Malmsey


‘Near the island of Lipari, a mile to the west, is another island called Salina, where there are beautiful vines not of wine grapes but zibibbo grapes, where large quantities are made and exported as far as Constantinople’.

This was written by the abbot Gerolamo Maurando who arrived in the islands following the pirate Ariadeno Red Beard in the summer of 1544 and gives us important evidence of the flourishing economic activity of Salina.
The presence of vines, however, shouldn’t deceive us into believing there were organised communities on the island.
The continuing presence of pirates had depopulated the island since the Byzantine age and the persistent lack of fortifications had forced the Liparesi to visit only for looking after and harvesting the vines, as Campis wrote in the 1600’s.
The re-population of Salina, after centuries of abandonment began at the end of the 1500’s encouraged by the concessions of the Bishop of Lipari, eager to put the fertile land of the eastern side and the plateau under cultivation, it intensified at the end of the 18th century and reached a peak in the mid 1800’s.
In the space of 300 years men and families from all over the lower Tyrrhenian came together and settled in the communities based around the churches of S. Marina in the east, of Our Lady of the Terzito in the south, San Lorenzo in the north and Sant’Onofrio in the west. Attracted by the mirage of farming their own land or the possibility of finding long term work, they had different stories and motivations.
Without an established patrimonial position, it was to be expected that a community without common origins and traditions would be dependent on the main island, very close at hand and with a strong consolidated economic structure. Indeed, the life of Salina was linked to that of Lipari in many aspects.
In the early 19th century conditions finally permitted the new community to take control of the local economy out of the hands of Lipari traders, and those of the area of the Straits, who imposed their own prices in colonial style. It was the sudden increase in demand for malmsey in the early 1800’s that gave Salina its new strength in trade.
This huge increase in demand for  malmsey was fuelled by the requirements of the 10,000 English soldiers stationed in Messina, facing a possible advance of Napoleon in Sicily.
For 10 years, the commissaries of the British army requested the malmsey and put it on the officers’ tables. This initiated a process of economic development, as a good part of the revenue was re-invested in the cultivation of new lands and the strengthening of links with the whole Mediterranean.
These investments allowed the inhabitants of the island to exploit the productive potential of the land to the maximum, and the ship-owners to plan ways of consolidating wider profit margins. From port to port they traded in everything to invest in new vines.
The growing wealth also allowed the villages to free themselves from the administrative power of Lipari in the mid 1800’s.
In the second half of the century small shipping companies were set up, running large sailing ships which marked the new expansion.
So in the early 1880s the population neared 9,000 inhabitants.
The end of the cycle, however, was coming dramatically close. Between 1870 and 1885 the phylloxera parasite invaded the whole of Europe, destroying the vines and, in spring 1889, put an end to the illusions of the islanders and those who thought that 23 miles of sea would stop an aphid.
Emigration started up and in 15 years the population halved.
The 1900’s brought new strategies and alternatives. Emigrants’ revenues helped set up banks, production and work co-operatives, the electric company and the steamers of the ‘Eolia’, but it was not enough.
The rules of the game had changed and the few miles of sea that divide the island from the mainland had become an ocean.
In the archipelago only the pumice quarrying industry continued to enjoy a natural monopoly and gave life-blood to the biggest island, while the smaller islands survived with aid or died.
It was this way for the Eolia shipping company, run by the sons of the original owners.
It was born and prospered, protected by the pro-Fascist Archbishop of Messina, Mons. Angelo Paino, who was also from Salina and originated from a family of navigators.
With the fall of the regime, however, the association collapsed along with the economic and political framework on which it was based.
It was necessary to wait for the 1970’s until a new type of development began, based on tourism.
In this new era the islanders, decimated by decades of emigration, do not have sufficient cultural instruments to face the problems created by this new resource.
However, with the development of the first environmental problems it was realised that the tourist industry had to follow the example of the illuminated merchants of the past; that is not to destroy the patrimony of the island, but rather to create widespread wealth and work opportuities through family businesses. This is the road followed by the islanders today.
There is, however, the danger of considering tourism as a monoculture, forgetting that a hundred years ago, ruin was caused by concentrating on just one resource (vines).
For this reason it seems to be more important than ever today to develop the agricultural sector (especially malmsey and capers), which unfortunately suffers from a lack of commercial planning, side by side with the tourist industry.

Marcello Saija

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