Messina 1848

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Messina 1848
The siege of Messina in 1848

Europe’s first revolution in 1848 occurred in Sicily, a part of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which was notorious for its arbitrary and repressive government and endemic unrest. Many of Sicily’s problems were largely self-inflicted. Efforts on the part of the government of Ferdinand II (1830-59) to enact economic and agrarian reform had been thwarted by evasion of the law and corruption, and much of the drive for Sicilian autonomy was prompted to avoid outside meddling with the usurpation of the land by a minority. Sicily, however, did suffer from the economic exactions of Naples and an inefficient, corrupt, and brutal administration, and many Sicilians longed for the autonomy provided by the island’s short-lived 1812 constitution. In 1842, Michele Amari’s history of the medieval Sicilian vespers escaped the royal censors and was read by many on the island as an evocation of its lost independence. Luigi Settembrini’s 1847 Protest of the People of the Two Sicilies, although suppressed, was passed from hand to hand and inspired an elite of potential rebels. A frightening and socially disruptive cholera epidemic ascribed to poisoning by the perfidious monarchy, the reforms of Pope Pius IX in Rome in 1846-47, and a September 1847 rising in Reggio Calabria which spread across the strait to Messina further stimulated unrest in Sicily.

In Palermo, on January 9, 1848, a circular, written by Francesco Bagnasco, a participant in the revolution of 1820, was distributed, calling on the people to rise on January 12. The radicals, who initiated the rising, were seeking autonomy and constitutional government. The peasants and urban poor, who were to bring about the initial victory, had at best only a confused idea of constitutionalism. Their interests were economic. They wanted land and work. The police arrested eleven suspects on January 10, but the streets of Palermo were packed on the twelfth, the birthday of King Ferdinand. There was no organization, but clashes erupted with soldiers and the police. People were killed and barricades were thrown up in Fieravecchia, the poorest part of town, where Giuseppe La Masa formed a committee to take charge of the rising. On January 13, peasants, “mountaineers,” and bands of brigands or squadre with their underworld leaders began joining the insurrection. But the rebels, with the exception of the squadre, were poorly armed and vastly outnumbered by the 6,000 man royal garrison. Rather than confront the rebels in the tortuous streets of the hostile city, the army decided to bombard Palermo from the fortress of Castellamare. Though 5,000 royal reinforcements arrived at the port on January 15, the rebels established control of the city. Rosalino Pilo, an aristocrat, joined La Masa and the committee to demand the reestablishment of the Sicilian Constitution of 1812, and many of the upper class threw their support to the revolution. Ferdinand’s January 18 offer of autonomy to Sicily was rejected, and on January 27, his troops had to be withdrawn from Palermo. By the middle of February, the revolutionaries controlled all of the island except for Syracuse, which fell to the rebels in April, and the fortress of Messina, which remained under royal troops throughout the revolution.

Despite the Sicilians’ victory over the Neapolitans, deep divisions and jealousies divided the towns, regions, and classes of the island. The Sicilian revolution unleashed a general social upheaval. Peasants invaded towns to destroy records of their financial obligations. Thousands of prisoners were set free. To exercise some control over the masses and the squadre, the revolutionary committee in Palermo established a national guard on January 28. The National Guard, which excluded workers, was commanded by Baron Pietro Riso, and became a force not only for order but for preservation of the social and economic status quo against the demands of workers and peasants. The chairman of the revolutionary committee was Ruggero Settimo, the prince of Fitala. Settimo, a retired naval officer, had been minister of war in the constitutional government established in 1812 by the English representative, Lord William Bentinck, and vice-president of the revolutionary government established in Sicily in 1820. On February 2, 1848, Settimo announced that the committee was asserting its authority over the whole island until a parliament could be elected to adapt Bentinck’s English style constitution of 1812 to the new circumstances. When word of the Sicilian revolution reached the Neapolitan mainland, it ignited a rising, not in Naples itself, where the poor masses (the lazzaroni) regarded themselves as dependent clients of the king, but in the restive province of Salerno which was racked with famine. In the January 17 rising, launched by secret societies, public records were burned and a few notorious Bourbon officials were killed. Concessions by the king were met with demands for the constitution of 1820. In the face of a massive demonstration on January 27 in Naples, Ferdinand yielded. He appointed a more liberal ministry led by Nicola Maresca, the Duke of Serracapriola. Though the promised constitution was very conservative and left the king with considerable power, it was greeted with enthusiasm on the mainland. This was not the case in Sicily. Faced with a continuing Sicilian revolution, Serracapriola sought the mediation of the British.

The Sicilians accepted the efforts of Lord Gilbert Minto, the British representative, who had been sent by Palmerston to encourage reform in Italy, to negotiate a solution, but his efforts ultimately failed. In March, the Neapolitan government offered through Lord Minto to legalize the Sicilian parliament if changes were made in the constitution and Ferdinand were recognized as king. Settimo was to be recognized as viceroy, and Sicily would have a separate foreign ministry. Those details that could not be settled by the parliaments of Naples and Sicily would be mediated. The Sicilians, euphoric over their success and distrustful of Bourbon promises, refused. They demanded the immediate withdrawal of Neapolitan troops from the island, and Naples responded by declaring the acts of the Sicilians null. The Sicilian parliament, elected by literate males, met on March 25. It wasted much time on superficialities and was unwilling to tamper with the economic status quo. Settimo, elected president of the kingdom, appointed a provisional government, and, despite Sicily’s preoccupation with its own concerns, sent a small band of volunteers to fight in the north alongside the Piedmontese. That only 100 men were sent is seen by some as a vivid indication of the predominance of Sicilian autonomism. Ferdinand II and the Bourbons were repudiated on April 13, but, partly to court British support, the monarchy was retained.

The crown was offered to the Duke of Genoa, the second son of King Charles Albert of Sardinia-Piedmont, but, after weeks of hesitation, he declined. On April 3, a moderate ministry under Carlo Troya was established in Naples. It persuaded Ferdinand to broaden the franchise, to break diplomatic relations with Austria, and to send against the Austrians a Neapolitan force of 17,000 men under the command of General Guglielmo Pepe, a leader of the revolution of 1820 who had just returned to Naples. At this point, internal discord began to favor Ferdinand. Increasing radicalism among the peasants and discontent among the lazzaroni of the city of Naples frightened the moderates in the government, who were unwilling to engage in social reform. When Ferdinand insisted that the parliament elected in April not be transformed into a constituent assembly, Troya and his ministry resigned. Rumors of an impending monarchical coup led to the erection of barricades by rebels from the countryside, supported by a disaffected national guard.

On May 15, the king’s troops, led by his Swiss regiments, went on the offensive. In the fighting, which lasted only a few hours, the royal troops, supported by the lazzaroni, overwhelmed the outnumbered insurgents. Parliament, which had continued to meet during the fighting, was dissolved that evening by the king. On May 16, he set up a more conservative government; on the seventeenth, dissolved the lower house of parliament and the national guard; and, finally, on the eighteenth, recalled Pepe’s troops and the Neapolitan fleet which had been protecting Venice. Ferdinand maintained the facade of constitutional government through a new, but ineffective, parliament, which was elected in June 1848 and sat until March 1849. Many moderates fled to Piedmont, and the only resistance was waged by the peasants of Calabria, assisted by a few middle-class radicals and a thousand volunteers from Sicily. Their resistance was crushed by mid-July. In September, Ferdinand dispatched a force of twenty thousand to seize Messina.

Conscription had been repudiated by the Sicilian parliament, and the number of effective forces raised, armed, and trained for defense of the entire island was less than the Neapolitan army sent against Messina. The Neapolitans bombarded the city for three days and took it, despite the stiff resistance of the six thousand Sicilian troops supported by civilians. The continuation of the Neapolitan bombardment for eight hours after the silencing of Sicilian guns won for Ferdinand the label “King Bomba.” The British and the French, appalled by the “savage barbarity” of the Neapolitans, imposed a six months armistice on October 8. The British were unable, however, to effect a compromise settlement. Despite the opportunity provided by the armistice, the Sicilian government proved incapable of establishing a unified military command or bolstering its forces. Nevertheless, it rejected an offer from Ferdinand in February 1849 to establish a separate Sicilian parliament and a viceroy to administer the island.

In March 1849, Ferdinand, who was supported diplomatically by Tsar Nicholas of Russia and was convinced that the British and the French would not interfere, abolished the parliament in Naples and ordered his forces in Sicily to take the offensive. The devastation which followed the effort of Catania to resist the Neapolitans led other towns to surrender without a fight. As the Neapolitan forces advanced on Palermo, its people dug trenches, but the Sicilian government and its armed forces disintegrated. Francesco Crispi said that “the moderates feared the victory of the people more than that of the Bourbon troops.” As leaderless people prepared to defend barricades beneath red flags, Riso announced that his national guard would protect property against the lawless but would not resist the Neapolitan troops.

The leaders of the squadre abandoned a losing cause and sold their services to the higher bidder. The parliament was abolished, but a degree of local autonomy was allowed in the administration of justice, police, and financial affairs. A Sicilian, Salvatore Maniscalco, was placed in charge of the police, and, in his effort to restore government authority, cooperated with the squadre, who were employed to enforce the laws and collect taxes. Ferdinand, who had abolished the Neapolitan parliament on March 13, replaced the government of the Prince of Cariati on August 6 with that of the anti-constitutional opportunist, Giustino Fortunato. Actual power, however, was in the hands of the king, who lost any interest he might have had in reform. The hope for constitutional government and reform in the Two Sicilies was crushed beneath the weight of an arbitrary and repressive police state.


In the early days of spring 1849, Republican resistance was
centered in Venice, Rome, Brescia, and Sicily. Austrian troops seized Brescia
after a ten-day fight and forty-eight hours of shelling. Austrian general
Julius Freiherr von Haynau was so ruthless that he was called by Italians
“the hyena of Brescia,” while they erected a monument to his
colleague Nugent, who had been killed during the siege.

Sicily had revolted against Naples, proclaiming its
independence. It looked for a king from the House of Savoy, but its princes
were forbidden to accept the invitation. In September 1848, Sicily was invaded
by Neapolitan troops. King Ferdinand sent his best commander, the
sixty-six-year-old general Carlo Filangieri, prince of Satriano. He was a
veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and had fought at Austerlitz, Ulm, and in Spain.
He was perhaps the best Italian general of his day after Garibaldi. He reached
Sicily by sea with a fleet of eleven men-of-war and six transports, carrying
14,000 men. Their landing near Messina was a model operation. It required heavy
bombardment and savage fighting from September 3 to 7 to dominate the city.
Filangieri quickly invested the neighboring areas but was forced to conclude an
armistice under English and French pressure. When hostilities resumed on March
29, 1849 Filangieri subdued the island’s eastern coast, then advanced toward
Palermo, which his forces occupied on May 15 after a series of skirmishes. His
victory led Ferdinand to confer upon him the title of Duke of Taormina.
Filangieri granted an amnesty to all except the leaders of the rebellion and
ruled the island tactfully as lieutenant general until he resigned in October
1854. Despite the threat of a French-English diplomatic intervention, which
delayed the operations several times, Filangieri defeated the Sicilian troops
and entered Palermo on May 15, 1849. General Carlo Filangieri, the Neapolitan
commander who had been given complete authority in Sicily by Ferdinand,
occupied Palermo on May 15, 1849. To avoid additional bloodshed, he decreed an
amnesty for all but forty-three leaders, who had fled the island.

Filangieri was considered too sympathetic to the revolution
and was soon recalled.

Carlo Filangieri, prince di Satriano

Carlo Filangieri, prince di Satriano, (born May 10, 1784,
Cava de’ Tirreni, Kingdom of Naples [Italy]—died Nov. 16, 1867, Naples),
general in command of the forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples)
during the bloody suppression of the Sicilian revolution of 1848. He also
served a brief term as premier of the Two Sicilies (1859).

Fleeing the royalist reaction of 1799, when Napoleon’s
republican forces were routed from Italy, the 15-year-old Filangieri sought
refuge in France, where he entered the military academy in Paris. He joined the
French Army in 1803 and was made captain at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).
Recalled into the Neapolitan Army, he fought in Spain, where he distinguished
himself as much by his personal duels as by his military success. He played a
brilliant role in the Bonapartist Gen. Joachim Murat’s unsuccessful campaign
against Austria in 1815; he was seriously wounded at Panaro. During the
Neapolitan insurrection of 1820 he supported the constitutionalist party and
fought the Austrians, who overthrew the revolutionary government and restored
the monarchy (March 1821). Filangieri was dismissed, and he retired to
Calabria, where in 1819 he had inherited the princely title and estates of

In 1831 Ferdinand II, king of the Two Sicilies, recalled him
to command the army. In his suppression of the 1848 Sicilian revolution, he
bombarded and captured Messina (September) and besieged and took Catania, where
his troops committed many atrocities; by May 1849 he had subdued the entire
island. Named duke of Taormina, he governed Sicily until 1855.

Filangieri became Neapolitan minister of war and president
of the council under Francis II (1859). He soon resigned, however, after
Francis’ rejection of his proposal to grant a popular constitution and to ally
Naples with France and Piedmont against Austria. In 1860 he refused to fight
the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi in Sicily and retired to private

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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