Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Having arrived at a certain age, I feel a need to explore family roots.

So many stories abound in any family, some apocryphal and some tainted through time and inefficient transmission through the generations.

I am creating this blog so there will, first of all, be a place for relatives to access on-going work on the family history and to leave a record of their recollections of the generations that we have lost or are close to losing.

I do not want to limit the directions that this may take. We are closely intertwined with many families from the Aeolian Islands and an understanding of the two families I have chosen to explore, would be incomplete without a discussion of the many families that have married into them and the families with whom we feel a common heritage.

I mentioned my age earlier. I feel that many of the younger members of a family have little interest in the past or their roots. They often do not recognize the fact that ancestors shape our attitudes, our thought processes, where we live, health and physical stature. In short our family past shapes a large portion of who we are now, and the courses we may choose in the future.

I do not think that we need to dwell on the past, but remember it, honor it and learn from it.

I think it was the ancient Egyptians who believed that if your name is uttered by future generations, then you will continue to live.

So, lets discuss some old-timers, shall we?

But lets make a bargain. We will be honest about the people we write about, flaws and all, but let us also make an effort to be kind. Nobody needs to read about personal vendettas(despite the Islands' proximity to Sicily) just the facts.


When I think of family history, the first face that comes to mind is that of Grammie Cafarella. She lived with my family in Houlton, Maine for much of my childhood, right through college and beyond. I would go to sit with her to vent my rage with the world or to listen to her stories, though I usually avoided her cooking. What a foolish choice that was.

I remember going to visit Aunt Carolina in Livorno, and virtually the first words out of their mouths were, "does she still cook (this or that) like she used to?"

I guess she was something of a star in the kitchen. Everyone remembers her Baked Beans. Her talents were not limited to Italian fare though they were made with olive oil.

She told me all her stories of the islands and her arrival here in the US.
I remembered many of them, but my youth betrayed me and I did not remember enough of them. Also, I did not recognize the cues to ask the right questions so that I would understand them. I once gave her a tape recorder to record some of her stories but she flatly refused to use it. Also, she was curiously silent about the many years after arriving here. She, like my mother, had a difficult life. Certainly there was joy and laughter, but the grind of poverty and so many mouths to fill robbed her of the happiness we all hope for.


Maria Rosa Cincotta was born in Malfa, on the north side of the island of Salina. It lies in the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the very center of an archipelago of seven volcanic islands called the Aeolians(Eolians). The islands are fertile in general, though often dry with a very unreliable supply of water. Water ships now deliver on a regular basis; but you never knew when you would run out. When our grandparents and great grandparents were living there, they often relied solely on what could be stored from roof run-off in cisterns. The home of he youth had two cisterns. One was under the railing of the patio near the big outdoor bake oven, and the other farther out in the courtyard to the west of the entrance.

Salina is the second largest of the seven islands, with it's two volcanoes called Monte Porri to the west and Monte Fossa delle Felci to the east. From a distance the Island looks like a bra floating on the sea. The other islands, Vulcano, Lipari, Panarea, Stromboli, Alicudi and Filicudi were all under the political control of the capital at Lipari, while Salina has, for a couple of centuries, been independent of the others.

Salina is the greenest of all the islands, and is noted for it's riot of color, especially yellow, in the spring. Mediterranean Maquis covers the island(that which is not under cultivation). This is a mix of herbs like Artemesia, sub-shrubs, capers and stray figs, succulents, other shrubby plants and pelargoniums that have escaped into the wild. There are also the ubiquitous pines, olive trees Eucalyptus(High up) and grape vines that Italy boasts so many of.

All in all, you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful place, this green, craggy place set in the vivid aqua sea, it's mountains wreathed in clouds or backed with startling blue skies. And there are sugar cube houses clustered here and there in the little villages round the island.


People from the mainland started to repopulate the islands starting in the second half of the fifteen hundreds. The islands had been depopulated by Turkish and North African pirates, particularly the elder Barbarossa, and poor conditions. The local church was anxious to make use of the rich lands on the islands and invited families from Calabria, Campagna and other areas of the mainland to re-settle. By the seventeen hundreds, the islands were back in business. Our ancestors began to cultivate the islands and did well, especially by trading the products of the land with the mainland and Sicily.

When Napoleon tried to conquer Italy it became necessary for British troops to be stationed in Messina where he could be blocked from advancing farther.

The English loved Malvasia.

Malvasia(Malmsey) is a wine which has been, for centuries, made dry or sweet depending on their treatment. This grape was cultivated first in Crete, and does very well in the Aeolians.

Trade with the English became manic as trade also increased with Sicily, mainland Italy(through Naples), and a number of other ports. They also traded in Marseilles and many other countries. Some of the local people cultivating grapes and making wine, people cultivating capers, raisin grapes and those mining pumice also became ship owners. As trade increased, so did the number of ship owners and the size of the ships sailing the Mediterranean.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century the islands were dependent upon this trade(Malvasia being a very large part of it) and many islanders became quite wealthy as a result.

Now several threats appeared.

An aphid carried a parasite that killed many of the vines throughout Europe beginning about 1870. Islanders believed that they would escape the problem as they were twenty odd miles at sea. One year after Grammie was born, 1889, the vines were attacked and the economy was destroyed. Half of the population of the islands emigrated by the beginning of the century as a result. Of course at the same time, steam was slowly replacing sail as a means of transport, making it harder for them to compete. As fortunes drained away, it was impossible for most to convert to steam.

On the mainland, the train system was expanding.  Lines were extended in increments from Rome, to Naples, Naples to Reggio until it was a major threat to sea based trading. 

Grammie remembered her father saying that because of the advent of steam vessels in the Mediterranean, he had to sell his ship(s) as there really was no way to compete.
The people of Liguria where a large portion of the merchant fleet originated, in the north, proposed that the health of the fleet in that area was necessary for the health of the young country. After all, Italy only coalesced into a single country in the 1860s and 70s. Merchants in the north were provided with subsidies and contracts to help modernize.

Meanwhile, commercial relations with France deteriorated in the 1880s which resulted in a tariff war that lasted from 1887 to about 1890. This put a terrible strain on the wine producers in the south of Italy, and finally killed the wine based economy of the islands.

Australia, the US and many other countries got a burst of fresh blood, including six sons and one daughter of Giuseppi Cafarella and Rosa Cusolito and three daughters and one son(a second son born in the US) of Anerio Cincotta and Giovanna Cafarella(Giuseppi Cafarella's younger sister) Grammie was the oldest of Anerio and Giovanna's children.

Most people remember that the family was from Malfa. In fact, the Cafarellas seem to have been living in Capo Faro, which is a couple of kilometers east along the coast. It was a separate village, but still a part of the Commune of Malfa. Their local church was Santa Anna. There is also a Via Cafarella there.


We have all heard stories from our elders that include: walking to school, three miles, uphill (both ways) in snowstorms. Some were not kidding! I know that I have seen conditions change dramaticly in my home town in northern Maine.

Grammie would not be party to any of that when talking to me about her childhood. She did not really tell stories. She did, however, give me little snapshots of the things she remembered.

My sister(Mary Mitchell Burrill) and I actually tried to take her to Salina for a trip once in the late seventies, but she did not cooperate and the idea fell apart.

She moaned and complained so much about wanting to go back(she also said she wanted to go live with the nuns) that we were shocked at her admission that she thought the island was something of the armpit of the earth; and there really was nothing to go back for.

She always related her memories of childhood to me. You were happy as a child, carefree. Of course she did not see the full tragedy of events on the island at the time. So, what I heard was magic.

She remembered that her father took her aboard his ship(The San Biagio). She also said that when she was very small, she would climb into the window sill after all had gone to sleep and sit watching the volcano (Stromboli) on the horizon. She told my sister that it was her nightlight, and that there were three of them. I wonder if she was talking about the two above her head and Stromboli or if she was thinking of Panarea as being a volcano and did not remember the number correctly. I do not think that you could say that it would shed any light into a room, but it must have been a magical sight for a child.

When her father returned on his ship, The San Biagio, she remembered her aunt on shore letting down her hair so that she could hold on to her braids. Then she put Grammie to her back and swam out to meet the boat.

We never understood why Grammie had the habit of holding her hand beside her right eye and pointing when she was concentrating on seeing something. It turns out that the house she grew up in in Malfa was quite tall and she was on the roof watching the men playing Bocci below. She leaned over too far and fell head first to the ground below. Her eyesight on one side never fully recovered.

She also said that her aunts had a loom in the cantina below the house (There are several arches allowing entrance to the space under the house), where they wove linen for the household. She had many pieces of this fabric most of her life, and she embellished it with embroidery, cutwork and her handmade lace.

I suspect that things were getting rather tight for the family by 1896 and 7, and there would already have been thoughts about emigrating. Grammie, now 9 years old was sent to Naples. There she lived with her maiden aunt, and Uncle John(I assume Cafarella till I am corrected) who was a Monsignor in the church. There she was taught to cook and clean and to keep the house and in turn learned English. This would also have taken a bit of the financial strain off the family(this is an assumption on my part).

The following year, they left the islands for for America. Grammie always emphasized that they did NOT travel in steerage! They traveled on the SS Ellen. The group included: Her mother, Giovanna Cafarella Cincotta, Grammie, John, Jennie and Carolina(all that I know of)(Jake was born in the US and returned to the island with his parents only to come back to the US later.)

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