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main index     index for this series  © Jeff Matthews   entry Oct 2009

"Through the eyes of..."

[This item is related to the entry on Nisida and Carlo Poerio.]

From Littell's Living Age, September 13, 1851, a New York magazine that featured reprints from foreign journals. Living Age took this item from the British journal,  The Spectator. It is a review of the then recent pamphlet written by British statesman William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98), exposing the horrors of the prison system of the Kingdom of Naples in the mid-nineteenth century.



William  Gladstone 

Of all the events of this year, at home or abroad, one of the most striking is the publication of Mr. Gladstone’s pamphlet on the State Prosecutions of Naples (“Two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen on the State Prosecutions of the Neapolitan Government." By the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, M. P. for the University of Oxford. Second edition.” Published by Mr. Murray.) If the mere announcement has caused such a demand as to call forth a second edition almost before the first was published, the perusal of it will excite a still greater sensation in this country, and, though for different reasons, on the continent. In this country it will create sentiments of surprise and horror. Although the general character of the statements is not new, they come before the world with an aspect wholly novel. From this pamphlet the cautious Englishman will learn with amazement that the charges of the Italian Patriots against the government of Naples are not only true, but even fall short of the reality; that the case stated with every conceivable precaution, not by a Pepe or a Mazzini, but by a Gladstone—a leader of our own Conservative party, a man only too scrupulous and fastidiously exact—is stronger than they ever conceived it to be.

The very precautions that he uses to exclude everything but his own main object—to avoid everything like a cumulative case against Naples—give to his narrative an appalling force. The reader understands that he is perusing only a part of the whole history against that iniquitous government. Before stating the facts, Mr. Gladstone expressly sets aside any political or social question: whether of logical relation or of legal right, arising out of the constitution; he treats that as a mere dream or fiction. He excludes the question of Sicily. He raises no political questions except those which are forced upon him by the details that he has to relate. He begins, as a member of the great conservative party in Europe, with a bias in favor of established government. We need not tell our readers who Mr. Gladstone is; with what high constitutional feelings, with what disciplined reasoning, with what a deep sense of responsibility, he must enter upon a statement of the kind—a statement deliberately received by a noble man not less than himself distinguished for high–minded conservatism, Lord Aberdeen, minister for foreign affairs in Sir Robert Peel’s administration.

Such is the writer. He begins by contradicting the “general impression that the organization of the governments of Southern Italy is defective—that the administration of justice is tainted with corruption—that instances of abuse or cruelty among subordinate public functionaries are not  uncommon, and that political offences are punished with severity, and with no great regard to the forms of justice.” This vague supposition has no relation to the actual truth of the Neapolitan case.

It is not mere imperfection, not corruption in low quarters, not occasional severity, that I am about to describe: it is incessant, systematic, deliberate violation of the law, by the power appointed to watch over and maintain it. It is such violation of human and written law as this, carried on for the purpose of violating every other law unwritten and eternal, human and divine; it is the wholesale persecution of virtue when united with intelligence, operating upon such a scale that entire classes may with truth be said to be its object, so that the government is in bitter and cruel as well as utterly illegal hostility to whatever in the nation really lives and moves and forms the main-spring of practical progress and improvement; it is the awful profanation of public religion, by its notorious alliance, in the governing powers, with the violation of every moral law under the stimulant of fear and vengeance; it is the perfect prostitution of the judicial office, which has made it, under veils only too threadbare and transparent, the degraded recipient of the vilest and clumsiest forgeries, got up willfully and deliberately, by the immediate advisers of the crown, for the purpose of destroying the peace, the freedom, ay, and, even if not by capital sentences, the life, of men among the most virtuous, upright, intelligent, distinguished, and refined of the whole community; it is the savage and cowardly system of moral as well as in a lower degree of physical torture, through which the sentences extracted from the debased courts of justice are carried into effect.

The effect of all this is, total inversion of all the moral and social ideas. Law, instead of being respected, is odious. Force, and not affection, is the foundation of government. There is no association, but a violent antagonism, between the idea of freedom and that of order. The governing power, which teaches of itself that it is the image of God upon earth, is clothed in the view of the overwhelming majority of the thinking public with all the vices for its attributes.

I have seen and heard the strong and too true expression used, "This is the negation of God erected into a system of government."

General belief calculates that the political prisoners in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies are in number between fifteen or twenty and thirty thousand; the government seems to confess to two thousand, but the reader of Mr. Gladstone's pamphlet will not believe the Neapolitan government; facts and figure stated by Mr. Gladstone, official but not possible to be concealed, show that the estimate of two thousand is unreasonable. Amongst the persons imprisoned or exiled was the whole "Opposition" in the Chamber of Deputies elected under the constitution.

The law of Naples required that personal liberty shall be inviolable except under warrant of a court of justice; but, in fact, men are continually seized, "by the score, by the hundred, by the thousand, without any warrant whatever, sometimes without even any written authority at all, or anything beyond the word of a policeman—constantly without any statement whatever of the nature of the offense." The lowest creatures are employed as police agents; the prisoner is taunted into sedition, or charges are fabricated; the courts refuse to receive evidence in favor of the prisoner. As a specimen of the treatment, Mr. Gladstone relates in detail the case of Carlo Poerio, a distinguished lawyer, a late cabinet minister, a strict constitutionalist of the respectable English pattern. He was accused, by means of repeated forgeries and barefaced fabrications, of belonging to a republican sect; his accuser was Jervolino, a disappointed applicant for some low office; one of his fellow–prisoners, a noble, was vainly urged by the director of police, under promises of "arrangement" and threats of "destruction," to testify to Poerio's acquaintance with certain revolutionary handbills; at the trial, Jervolino could answer no questions about the pretended society; a witness deposed that Jervolino received a pension of twelve ducats a month from the government; Poerio was allowed to call no more witnesses; his judge was one of the persons threatened to be assailed by the pretended society, and the same judge makes no secret of his opinion that all persons charged by the king's government ought to be found guilty.

One specimen of this judge's effrontery may be given.

In two cases it happened to be within the knowledge off the counsel for the prisoners that the perjured witnesses against them did not even know them by sight. In one of these the counsel desired to be allowed to ask the witness to point out the accused persons among the whole number of those charged, who were all sitting together. The court refused permission. In the other case, the counsel challenged the witness to point out the man of whose proceedings he was speaking. If I am rightly informed, Navarro, whom I have so lately mentioned, affecting not to hear the question, called out to the prisoner, “Stand up, Signor Nisco; the court has a question to ask you.” This was done, and counsel then informed that he might pursue his examination. A laugh of bitter mockery ran through the court.

Poerio was condemned to twenty-four years of irons. In February last, Poerio, and sixteen of the co-accused, (with few of whom, however, he had any previous acquaintance,) were confined in the Bagno of Nisida, near the Lazaretto. For one half hour in the week, a little prolonged by the leniency of the Superintendent, they were allowed to see their friends outside the prison. This was their sole view of the natural beauties with which they were surrounded. At other times they were exclusively within the walls. The whole number of them, except I think one, then in the infirmary, were confined night and day in a single room of about sixteen palms in length by ten or twelve in breadth, and about ten in height; I think with some small yard for exercise. Something like a fifth must be taken off these numbers to convert palms into feet. When the beds were let down at night there was no space whatever between them; they could only get out at the foot, and, being chained two and two, only in pairs. In this room they had to cook or prepare what was sent them by the kindness of their friends. On one side the level of the ground is over the top of the room; it, therefore, reeked with damp and from this, tried with long confinement, they declared they suffered greatly. There was one window, of course unglazed; and let not an Englishman suppose that this constant access of the air in the Neapolitan climate is agreeable or innocuous; on the contrary, it is even more important to health there than here to have the means of excluding the open air, for example, before and at sunset. Vicissitude of climate, again, is quite as much felt there as here, and the early morning is sometimes bitterly cold.

Their chains were as follows. Each man wears a strong leathern girth round him above the hips. To this are secured the upper ends of two chains. One chain of four long and heavy links descends to a kind of double ring fixed round the ankle. The second chain consists of eight links, each of the same weight and length with the four; and this unites the two prisoners together, so that they can stand about six feet. apart. Neither of these chains is ever undone, day or night. The dress of common felons, which, as well as the felon’s cap, was there worn by the late cabinet minister of King Ferdinand of Naples, is composed of a rough and coarse red jacket, with trousers of the same material—very like the cloth made in this country from what is called devil’s dust; the trousers are nearly black in color. On his head he had a small cap which makes up the suit; it is of the same material. The trousers button all the way up, that they may he removed at night without disturbing the chains.

The weight of these chains, I understand, is about eight rotoli, or between sixteen and seventeen English pounds for the shorter one, which must be doubled when we give each prisoner his half of the longer one. The prisoners have a heavy limping movement, much as if one leg had been shorter than the other. But the refinement of suffering in this case arises from the circumstance that here we have men of education and high feeling chained incessantly together. For no purpose are these chains undone: and the meaning of these last words must be well considered—they are to be taken strictly.

Poerio has since been transferred to a worse and more secluded dungeon at Ischia.

"Crimine ab uso disce omnes;" this is only one specimen of many. Mr. Gladstone visited other prisons, tasted the black bread, was not enabled to taste the loathsome soup. But we break off; the reader; the reader of this must procure the pamphlet—he will not lay it down till he has read it through, and he will then understand how tempted we are to multiply these specimens.

Mr. Gladstone has refrained from publishing the first letter, in order that Lord Aberdeen, as an individual, might make a friendly representation to the government of Naples. The statement having been met by special pleading, Mr. Gladstone publishes his letter; with a second, explaining the cause of the delay.

On the government of Naples I had no claim whatever; but as a man I felt and knew it to be my duty to testify to what I had credibly heard, or personally seen, of the needless and acute sufferings of men. Yet, aware that such testimony, when once launched, is liable to be used for purposes neither intended nor desired by those who bear it, and that in times of irritability and misgiving, such as these are on the Continent of Europe, slight causes may occasionally produce, or may tend and aid to produce, effects less inconsiderable, I willingly postponed any public appeal until the case should have been seen in private by those whose conduct it principally touched. It has been so seen. They have made their option.

But in this second letter he goes somewhat further back; tracing the cause of judicial corruption in the political corruption of the Neapolitan government. He cites the constitution empowering the people to elect that Parliament whose entire opposition has been driven into imprisonment or exile; establishing a “limited, hereditary, and constitutional monarchy, under representative forms; "establishing a Chamber of Peers and Deputies; declaring that “no description of impost can be decreed except in virtue of a law; “also that personal liberty is guaranteed,” except under “due warrant of law.” Now in fact this constitution is violated in all essentials; how personal liberty is respected, we have seen; there exists no Chamber of Peers or Deputies; “all taxes are imposed and levied under royal authority alone;"  in short, “the monarchy of Naples is perfectly absolute and unlimited.” Knowing these facts, the reader will be shocked to peruse the adjuration which is in the preamble to the constitution, given by King Ferdinand, as he says, “of our own full, free, and spontaneous will”—

In the awful name of the Most Holy and Almighty God, the Trinity in Unity, to whom alone it appertains to read the depths of the heart, and whom we loudly invoke as the judge of the simplicity of our intentions, and of the unreserved sincerity with which we have determined to enter upon the paths of the new political order

Having heard with mature deliberation, our Council of State;

We have decided upon proclaiming, and we do proclaim, as irrevocably ratified by us, the following Constitution.

In that awful name!

But even that is justified—not by the precedents of the king’s two immediate predecessors, though they are strictly applicable—but by a deliberate attempt to corrupt the Neapolitan mind. A book has been published and forced into general use, entitled “Catechismo Filosofico, per Uso delle Scuole Inferiori;"  the authorship of which is ascribed to an ecclesiastic at the head of the Commission of Public Instruction. It is a catechism for young scholars, in the form of a dialogue between master and scholar; and is avowedly intended to counteract the false philosophy of the liberals, who are described as vicious and bad men. It  teaches that the royal power is unlimited, because it is of divine origin; that "the people cannot of itself establish fundamental laws in a sate," because such laws "are of necessity a limitation of the sovereignty," which would then be longer "the highest paramount power ordained of God for the well–being of society;" and that a sovereign is bound to keep a constitution which he had "promised or sworn to maintain"—only provided it is not opposed to the general interests of the state."

In a word, says the Catechism, an oath never can become an obligation to commit evil; and therefore cannot bind a sovereign to do what is injurious to his subjects. Besides, the Head of the Church has authority from God to release consciences from oaths, when he judges that there is suitable cause for it.

Mr. Gladstone has seen that a similar system prevails in Lombardy, Modena, and Rome. He testifies to the patience, the fortitude, and the indestructible kindliness of the Neapolitans; he evidently wonders at their forbearance. He has learned for himself what Absolutism is in its working; and of that working, in one department, the English public now has a view on evidence above suspicion.


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