We have already mentioned that at the time of Italy’s Unification emigration was a quantitatively limited but nevertheless familiar phenomenon. Once Italy had been unified, people had to pay the price for it. The financial policy of the historical right wing was oriented towards balancing the country’s finances, creating a very restricted economy. A tax was levied even for wheat grinding, which mainly
fell on the working classes. Unification was soon followed by a worsening of living conditions for the poor, especially in the country. Progressively, Italy became an industrialised country, with high military expenditure. Large industrial structures such as those at Terni were thus born
- remarkable in terms of the capital invested, but unable to generate much employment. It would be necessary to wait until the early 1900s before trade intensified and employment rose appreciably in Northern Italy, particularly in that area which would come to be known as the “industrial triangle”. Later, the First World War accelerated investment, modernized production techniques and caused enormous growth of the munitions industry. By the first twenty years of 1900, Italy was thus well on its way to become an industrial country.
However, industrialisation was limited to a few specific areas of the country. Only in 1931 would industrial output exceed agricultural production in absolute terms. More or less the first fifty years of sustained Italian emigration concerned a pre-modern country, experiencing slow and piecemeal development. Property rules in the country, the oppressive agreements through which farmers were often tied
to the land, frequent famines, lack of innovation in agriculture and the slow spread of chemical fertilisers, as well as the protectionist policy of various governments to support industrial growth, were key factors which pushed many people to emigrate, though they knew nothing of customs arrangements and had no experience of life outside their place of birth. Those who left could be pushed by desperation and often ended up employed as unskilled workers in
the great structural works which started all over the world in the late 1800s – canals, roads, railways and buildings in the major cities. Alternatively, they could rely on a more or less skilled job and hope to make it more productive – both financially and socially - in the industrial areas, where technical skill was at a premium. Curiously, in the years immediately after unification skilled foreign workers came to work in Italy, while a few decades later it was skilled Italians who were finding employment abroad.
Obviously, these migratory flows were not all equally intense: those with a specific trade and the landless farmers are extreme examples of how people from many different occupations and backgrounds decided to move “elsewhere”.
A characteristic feature of emigration was “chain migration”. Someone emigrated, somehow found a job and a house and did their best to “call” family, friends and fellow citizens to follow suit. These networks were typically born at grass roots level and made the decision to emigrate unmistakably autonomous.
In this respect, it is worth mentioning that the ruling classes were scared of the effects of emigration. The landowners in the South, who were used to living like idle aristocrats, soon found out that their lands faced lower productivity and higher management costs - hence their anger about emigration and their complaints about its adverse effects.
In 1868, MP Lualdi illustrated to the Chamber of Deputies the possible dramatic social and financial consequences of emigration, which he thought should be opposed on humanitarian and patriotic grounds. Prime Minister Menabrea replied that it was the duty of businessmen of every industry to provide maximum employment. Menabrea’s answer followed his famous circular, ordering prefects, mayors and the police to prevent all those who were not able to prove they had a guaranteed job and adequate means of subsistence from leaving for Algeria and America. Sidney Sonnino, author of a famous study of rural labourers, observed shortly afterwards that Menabrea was setting as a prerequisite for emigration the very security which prospective emigrants lacked and needed to leave Italy in search of!
In actual fact, however, by responding to pressure to remedy the damage caused by emigration, Menabrea’s circular did introduce the first administrative control on departures.
In 1888, Crispi issued the so-called “police law”. It
made provision for a long series of inspections on emigrants before departure, but for nothing else. Francesco Saverio Nitti commented a few years later that this law gently accompanied emigrants on board ship only to cast them unceremoniously overboard once at sea.
In 1901, the General Commissionership was created to protect emigration. This body, which took over the responsibilities of various ministries, was given poor resources and endless tasks to accomplish.
Its actions were thwarted by all those who opposed emigration, and its activity was criticised in many ways. The Commissionership’s action was particularly useful in terms of data collection, but was not always followed by effective operational measures.
Besides the reasons urging people to leave Italy, other factors attracted emigrants to particular parts of the world. A country like Argentina was interested in populating desert regions and Brazil needed to import labour for the coffee fazendas, since slavery had been abolished. For many years people were attracted by the dream of becoming owners of a piece of land, as a result of leaflets in which shipping companies and others extolled the virtues of such countries. The United States were another popular destination. The medical inspections at Ellis Island after landing were stringent, but there was work and it was paid better than in Italy. Then the USA started to oppose the indiscriminate stream of emigrants, progressively imposing limitations. In January 1917, Congress approved the Literacy Test, on the basis of which all illiterate emigrants would be rejected. Among Italians, this mainly affected uneducated rural workers from the South. Further laws in 1921 and 1924 fixed an annual immigration “quota”. Basically, they established a certain number of arrivals in the country, annually pre-determined for each ethnic group. In the case of Italians, the quota allowed only those who had returned to their homeland because of the war to emigrate again. Family members were also allowed to join their kin in the US. The restrictive measures on immigration carried out by the above-mentioned countries strongly reduced opportunities for Italians to emigrate and led to Mussolini’s policy of demographic growth. With this policy, emigration would become an integral part of Italian foreign policy and would be defined as “a
powerful factor”. Emigrants were to be referred to as “Italians abroad”. This was confirmed by an ad hoc measure, emergency decree no. 1710 of 21st June 1928, article 1 of which stated that the same passport booklet was to be used for all citizens who, for any reason, left Italy. This was essentially a facelift operation and the substance remained unchanged
– emigration continued on a lesser scale, and mainly within Europe. France has been a traditional destination for Italian emigration since the earliest times. Relations between the two countries have had many vicissitudes, periods of “kinship” alternating with hostilities. Such tensions between the two countries, as when a group of Italians were lynched at Aigues Mortes in 1893 for strike-breaking, were thankfully followed by times of friendship. France indeed became the “the land of freedom” where many opponents of Italy’s Fascist regime found refuge
and work. France was also one of the first countries which put a policy for the integration of foreigners into practice. As a clear example, the Italian Home Office’s “political files”, kept in the Central State Archives in Rome, contain many different references to the political and working lives of large numbers of Italian citizens. Those papers offer tranches de vie of many obscure workers, with their daily problems and their political hopes – letters and documents which once more indicate how difficult was the path towards progressive integration.
After World War II, about 4 million Italians emigrated to Argentina, Canada, Australia and Europe. At first they went to Argentina, following in the footsteps of friends and relatives who had previously settled there. Argentina was in a sense created by the Italians,
and many Argentinians are of Italian descent. As a consequence of political turbulence and financial crises, emigrants then chose other countries within Europe, favoured by new international agreements. As after World War I, the Italian government again signed agreements to exchange labour for raw materials. They had to deal with tragic problems – war had brought bereavement, poverty and famine – and encouraged emigration in every way. Italy’s post-war economic miracle received a considerable boost from the hard currency sent home by the emigrants and the availability of industrial raw materials in exchange for emigrant labour.
Contrary to what many may think, emigration from Italy has not stopped yet. It has become a more
complex phenomenon. What is certain is that every year an average of a hundred thousand people from the underdeveloped parts of the country leave, while sixty thousand return. Highly qualified people emigrate, seeking better opportunities on a globalised international market. And last, but not least, we also have the so-called “brain drain”, a consequence of the shortcomings of the Italian academic system. Against this background there are also people, with strong labourers’ arms or highly developed skills, whom globalisation pushes in the opposite direction and who look to Italy for their future.
Some time ago, people used to say that those who emigrated were “fortune seekers”. Those who left were in search of more appropriate conditions to fulfil their needs and dreams.
In these short notes, we have tried to show that, while thinking of themselves, emigrants contributed to the wellbeing of the country they left and, as we shall see in other sections of this book, they also contributed to the fortunes of the countries which welcomed them. We may end with the predictable conclusion that the Italy of tomorrow will also be born from the new “fortune seekers”, both those who leave and those who arrive.
Dott.ssa Maria Rosaria Ostuni