from the mines to the closest port, in Porto Empedocle, near Agrigento, from where it could be shipped by sea to all over the world.
The production of sulphur in Sicily summed up to some 35,000 tons in 1830. Sulphur was highly requested for medical treatments and as a basic ingredient in the making of gunpowder. After this initial success, a first decline marked this market. A new increase happened when it was found out that sulphur was useful against a fungal disease, powdery mildew, which extensively affected grapes in Europe, jeopardizing thousands of vineyards. Sicilian solfatare went through a fast decline in 1960s, when new mines and new working techniques were discovered in the United States, making the Sicilian sulphur too expensive for the market.
The area has been recovered in the last years for historical and touristic purposes, with the possibility to retrace those activities and the lives it affected. Tourist trains, museums and commemorative sites are all possible destinations in the area, which is now managed by the Tourist District of Mines.
The mines looked like hell on Earth. The working conditions were just brutal. Narrow galleries and steep passages led to dark, deep spaces. Some mines could extend up to a depth of 300 m below the surface. Miners often worked totally naked, due to the high temperature. Oxygen was scarce.
Beyond this, a general, hidden danger inhabited all mines in the world: firedamp. It is a blend of flammable gases, mainly methane, which was present in mines. Being lighter than air, firedamp tended to stagnate in the roofs of the caves, forming hidden gases pockets. Being firedamp utterly odorless, it was impossible for miner to spot its presence. This is why rats were present in mines: by running out of the mine as the gas concentration increased, they were used as sentinels.
The history of solfatare in Sicily is linked to children. Solfatare counted on many kids. The young miners, called with a Sicilian word still used today to refer to kids, “carusi”, were essential in the sulphur mines. They were from 6- to 14-years-old. Being smaller and thinner, they were able to quickly move along the galleries. Their main and fundamental task was to take the sulphur from the mine up to the surface, in baskets weighing up to 25 kilos.
On 12 November 1881, a huge explosion hit the Mine of Gessolungo: a mine lamp was the cause of the blast, due to the high amount of firedamp in the cave. 65 miners died instantly, 16 later due to their serious injuries. Of them, 19 were “carusi”. For most of them, identification was not possible.
Local people asked for the establishment of a commemorative site as a memorial to that tragedy and the role those kids had played during this part of the industrial history in Sicily. And to remind us that children should never work, should never miss their infancy.