The sulphur mines of Montedoro

 6 December 2018

On a sunny, crisp Thursday we joined a group of 30 people from the marina to take a trip inland to visit an old sulphur mine. The interior of Sicily is simply stunning and so unlike any of the other Mediterranean landscapes we have seen. It is so far from flat that every vineyard, every olive grove, is at a different angle, punctuated by towering rocky outcrops.

The mine we were visiting was in Montedoro but this area of southern Sicily was once home to 20 sulphur mines mined from the 1880s right up to the 1980s. We were met in Montedoro by our enthusiastic guide, Davide. The fact that his great grandfather had worked in the mine only added to his credentials.

Little remains of the structures of the mine but it was the stories of the people who worked in the mines that really brought it to life. The mines were owned by the local landowner. In the early days, miners were not employed directly but paid by the weight of sulphur they mined. In turn, in a form of slavery, they literally bought boys, carusi, from their poor parents to carry up to 20kgs of rock out of the mine.

The museum told of the horrors of life in the mines and in this form of slavery through models and early photographs of the miners and their young carusi.

There were few stories of the women of the mining community. It was widely believed that it was only men and boys working down the mines but current research into local health records show levels of respiratory diseases in women to suggest that there were certainly many involved in the processing of the sulphur. Women in Sicily in the late 19th century still wore head coverings similar to the hijab, a hangover from the Muslim occupiers of the island. One local character who refused to wear one and acted in an altogether more immodest manner was Irish writer and photographer Louise Hamilton. By all accounts the locals didn’t really know what to make of her and her horse riding antics but her work stands as an important record of the lives of those involved in the mining community.

Conditions in the mines certainly improved during the early 20th century with increased mechanisation but the dangers of working in the mines remained. We watched a film from the 1950s in which miners took a lift about 500 metres deep into the mine. It could take as long as 20 minutes to reach the bottom. Lung and skin diseases and collapses inside the mines proved fatal for many miners.

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In the museum we found a link between the mine far inland and our temporary home in Licata as sulphur was brought overland to be shipped elsewhere from the port. We recognised the lighthouse that still stands at the end of our pontoon in this photograph.

We were also able to visit one of the mine. A steep, low shaft disappeared into the earth. We had to duck again to have a look inside one of the kilns used to process the sulphur. Demand for Sicily’s sulphur slowed terminally when Mussolini came to power and America stopped buying. The mine in Montedoro finally shut in 1955.

After a typically long but delicious Sicilian lunch and a glass too many of red wine, just when we all needed an equally typically Sicilian siesta, Davide took us on a guided tour of Montedoro itself.

This old village, whose name means Mountain of Gold, is so close to the mine that half of the town disappeared into the ground at one point and had to be rebuilt.

The locals were friendly and Cris made friends with some old men whose faces told stories of hard lives in the hills.

We visited a typical old village house where the family lived and worked in close proximity with their animals until fairly recently.

Thanks to Syd for organising such a brilliant introduction to one of Sicily’s important industries and life in its villages.

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