The Origins of La Cosa Nostra

It should be noted that the concept of the Mafia is sufficiently large and can be studied in a range of different areas, which are:

. . . as a mirror of traditional society, with attention to political, economic or – more often – sociocultural facts; as a company or type of criminal industry; as secret organization more or less centralized; as legal system parallel to the state, or as anti-State.

Misha Glenny
Misha Glenny

The concept becomes more tangible when you take hold of Misha Glenny‘s perspective, that there are two basic types of criminal organizations: the extortionists who charge for the protection and market products. The first is divided into three main groups:

  • Producers
  • Wholesalers
  • Retailers

Each of them are usually found, but not always, associated with a particular ethnic group, and the three links of the commercial chain cooperate across international borders, since the production of goods always occurs at a great distance of the most lucrative markets for it. The mobsters who charge protection services, such as Cosa Nostra, rarely operate internationally and usually are contained in the borders of a state. However, as an example, sometimes they enter the trade in illicit goods such as when Tony Soprano and his colleagues took control of the sales of drugs, prostitution, etc.

The origin of the Italian Mafia is linked to Sicily, in southern Italy. To understand the elements that led to the transformation and empowerment, we must return to its beginnings.

For over two thousand years, most of Sicily’s population endured tyranny and suppression under foreign conquerors and feudal overlords. From ancient times until the mid-nineteenth century, the nine-thousand-square-mile island was raided, invaded and even traded – actually exchanged for other territories – by foreign rulers. Sicily’s strategic and vulnerable location, almost in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, close to southern Italy and North Africa, subjected it to and endless succession of occupation and oppression by Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, French, Spanish, Austrian, and finally hostile Italian armies.

Selwyn Raab
Selwyn Raab

These invasions and submissions have caused the Sicilians to develop a culture based, according to Selwyn Raab, in two basic concepts:

“contempt for and suspicion of governmental authorities; and tight-knit alliances with blood relatives and with fellow countrymen facing same perils”. ~ Selwyn Raab

With the precepts as the disregard for law and mutual alliance, the Sicilians gathered in what they call cosche and created their own dialect in order to protect themselves from the authorities. As Raab says, because they do not rely on government protection, they solved their problems from his clan – composed mainly of peasants – and based on the commitment and confidentiality. They could perform the vendettas that were their way of justice.

Over time, in Sicily, the secret cosche became known by the name of Mafia.

It is in the record that the name carries folkloric elements, mythical and certain romanticism, therefore, based on the bibliography used in this research, the “less romantic” perspective, according to Selwyn Raab would be pointing to

“. . . the name Mafia is a combined Sicilian-Arab slang expression that means acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful” ~ Selwyn Raab

The expression coincides with the history of the Sicilian people, considering it as an oppressed society and ruled by foreigners. At the same time, being a gangster was not seen as something bad, despite the discrediting in the state apparatus and in accordance with what Hobsbawn indicated, the mafiosi “. . . made himself respected and safe by winning a reputation of toughness and courage, and settled his differences by fighting”. In turn, the historian adds that the only obligations that were possessed was “. . . those of the code of honor or omertà (manliness), whose chief forbade giving information to public authorities.”

Following the reading of Raab, there was no unification of the clans nor a centrality to the whole island; they were grouped into regional bands to protect specific interests of foreign aggressors and invaders from other areas. This vision of manliness and guards led them to be considered as “partisan patriots” in the mid-twentieth century. These clans were also called “families” with a leader for which was awarded with the title of padrino or capo di famiglia, and it corresponded to arbitrate disputes and controversies in their territory.

Sicilian Houses

With the unification of Italy, the Mafia was consolidated by the conditions of release and removal of the old feudal pillars present on the island, thus the cosche organized themselves better and were able to mobilize a small group of armed guards. Also used in their favor the disorganization of the recent republic, creating an instance where the gaps left by the government and judiciary were met by criminal activities.

Among these gaps, was part of the Mafia and the government endorsed it. It was a “local government instrument” thanks to its “violent industry” that was used to help in the capture of the most violent no mafiosi thugs.

Thus, according to Raab, by the help of the Mafia,

[…] the nascent government in Rome secretly pledged that the cosche continue without interference their own refined style of plunder and economic domination over sections of Sicily. The Rome officials, mainly from north and central Italy, were unfamiliar with the nuances of Sicilian culture and viewed the private deal as an expedient compromise. Overconfident, they believed the Mafia leaders would serve as temporary middlemen between themselves and the island’s population, and would help to maintain order until the young constitutional monarchy gained the strength to impose its own will.

The secret pact made with the Mafia generated consequences and granted a strengthening in the northwest of the island, near Palermo, increasing its radius of action, since the central government was to the north. Thus, it became the government’s replacement in this area.

Sicilian Mafia - Church

This substitution caused the mobsters would use violence and extortion for payment protection, tax payment, etc. Among his collaborators was the Catholic Church, given the opportunity to get more land, thanks to the methods used by cosche, promising, in turn, did not denounce the heavy weapons tactics used by mobsters. In addition, when the unification brought the Sicilians men the right to vote, the mobsters made sure to use it in favor or against candidates. In a more specific analysis it is clear that democratic reform contributed to the Mafia even more magnified.

Thus, despite the new form of government representation, this did not contribute to the prosperity of the people, to the point that many landless and impoverished workers emigrated to the United States, opening a whole new chapter (even chapters) in this piece of history.

Sicilian Pizza and Wine