When Sicilian growers found a need for protection against thievery, the mafia stepped in (Unsplash: Thomas Hafeneth)
It’s one of the most infamous criminal organisations in the world, responsible for murders, torture, drug and arms trafficking, and political corruption.
But the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa Nostra, may have had a fairly innocuous starting point: lemons.
It all began in the 1700s, when the value of the fruit exploded and Sicilian growers suddenly needed to protect their plants.
“These people who had citrus groves mainly for decorative purposes suddenly found themselves with something of a goldmine,” says Ola Olsson, an economics professor who has written about lemons and the Sicilian mafia.
High walls were erected around citrus groves and armed guards were hired to do the work that local law enforcement wouldn’t.
“This is where we think the mafia came in — as kind of a protector,” Olsson says.
Lemon juice to combat disease
The lemon boom began in the mid-1700s after a Scottish doctor, James Lind, found that vitamin C could help combat scurvy.
The debilitating disease was a huge problem for the British Navy, and it eventually adopted Dr Lind’s recommendations to up sailors’ vitamin C intake.
Physician James Lind discovered that lemon could help sailors fight scurvy. (US National Library of Medicine/Pfizer)
By the late 1700s, captains had started giving lemon juice to their crews.
“This of course boosted the demand for citrus fruits a lot,” Olsson says.
Sicilian growers reaped the benefits of the “explosive increase in demand”.
In 1837, 740 lemon barrels were exported from the island. By 1850 that figure had jumped to more than 20,000. And it didn’t stop there.
By the late 1800s, 2.5 million cases a year were being exported to New York alone.
Mafia ‘for the common man’
Poverty was widespread in Sicily at the time, and the lemon boom provided a serious motivation for stealing citrus plants.
That became a huge problem for growers.
“[Sicily had] a very weak rule of law,” Olsson says.
“It’s a bit of a chaotic period [with] a lot of poverty, so temptation for thieves is large.
“Farmers … were quite sensitive to predation from the local population.”
Sicilian lemon vendors found themselves in a booming industry in the 1880s. (Getty Images: JR Eyerman)
And so, he says, the mafia stepped in, protecting the growers at every stage of the supply chain — from the groves to transportation and storage at harbours.
“In all these parts of the value chain it seems that mafioso turned up and provided some order,” Olsson says.
In this context, ‘mafia’ meant something different from what we understand of the term today.
“It seems that around 1860, 1870, it had a more positive meaning,” Olson says.
Rather than denoting a criminal or terrorist, a ‘mafioso’ initially referred to anyone who confronted a criminal, on behalf of the local population.
“[It was] the guy that stands up for the common man,” Olsson says.
“At least in this period. Of course, later it had a very different meaning; a much more negative connotation.”
The mafia migrates
Mafia leaders like these, under house-arrest in Linosa, Sicily in 1971, took on a different role from earlier mafiosi. (Getty Images: Keystone/Stringer)
In 1893, the thriving Sicilian citrus industry came up against significant hurdles.
A huge drought hit growers hard.
But perhaps more significantly, Sicily began to face serious citrus competition, particularly from Florida, which took the heat out of the market.
As the profitability of the citrus industry decreased during the 1890s, many Sicilians — including members of the mafia — migrated to countries like the US, explains Olsson.
“There they soon used their old business models and teamed up with other groups in America — not only other Italians, but also other groups, to form the specific American version of the mafia,” he says.
The mafia shifted its business outside of citrus, taking a step towards becoming the crime organisation we now know.
Cosa Nostra continues to exert power and a threat to the rule of law.
It and three other main Italian mafia groups are today estimated to have 25,000 members worldwide.