Sardinian History – The glorious nineteenth century
Two of the most important pillars in the creation of an empire or a kingdom, and so crucial cornerstones of whatever colonisation process emerges, are language and technology. In Barbagia, the most effective weapon used by the Piedmontese was the Italian language, imposed by a civil code and a criminal code on a population that had its own thousand-year-old language and rules. This old civilisation, which was pastoral and egalitarian, resembled Calvinism in its concept of duty and its coolness. It was based on respect and honour. It was deprived, as a first step, of its ability to communicate, to defend itself, and it was then buried.
Sardinia became nothing but a sad colony, a land of men born criminals—because of the shape of their heads, according to a prevailing theory—and a population to be tamed like animals, the target of well-planned big game hunting since it was impossible to educate them. Craniometry, by the way, was a branch of so-called scientific racism. The first craniometric theoretician was the Dutchman Pieter Camper (1722–1789) who was followed by the Americans Samuel George Morton, George Gliddon and Josiach Nott (1804–1873). They and many other anthropologists supported the notion of polygenism, the belief that mankind does not a common source but that there are discrete genetic ancestries and that the races are evolutionarily unconnected.
The Sardignoli—that was the deprecative adjective used by the Piedmontese—were nothing but intractable donkeys: animals.
Of course, beneath this ideology there was a substantial economic justification.
The Italian state, or rather the Piedmontese king and his band of voracious predators, landed in Sardinia with a renewed interest in stealing raw materials (silver, coal and wood) and men for their wars. They cut down the forests destroying the fauna and flora. All the sleepers used for European railways were made of Sardinian wood, stolen by the Piedmontese under ad hoc laws, and sold to other countries.
The introduction of the Piedmontese tax system (which created an ‘unequal unity’ across Italy); the shameful spoliation of the subsoil favoured by the new mining laws; and the authorisations, very colonial-like, for cutting down the forests, promoted by Cavour himself; these were all clear signs of colonisation. The tax system, in particular, was an incredible form of robbery. The property tax on land was equal to 3.60 liras per inhabitant in Sardinia; 1.36 in Liguria; 3.24 in Veneto; 2.69 in Tuscany; 2.99 in Calabria; 2.29 in Sicily, etc.
In 1868, the famous ‘Su connottu’ rebellion exploded in Nuoro. People assaulted the city hall and burned all the sales contracts for public grounds in an attempt to return to the past, to ‘the already known,’ when the land belonged to the Sardinian community and was free.
As a countermove, the Savoy king sent the army to restore order and to set up a criminal court and an impressive jail in Nuoro. The prison, round and grey like a seventeenth-century fortress, was built in the middle of the city as an admonition, and it witnessed all the dramas of a society that didn’t want to die.
In the heart of Barbagia, people faced the power of the new establishment, an order they didn’t understand, made by foreign laws expressed in a foreign language. A new era was erasing the old Barbagia Code and the Sardinian language, and imposing the Italian system, a civilisation of brutal conquest. Consequentially, banditry became the logical expression of resistance, so natural that many bandits, even those living in hiding, married and had children, and maintained stable relationships with their relatives and friends. The bandits were part of the population.
In 1897, a book by Alfredo Niceforo, The Criminality in Sardinia, prepared the ground for another step of colonisation, adding new sap to the thesis that it was a land of men born delinquent: “All the skulls are degenerate. In the Sardinian population, a genetic pathology appears! Sardinia is only a ‘zona delinquente,’ a criminal region”.
Alfredo Niceforo, 1876–1960, was an Italian criminologist and anthropologist who belonged to the school of Cesare Lombroso and strongly supported the development of scientific racism. According to Lombroso, criminal anthropology labelled physical malformations as ‘atavisms’. Any individual showing several atavisms was called a ‘born criminal’. Moreover, Niceforo believed that in Italy there were two different races, the Arians in the north and ‘the damned race’, the Mediterranean, in the South.
In 1900, the lieutenant colonel of the carabinieri Giulio Bechi clearly explained the prevailing theory against the Sardignoli in his book Caccia Grossa (Big Game Hunting), a manifesto of racism and colonialism.
Giulio Bechi, 1870-1917, who died in the First World War, was awarded a gold medal for military valour. He was not a dishonest person, but his belief reflected the prevailing Italian opinion. When he was sent to Sardinia in 1899 with the Italian Army ‘to fight banditry’. Giulio Bechi took part in the main mopping-up operations in Barbagia. Reading his book is still distressing today: the Sardinian language was ‘an infernal curse’, the people ‘hairy monkeys’, and the episodes in which the Italian soldiers punched old women who were pleading, throwing them against a door, were ‘funny’.
A chorus of protests rose across Sardinia. A young lawyer from Nuoro, Ciriaco Offeddu (by the way, my grandfather) officially challenged Bechi to a duel. Bechi avoided the confrontation by appealing to the rules of cavalleria (chivalry), which prohibited duels between a soldier and a civilian.
During the night between 14 and 15 May 1899, more than one thousand people, women and children included, were arrested without proof, without bench warrants, just to intimidate the rest of the population.
The suspects were loaded onto carts as if they were animals for slaughter, and taken to jails in Cagliari, Sassari and Nugoro. Since the Italian state was not able to track down the fugitives, it took revenge on their wives and families.
The Piedmontese prisons were like concentration camps. The prisoners were denied visits by relatives and lawyers, and were not allowed to write or read either. Honest people, priests, intellectuals, soldiers, doctors, dealers, farmers, children—all were incarcerated together with murderers and thieves. The cells were jam-packed and infested with ticks and lice. The prison officers and the wardens were criminals: they were members of the Camorra, an Italian criminal association similar to the Mafia, hired by the Piedmontese as a reward for their servitude.
These illegal actions became routine in the fights against banditry so much so that the last illegal operations were carried out in 1949, in 1950 and finally in 1954.
The Italian state exacerbated the conflict up to the very end, creating a historical wound, leaving a substrate of alienation and degradation.
So you can visualise Sardinia in the nineteenth century as if three forces had converged on it: the first was the delegitimation of the Sardinian populace and its traditions, carried out case by case by an embedded intelligentsia; the second was military occupation and repression; the third was economical spoliation of the soil and subsoil but also of transportation, livestock, flour milling, dairy farms, tuna traps, farms, salt flats, etc. All the enterprises were owned by Italian or foreign people, and the salaries paid to the Sardinian workers were extremely poor. The produce was sold on outside Sardinia so the profits were not made in Sardinia, in this way systematically draining all of the Sardinian resources.
You might wonder if only Sardinia experienced this spoliation. It didn’t. The Savoy always had one virtue: to be insatiable pigs with whatever and whoever, equally. Italy as a whole was despoiled. In 1861, the first census showed there were about twenty-five million Italians. From 1861 to 1914, the beginning of the First World War, about fourteen million Italians emigrated because of poverty and famine. In just one year, 1913, about nine hundred thousand people left Italy.
But history celebrates the Unification of Italy under the Piedmontese heel.
Feudalism did not gain ground in Barbagia. Unlike the rest of the West, in Sardinia society was not feudal, but there was a free federalism based on villages. The Counter Reformation, too, did not penetrate Barbagia: you will not find any sign of it there. The people were ‘Calvinistic’, cool and serious, with a great sense of duty, of morality, and of honour. They did not believe in the external rites of the church. Yes, the Church had great power, but there has always been an underground conflict between populations and priests throughout history, especially against the hypocrisy of the Church’s authority. The Inquisition (la Suprema Inquisición) never arrived in remote Barbagia.
So, the Middle Ages did not concern Barbagia: its civilisation lasted for many centuries bypassing feudalism and then the Counter Reformation. The Savoy family (may God curse all the scions of this dynasty; it would not be difficult for Him to blast them with a thunderbolt and erase them since most of them are packed in the Basilica of Superga near Turin) took Sardinia back to the Middle Ages at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In terms of wealth, industrialisation, schools, illiteracy, infrastructures, and life expectancy, at the beginning of the First World War, Sardinia was a medieval land, considered to be only a criminal colony (where, in fact, the unfaithful servants of the state were sent).
This is the very land that Grazia Deledda described in her books. Not a primitive populace, but a defeated country, deprived of its soul, too, after two hundred years of armed robbery.
Then, the gentle intelligence of Poleddu Mannu, the Piedmontese ‘Big Jackass’, Count Luigi Cadorna, brilliantly finished the work of his ancestors, by killing thousands of young Sardinian men in the Karst Plateau.