29 May 2024

Sicily's Quarantotto

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 273-275:

WHEN, ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 12, 1848—the thirty-eighth birthday of Ferdinand II—the people of Palermo rose up against their Bourbon masters, they could have had no idea of what they were starting. As we have seen, risings in the kingdom were nothing new, but they had all been relatively easily dealt with. What happened in 1848—the quarantotto, as Italy remembers it—was something else. It was a revolution, and by the end of the year it had been followed by many other revolutions. In Italy alone, they occurred in Naples, Rome, Venice, Florence, Lucca, Parma, Modena and Milan; in northern and central Europe there were also those in Paris, Vienna, Cracow, Warsaw and Budapest.

Already, as the year opened, student riots had prompted the authorities to close the University of Palermo; several eminent citizens known for their liberal views had been arrested, and an unsigned manifesto was circulated calling on everyone to rise up on the King’s birthday. When that day dawned and the demonstrations began, the streets emptied, shops closed, houses were barricaded. A large number of the insurgents were mountain brigands or simple peasants, few of whom probably had much idea of what they were fighting for; but they were thrilled to be able to break down the customs barriers and give themselves over to looting to their hearts’ content. Many of the smaller villages and towns were devastated, as was much of the countryside.

The Bourbons had some 7,000 troops in the Palermo garrison, but they proved almost useless. Communications were atrocious, the roads execrable, and they could not be everywhere at once. In despair they decided to bombard the city—a decision which they soon had cause to regret, especially when a shell destroyed the municipal pawnbrokers, on which many families depended, aristocratic and plebeian alike. The infuriated mob fell on the royal palace, sacked it—sparing, thank heaven, the Palatine Chapel—and set fire to the state records and archives. Meanwhile, hundreds of prisoners were released from jail. The garrison retreated, and soon returned to Naples. In the following days a committee of government was formed under the presidency of the seventy-year-old Sicilian patriot (and former Neapolitan Minister of Marine) Ruggiero Settimo; meanwhile, the revolt spread to all the main cities—except Messina, which held back through jealousy of Palermo—and well over a hundred villages, where the support of the peasantry had by now been assured with lavish promises of land. It encountered no opposition worthy of the name.


By the end of the month the island was virtually free of royal troops, and on February 5 Settimo announced that “the evils of war had ceased, and that thenceforth an era of happiness had begun for Sicily.” He failed to mention that the citadel of Messina was still in Bourbon hands; nonetheless, it was clear to King Ferdinand that he had his back to the wall. Owing to the almost continuous demonstrations in Naples on the Sicilian model, on January 29 he offered a liberal constitution to both parts of his kingdom, providing for a bicameral legislature and a modest degree of franchise. “The game is up,” wrote the horrified Austrian ambassador, Prince Schwarzenberg, to Metternich; “the King and his ministers have completely lost their heads.” Metternich simply scribbled in the margin, “I defy the ministers to lose what they have never possessed.”


Sicily was now truly independent. The difficulty was that it lacked any machinery for self-government. Without an experienced hand at the helm, the old chaos and confusion grew worse than ever. Trade plummeted, unemployment soared, the legal system virtually collapsed. Toward the end of August, Ferdinand sent a combined military and naval force of some 20,000 under Field Marshal Prince Carlo Filangieri to restore comparative order on the island; and September saw a concerted land and sea attack on Messina. It was then that the city suffered heavy bombardment for eight hours—after it had already surrendered. The rebels fought back, and the age-old hatred between Neapolitans and Sicilians give rise to atrocities on both sides—to the point where the British and French admirals in Sicilian waters, revolted by the bloodshed and brutality, persuaded Ferdinand to grant a six-month armistice. Here, one might have thought, was an opportunity to end the stalemate, but every offer of settlement was rejected by the rebels out of hand. Had they been prepared to negotiate, they might have saved something from the wreckage; since they refused, more and more of their erstwhile supporters—for reasons of sheer self-preservation—turned back to the Bourbons. As a result, Filangieri was able to capture Taormina on April 2, 1849, and Catania five days later. On May 15, without any difficulty, he entered Palermo.

By their inefficiency, their lack of unity and their refusal to compromise, the Sicilians had perfectly demonstrated how a revolution should not be run.

27 May 2024

Two Sicilies and the Carbonari

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 258-260:

The final return of the King to Naples allowed him to turn his attention to his own title. He had been Ferdinand III of Sicily but Ferdinand IV of Naples, which people found complicated and confusing. On December 8, 1816, he formally assumed the title of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. There was, as we have seen, nothing new in this concept, which originally came about owing to Charles of Anjou’s insistence on continuing to claim the title of King of Sicily, even after the island had been lost to the Kingdom of Aragon after the War of the Sicilian Vespers. It had, moreover, been decided by the Congress of Vienna that the Two Sicilies should continue as a single kingdom. In Sicily itself, however, the decree could not fail to be unpopular. It meant the end, after only four years, of both its constitution and its theoretical independence; and it condemned it in future to be—not for the first time—little more than a province of Naples. Financially too the departure of the court from Palermo dealt the island a heavy blow. Trade had been expanding in both directions, while foreign businesses—the vast majority of them British—had been steadily increasing in numbers; many of these now relocated to the mainland. British commercial influence henceforth survived principally in only two key industries: the wine trade in western Sicily, based on the town of Marsala, and the mining of sulfur, which was becoming ever more important as the Industrial Revolution took its course.


At this point there appears in the story the figure of an immense Calabrian general named Guglielmo Pepe. Born in 1783, Pepe had first fought against the Sanfedisti of Cardinal Ruffo in 1800. Captured and exiled to France, he had joined Napoleon’s army and subsequently shown himself to be a Bonapartist through and through, fighting for both Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat and commanding a Neapolitan brigade during the Peninsular War in Spain. He had fought bravely for Murat at Tolentino and had reluctantly accepted the Treaty of Casalanza, by the terms of which he had retained his army rank. But he had spent his entire life fighting the Bourbons, and it was too late to transfer his loyalty. He now devoted himself, while ostensibly campaigning against brigands in the Capitanata, to rallying the somewhat inchoate mass of dissatisfied Italians known as the carbonari—“the charcoal-burners”—and welding them into a national militia.

The carbonari were organized—insofar as they were organized at all—on the lines of Freemasons, split up into small, covert cells scattered across the peninsula. Even their objectives were far from identical: some were out-and-out republicans, others preferred constitutional monarchy; what they all hated was absolutism, the Bourbons, the Austrians and the Papacy. And they dreamed, almost all of them, of an independent, liberal, united Italy. In 1814 they had fought for the Sicilian constitution and had been outlawed by the Pope for their pains; in 1817 they had inspired risings in the Papal States. According to Pepe’s memoirs—which may not be totally reliable—he had planned to take advantage of a military review of 5,000 men, to be held in the Emperor’s honor at Avellino, to seize the imperial and royal party and hold it to ransom. What would have been the result of such a coup, if it had successfully taken place, is hard to imagine; fortunately, the Emperor and the King were warned at the last moment—not of the conspiracy, but simply that the Avellino road was in execrable condition and might well prove impassable. They thereupon gave up all idea of attending the review and returned to Naples. For some time the carbonari had been rapidly increasing in numbers; according to Pepe, there were now over a quarter of a million in Italy alone, and we can be pretty sure that Sicily—with its long history of subversion and brigandage—would have contributed its full share. There was a general feeling of anticlimax after the Napoleonic Wars. The armies in particular were bored; they had little to do and promotion was slow. No wonder that so many drifted toward carbonari lodges. Gradually too the movement became more focused, its aims grew a little clearer; and the first of these aims was to force the King to grant a constitution.

26 May 2024

Bentinck Restores Bourbons in Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 250-253:

HAVING EFFECTIVELY DEALT WITH both the King and the Queen and given Sicily its admirable new constitution, Bentinck—who never forgot that he was also a soldier—decided to obey a recent summons to go and join Wellington’s army in Catalonia. His brief campaign there was not a success; it certainly did nothing to enhance his military reputation. On September 12, 1813, he was soundly defeated by an army under Napoleon’s Marshal Suchet, and was soon afterward obliged to resign his command and return to Sicily, where he arrived on October 3. He soon realized that he should never have left.


He found the island once again in chaos. There were, for a start, violent arguments about the constitution, the full text of which had not yet been published. Belmonte, whom he had once described as “the main hope of his country,” had broken with his uncle and erstwhile colleague the Prince of Castelnuovo and caused a great rift which had split their party in two. In parliament, meanwhile, ham-fisted attempts to control prices were arousing such storms of protest as to lead to riots in Palermo and elsewhere. Fortunately the resident British troops were able to restore order; two of the ringleaders were hanged. To make matters worse, the plague had broken out in Malta and dark rumors were being spread that the British intended deliberately to introduce it into Sicily.

Bentinck saw that he had no choice but to resume dictatorial powers. He held no brief for despotism, he announced, but it was preferable to anarchy. He prorogued parliament, which the Prince Vicar obediently dissolved, formed a new ministry and issued a proclamation that all “disturbers of the public peace, assassins and other foes of the Constitution” would be summarily punished by martial law. He then set out on an extended tour of the island—his first—visiting all the larger cities and towns and explaining the immense benefits that the constitution would bring in its train. Finally he crossed to the mainland, the better to consider the problem of Joachim Murat.


Whether it was because he loathed the idea of an Austrian presence in Italy or whether he simply despised Murat for his disloyalty, Bentinck made no secret of his contempt for the agreement. It was lamentable, he wrote, “to see such advantages given to a man whose whole life had been a crime, who had been the active accomplice of Bonaparte for years, and who now deserted his benefactor through his own ambition and under the pressure of necessity.” But Castlereagh ordered him to negotiate an armistice between Sicily and Naples, and he had no course but to comply—though he was careful to avoid any formula which might be taken as recognition of Joachim Murat as King. In fact Murat probably cared little whether he did so or not; his sights were by now set a good deal higher—to make himself ruler of the entire Italian peninsula. As he marched north with his army to join the other allies, he and his soldiers scattered leaflets in all the villages through which they passed, calling on the Italian people to rally to his flag. Meanwhile Queen Caroline, who had remained behind as Regent, showed herself considerably more anti-French than her husband. He was already carefully avoiding any active engagements with the French army; she, on the other hand, expelled all French officials from the kingdom and closed Neapolitan ports to all French shipping.

At this point Bentinck seriously forgot himself. Abandoning every pretense of diplomacy, he decided to support the cause of Italian independence, landed with a considerable Anglo-Sicilian force at Livorno and there delivered a proclamation urging all Italians to vindicate their rights to be free. On March 15 he actually confronted Murat at Reggio Emilia. If, he threatened, Murat did not instantly withdraw his troops from Tuscany, he—Bentinck—would drive them out himself, restore the legitimate Grand Duke Ferdinand III and invade Naples under the Bourbon flag. Leaving Murat no time to answer, he marched his army up the coast to Genoa, where the French garrison immediately surrendered. According to his own account, he restored the old republic; according to the Genoese, they did so themselves; in any event, another corner of the Napoleonic empire crumbled away.

By now things were moving quickly. On March 31 the Allies entered Paris; April 2 saw the Acte de déchéance de l’Empereur, which declared Napoleon deposed. On that same day he abdicated in favor of his infant son, with Marie Louise as Regent; this, however, the Allies refused to accept; an unconditional abdication followed two days later....

Louis-Philippe then hurried on to tell his father-in-law. Ferdinand burst into tears of joy and gratitude. Already he began to feel that he was back in Naples. It was Belmonte who had suggested that with the fall of Napoleon there was no longer any reason why the King should not return to the throne. Aware that only the year before he had promised not to do so without British consent, Ferdinand made great play of asking Bentinck’s permission. Bentinck personally absolved him from his promise and on July 4 he returned to his capital, as always amid cheering crowds. Lord William Bentinck was not among them. His conduct in recent months had not gone unnoticed by the British government. Just twelve days later he left Sicily forever.

24 May 2024

Sicily Under Bentinck, 1811

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 244-247:

At this point it becomes hard to believe that Maria Carolina was still completely sane. Both the Duke of Orléans and Maria Amalia pleaded with her to be more moderate and not to condemn as Jacobins all those who dared disagree with her, but as always she refused to listen. In July 1811 five of the leading barons, including their principal spokesman the Prince of Belmonte, were arrested and deported to various small islands “for preparing to disturb the public peace.” Louis-Philippe was summoned to the palace but, fearing to suffer a similar fate, refused to go. His horse stood ready saddled in case he had to take refuge in the country, though this fortunately proved unnecessary.

But now at last the Queen met her match. Lord William Bentinck had arrived in Palermo four days after the arrest of the barons, as both ambassador to the Sicilian court and commander in chief of the British forces on the island. The son of that third Duke of Portland who was twice Prime Minister, he had been Governor of Madras at twenty-nine and had then returned to Europe to fight in the Peninsular War, having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant general at thirty-four after the Battle of Corunna. He was now thirty-six. He had been thoroughly briefed by Amherst and others, and—determined not to take any nonsense from Maria Carolina—he began as he meant to continue. But even he seems to have been surprised by the strength of her opposition to everything he proposed. Within a month of his arrival he had returned to London to obtain yet wider powers.

On September 16, while he was still away, the Queen suffered an apoplectic stroke. Any other woman of her age would have sought peace and quiet for a gentle convalescence; she, as soon as she was able, was back at her desk, plunged once more into the fray. She was desperately weak, befuddled by opium and no longer able to face Bentinck—who returned on December 7—with quite the energy that she had formerly shown; but her determination was undiminished, and he decided to waste no more time. He now spelled out his demands, making it clear that the annual subsidy being paid by the British would be suspended until all of them were satisfied. First and most important was the supreme command of Neapolitan-Sicilian forces, which he himself proposed to assume; among the rest were the return of Belmonte and his colleagues from exile and the formation of a new ministry under the Prince of Cassaro. Neither the King nor the Queen were to be involved in the administration. Should there be any objections, Bentinck declared that he would not hesitate to ship off both of them—and if necessary the Hereditary Prince as well—to Malta, putting the Prince’s two-year-old son on the throne under the Regency of the Duke of Orléans. Fortunately, this last threat had its effect; but Bentinck had already sent orders to the British detachments in Messina, Milazzo and Trapani to march on Palermo when, on January 16, 1812, the King formally transferred his authority to his son.

The new ruler was far from ideal. He was neat, methodical and bureaucratic, a conscientious husband and father, and would doubtless have made a moderately competent manager of a local bank; but of political understanding, let alone of courage or charisma, he possessed not a shred. His instinctive caution, timidity and “littleness of mind” frequently drove Bentinck to distraction; but—at least for the moment—he served his purpose.

ONE OF THE FIRST actions of the Prince Vicar—as the Hereditary Prince was now called, since he was standing in for his father—was to recall the exiled barons, three of whom were immediately appointed to serve in the new government, the Prince of Belmonte as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The most important task before them, as Bentinck emphasized, was to draft the new constitution, based on the British model and abolishing the feudalism that had for so long been the bane of Sicilian life. The next was to get rid of the Queen. Her health was now rapidly deteriorating, but she was intriguing with all her old determination against the new ministry. She was also developing persecution mania. “The French government murdered my sister,” she said to the British consul, Robert Fagan, “and I am convinced that your government intends to do the same to me—probably in England.” Perhaps for this reason, she was fighting like a tiger to remain in Palermo, and her husband and son took her side—not because they did not deplore her behavior as much as anyone but simply because they had always deferred to her and found the habit difficult, if not impossible, to break.

At one moment Bentinck decided to request an audience with Ferdinand, in the hope of persuading him to reason with his wife and to explain to her the harm she was doing; he was simply refused an audience. The only channel of communication open to him was through the royal confessor, Father Caccamo, who was happy to reveal Ferdinand’s true feelings about his wife. His Majesty was, he said, forever writing to her “andate via, andate via!”*2 and had described his marriage of forty-four years as a “martyrdom.” But, as he put it, “he had not the heart or the courage to force his wife out of the island.” His son the Prince Vicar felt much the same way.

Not that the Prince’s relations with his mother were in any way friendly; rather the reverse. She had never forgiven him for accepting the Regency; she had called him a revolutionary and a traitor; and when on the evening of September 26, 1812, he fell suddenly and seriously ill, her first reaction—before worrying about his health—was that he must immediately resign. The symptoms, as Bentinck reported to the British Foreign Minister Lord Castlereagh, were suggestive of poison, and “general suspicion was fixed on the Queen”—a suspicion fully shared by the Prince himself. When Bentinck suggested to his doctor that the illness might be due to the unwonted heat, the patient, trembling with fever, cried out, “Ce n’est pas la chaleur, c’est ma mère, ma mère!” It turned out not to have been deliberate poisoning after all, but the Prince never altogether recovered; his illness left him prematurely aged—bent, gray-faced and shuffling.

Meanwhile, in July 1812, the new constitution had been drafted and duly promulgated. Its fifteen articles granted the people of Sicily an autonomy that they had never before enjoyed. Executive and legislative powers were rigidly separated, and the feudal practices that had been observed for some seven hundred years were finally abolished. All this proved, however, surprisingly good news for the Bourbons, at least in Naples. There was increasing anti-French feeling in the city, where Murat was effectively a dictator, while Ferdinand—hard as it may be to believe—was seen as an enlightened constitutional monarch. In the country, by contrast, the constitution was a good deal less popular; the people seemed simply unable to take it in. Many of the barons too who had actually voted for it were horrified to find their former powers and privileges gone forever.

22 May 2024

Parthenopean Republic of Naples, 1799

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 210, 215:

When the French troops under General Jean-Etienne Championnet arrived in Naples in mid-January 1799, they found the populace a good deal more spirited than the army. The mob—the lazzaroni—was prepared to attack the invaders tooth and nail, and for three days there was bitter house-to-house fighting. In the end the lazzaroni had of course to give in, but not before they had stormed and gutted the royal palace. They had done so with a clear—or almost clear—conscience. Was their King [Ferdinand I] not known as il re lazzarone, in other words one of themselves? And even if he had abandoned them, would he not have preferred his treasures to go to his own subjects rather than to his French enemies? When at last peace was restored, a French officer remarked that if Bonaparte had been there in person he would probably have left not one stone of the city standing on another; it was fortunate indeed that Championnet was a moderate and humane man. Quietly and diplomatically he established what was known as the Parthenopean Republic, on the French revolutionary model. It was officially proclaimed on January 23, and acquired a number of loyal Italian adherents—though it was perfectly obvious to all that it had been the result of conquest, and that the French army of occupation was its only support.


By the end of the month [July 1799] the last of the rebels had surrendered. The French were returned to Toulon; the Neapolitans were put in irons to await their trial. Cardinal Ruffo had received little gratitude for having saved the monarchy—all the credit had somehow been given to Nelson—but in recognition of his past services he was now appointed Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Realm. There were those who believed that after the repudiation of his solemn treaty he should not have accepted the post; but he remained as loyal as ever to his monarch, and had no desire to stand on his honor if he could still prove useful. His appointment meant in practice that he was president of what was known as the Suprema Giunta, the Supreme Committee. Under this were two other committees of judges, one to try the military, the other the civilians. Much has been written about the deliberations of these committees, to demonstrate the cruelty and inhumanity of the Bourbons. In the event, their deliberations seem to have been remarkably merciful. Out of some 8,000 political prisoners, 105 were condemned to death (6 were later reprieved), 222 were condemned to life imprisonment, 322 to shorter terms, 288 to deportation, and 67 to exile, from which many were to return. The rest were set free. And that was the end of the flatulently named Parthenopean Republic. It had sought to inflict, by means of conquest, a form of government that the country and people did not want and which was already largely discredited even in France. Had it survived, it could have retained power only through violence or the threat of violence. The resulting police state would have been far worse than anything created by the Bourbons.

19 May 2024

Sicily After Utrecht, 1715

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 178-180:

What is generally known as the Treaty of Utrecht, negotiations for which began in 1712, was in fact a whole series of treaties through which the European powers attempted once again to regulate their mutual relations. Only one of the many agreements concerns us here: the decision to transfer Sicily to the Spanish King Philip V’s father-in-law, Duke Victor Amadeus of Savoy. The idea had been accepted largely on the insistence of the British, who were uneasy at the thought of Sicily joining Naples in Austrian hands and who argued that the Duke had deserved a reward by changing sides during the war. The only objection was raised, somewhat unexpectedly, by Queen Anne, who disliked seeing countries being shuffled around without their consultation or consent; but her ministers quickly overruled her.

Victor Amadeus was of course delighted. He arrived in Palermo on a British ship in October 1713, and was shortly afterward crowned King of Sicily—and, somewhat improbably, of Jerusalem—in the cathedral. Over Jerusalem he had of course no power at all; even in Sicily he controlled only nine-tenths of the island, the powers at Utrecht having deliberately left King Philip all his personal estates, which were administered by Spanish officials and exempt from both taxation and Sicilian law. Nonetheless, Victor Amadeus was the first royal presence on the island since 1535. The Sicilian nobility welcomed their new monarch, expecting as they did so that he would settle in the city and set up a proper court there. The people in general received him with their usual apathy. They had had so many rulers over the centuries; this one would probably be no better and no worse than the rest.

He actually made a serious effort to be better. He stayed on the island for a year, traveled fairly widely—though not into the impenetrably deep interior—and tried hard to understand the character and customs of his subjects. He reopened the University of Catania and introduced new industries wherever he could, establishing factories for paper and glass, doing his best to revive agriculture and shipbuilding. But it was no use: he had to contend not only with the rich, who continued to set their faces against any innovations that might adversely affect their privileges, but also—and far worse—with the universal corruption, idleness and lack of initiative that were the result of four centuries of foreign domination. There was also the perennial grievance: just as in former centuries the Sicilians had grumbled about the sudden influxes of Spaniards or Frenchmen who would take over the senior offices of government, so now they protested at the flood of Piedmontese civil servants and accountants whom the King had introduced in an attempt to restore order to the chaotic national finances.

Such protests, Victor Amadeus knew, were inevitable; he could take them in his stride. But he knew too that the Sicilians had rebelled twice in the previous century, and were perfectly capable, if pressed too far, of doing so again. Wisely, he treated the barons in particular with extreme caution. So long as they continued to enjoy their traditional immunities and privileges, they would give no trouble; if, on the other hand, these were in any way threatened, the consequences could be serious indeed. When the time came for him to return to Piedmont, he must have felt that the Sicilian cause was hopeless. Family vendettas were as many and frequent as ever; banditry was everywhere. The people were essentially ungovernable.

Moreover, he had failed utterly to gain their affection. The Sicilians loved color and display; they had long been accustomed to the pomp and splendor surrounding the Spanish Viceroys, representing—as only Viceroys could—one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. Victor Amadeus was not a man for finery. A natural puritan, he hated ceremonial and dressed more like a man of the people than a monarch, preferring a walking stick to a sword. He was also distressingly parsimonious; gone were the ostentatious parades and the lavish receptions which had been such a feature of life for the aristocracy of Palermo. No wonder that children a hundred years later were still throwing stones at dummies bearing his name.

Soon after his return to Turin, he received another humiliation, this time from the Pope. The origins of the quarrel with Clement XI go back to the old Spanish times and need not concern us here; but the consequence was that in 1715 a papal bull entitled Romanus Pontifex put an end to the six-hundred-year tradition whereby the Kings of Sicily were also automatically the Papal Legates. The Pope also instructed all Sicilian clergy to refuse taxation. Many obeyed, only to be punished by exile or imprisonment and confiscation of their property. Churches were closed, bishoprics left vacant, and all good Christians adjured to defy royal authority. The more sensible naturally ignored the ban; the monks of a monastery near Agrigento, on the other hand, prepared to defend themselves against the King’s representatives with the well-tried weapon of boiling oil, employed for the first time since the Middle Ages. The Sicilians, who had always been proud of their status as Papal Legates, tended to blame the trouble on the House of Savoy rather than the Papacy. To them, it was just another nail in the Piedmontese coffin. To Victor Amadeus, it was just another nail in theirs.

By this time, he was bitterly regretting that he had ever accepted the Sicilian crown; fortunately it soon proved remarkably easy to surrender. In 1715 the recently widowed King Philip of Spain took as his second wife Elisabeth Farnese, the twenty-two-year-old niece and stepdaughter of the Duke of Parma. The new Queen was undistinguished by beauty, education or experience, but she had a will of iron and she knew what she wanted. Instantly, all French influence vanished from the Spanish court; it became Italian through and through. Determined to recover all Italian-speaking territories for Spain, Elisabeth moved first against Sardinia, part of the empire. In August 1717 she sent her fleet out from Barcelona and by the end of November the island was hers. Then, emboldened by this easy success, she directed the ships straight on to Sicily. On July 1, 1718, Spanish troops were landed near Palermo, where—simply because they were not Piedmontese—they received a warm welcome.

16 May 2024

Sicily Under Spain, from 1479

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 148-149, 152-153:

The accession of [Aragon's King John II]’s son Ferdinand in 1479 was of immense historic importance, since Ferdinand was already married to Queen Isabella of Castile. This marriage united the two kingdoms and created a third—that of Spain itself. Sicily thus suffered a further loss of importance. But a worse misfortune lay ahead. In 1487 there arrived the first members of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. This had been established by Ferdinand and Isabella as early as 1481—with the blessing of Pope Sixtus IV—and remained under their direct control. It was intended principally to ensure the orthodoxy of those who had recently been persuaded to convert to Christianity from Judaism or Islam; and after the royal decrees of 1492 and 1501—which ordered Jews and Muslims to convert or leave the country—it substantially tightened its grip. Few converts slept soundly in their beds for fear of accusations that they were secretly observing the old customs, the punishment for which was burning at the stake.

Both the Inquisition and the expulsion decrees struck Sicily hard. The Muslim population, which had once been a majority in the island, was now relatively small, but the Jews were many; in the cities and towns they may well have constituted more than a tenth of the population. And Sicily needed them: they were active as merchants, as metalworkers and weavers, and especially as doctors and of course moneylenders. Doctors tend to be popular among the people; but moneylenders are less so and there were, after the middle of the century when interest rates climbed above ten percent, occasional outbreaks of anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, the citizens of Palermo appealed to Spain on behalf of their native Jews, protesting that they were doing no harm and begging that they might be allowed to remain. Their request went unheeded.

History shows us all too many cases of Jewish persecution, and in every case the persecuting country ends up impoverished. Spain and Sicily were no exception. We do not know the numbers involved—how many Jews decided to emigrate rather than deny their faith and how many “converted”—although the converts too lost much of their property, and even then were never safe from the Inquisition. But whatever the proportions, there can be no doubt that Sicily—like Nazi Germany in more recent years—lost a vast number of her most skilled, talented and intelligent citizens. And her economy suffered accordingly.

Another somewhat unsettling trend made itself evident during the sixteenth century’s opening decade: a steady increase in royal authority. For well over two centuries the barons had had things very much their own way. Thanks to corruption, carelessness on the part of the authorities, or quite often simply the passage of time, many of them held estates that were technically crown property, or had long since been allowed to forget their feudal obligations. But those days were over. With every passing year it became more evident that King Ferdinand was gradually tightening his grip. This was confirmed in 1509, with the appointment as Viceroy of a general named Ugo Moncada, who was bent on the conquest of North Africa and saw Sicily as the obvious springboard. From the beginning the barons hated him. Not only did he show them no respect; on his arrival he instituted searching inquiries as to their legal positions—in many cases with extremely embarrassing results. Arrests were made, frequently leading to imprisonment; fiefs were confiscated, including several that had been formally claimed by the Church. Meanwhile, the Inquisition was making its presence increasingly felt, particularly after it began burning its victims alive in the public squares.


The events of the last decade of the fifteenth century had changed the civilized world. On April 17, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella had given their formal approval to Christopher Columbus for his voyage, putting at his disposal three tiny caravels—the largest of them little more than a hundred feet long. Moreover, just four years before the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María set sail, the Portuguese Bartholomew Diaz had rounded the Cape of Storms (renamed by John II of Portugal the Cape of Good Hope); just six years afterward, on May 20 1498, his compatriot Vasco da Gama had dropped anchor at Calicut on the Malabar coast. Not only had he found a continuous sea route to India; he had proved that Portuguese ships were capable—just—of getting there and back.

The stories of these three great adventurers are not ours; what is important to us is the effect they had on the fortunes of the Mediterranean. Henceforth the writing was on the wall. Until now, even if the Turks did not make trouble—as they usually did—all cargoes bound for the further east had to be unloaded in Alexandria or some Levantine port. Thence they would be either transported overland to the pirate-infested Red Sea or consigned to some shambling camel caravan across central Asia which might take three or four years to reach its destination. Now, merchants could look forward to a time when they could sail from Lisbon—or London—and arrive in India or Cathay in the same vessel. Meanwhile, thanks to Columbus and those who followed him, the New World was proving infinitely more profitable than the Old, possessed as it was of fabulous wealth, the lion’s share of which went to Spain—and legally too. Within only seven months of Columbus’s first landfall, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI—himself a Spaniard—had issued the first of his five bulls settling the competing claims of Spain and Portugal over the newly discovered territories; within twenty-five years the galleons were regularly returning to their homeland loaded to the gunwales with loot. No wonder the successors of Ferdinand and Isabella had their eyes fixed so firmly on the west.

It was not immediately apparent that this sudden opening up of the oceans on both sides had dealt trade in the Mediterranean what would prove to be a paralyzing blow. Gradually, however, men realized that, at least from the commercial point of view, the Middle Sea had become a backwater. East of the Adriatic the Turks now allowed passage to western ships reluctantly or not at all. To the west, it was still indispensable to Italy; but France was nowadays finding her northern ports on the English Channel a good deal more useful than Marseille or Toulon, while Spain, now entering her years of greatness, had other, tastier fish to fry. Not for another three centuries, until the building of the Suez Canal, would the Mediterranean regain its old importance as a world thoroughfare.

And Sicily, as always, was the loser.

15 May 2024

Sicilians vs. Anjevins, 1292

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 124-125:

For those who detested the House of Anjou and all it stood for, there was after the death of Conradin one rallying point: the court of King Peter III of Aragon. In 1262 Peter had married Manfred’s daughter Constance, who was now the sole representative in the south of the Hohenstaufen cause; and increasing numbers of refugees from Sicily and the Regno were finding their way to his court at Barcelona. Among them was one of the great conspirators of his age. His name was John of Procida. He had studied medicine in his native city of Salerno and, as the Emperor’s personal physician, had attended Frederick on his deathbed. Later he had entered the service of Manfred. He had fought with Conradin at Tagliacozzo, after which he had traveled to Germany with the intention of persuading another of Frederick II’s grandsons to invade Italy and restore the Hohenstaufen line. Only when this plan failed did he move with his two sons to Barcelona. Constance, he believed, was the one last hope. King Peter gave him a warm welcome and made him Chancellor of the kingdom, in which capacity he could concentrate on a great conspiracy to secure the Angevin downfall.

There is a remarkable legend, which appears in the works of both Petrarch and Boccaccio, to the effect that John then traveled in disguise around the courts of Europe to gain support for his cause, visiting the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus in Constantinople and returning with vast quantities of Byzantine gold. It is almost certainly untrue: by this time he was nearly seventy, and in both the years in question, 1279 and 1280, his signature regularly appears on documents issuing from the Aragonese chancery. It may well be, however, that someone else—perhaps one of his sons—made the journeys in his name. There was certainly some contact between Barcelona and Constantinople, where Michael was aware that Charles of Anjou was at that very moment preparing a major expedition against his empire. He was consequently eager to take the immediate offensive, before that expedition could be launched. Peter, on the other hand, naturally advocated waiting until it was well on its way.

In fact the timing was in the hands of neither King nor Emperor, but of the Sicilians themselves. By 1282 the Angevins had made themselves cordially detested throughout the Regno, both for the severity of their taxation and for the arrogance of their conduct; and when on the evening of Easter Monday, March 30, 1282, a drunken French sergeant began importuning a Sicilian woman outside the church of Santo Spirito just as the bells were ringing for vespers, her countrymen’s anger boiled over. The sergeant was set upon by her husband and killed; the murder led to a riot, the riot to a massacre; 2,000 Frenchmen were dead by morning.

The rising spread like wildfire. On August 30 King Peter and his army landed at Trapani, arriving in Palermo three days later. The formal coronation for which he had hoped proved impossible: the Archbishop of Palermo was dead, the pro-Angevin Archbishop of Monreale had most sensibly disappeared; Peter had to be content with a simple proclamation of his kingship. This he acknowledged with a public promise to observe the rights and liberties of his new subjects, calling upon all the able-bodied men of Palermo and its surroundings to march with him to Messina, where the French were still holding out. The response, we are told, was immediate and enthusiastic. For all good Palermitans—who detested the Messinans and the French in equal measure—the opportunity was too good to resist.

14 May 2024

Sicily Gets the Boot (of Italy)

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 83-84:

When the news was brought to the Byzantine headquarters that the Sicilians, led by the King himself, were advancing in formidable numbers and strength, the Greeks saw their fellow fighters fall away. The mercenaries chose, as mercenaries will, the moment of supreme crisis to demand impossible increases in their pay; meeting with a refusal, they disappeared en masse. Robert of Loritello deserted, followed by his own men and most of his compatriots. The Sicilian fleet arrived first; then, a day or two later, the army appeared in the west. The battle that followed was short and bloody; the Greek defeat was total. The Sicilian ships effectively prevented any possibility of escape by sea. On that one day, May 28, 1156, all that the Byzantines had achieved in Italy over the past year was wiped out as completely as if they had never come.

William [the Bad] treated his Greek prisoners according to the recognized canons of war; but to his own rebellious subjects he was pitiless. This was a lesson he had learned from his father. Treason, particularly in Apulia where it was endemic, was the one crime that could never be forgiven. Of those erstwhile insurgents who fell into his hands, only the luckiest were imprisoned. The rest were hanged, blinded or tied about with heavy weights and hurled into the sea. From Brindisi he moved to Bari. Less than a year before, the Bariots had readily thrown in their lot with the Byzantines; now they too were to pay the price for their disloyalty. As they prostrated themselves before their King to implore his mercy, William pointed to the pile of rubble where until recently the citadel had stood. “Just as you had no pity on my house,” he said, “so now I shall have no pity on yours.” He gave them two clear days in which to salvage their belongings; on the third day Bari was destroyed. Only the cathedral, the great church of St. Nicholas and a few smaller religious buildings were left intact.

One lonely figure remained to face the coming storm. All Pope Hadrian’s allies were gone. Michael Palaeologus was dead and his army annihilated; the Norman barons were either in prison or in hiding. Hadrian himself was all too well aware that, if he were to save anything from the disaster, he would have to come to terms with the King of Sicily. The two met in the papal city of Benevento, and on June 18, 1156, an agreement was concluded. In return for an annual tribute, the Pope agreed to recognize William’s kingship not only over Sicily, Apulia, Calabria and the former principality of Capua, together with Naples, Salerno, Amalfi and all that pertained to them; it was now formally extended across the whole region of the northern Abruzzi and the Marches. William, negotiating as he was from a position of strength, obtained more than had ever been granted to his father or grandfather. He was now one of the most powerful princes of Europe.

Thus, in the three years separating the Treaty of Benevento from the death of Pope Hadrian [the only English Pope ever] on September 1, 1159, a curious change occurs in the relative positions of the three principal protagonists. Alignments were shifting. The Papacy, brought to its knees at Benevento, rediscovered a fact that its history over the past hundred years should have made self-evident—that its only hope of survival as a potent political force lay in close alliance with its neighbor, Norman Sicily. The German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, impressed despite himself by the speed and completeness of William’s victories over the Byzantines in Apulia, looked upon him with undiminished hatred but a new respect, and decided on the indefinite postponement of the punitive expedition to the south that he had long been planning. Instead, he resolved on a campaign against the Lombard towns and cities of north Italy which, though technically part of his imperial dominions, had recently been showing a quite unacceptable tendency toward republicanism and independence. The result was the supreme paradox: the Lombard towns began to see the Sicilian monarchy—more absolutist by far than any other state in western Europe—as the stalwart defender of their republican ideals, hailing its King as a champion of civic liberty almost before the dust had settled on the ruins of Bari. And in the end they were victorious: on May 29, 1176, Frederick’s German knights were routed at Legnano by the forces of the Lombard League. It was the end of his ambitions in Lombardy. In Venice in the following year he publicly kissed Pope Alexander’s foot before the central door of St. Mark’s, and six years later, at Constance, the truce became a treaty. Though imperial suzerainty was technically preserved, the cities of Lombardy (and to some extent Tuscany also) were henceforth free to manage their own affairs.

William returned to Sicily with his international standing higher than it had ever been; but the last years of his reign were anything but happy. His Emir of Emirs—the title given to the Chief Minister of the kingdom—a certain Maio of Bari, was assassinated in 1160; and the following year saw a palace revolution in which the King’s young son and heir, Roger, was killed and William himself was lucky to escape with his life. The disorder spread through much of Sicily and into Apulia and Calabria, the King as always leading his army in person, captured rebels being punished with hideous brutality. Worst of all, when he returned to Sicily in 1162, he found Christians and Muslims at each other’s throats; the interreligious harmony which the two Rogers had worked so hard to achieve had been destroyed forever.

13 May 2024

Chinese in Colonial Vietnam

 From The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam, by Tran Khanh (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1993), pp. 21-25:

Two major factors converged to cause an upsurge in Chinese migration to Vietnam in the second half of the nineteenth century. A push factor was the political upheavals in China, which led to its people seeking better conditions overseas. A pull factor was French colonization and the policy of the colonial government to recruit Chinese labour for Vietnam.

After the Treaty of Nanking in AD 1842 forced the Manchu court in Beijing to cede Hong Kong to the British and open five treaty ports to Western powers, it was no longer possible for the Chinese authority to control the movement of their nationals in and out of the country. At that time, the Chinese Government had officially banned travelling beyond the shores of China. Thus China became an increasingly stable source of manpower for labour-hungry Western colonies in Southeast Asia and Latin America. By AD 1860, articles within the Treaty of Peking signed between China and both Britain and France literally compelled the Manchu authorities to recognize the right of Chinese workers to seek a livelihood abroad under contracts they themselves could freely enter into. Dovetailing with this relaxation of laws on emigration was the political turmoil of the times which contributed to the urge to leave. During AD 1850-61 there was a large-scale uprising in the form of the Taiping Revolution. Added to that were the intermittent wars fought with Western powers. The majority of migrants in this exodus were the usual land-deprived peasants and impoverished city dwellers. But there was also a sizeable number of small and middle-scale business­ men, intellectuals, and military personnel.

France colonized six provinces of southern Vietnam (Nam Ky), which constituted Cochinchina, in AD 1867 and established protectorates in cen­tral and northern Vietnam by AD 1884. The two protectorates were named Annam and Tonkin, respectively. From the start, the French colonial admin­istration took measures to regulate Chinese immigration with a mixture of control and encouragement. In AD 1874 a special Immigration Bureau was established in Saigon which allowed Chinese immigrants into the country but only if they belonged to dialect groups already existing in the country and if the groups would provide sponsorship for their own kind.  The Bureau was very active, and as early as AD 1897 it had a department that could arbitrarily decide on the suitability of a Chinese immigrant for work; this aroused such an angry protest from the Chinese community that the administration was forced to close it down. After this, streams of Chinese immigrants could cross freely into Vietnam, and they congregated mainly in big cities.

The French colonial administration allowed the Chinese to deal freely in rice, opium, and alcohol. Other legal rights included the right to own land, to travel without restriction within the Indochinese Federation, to establish commercial organizations, to return to China for a visit, and to transfer their wealth out of the country. Such favourable conditions continued to attract Chinese migrants as in the days of the Nguyen dynasty. Within a ten-year span, the number of Chinese in Cochinchina shot up from 44,000 in 1873 to 56,000 in 1889, concentrating mainly in big cities. Cholon in the year 1889 had a population of nearly 16,000 Chinese; Saigon, over 7,000; and Gia Dinh, nearly 3,000. In Tonkin and Annam, the Chinese migrants also gathered in Haiphong, Hanoi, Danang, and the Quang Ninh province, which bordered China. The Chines here were involved mostly in commerce and service.

Chinese immigrants during the period of late nineteenth and early twen­tieth centuries also consisted of labourers contracted by the French to work in Vietnam. They were sent to excavate mines, specifically in Quang Ninh province, to build the railway linking Vietnam to the southern provinces of China or to tap rubber in plantations. By the 1920s, Chinese workers accounted for 7 per cent of the total number of miners and 17 per cent of the total number of industrial workers in Vietnam. The influx of Chinese labourers contributed not only to the country's manpower but also to the emergence of a working class in Vietnam.

This rapid influx of Chinese migrants continued up till the middle of the twentieth century. Data published during the period AD 1912-22 give their number as 158,000. Between 1923 and 1933, nearly 600,000 arrived from China. Another set of data estimates the number to be 1.2 million between 1923 and 1951, which was a record at any given period of time during the whole history of Chinese emigration. But the traffic was prone to ebb and flow. The figures were high in the years 1925-30, 1936-38, and 1946-48, correlating with the security situation in China. China was ex­periencing civil wars during the periods 1924-27 and 1946-49. The years 1936-38 saw the beginnings of Japanese military encroachment on China. Going by official statistics, the figure for the Chinese population in Vietnam in the years just before the French left in 1954 would range from 600,000 to 750,000. Variations of this figure for different years are shown in Table 1, estimated to be 2 per cent of Vietnam's population.

The distribution of population also shows Chinese preference for urban centres and the southern part of the country. Before 1945, some 90 per cent of the Chinese community were residing in Cochinchina, where they made up 7 per cent of the population. The proportions of Chinese in Tonkin and Annam were minimal, 0.5 per cent and 0.2 per cent, respectively. Table 2 illustrates the urban characteristic of the Chinese population in Vietnam.

In 1952 the Chinese population in Saigon-Cholon constituted about 34 per cent of the total population of the city. Their proportions in Hanoi and Haiphong were 4 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively. Besides these three big cities, the Chinese were also found in sizeable numbers in other cities of the South. As mentioned earlier, the border province of Quang Ning in the North also had concentrations of Chinese, as in Cam Pha, Ti  Yen, Quang Ha, and Mong Cai. With towns where large numbers of Chinese reside, they would also gather in particular quarters or streets. For example, in Sai­gon, they are to be found in districts 5, 6, 10, and 11. District 5 is Cholon, where before 1975, 80 per cent of the residents were Chinese. In Hanoi, they were gathered at the Hang Buom and Ma May quarters.

With the division of the country into two halves in 1954, complete in­tegrated statistics were not available for the whole of Vietnam. The South became the Republic of Vietnam (ROV) while the North was the Demo­cratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and it was not till 1976 that they were united under the name of the Social Republic of Vietnam (SRV). By Tsai Maw Kuey's data, the Chinese population in the ROV in 1968 reached 1,035,000. The French magazine Le Monde puts it at 1,200,000 in the ROV and 208,000 in the DRV in 1970. Wu Yuan-Li and Wu Chun-Hsi's figures are 2 million for the South and 175,000 for the North at the collapse of the ROV. According to official figures for 1976, the year of reunification, the Chinese population in Vietnam was 1,236,000, which was about 2.6 per cent of the total population. Summing up these various estimates, it can be concluded that the Chinese population in Vietnam in the middle of the 1970s was around 1,500,000, of which 85 per cent lived in the South. The Chinese community made up 3 per cent of the total population of Vietnam.

The problems of estimating the Chinese population in Vietnam contin­ued after 1975 because of large-scale population movement caused by political changes. When the Saigon regime collapsed in April 1975, some 150,000 people left the country, among whom were high-ranking government and military officials of the old regime as well as Chinese businessmen. Shortly after, beginning in 1978, another exodus of Chinese residents took place, with 230,000 leaving for China and another 220,000 leaving for Southeast Asia by boat. This was the result of the socialist transformation of private capitalist industry and trade in the newly liberated South and tense relations with China. The latter arose because of differences over Cambodia, and Beijing exploited the issue of the Chinese community in Vietnam to complicate matters. From a population of 1,236,000, the ethnic Chinese population shrank to 935,000 on 1 October 1979. By the time of the cen­sus in April 1989, the Chinese population had increased to 961,702 but its proportion of the total population had dropped to 1.5 percent. The distribution of this community across Vietnam is given in Table 3. In some areas, the proportion of ethnic Chinese had dropped very significantly. For example, before 1978, ethnic Chinese residents in Quang Ninh province numbered about 160,000, or 22 per cent, of the provincial population. This was about 60-80 per cent of the total ethnic Chinese population in North Vietnam. In the 1980s, Quang Ninh's ethnic Chinese population dropped to 5,000, or 0.6 per cent, of the provincial population.

12 May 2024

Norman Conquest of Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 64-66:

The Normans were now effectively on its very doorstep; there was nothing to prevent their marching into the Holy City itself. Pope Leo IX resolved to move first. He raised an army, and led it in person against them. The two forces met on June 17, 1053, near Civitate, on the bank of the Fortore River, and the Pope was defeated. The Normans treated him with every courtesy and conducted him to Benevento, where they kept him for almost a year while a modus vivendi for the future was worked out. Its details need not concern us here; suffice it to say that just six years later, in the little town of Melfi, Pope Nicholas II invested Robert Guiscard with the dukedoms of Apulia, Calabria—and Sicily.

BY JUST WHAT TITLE the Pope so munificently bestowed on the Normans territories which had never before been claimed by him or his predecessors is open to doubt. Apulia and Calabria were questionable enough, but with regard to Sicily Nicholas was on still shakier ground, since the island had never been subject to papal control. It was unlikely, however, that such considerations bothered the Normans overmuch. By that third investiture, the Pope had issued Robert with an open invitation. Sicily, lying green and fertile little more than a stone’s throw from the mainland, was the obvious objective, the natural completion of that great southward sweep that had brought the Normans down the peninsula. It was also the lair of Saracen pirates, still a perennial menace to the Italian coastal towns of the south and west. While Sicily remained in the hands of the heathen, how could the Duke of Calabria and Apulia ever ensure the security of his newly legalized dominions?

To the local populations, the progeny of old Tancred de Hauteville must have seemed almost infinite. Already no fewer than seven of his sons had made their mark in Italy; and still this remarkable source showed no sign of exhaustion, for there now appeared on the scene an eighth brother, Roger. He was the youngest of the Hautevilles, at this time some twenty-six years old; but as a fighter he was a match for any, while as a statesman he was the greatest of them all. His brother Robert quickly recognized his qualities. As a recent arrival, Roger had not yet acquired any territorial responsibilities; he would clearly be the perfect second-in-command for the coming Sicilian expedition.

In the early spring of 1060 Robert and Roger together forced the surrender of the Byzantine garrison in Reggio, the Calabrian town that faces Sicily across the Strait of Messina. Now the only Italian city still in Greek hands was Bari, too far away on the Adriatic to cause any trouble; the way was clear. The Pope had given his blessing, the Western Empire was as powerless as the Eastern to intervene. Even in Sicily itself the situation seemed relatively favorable. In many areas the local population was still Christian—though of the Orthodox persuasion—and likely to welcome the invaders as liberators. As for the Muslims, they were certainly brave fighters, but they were now more than ever divided among themselves. It did not look as though the Norman conquest of Sicily would take very long.

In fact, from first to last it took thirty-one years—in notable contrast to the Norman conquest of England just six years later, which mopped up the Saxon opposition in a matter of months. This cannot all be attributed to the valor of the Saracen armies; it was due principally to the rebellious barons in Apulia, who divided Robert’s energies and resources at a time when he desperately needed all he had for Sicily. And yet, paradoxically, it was these Apulian preoccupations that made Sicily the brilliant and superbly organized kingdom that it later became. As Robert was obliged to spend more and more time on the mainland, so the campaign in Sicily fell increasingly under the control of his brother, until Roger could finally assume effective supremacy. This was to lead to the division of Robert’s domains and so allowed Roger, finally freed of Apulian responsibilities, to devote to the island the attention it deserved.

On January 10, 1072, the brothers made their formal entry into Palermo. Subjection of the island was still by no means complete. Independent emirates struggled on in Syracuse and Trapani, but henceforth final pacification could be only a matter of time. Robert Guiscard as Duke of Sicily claimed suzerainty over the island, but with his two mainland dukedoms to look after could never remain there long; Roger would be the effective ruler, with the title of Great Count. Sicily was to be effectively transformed. Since the first half of the ninth century it had been wholly or largely in Muslim hands, constituting a forward outpost of Islam from which raiders, pirates and the occasional expeditionary force had maintained an unremitting pressure against the southern bastions of Christendom. For some 250 years, separately and in combination, the two great empires had striven in vain to subdue them; Robert and Roger, with a handful of followers, had succeeded in barely a decade. Moreover, the Norman conquest of Sicily was, together with the contemporary beginnings of the Reconquista in Spain, the first step in the immense Christian reaction against the Muslim-held lands of the southern Mediterranean—that reaction which was shortly to develop into the colossal, if ultimately empty, epic of the Crusades.

11 May 2024

Chinese Under Vietnamese Dynasties

From The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam, by Tran Khanh (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1993), pp. 17-20:

When Vietnam became independent of its Chinese colonial masters in AD 938 and power was consolidated by the Ly dynasty (AD 1009-1225), the issue of the ethnic Chinese as a resident community of foreign nationals and how they are to be treated arose. Thus began a form of assimilation policy. During the reign of the Ly's and the the subsequent Tran dynasty (AD 1226-1400), the us of ethnic Chinese scholars and officials in leading administra­tive position was advocated. But this applied to only those Chinese who had chosen to settle permanently in Vietnam. Those who retained their migrant status could not even travel without permission from the local authorities.

During the Later Le dynasty (AD 1428-1592) and under the rule of the Trinh lords in the north up till AD 1788, assimilation and surveillance of the Chinese community intensified. The Chinese had to abide by Vietnamese laws, conform with Vietnamese customs and traditions, even to the extent of dressing the Vietnamese way. Chinese immigrants were not free to travel within Dai Viet (Great Viet, the name of the country then), particularly in the vicinity of Thang Long, the country's capital. The more stringent Vietnamese  attitude towards the Chinese community was because the Le's reign came as a result of having defeated the occupied force of China's Ming dynasty. The Chinese army had earlier entered Vietnam on the pretext of helping the then Tran emperor to quell a rebellion. They stayed on for twenty years (AD  1407-1427).

This was how assimilation gradually proceeded over the centuries. However, as mentioned above, new waves of migrants in the later part of the seventeenth century strengthened the identity of the Chinese community. It was not just a question of numbers. A new factor had also emerged to raise the socio-economic status of the Chinese. That was the growing importance of international commerce as more Western powers started to make their appearances in this part of the world in the seventeenth century. To understand the extent of Chinese participation in this important trade, let us look at some of these trading centres.

As mentioned earlier, small Chinatowns started to emerge in almost every main city and in various important economic centres in Vietnam around this time. Examples would include Pho Hien, Hoi An (then known by foreigners as Faifo), Phien Tran (today's Gia Dinh), Tran Bien (today's Bien Hoa), Cholon, and Ha Tien. Pho Hien, located in the centre of the Red River plain in the north, came into being in the thirteenth century. Due to the thriving business in the beginning of the seventeenth century, more Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans were attracted to this town. The Dutch East India Company sent a trade representative there in AD 1637. The English East India Company also established an office there in AD 1672. Unlike the European and the Japanese, Chinese merchants not only traded, but also par­ticipated in the production of black incense, alum sugar, sedge mat, Chinese medicinal herbs.

The old town of Hoi An, 26 km north of Danang, was reputedly the most busy trading port of Vietnam from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Its rise was mainly owing to foreign merchants, especially Chinese and Japanese, who controlled the external trade since native Vietnamese were not active in the seafaring business. European traders who called at this port in the seventeenth century related that Hoi An town had two special quarters: one Chinese and other Japanese, with each ruled by a Vietnamese governor.

According to Le Qui Don, a renowned historian of that time,  commerce and handicraft were the two main livelihoods of Hoi An's Chinese residents. They bought brass utensils transported there by European vessels and resold them in their own quarters. The seven-month long trading season began approximately  with each new year and the natives would bring their prod­ucts here for sale, things such as raw and processed silk, various kinds of wood and spices, and rice. Vessels from China arrived loaded with porcelain, paper, tea, silver bars, arms, sulphur, saltpeter, lead, and lead oxide. According to another source of history, the amount of gold extracted in South Vietnam was mainly for export. Chinese merchants from Hoi An bought over this volume to export. Gold, which was reserved entirely for export, was monopolized by the Chinese merchants of the town. Historic documents stated that by the eighteenth century (AD 1714), Chinese merchants of Hoi An established the Sea Trading Association. This was probably the first in stance of institution-building by the Chinese migrants. There were in AD 1768 nearly 6,000 Chinese, most of whom were engaged in trading.

Chinese-dominated trading centres have their ups and downs, a result of political changes within Vietnam and the Chinese community's relationship with the ruling powers of the time. This relationship and the status of the community was sometimes a function of state-to-state relations between China and Vietnam. Cholon, which is today still famous as a hub of Chi­nese economic activities, was one such example. It began as a small settlement of villages 5 km. from Saigon, born of the Tay Son rebellion, which began in the early 1760s and ended with its leaders taking over the whole country in AD 1788. In order to escape the ravages of the Tay Son uprising, in AD 1778 a group of Chinese moved from their settlement in Tran Bien (today's Bien Hoa), northeast of Saigon, to a place that came to be known as Cholon (today's districts 5 and 6 of Ho Chi Minh City), southwest of Saigon. This land was given to them by Le Van Duyet, the lord of that area and who was opposed to the Tay Son rebels. In AD 1792, during the reign of Tay Son, there was a massacre of the Chinese in Cholon.

There were explanations to account for the Tay Son period, both dur­ing their uprising and when they were in power, this being a difficult time for the ethnic Chinese. The latter were on the wrong side since they were generally supportive of the Nguyen lords, the corrupt ruling order which the Tay Son leaders were seeking to overthrow. The Nguyen lords, and the imperial court at Hue that they controlled, had allowed Chinese migrants into the country and to prosper in their business. This effete regime was also heavily steeped in Confucianism and patterned on the Chinese imperial court, influences which the Tay Son leaders sought to remove. Furthermore, the Tay Son rebellion took its roots from widespread peasant discontent and the Chinese, a distinctive urban elite, were therefore a natural target. Finally, the Nguyen lords called on the assistance of the Qing emperor in China to help fight the rebels, and in AD  1788 an army from China invaded. It was defeated, however, but it must have added to anti-Chinese feelings within the Tay Son movement.

In AD 1802 the Tay Son dynasty was toppled by Nguyen Anh, one of the last Nguyen lords. Nguyen Anh then established the Nguyen dynasty, declared himself Emperor Gia Long, and reverted to a Confucian orthodoxy patterned after the Qing court in China. Chinese business activities flourished under the Nguyens. By the time the French acquired South Vietnam as a colony of Cochinchina in AD 1867, Cholon had 500 tiled houses, two man-made canals, and five bridges under construction, including one of iron. The quay along the Arroyo Chinois was covered with warehouses and shipyards. In the centre of the town was placed a fountain of Chinese design, and the streets were lit by lamps using coconut oil.

The Nguyen rulers used Chinese merchants in the collection of taxes, encouraged them to set up shipyards to build boats and ships, allowed them to buy houses, acquire land, and foorm their own social and economic organizations. Historical records show that in some economic sectors, the Chinese were even more favored than the Vietnamese. They could, for example, build ships of any capacity while the Vietnamese were allowed to build only small ships. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Nguyen court exempted new Chinese immigrants from all taxes in the first three years after their arrival. Such preferential treatment for the Chinese community helped them to expand their economic power. It also encouraged further immigration by the Chinese.

What was the motivation of the Nguyen court for encouraging the Chinese? First, the increasing wealth of the Chinese community served the interest of Vietnam's ruling class. Officials got financial spinoffs from Chi­nese businesses. The Chinese also brought useful handicraft skills. There were also common strategic interests at that time as Asian countries were starting to experience the encroachment of Western imperial powers. For Vietnam, a bigger and stronger China next door may be useful to fend off Western powers.

Besides commerce, the Chinese in Vietnam were also actively involved in investment and mining. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Chinese operated 124 mines in the North on lease. They recruited their own miners, mostly new arrivals from China. Materials extracted from these mines, such as iron and coal, were generally for export with a small propor­tion reserved as tax payment to the Vietnamese authorities. Despite measures by local authorities to restrict Chinese miners, their numbers rose to 700-800 at times. It was a general tendency then for successful Chinese mine formen to return to China or revert to trading after having reaped huge profits from mining. Even though Chinese mining entrepreneurs paid taxes to the royal court and also reinvested part of their earnings, the overall participation of the Chinese in mining represented a loss rather than a gain of capital for Vietnam. Chinese leasing of mines was subsequently prohibited by law when the French colonized the country.

10 May 2024

Arab Conquest of Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 58-59:

Sicily, like neighboring Calabria, became a haven for refugees from the iconoclast movement in the empire; but in the ninth it was shattered. The Arabs had waited long enough. They had by now occupied the entire length of the North African coast, and had already been harassing the island with sporadic raiding. Then in 827 they saw their chance of achieving permanent occupation. The local Byzantine Governor, Euphemius by name, had recently been dismissed from his post and recalled to Constantinople after an unseemly elopement with a local nun. His reply was to rise in revolt and proclaim himself Emperor, appealing to the Arabs for aid. They landed in strength, rapidly entrenched themselves, took little notice of Euphemius—who soon came to a violent end—and three years later stormed Palermo, making it their capital. Subsequent progress was slow. Messina fell in 843; Syracuse suffered a long and terrible siege, during which the defenders were finally reduced to cannibalism. The city surrendered only in 878. After this the Byzantines seem to have admitted defeat. A few isolated outposts in the eastern part of the island held out a little longer—the last, Rometta, even into the middle of the tenth century—but on that June day when the banner of the Prophet was raised over Syracuse, Sicily became, to all intents and purposes, a part of the Muslim world.

Once the wars of conquest were over and the country had settled again, life continued pleasantly enough for most of the Greek Christian communities. Although they had to endure a degree of discrimination as second-class citizens, they were normally allowed to keep their freedom, on payment of an annual tribute which many must have preferred to the heavy taxation and compulsory military service imposed by the Roman Empire. Meanwhile the Saracens displayed, as so often throughout their history, a degree of religious toleration which permitted the churches and monasteries and the long tradition of Hellenistic scholarship to flourish as much as ever they had done. In other ways too the island benefited from its conquerors. They brought with them a whole new system of agriculture, based on such innovations as terracing and siphon aqueducts for irrigation. They introduced cotton and papyrus, melon and pistachio, citrus and date palm and enough sugarcane to make possible, within a very few years, a substantial export trade. Under the Byzantines Sicily had never played an important part in European commerce, but with the Saracen conquest it soon became one of the major trading centers of the Mediterranean, with Christian, Muslim and Jewish merchants all thronging the bazaars of Palermo.

And yet, among the many blessings conferred upon Sicily by her Arab conquerors, that of stability was conspicuously absent. As the links of loyalty which bound the Emir of Palermo and his fellow chieftains to the North African caliphate grew ever more tenuous, the emirs themselves lost their cohesive force; they became increasingly divided against one another, and so the island found itself once again a battleground of warring factions. It was this steady political decline that was to bring the Greeks in strength back to Sicily—together with their Norman allies.

09 May 2024

Early Chinese Emigration to Vietnam

From The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam, by Tran Khanh (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1993), pp. 14-17.

Chinese contacts with the Indochina peninsula began in 1110 BC during the sixth year of the reign of King Cheng, the second ruler of the Zhou dynasty. During the third century BC the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221-225 BC), Shih Huang Ti conquered the area that is North Vietnam today. Thus began the long period of Chinese colonization and it also resulted in the first massive migration of Chinese into Vietnam. In 214 BC nearly half a million Chinese troops and fugitives were resettled in the north­ern part of Vietnam.

After the crushing of the Vietnamese uprising by the two Trung sisters (popularly referred to in Vietnam as Hai Ba Trung), the Western Han dynasty (140-87 BC), which ruled China at that time sent peasants and soldiers to resettle on land further to the south, where the Chinese prefecture of Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam were located. Among these mi­grants were Chinese scholars and government officials.

Throughout the period of Chinese colonization, which spanned ten centuries, Vietnam was to become one of the big receiving countries of Chinese migrants. Historical documents stated that Vietnam, after having regained independence from China in the tenth century AD, returned 87,000 Chinese nationals to China. A large number of other Chinese requested permanent resettlement in Vietnam and were granted permission to do so by the Vietnamese state. A large proportion of this group were registered into the Vietnamese head-tax book and were treated as Vietnamese.

From the tenth century on, when successive wars of aggression were waged against Vietnam by the Song (tenth and eleventh centuries), the Yuan (thirteenth century), the Ming (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), and the Qing (eighteenth century), new waves of Chinese immigration took place. In AD 1279, for example, when the Song dynasty was about to be toppled by the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty, many civilian and military officials of the Chinese court fled to Vietnam with their families, relatives, and dependents. The Vietnamese Tran dynasty (AD 1226-1400) allowed them to settle permanently in Vietnam.

Then there was the Ming occupation (AD 1407-1427) and in the war of liberation against the Chinese court, large numbers of Chinese soldiers were captured and they chose to remain in Vietnam. They were placed under strict supervision, however, and were not allowed to change residence within Vietnamese territory. From that time on, the Dai Viet government (Great Vietnam, then the name of Vietnam) started to enforce an assimilation policy which went as far as making the Chinese adopt the Vietnamese way of dressing.

The next influx came after the Ming dynasty in China was usurped by the Manchus, who set up the Qing dynasty in AD 1644. According to the Dai Nam Chronicle, in AD 1679, about 3,000 Chinese officers, soldiers, and their families landed at Thuan An (today's Thua Thien province near Hue) in central Vietnam and proceeded to ask the Vietnamese court at Hue for land to farm in return for which they would pay tax. The court was recep­tive and gave them land on what is today known as Dong Nai in newly acquired territory to the south, popularly known in Vietnamese as Nam Ky or Nam Bo.

The Dong Nai plain was then called Dong Pho and historical records show that by the end of the seventeenth century, Chinese merchants and artisans had cleared land and founded villages in this area, currently the districts of Binh Thach, Phu Nhuan, and Bien Hoa on the fringe of Ho Chi Minh City. These were known as Minh Huong villages, a term referring to descendants of Ming loyalists. More Chinese migrants were attracted to these villages by the bustling atmosphere and thriving business climate. They also attracted merchants from Japan, the Arabic countries, India, and even as far as Europe.

Another influx of Chinese refugees came at the end of the seventeenth century and they settled in what was then Cambodian territory in the south­ern tip of present-day Vietnam. Most significant among them were 400 military officers and soldiers led by Mac Cuu (Mo Jiu), who was given suzerainty in AD 1708 over the territory known as Ha Tien, in return for which Mac Cuu had to pay homage to the Vietnamese court at Hue. The Nguyen lords who then controlled the southern half of the country in the name of the Le dynasty appointed Mac Cuu as Lord of Ha Tien despite protests from Cambodia. Mac Cuu's men settled in both Vietnamese and Cambodian territory. After his death in AD 1735, his son Mac Ti Tri continued to be recognized by the Nguyen lords as Lord of Ha Tien. Mac Tien Tri opened markets as well as encouraged the development of commerce and handicraft. He also founded schools to teach the Chinese language. Ha Tien thus gradually became a commercial port and a centre for the diffusion of Chinese culture into South Vietnam in the eighteenth century.

Thus by the end of the seventeenth century, Chinese settlements con­centrated in Nam Ky (south). Prior to this, Chinese migration was a gradual process and the migrants would tend to assimilate over the years. It was only from this time that there was a critical mass of Chinese migrants which together with steady inflows from China thereafter, hastened the formation of a distinct and relatively permanent Chinese community within Vietnam­ese society. Small Chinatowns sprouted in or close to almost every big city and major trading centre. The settlement patterns of the Chinese were also becoming more complex as the increasing numbers allowed them to con­gregate according to dialect groups or kinship or even the causes which led to their leaving China. Their growing economic sophistication also meant the creation of institutions to regulate business activities and some of these were in turn meshed with traditional Chinese allegiance according to kinship or birthplace. For instance, there existed in Vietnam's Chinese popula­tion, the bang, which are communities based on dialect groups, clans, and secret societies. There were also respective Chambers of Commerce to regulate business practices.

It would be useful to know the proportion of the Chinese community within the larger Vietnamese population during that time but unfortunately no  definitive statistics are available as no census was ever conducted before the  colonial period. Nevertheless, a number of publications estimated the Chinese population in Vietnam in the first half of the nineteenth century to be in the tens of thousands or less than 100,000. In Tonkin (the French term for the northern part of Vietnam), there was said to be about 20,000-30,000 Chinese, the majority of whom worked in the mines.

08 May 2024

Studies of Chinese in Vietnam

From The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam, by Tran Khanh (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1993), pp. 1-7.

Close to twenty years have passed since South Vietnam was liberated in 1975. The economy of a re-unified Vietnam, however, is still poverty-ridden. One of the reasons for this is the lack of effectiveness in the use of private domestic resources. particularly that of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. Before 1975, Chinese capital, entrepreneurship, and skilled manpower in South Vietnam played an important role in the development of domestic markets and international trade. After 1975, however, Chinese participation in the Vietnamese economy underwent a decline brought about by the socialist transformation of the South and an exodus of capital. However, the residual economic potential of the Chinese who have remained in Vietnam is still considerable.

Under doi moi, which is the programme of economic and political reforms in Vietnam, there is evidence that the Chinese are once again contributing significantly to the expansion of internal markets and capital accumulation for small-scale industrial development. Accordingly, the role which the Chinese have played in the past and are beginning to play again seems eminently worthy of study.


A survey of the literature on the role of the Chinese in Vietnam' economy indicates that between 1964 and 1975, the Chinese community in South Vietnam flourished and prospered. Furthermore, during this period the Chinese community underwent important changes, both qualitatively and quantitatively: Chinese businesses, for instance, grew and became more diversified as reflected in the growth of Chinese-owned capital and in terms of the occupational structure of the community. After 1975, however, political changes in the South following the fall of Saigon resulted in a change in the fortunes of the ethnic Chinese and the part that they played in the economy of a unified Vietnam.

The situation of the Chinese in Vietnam after 1975 and the economic ups and downs which they faced have been little researched. Nevertheless, the Chinese community has undoubtedly experienced considerable changes as a result of the political and economic changes that have taken place in Vietnam since 1975. There are no readily available Vietnamese documents, reference books, and research papers in libraries or even specific research centres inside and outside the country covering this period in any great detail, although this is, to some extent, now slowly changing with new governmental policies on access to hitherto restricted official sources of information. Where information exists, the data are not always comparable in the post-1975 period, and comparisons with data from the pre-1975 period are even more problematic because of gaps in the data, different methods of data gathering, and so on. Despite such difficulties, a study of the economic position of the Chinese in Vietnam especially after 1975 is much needed, precisely because so little is known about it.

The topic is large and complex, and it would not be possible, in a single study, to deal with all aspects of the Chinese in Vietnam after 1975. Thus, the present study attempts to focus specifically on changing patterns of Chinese involvement in the economy of Vietnam as well as the impact of changes in the overall Vietnamese economy on the Chinese business system in the country. In dealing with this in the post-1975 period, it is necessary, however, to review the situation of the Chinese before 1975 so that the changes experienced by the Chinese in more recent times may be better understood.

07 May 2024

Sicilian Slave Revolts vs. Romans

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 36-39:

One thing is certain: that the Romans treated Sicily with little respect. That monstrous inferiority complex to which they always gave way when confronted with Greek culture led to exploitation on a colossal scale. A few Greek cities managed to retain a measure of independence, but much of the island was taken over by the latifundia: those vast landed estates, owned by absentee Roman landlords, setting a pattern of land tenure which was to ruin Sicilian agriculture for the next 2,000 years. Liberty, meanwhile, was almost extinguished as the slave gangs toiled naked in the fields, sowing and harvesting the grain for Rome.

It was thus hardly surprising that the second half of the century should have seen two great slave revolts. Tens of thousands of men, women and children had been sold into slavery during the third-century Sicilian wars, tens of thousands more as a result of warfare on the mainland in the century following. Meanwhile, the Hellenistic east was in a state of turmoil. The tidy distribution of territories among Alexander’s generals was a thing of the past; Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria were now torn apart by dynastic struggles. This meant prisoners, both military and political, a vast proportion of whom, with their families, were swept up by the slave traders and never heard of again. And in Sicily, still steadily developing its agriculture, a strong and healthy worker would fetch a more than reasonable price.

The slave population was in consequence dangerously large, but it gave the authorities little cause for alarm. After all, mass revolts were rare indeed. Almost by definition, slaves—branded, beaten and frequently chained together—were permanently demoralized by the life they led, while the conditions under which they were kept normally made any consultation and planning between them impossible. On the other hand, it should be remembered that many of those who had landed up in Sicily were intelligent and educated, and nearly all of them spoke Greek. And just sometimes, out of sheer desperation, they were driven to action.

The first revolt began, so far as we can gather, in 139 B.C. on the estates of a certain Damophilus of Enna, “who surpassed the Persians in the sumptuousness and costliness of his feasts” and whose slaves most understandably resolved to kill him. Before doing so, however, they consulted another slave, a Syrian named Eunus, who was generally believed to possess magic, or at least oracular, powers. Would the gods, they asked him, give their blessing to such a plan? Eunus’s reply was as categorical as any of them could have wished. He personally marched into Enna with a following of some four hundred fellow slaves; the murder, rape and plunder lasted for several hours. Damophilus and his termagant wife, Megallis, were away in their country villa, but were quickly brought back to the city; he was killed at once, she was handed over to her own female slaves, who tortured her and then flung her from the roof. Eunus had meanwhile been proclaimed King, making his mistress (and former fellow slave) Queen at his side.

Once started, the revolt spread like wildfire. A certain Cleon, a Cilician herdsman working near Agrigento, joined Eunus with 5,000 men of his own; soon they were at Morgantina, then at Taormina. By this time their numbers probably approached the 100,000 mark, though we shall never know for sure. Another mystery is why, in contrast to the speed and efficiency they showed in dealing with similar but much smaller uprisings in Italy, the Romans were so unconscionably slow in sending troops to restore order. Admittedly they had other preoccupations at home and abroad, but the truth is that all through their history the Romans consistently underestimated Sicily; the fact that it was not part of the Italian peninsula but technically an offshore island seemed to lower it in their estimation. Had they properly considered the scale and importance of what was going on, had they sent an adequate force of trained soldiers to the island as soon as the first reports arrived, Eunus and his followers would hardly have stood a chance. As things turned out, it was not until 132 B.C.—seven years after its beginning—that the revolt was finally crushed. The prisoners taken at Taormina were tortured; their bodies, living or dead, were flung from the battlements of the citadel. Their leader, after wandering for some time at liberty, was finally captured and thrown into prison, where he died soon afterward. The vast majority of the rebels, however, were released. They no longer constituted a danger—and, after all, if life were to go on as it always had, slaves were a vital commodity.

Unlike the first, the second slave revolt had a specific cause other than general dissatisfaction. It began in 104 B.C., when Rome was once again under severe pressure, this time from Germanic tribes to the north. In order to deal more efficiently with these, she appealed for military assistance from Nicomedes III, King of Bithynia in Asia Minor.*2 Nicomedes replied that he unfortunately had no young men to spare, thanks to the activities of the slave traders who were seizing so many of them and who were actually protected by the Roman authorities. At this the horrified Senate ordered that all those of Rome’s “allies” who had been enslaved should be released at once. The effect of this decree when it reached Sicily may well be imagined. Huge crowds of slaves assembled before the Governor in Syracuse, demanding immediate emancipation. He granted freedom to some eight hundred, then realized that, if he continued, he would be destroying the entire base of the Sicilian economy. Laying down his pen, he ordered that the still-growing crowds should disperse and return to their homes. Not surprisingly, they refused—and the second slave revolt was under way.

Since the Roman decree—and the Governor’s refusal to enforce it—affected the slaves all over Sicily, the whole island was soon in an uproar.

05 May 2024

Who Killed Weimar Democracy?

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 673-678:

Given all the cumulative problems it faced, it is surprising Weimar democracy lasted as long as it did, but we need to remember that it endured longer than Hitler’s Third Reich. The period from 1918 to 1923 was politically and economically turbulent, but democracy survived. Between 1924 and 1929, the economy stabilised, Germany regained international respectability, and democratic rule was never threatened. Even in the period of deep political and economic crisis between 1930 and 1933, during the time of authoritarian ‘presidential rule’, there was no attempt to overthrow the Republic.

The commonly held view is that the ‘Great Depression’ led to the collapse of Weimar democracy, and brought Hitler to power, is not credible. The USA and Britain suffered economic problems often as difficult as those of Germany, but democracy did not collapse in either of those countries. This suggests there was something specific about the nature of the political and economic crisis that was peculiar to Germany at this time.

The two decisive ingredients in the period from 1930 to 1933 were the supreme indifference of President Hindenburg, and his inner circle, to sustain democratic government, and the dramatic rise in electoral support for Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP. It was a toxic mixture of these two factors, operating at a time of deep economic depression, which ensured Germany’s experiment with democracy failed.

Yet the seeds of the Weimar’s democratic tragedy were planted by the type of democratic system established after the November Revolution of 1918, and embedded into the Weimar Constitution of 1919. The November Revolution was a very strange one indeed, which left Germany’s judicial, bureaucratic, and military elite largely intact. Weimar judges punished those on the Left with harsh sentences, while treating radicals on the Right very leniently, and the Reichswehr remained a law unto itself, being more preoccupied with shaking off the military restrictions placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles than defending democracy.

One of the essential ingredients for the successful transition from an authoritarian to a democratic form of government is the existence of a strong, resilient party of the moderate Right, committed to the ideals of democracy. In Britain, the Conservative Party fulfilled this role, evolving from the late 19th century into a mainstay of the British party system. In Germany, no such party was able to take on that stabilising role. The leading conservative party in Germany was the DNVP. Between 1919 and 1930, its voter support reached a high point of 20.5 per cent and 103 seats in the December 1924 election, but then fell to a low point of 7 per cent at the September 1930 election, when it gained just 41 seats. During the Weimar era, the DNVP was a bitter opponent of Weimar democracy, with a leader in Alfred Hugenberg who moved the party to the extreme Right.

Germany’s military defeat in the Great War also cast a giant shadow over the Weimar Republic. The ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth, which held that Germany was not defeated on the battlefield, but betrayed by Liberals, Jews and Socialists on the home front, remained a powerful one. Some of these negative feelings fed into the general hatred of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The inclusion of Article 231, known as the ‘war-guilt clause’, seemed particularly vindictive. Add in the bill for reparations and you have a perfect recipe for deeply held animosity towards democracy. Any government forced to sign such a treaty would have been unpopular, but the fact this task fell to the SPD-led coalition government was deeply damaging for the stability of democracy. The tag ‘November Criminals’ was hung around the necks of those politicians who had instigated the fall of the Kaiser and were responsible for the establishment of democracy.

There were also two aspects of the Weimar Constitution which undoubtedly contributed to the failure of democracy. The first was the voting system, based on proportional representation, which gave Reichstag seats in exact proportion to the votes cast in elections. In Germany, this system did not work. In July 1932, 27 different political parties contested the election, ranging across the political spectrum, with each representing one class or interest group. These differing parties reflected the bitter divisions in German society and made the task of creating stable coalition governments extremely difficult, and eventually impossible. Some coalitions took weeks to form, but could fall apart in days. The last functioning Weimar coalitions were those led by SPD Chancellor Herman Müller between 1928 and 1930, involving the SPD, Zentrum, the DDP, the DVP, but they finally broke apart over the increasing payments of unemployment benefits.

The Weimar Republic also lacked the one key factor that made democracy stable in the USA and Britain – that is, a two-party system, with one left-wing liberal democratic and one conservative party, alternating in periods of power, with each loyal to the democratic system. If there had been a first-past-the-post electoral constituency system, as operated in Britain, then probably a small number of parties would have ruled, and there would have been a better chance of stable government, although given the deep differences between the Weimar political parties that is by no means certain.

Those who drafted the Weimar Constitution were unwittingly culpable in offering a means of destroying democracy. This was the special powers the Weimar Constitution invested in the role of the President. No one realised when drafting the Constitution how an anti-democratic holder of the post could subvert the power of the President. Article 48 gave the German President extensive subsidiary powers in a ‘state of emergency’ to appoint and dismiss Chancellors and cabinets, to dissolve the Reichstag, call elections and suspend civil rights. The two German presidents of the Weimar years were quite different. Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert was an enthusiastic supporter of Weimar democracy. He used Article 48 on 136 occasions during the period 1918 to 1925, but always with the intention of sustaining the Republic by preventing coup attempts, not with the aim of undermining or threatening its existence. Paul von Hindenburg, elected in 1925, was a great contrast. He was a right-wing figure, who had led Germany’s militaristic armed forces during the Great War of 1914–1918. Up until March 1930, Hindenburg never used Article 48 at all. Henceforth, influenced by a small inner circle of advisers, all militaristic and authoritarian in outlook, he appointed Chancellors of his own choosing, who remained in power using emergency powers granted under Article 48.

It was President Hindenburg, therefore, who mortally damaged the infant democratic structure in Germany more than anyone else. It was not the Constitution or the voting system that was the fundamental problem, but the culpable actions of Hindenburg, who chose to deliberately subvert the power it had invested in him. Hindenburg appointed three Chancellors between 1930 and 1933: Heinrich Brüning, Franz von Papen, and Kurt von Schleicher, all of whom governed using emergency decrees granted by the President.

The political crisis after 1930 was deliberately manufactured by Hindenburg, who refused to involve Social Democrats in government, who were the strongest supporters of democracy. It must not be forgotten, however, that from 1930 onwards Adolf Hitler was the single most dynamic and popular politician in Germany. He united the voters on the Right of German politics in a way no other politician had been able to do so since the beginning of the Weimar years. The NSDAP managed to be anti-elitist and anti-capitalist while at the same time being patriotic and nationalist. The spectacular voting rise of the NSDAP from 2.63 per cent of voters in national elections in 1928, to 18.3 per cent in 1930, then to a high point of 37.3 in July 1932, was on a scale never seen in a democratic election before.

It was not by elections that Hitler finally came to power, however, but he would not have even been considered as a potential German Chancellor without his huge electoral support. A total of 13.74 million people voted for Hitler of their own free will in July 1932. Solid middle-class groups, usually the cement that holds together democratic governments, decided to support a party openly promising to destroy democracy. This mass electoral support was the decisive factor that propelled Hitler to a position where he could be offered power. Hitler’s party grew because millions of Germans felt democratic government had been a monumental failed experiment. To these voters, Hitler offered the utopian vision of creating an authoritarian ‘national community’ that would sweep away the seeming chaos and instability of democratic government, and provide strong leadership.

Yet Hindenburg needed a great deal of persuading before he finally made Hitler the Chancellor of a ‘national coalition’. It was former Chancellor Franz von Papen who played the most decisive role in convincing Hindenburg that Hitler could be ‘tamed’ by being invited to lead a cabinet of conservatives. By then, the only alternative to Hitler taking on the role was for Hindenburg to grant Schleicher, the current Chancellor, the power to declare a ‘state of emergency’, ban the Communists and National Socialists, suspend the Reichstag indefinitely and rule with the support of the Reichswehr. Behind-the-scenes intrigues and the personal rivalry between Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher were also factors that played a crucial role in bringing Hitler to power. But it was Hindenburg’s decision in March 1930 to create a presidential authoritarian right-wing regime that was the most decisive step that opened a path towards this solution.

The real problem Hindenburg faced was that the three previous Chancellors, Brüning, Papen and Schleicher, had no popular legitimacy, and no parliamentary support. Hindenburg’s presidential rule had taken Germany down a blind alley. The only politician who could add popularity to Hindenburg’s faltering presidential regime was Adolf Hitler. It was the decision to appoint the NSDAP leader as Chancellor which put the final nail in the coffin of Weimar democracy, and opened the path to catastrophe for Germany and the world. Hindenburg had been the gravedigger and the undertaker.

The history of the Weimar Years is therefore a warning sign of how a democracy under poor leadership can drift towards a form of authoritarian rule that ultimately destroys it, under the pressure of economic crisis and unrelenting political instability. This is a question that continues to engage us today.