Caltanissetta is located in the centre of Sicily, dominating the Salso River. From the beginning of the 19th Century, Caltanissetta became a mining centre following the discovery of huge sulphur deposits.
Between 1830-1835, according to the General Statistics of Sulphur Mines, Sicily doubled the production of sulphur from 350,000 to 660,000 Cantari (on estimations, 1 Cantaro equals 79.34 kg), which outmatched both Great Britain and France and classified itself as the worlds biggest region in Sulphur exportation.
Between the mid 19th Century until 20th Century, there were some 40,000 workers employed as sulphur miners, amongst them many, many children known as Carusi.
At the beginning, mines had small spiral staircases that met the heart of the mine and prevented the mine from collapsing. The pathways were very narrow, and subsequently they were impassable by adults, therefore only could be accessed by children, who walked the treacherous pathway several times each day.
The head of the mines approached the families to recruit the children. Poverty prevailed in Sicily and families were very large, therefore the parents entrusted their children into the miners care in exchange for financial reward. The families believed that once the debt had been repaid the children would be returned to them, sadly the miners often would alter the children’s names and would exchange the children for those with other miners, making the children unrecognisable to the family. The children did not know any better, and through ignorance and exhaustion that prevented the children from developing their individual identities. They therefore remained a Carusi for life.
The feeling of a love and hate relationship with the mines was based upon the numerous misfortunes beneath the earth. One example is a blast triggered by fire damp at Gessolungo where over 60 miners died. Later, in 1952 there was an blast at the Tumminelli mine, where six people died. Word got out that the rescue teams had remained under the collapse. It was impossible to control public order with thousands flocking to the mine from the towns to look for relatives. The chief engineer of the workers, police commissioner and the prefect met and gave the order to suspend the rescue mission, three of the men who were involved were still alive at this point.
The mines remained prosperous until 1906 when the Anglo-Sicilian sulphur company stopped activity following the discovery in the United States of a new technique to extract sulphur, known as the Frasch method.
After the end of the Korean war, the request for sulphur declined dramatically which in turn triggered a crisis throughout the Sicilian mining industry. Sulphur was produced at a prohibitive cost, almost six times higher than obtained overseas from the fractional distillation of petroleum. At the end of five years, which had previously been envisaged as the period of recovery by a reorganisation plan, the majority of sulphur dealerships defaulted. In 1964 the region of Sicily revoked the mining concession for individuals, entrusting them to the mining Sicilian body, later to the regional Sicilian chemical mining society.
After the Second World War sulphur miners fought for the passage of the mines to be held in public administration, demanding better work conditions, the end of the feudal mentality in the management of the sulphur mines and a shift within the mining sector with a cycle of production and chemical transformation in the Sicilian territory, but the political stance was very different.
Sulphur mining was an important part of Sicilian life, giving culture, economy and deep roots to the whole of Sicily, not just the three provinces of Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento, which had nurtured 840 mines until the early 20th century, producing 90% of the world sulphur.
Of that period nothing remains, but abandoned mines, landscapes spoilt by crumbling asbestos filled buildings and memories of a financial viable business built upon the exploitation of a poverty stricken population.