A bit of history – scurvy and the Sicilian mafia

Scurvy is an exceptionally revolting disease, and it was once commonplace on the high seas. The discovery in the 18th century that a regular supply of citrus fruits could prevent it eventually made seafaring far less treacherous. But it had rather less palatable consequences on Sicily: the emergence of the Mafia,  the world’s most notorious criminal enterprise, which sprang up in parallel with the growing thirst for lemons.

Popular explanations for the rise of the Sicilian Mafia tend to emphasise the weakness of government institutions, which had precious little power to protect property, and the legacy of feudalism. But such theories alone can’t account for the variation in the organisation’s rise in different parts of the island. That is why some researchers have instead looked out to sea.

Historians estimate that between 1500 and 1800, scurvy caused 2 million deaths at sea, making it the leading occupational hazard of a nautical life. At the heart of the problem was a failure to understand the disease: was it caused by an infection or some sort of dietary deficiency?

It wasn’t until the 1790s, after a series of experimental trials demonstrated the preventative power of citrus fruits, which we now know to be rich in vitamin C, that the British navy issued official guidance that all ships should carry a supply.

A few years later, in 1806, Sicily came under British control. It was the perfect place to grow lemons, and the navy was quick to take advantage. In the 20 years after its new guidelines appeared, the admiralty served up 7.3 million litres of lemon juice, a good portion of which came from Sicily.

The rising demand transformed the island’s economy almost overnight. In the 1850s, Sicily gave over just 80 square kilometres to growing lemons, producing 750,000 cases a year for export. Thirty years later, those numbers had more than tripled.

Sicily’s lemon boom coincided with the Napoleonic wars, when British and French forces occupied the Italian peninsula at various times. This in turn provoked Sicilians,and those on the mainland, to fight for a unified Italy.  What resulted was a series of rebellions, revolutions and full-blown wars. During all this the leaders of the risorgimento enlisted thugs to help.  

The enlisted gangsters formed secret societies such as the Cosa Nostra, using their connections to wrest positions of influence in politics and law enforcement. In the south of what is now Italy, where governmental oversight was especially weak, they flourished – and nowhere more so than Sicily. The high profit margins for investing in citrus meant the criminal societies there grew particularly rich.

Lemons were ideal for the budding mafiosi. Even with the island’s perfect growing conditions, they were a considerable investment: farmers had to secure access to a water supply and set up an irrigation system, and then they had to wait five years or more for the first fruit. With the lemon trees so delicate and the lemons themselves so easy to steal there were a whole series of points where gangsters could extort money from the farmers.

Researchers at Queens University Belfast, UK, and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, using  the Sicilian section of a report commissioned by the Italian parliament in the early 1880s, examined the conditions of the new country’s land and people, recording the location and nature of crimes committed with lemon production.   They found that areas that produced a lot of lemons were more likely to have a strong mafia presence.  Nearly all the early mafia bosses of the Palermo area in the 19th century were lemon traders, owners of lemon groves, guards of lemon groves. (the researchers  also said that you couldn’t put all mafia activity down to lemons! But the thirst for lemons was “one of several factors that contributes to the emergence of organised crime”.)

The one thing that Sicilian lemons did not do was eradicate scurvy from the British navy, at least not for a while. With the Americans importing an ever larger share of the island’s crop, market forces eventually drove the British towards cheaper Caribbean limes, a preference that earned British sailors the epithet “limeys”.

But limes were less effective, largely because they contain less vitamin C than lemons. That led many seafarers to question the very idea that citrus can prevent scurvy, and to call for mandatory consumption to be abandoned. Even former sailors who mounted long expeditions to the poles were not convinced, which might help to explain why Captain Robert Falcon Scott was beaten to the South Pole in 1911.

It was not until 1932 that vitamin C deficiency was definitively identified as the cause of scurvy. By that point, however, with the mafia firmly entrenched on both sides of the Atlantic, the demand for Sicily’s lemons had itself borne some bitter fruit.   (the gist of an article by Gilled Amit, features editor at New Scientist, March 2020)

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