Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   Feb. 2003

Jessie White—An Englishwoman at the Court of Garibaldi
by David Taylor ©


At midday of the 7th of September, 1860, Garibaldi made his triumphal entry into Naples and set up headquarters at Palazzo d'Angri in the city centre. The Bourbon King of Naples, Francesco II, had fled two days previously to fight what was to prove a futile rearguard action from Gaeta. Thus the capitol of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fell to Garibaldi and his unstoppable redshirts, and the long reign of the Bourbons was at an end.

Sitting in the carriage, and sharing in the triumph with Garibaldi as  the procession of liberators made its way through the throng, was a young Englishwoman by the name of Jessie White Mario. Some tried to explain the privilege of her position by linking her romantically with the 'lady-killing' general. Jessie had, in fact, merited her place in the carriage in recognition of her 'patriotism' to a land not of her birth, and the hard work and sacrifices made in freeing Italy of foreign domination and achieving the dream of a united country.

Jessie White began life in the village of Gosport, near Plymouth, on the 9th of May, 1832, the daughter of an American mother and a puritan father. She rebelled against the strictly religious life imposed by her father, but, none the less, developed a great concern for the poor, destitute and oppressed. Unlike her father, however, she was more concerned with their stomachs being full than with their souls. While still a young girl she was discovered distributing food from the family pantry to the poor of the area. Reprimanded by her father, who told her that the family was not in a position to look after the physical well-being of the poor but that she should dedicate herself to thier spiritual salvation, she expressed the view that it is too much to expect high morals from someone who is starving to death.

By the age of twenty-two she was a confirmed feminist and had begun to write, albeit anonymously, for the feminist magazine Eliza Cook's Journal. In 1854, Jessie went to study Philosophy at the Sorbonne, and in the same year she was invited by one Emma Roberts to accompany her to Nice where they would meet a certain Giuseppe Garibaldi who had stolen the heart of Miss Roberts. This was a dream come true for Jessie. She was already familiar with the political writings of Mazzini, and now she found herself face to face with the man who would try to put that political theory into practice. Later, Jessie admitted that Garibaldi had captured her heart, but, nevertheless, it would be facile simply to say, tabloid style, that she was besotted. It was probably as much the political ideals and energy of the man as any profane passion for him, that enamored her and had her follow him on his campaigns through what was to become Italy.

Unable to offer herself to Garibaldi as a soldier or general, Jessie offered her services as a field nurse. To this end she returned to England and applied to all the medical schools for training as a doctor or a nurse, roles from which women were excluded at that time. The authorities were not prepared to make an exception to the rule, so Jessie had to depend on the little experience she had gained in nursing her brother when the time finally came to accompany Garibaldi on his campaign of Italian unification.

Before the military action actually began, Jessie was instructed by Mazzini to organise propaganda and fund-raising conferences in Britain. Mazzini then called her to Italy for the beginning of the campaign. In this period she met her husband-to-be, Alberto Mario, and was arrested with him when the conspiracy failed. After some months of imprisonment, Jessie and Alberto were able to leave for England, where they married on 19th December, 1857. The following year, the couple were in America on a fund-raising tour. Contacts made in there gave Jessie a useful future source of income as a journalist for  American newspapers.

The couple arrived back in Italy in the year before Garibaldi began his military campaign in 1860. As yhe general fought his way north from Sicily, Jessie busied herself with the care of the wounded. By such means did this young Englishwoman earn her place in the procession that wound its way through the streets of Naples on that historic day in 1860.
 

The Misery in Naples

Sixteen years later, Jessie White was back in Naples. This time her visit was for different if not unrelated reasons. At the instigation of Pasquale Villari, himself a constant critic of a civil administration that had allowed the poor of the city to remain in the depths of misery, she spent a month researching and experiencing in person the terrible conditions in many of the inner-city districts. She plumbed the depths of many of the worst areas, compiling statistics and notes on the grim realities of post-Bourbonic life in Monte Calvario, Porto, Pendino and Mercato; the almshouses, orphanages, hospices, schools and prisons. Her findings were published a year later in La Miseria in Napoli  (1877) and she paints a terrible picture indeed of life for many thousands of the city's poorer inhabitants: people still living in the tufa caves which riddle the city; entire families renting not a room but a bed!; prostitution a widespread and 'noble' profession among destitute women who could at least feed their children by such means; cholera epidemics due to lack of fresh water, the scarce improvement in drainage and the unhealthy tradition of disposing of paupers in 'convenient' charnel houses that were little more than covered pits.

White's book was strongly criticized for having concentrated on the negative aspects of the city, but those critics failed to realize how sad a task it was to write these things for a woman who had dedicated her life to the unification of Italy, and who had hoped that the reforms following the formation of the Republic would have eliminated, at least in part, the horrors of life in the alleyways and the squalid one-room hovels called bassi.

Jessie White died in Florence on the 5th of March, 1906. After the death of her husband, she had accepted help from friends in Government in finding work to help her through her long widowhood, but when money was offered to her in recognition of the part she had played in helping to create modern Italy, she threatened to burn it rather than accept it. Her life had been that of a woman dedicated to a cause—not that of the mercenary.


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