by Bluto Ray
The baron versus the peasant. It was a plot that played out for centuries on the scorched plains of Sicily. The farms and grazing lands owned by the nobility fed its sumptuous lifestyle in Palermo and other rich cities, far from the dust of labor. Though European feudalism was officially abolished in the eighteenth century, the peasantry’s traditional right of common land use devolved into a dependent form of sharecropping that choked off much of its income and food supply.
But the plot changed. From the teeming pool of landless laborers arose what many have described as the prototypical mafioso known as the gabelloto, a lease-holding boss. He was selected for his ability to manage the lands and quell revolts with a heavy hand, usually one that held a shotgun. Those decadent absentee landlords often lost their lands to the monster they created. The gabelloto soon controlled both the property and its workers, as well as the politicians who curried his favor for ill-gotten votes.
Though land reform had been debated and decreed by Rome many times over this period, it was a law pushed through by the Communist deputy Fausto Gullo in 1944 that allowed peasants two chief rights: a greater share of the crops and the right to cultivate mismanaged land. A left-right struggle ensued across rural Sicily, where workers occupied farmlands as their own. This upset the power balance that benefitted the Mafia. In the southern city of Sciacca, a former banker named Accursio Miraglia led the radical charge.