Statue of St Elias at the church of the Holy Crucifix, Pachino.Statue of St Elias at the church of the Holy Crucifix, Pachino.

“Davanti a Pachino c’è Melita […] e l’isola di Gaudo, entrambi distanti 88 miglia dal capo” (Strabone).

Pachino is a small town of about 22,000 inhabitants, located in the extreme southeast of Sicily, in the province of Syracuse. Before its birth, the surrounding area was largely marshy and inhospitable, and it was used to forcibly house criminals; only the nearby villages of Marzamemi and Portopalo were inhabited, as bases of the tuna-fishing business (tonnare) owned by the Nicolaci family from Noto.

The foundation of the town, which took place on July 21, 1760, was decreed by rich landowners to create new work centres in Sicily. It was soon colonised by a considerable number of Maltese families. In the same year the nearby town of Solarino was also set up.

The concession of King Ferdinand IV was issued in Palermo by the viceroy, Marquis Fogliani, granting a request by Gaetano Starrabba, prince of Giardinelli, and his brother Vincenzo, Marquis of Rudinì, who planned to populate the fief they owned in the territory. The king established that the new centre must be at least two miles away from the sea, have a population base of 40 and be inhabited by Catholics from Greece, Illyria or Malta.

Pachino’s coat of arms.Pachino’s coat of arms.

This decision stirred up discontent among jurors from Noto, who, seeing that they were excluded from settling in the new village, opposed the arrival of people not subject to the king’s authority.

A previous concession dated April 24, 1756, issued by King Charles III of Bourbon, had granted ius popolandi exclusively to Greek Catholics. However, due to the arrival of many Maltese families, Prince Starrabba made a new request to the crown for the extension of the right to inhabit the new fief.

The Maltese became the most numerous ethnic group in the village. In fact, the Rivelo dello Stato di Pachino of 1763 shows that 36 out of 45 families living in the new village were Maltese. Moreover, the first two mayors elected by the Pachino council were Maltese.

However, it is likely that some of these families were in fact Sicilians who declared to the priest that they were Maltese so as not to be expelled, as there was an illegal migratory process involving the neighbouring towns of Noto and Spaccaforno (today Ispica).

In 1763, 36 out of 45 families living in the new village were Maltese. Moreover, the first two mayors elected by the Pachino council were Maltese

The nobles of these two towns soon denounced Pachino as a den of thieves, smugglers and outlaws, so as to lead the Tribunale del Real Patrimonio to carry out an inspection, which was executed on May 16, 1768. In the face of the threat, the Prince of Giardinelli ordered that with each Sicilian family living in Pachino there was to be a Maltese person who could reply in the Maltese language to the questions of the inspector. This deception enabled indigenous families that had illegally settled in Pachino to stay in the new village.

Aerial view of Pachino.Aerial view of Pachino.

Maltese migration toward Sicily, especially in the new fief of Scibini, was encouraged by the embargo on trade with Malta, imposed in 1754 by the King of the Two Sicilies, Carlo III di Borbone, a measure that broke off relationships between Maltese and Sicilian fishermen. In fact, during the summer, many Maltese boats moved to the tonnare of Marzamemi and Portopalo, where they loaded fresh tuna for sale to households.

The Maltese houses at 37, Via Anita, and (below) at 7, Via Libertà, Pachino.The Maltese houses at 37, Via Anita, and (below) at 7, Via Libertà, Pachino.

Grand Master Manuel Pinto, conscious that Malta depended on Sicily for food supplies, turned to Aly Pasha, Bey of Tunis, to guarantee a minimum supply of food to the island. The growing state of hunger soon caused a considerable increase in crime, which persuaded many families to move to Pachino, where they could have a house, a plot of land in emphyteusis and tax exemptions promised by the noble founders.

In 1768, making the most of this situation, Prince Starrabba sent the ship’s master Antonio Sinatra to Malta to convince more families to settle in Pachino. Sicilian parish registers list the surnames of the first Maltese families who arrived in Pa­chino in search of fortune: Zuppardi, Zarbo, Momo, Vella and Grech, to whom were added the Cugno, Caruana, Camilleri, Bonelli, Scalia, Micalef, Borg, Lucchesi, Vižina, Bugeja, Farruggia, Dipietro, Debono, Misseri Boager, Scerri, Stafede, Iugalia, Zahara, Battaglia, Cammisuli and Sultana in the second migratory wave in 1770.

At that time the links between the two islands were guaranteed by mail boats, which travelled especially in summer. The speronara Santissimo Crocifisso e Immacolata Concezione of the ship’s master Francesco Napolitano and the Immacolata Concezione e Santa Catarina of Gratio Failla landed at Marzamemi, while other boats landed at Capo Passero, Pozzallo, and at ports on the coast of Scicli, from where it was very easy to reach Pachino.

Due to the constant influx of settlers from Malta, in 1775, the Prince of Giardinelli asked the king for permission to populate the fief of Bimisca; the new request was granted, but with the clause that excluded Maltese nationals: “Facendosi detta nuova popolazione di famiglie maltesi sarebbe lo stesso, che popolarla co’ sudditi dello stesso in pregiudizio de Sovrani diritti”.

Zotta maltisi at Marzamemi.Zotta maltisi at Marzamemi.

The growing hunger persuaded many families to move to Pachino, where they could have a house, a plot of land in emphyteusis and tax exemptions promised by the noble founders

This unfavourable condition persuaded the prince to give up the plan.

An analysis of documents at the National Archive of Malta (Valletta, Magna Curia Castellaniae, Patentarum, vol. 23, 1760-1771) revels how, by 1779, the migration had already stopped; therefore, the speronare reached Pachino almost exclusively for tuna fishing, since they did not travel in autumn and winter, and ship’s masters were accomopanied by sailors, rather than passengers.

Buildings used for tuna fishing at Marzamemi and (below) at Portopalo di Capo Passero.Buildings used for tuna fishing at Marzamemi and (below) at Portopalo di Capo Passero.

The Maltese settlers worked in stone quarries, agriculture and cattle farms, giving a strong contribution to the production of cheese, wheat and cotton; the latter had just been introduced by Maltese to compete with the valuable and renowned cotton of Biancavilla.

Some of the Maltese may also have been employed in tanning; the eastern cliff of Marzamemi still bears the ancient name of Zotta maltisi, a term that means ‘small quantity of water’, referring to the numerous pools, scattered among the rocks, used for leather manufacture. Trades and skills introduced by Maltese were the lifeblood for the development of the new village and these families soon became the richest in the town; this led to an increase in mixed marriages.

Gaetano Starrabba’s tomb at Holy Crucifix church, Pachino.Gaetano Starrabba’s tomb at Holy Crucifix church, Pachino.

The new village of Pachino developed along the southern side of the hill on which it rises, due to the presence of a well, called Pozzo Vecchio, where drinking water was drawn. Maltese houses were low and squat, with a single room at the top, located along the east-west axis to take advantage of the sunlight; examples of these can still be seen in via Anita, 37, and via Libertà, 7, the latter preceded by an arched opening.

Some evidence seems to suggest that probably most of the Maltese who settled in the Sicilian village came from the island of Gozo. These include the similarity between the surnames of families living in Pachino immediately after its foundation, and those that appear in Gozitan parish registers from 1554 to 1628, namely Abela, Agius, Attard, Axisa, Azzopardi, Bartolo, Bezzina, Bianca, Bonello, Bonnici, Borg, Bugeja, Buhagiar, Buttigieg, Cachia, Calleja, Camenzuli, Camilleri, Carbone, Caruana, Cassar, Cherchem, Chetcuti, Ciantar, Cuschieri, Debono, Falzon, Farrugia, Felice, Fenech, Gatt, Grech, Grima, Hili, Mallia, Mamo, Mangion, Mejlaq, Micallef, Mizzi, Psaila, Rizzo, Said, Saliba, Scerri, Schembri, Schiriha, Sciberras, Spiteri, Sultana, Vella, Xuereb, Zahara, Zammit and Zarb.

Other evidence is that the main economic activities in Pachino were the same as those in Gozo; the presence of the pig on the coat of arms of the Sicilian town, which probably refers to the fact that Gozitans were great pig farmers; a windmill built by Gozitan workers along the road to Noto, used to grind the wheat and cotton pickings; and the almost exclusive presence of colonisers from Gozo in the third migratory wave in 1838.

Holy Crucifix church, Pachino.Holy Crucifix church, Pachino.

Vincenzo Starrabba’s tomb at Holy Cricifix church, Pachino.Vincenzo Starrabba’s tomb at Holy Cricifix church, Pachino.

According to Ray Bondin, most of the Gozitans who settled in Pachino came from Xewkija and Xagħra, a hypothesis based on the introduction of the veneration for St Elias in the Sicilian village. A statue of the saint was also found in the main church of Xewkija, in front of which mothers brought their sick children in the hope of a speedy recovery.

Although recently introduced, the devotion to St Elias seems to be have been strong, considering that in periods of drought, the faithful of Pachino carried in procession a wooden statue of the saint brought over from Malta in 1838. The feast day of St Elias, on July 20, was celebrated both in Pachino and Xewkija.

Moreover, the main church of Pachino, erected in 1790 by Vincenzo Starrabba, was at first dedicated to the Holy Crucifix and St Elias, even if today only the first dedication is kept. The marquis, who had utmost respect for the principle of the ethnic balance, entrusted its management to two Sicilian and two Maltese priests. In the chapel on the right of the apse are the remains of the founders of the town.

Pachino and Malta face each other from opposite coasts of the same sea, sharing memories, destiny and traditions. Sailing in the heart of Mediterranean and arriving in the new fief of Scibini, daring Maltese settlers found hard work and offered arms and strength, which permitted Pachino to grow and prosper.

Special thanks to Lucia Lupo.

With reference to the above article, Arnold Cassola has clarified that it is extensively based on the book by him and Silvio Aliffi entitled Malta-Pachino – una storia in comune, published in January 2014 by Morrone Editore of Siracusa.

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