Why the Sicilian Mafia owes its existence to scurvy | Tech News

Take one ravaging disease and add two parts British imperialism and Italian nationalism – it’s a toxic cocktail with criminal effects still felt today

picking lemons

Bitter harvest: picking lemons near Palermo, Sicily, in the early 1900s

Library of Congress

FIRST your skin bruises as your capillaries start to disintegrate. Then old wounds reopen. Bones are dyed black as blood leaks out of your muscles, and your senses are heightened to the point where smells become intolerable. Everything stinks, but nothing is quite as putrid as you – and then you die.

Scurvy is an exceptionally revolting disease, and it was once commonplace on the high seas. The discovery in the 18th century that a regular supply of citrus fruits could prevent it eventually made seafaring far less treacherous. But it had rather less palatable consequences on the Mediterranean island of Sicily: according to a new historical analysis, the world’s most notorious criminal enterprise sprang up here in parallel with the growing thirst for lemons.

Popular explanations for the rise of the Sicilian Mafia tend to emphasise the weakness of government institutions, which had precious little power to protect property, and the legacy of feudalism. But such theories alone can’t account for the variation in the organisation’s rise in different parts of the island. That is why some researchers have instead looked out to sea.

Historians estimate that between 1500 and 1800, scurvy caused 2 million deaths at sea, making it the leading occupational hazard of a nautical life. At the heart of the problem was a failure to understand the disease: was it caused by an infection or some sort of dietary deficiency?

It wasn’t until the 1790s, after a series of experimental trials demonstrated the preventative power of citrus fruits, which we now know to be rich in …

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