Child labor and the Sulfur mines of Sicily

When Sulfur mining is mentioned, Sicily definitely comes to mind. It is one of the places that was very prominent in production of Sulfur in the world. Sulfur mining was primarily the main economic activity in the area and many parts of the world depended on it as a commodity. It played a major role in the mass movements of Sicilians emigrating abroad as other countries afterwards entered the Sulfur mining industry simultaneously.

What is Sulfur?

Sulfur is a non-metallic and yellowish component where its crystalline form melts at 116 degrees Celsius. It was identified as an element in the 1770s by Antoine Lavoisier. Sulfur occurs naturally and supports efficient use of the earth’s resources. It is used in agriculture as a plant nutrient; as well as many other industries and areas. During the industrial revolution, the element played a great role in the production of various products, especially agricultural related chemicals. Documentation shows that most of the Sulfur used in different parts of the world came from Sicily.

sulfur rock

Sulfur’s history in Sicily dates back to 900 BC. It is believed that the native people of Sicily, the Sicanians, Sicels and Elymians, used to export to the neighboring countries such as Greece and North Africa. Its use in gunpowder made it very popular in the 1700s, especially to the French and British whose interest in the Sicilian Islands emanated from the presence of sulfur in the area. In the 1800s, Sicily was holding the monopoly in the production of Sulfur in the world with British purchasing almost all the contracts.


Historians document Sulfur mining as a sad chapter in Sicily’s history, mainly due to the use of children as laborers and the deterioration of the environment. However, others argue that the activity promoted the growth of Sicilian economy and propelled it to greater heights through preservation of its political prominence in an age that was characterized by military actions and the industrial revolution. Many wonder how the island would have fared were it not the presence of Sulfur and its subsequent mining.

Sulfur mine Sicily

In terms of providing a livelihood, the mineral is thought to have led to the direct employment of more than 32,000 miners. Most of the mines were mined manually and were an average of sixty meters in depth. The narrowness of these mines meant that adults could not penetrate deeply enough, which prompted the use of children whom, due to their size, could fit in the mines comfortably.

sulfur miners


Known as “Carusi”, most of the workers in the mines were children under the age of 14, whose parents would rent their children to miners in exchange for money. They were used because they could easily crawl through the narrow tunnels as oppose to larger adults. This is something that would today be termed as child labor or molestation, but during those days it was widely accepted until the 20th century.

Sulfur children i carusi

It is documented that these children rarely saw the light of day; they would enter the tunnels in the morning and leave in the evening.The terrible working conditions often caused physical and moral degradation. Most of them suffered severely due to the lack of sunlight exposure, they developed weak and lopsided bodies with deformed knees due to carrying excessive loads and severe conditions such as partial or complete loss of vision was not uncommon.

child in sulfur mine
Children were also badly treated by adult miners as they were often starved and beaten. If caught trying to escape, they were severely punished, sometimes even resulting in death.

The decline of the Sulfur industry

The progress of science created a more effective means of mining Sulfur, where it became possible to be obtained from pyrite or pyrite of iron. This caused the price of Sulfur to fall dramatically and led to the reduction in demand. Many of the mines were forced to suspend operations and Sicily’s Sulfur market began to deteriorate, thus sparking mass emigration abroad.

Suggested reads

Carusi: The Shame of Sicily by Louis Romano

Carusi: The Shame of Sicily represents a slice of life story about late 1800s Sicily and reviews the life of a young “carusi” miner who, at 5 years old, becomes an indentured servant and new head of his family when his father is killed in a mining accident. Aspanu leads a dangerous and demanding life in the small Sicilian mining town: one which holds him financially and emotionally in thrall.

Destined to work the mines to pay off family debt, Aspanu becomes caught up in the revolt of miners who have had enough of deadly working conditions and poverty, becoming embroiled in an uprising which attacks almost everything he holds dear in life.

Black Mountain by Venero Armanno

Beginning in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago, Black Mountain takes you on a journey through time and back again. When a boy sold into slavery finds the courage to escape, he is saved by a mysterious stranger, who raises the boy as his own. Renamed Cesare Montenero after Sicily’s own ‘black mountain’, Mount Etna, the boy begins to develop unusual talents, and discovers that he has more in common with his saviour than he imagined. And when he meets the enigmatic Celeste, he suspects for the first time that he may not be alone. Based on factual events and ranging through Italy, Paris and the rural fringes of coastal Australia, Black Mountain is a haunting exploration of what it means to be human.

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