Research suggests the Sicilian mafia arose to power from lemon sales in the 1800s

February 7, 2018, Queen's University Belfast
Lemon grove. Credit: Queen's University Belfast

Researchers from Queen's University Belfast, in collaboration the University of Manchester and the University of Gothenburg (Sweden), have uncovered new evidence to suggest that the Sicilian mafia arose to notoriety in the 1800s in response to the public demand for citrus fruits.

Arguably one of the most infamous institutions in the Western world, the Sicilian , first appeared in Sicily in the 1870s and soon infiltrated the economic and political spheres of Italy and the United States.

Dr Arcangelo Dimico, Lecturer in Economics from Queen's Management School, and the research team hypothesized that the Sicilian mafia rose to power due to the high public demand for oranges and lemons following physician James Lind's discovery in the late eighteenth century that could prevent and cure scurvy, due to their high levels of vitamin c.

Dr Dimico said: "Although outcomes of the mafia's actions such as murders, bombings, and embezzlement of public money have been observed during the last 140 years, the reasons behind its emergence are still obscure.

The researchers used two unique data sets from Sicilian towns and districts gathered from a parliamentary inquiry conducted between 1881-1886 (Damiani 1886) and from 1900 (Cutrera 1900). They found that mafia presence in the 1880s is strongly associated with the prevalence of citrus cultivation.

Dr Dimico added: "Given Sicily's dominant position in the international market for citrus fruits, the increase in demand resulted in a very large inflow of revenues to citrus-producing towns during the 1800s. Citrus trees can be cultivated only in areas that meet specific requirements, such as mild and constant temperature throughout the year and abundance of water, guaranteeing substantial profits to relatively few local producers.

"The combination of high profits, a weak rule of law, a low level of interpersonal trust, and a high level of local poverty made lemon producers a suitable target for predation, as there was little means to effectively enforce private property rights. Lemon producers, therefore, resorted to hiring mafia affiliates for private protection and to act as intermediaries between the retailers and exporters in the harbours."

Until now the Sicilian mafia's origins have always thought to have been a consequence of the weak institutional setting related to the failure of the feudal system present in Sicily and from the political instability in Italian history. However this research is the first piece of evidence to suggest that their rise to power was actually due to the boom in the economy.

Explore further: Italy raids target mafia moves on wind, solar farms

More information: Arcangelo Dimico et al, Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons, The Journal of Economic History (2017). DOI: 10.1017/S002205071700078X

Related Stories

Citrus: From luxury item to cash crop

August 18, 2017

New research from Tel Aviv University reveals that citrons and lemons were clear status symbols for the ancient Roman ruling elite and plots the route and evolution of the citrus trade in the ancient Mediterranean.

Treating citrus greening with copper: Effects on trees, soils

September 26, 2017

Citrus greening is a major challenge for Florida growers. The disease destroys the production, appearance, and economic value of citrus trees and their fruit. Trees decline and die within three years. Researchers at the University ...

Citrus consumption could lower onset of dementia

September 7, 2017

Tohoku University researchers have found some evidence to suggest that daily intake of citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons or limes, could reduce the risk of dementia developing among older adults by almost ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists find ancient necropolis in Egypt

February 24, 2018

Egypt's Antiquities Ministry announced on Saturday the discovery of an ancient necropolis near the Nile Valley city of Minya, south of Cairo, the latest discovery in an area known to house ancient catacombs from the Pharaonic ...

A statistical look at the probability of future major wars

February 22, 2018

Aaron Clauset, an assistant professor and computer scientist at the University of Colorado, has taken a calculating look at the likelihood of a major war breaking out in the near future. In an article published on the open ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.