The history of organized crime would have looked different if not for the discovery of the ultimate cure for the fatal sailor’s disease - citrus fruits

It was the horror of European sailors for hundreds of years. It is estimated that for about 300 years, from the discovery of America until the early 19th century, scurvy claimed the lives of nearly 2 million sailors. Eventually, upon the discovery that it can be prevented by consuming citrus fruits, the disease was almost completely eradicated, but it now turns out that this solution played a role in promoting the development of a completely different kind of horror - the Sicilian Mafia. 

Scurvy, known today to be caused by a lack of vitamin C, was for many years one of the main causes of death during naval voyages. It began with weakness and fatigue, usually about one to three months after setting sail, and progressed to breathing difficulties and bone pain to the point of rheumatism. The skin rapidly became filled with bruises and the teeth began to loosen. These symptoms were often accompanied by extreme mood swings, dryness of the mouth and eyes, and eventually damage to the liver, edema, seizures, and finally, death. 

This was the situation until 1747, when the British doctor James Lind set out on a voyage to the Mediterranean Sea aboard the HMS Salisbury. After about two months, 12 of the sailors fell ill with scurvy, and Lind was the first to examine the problem from a scientific perspective. What he did is known today as the first clinical trial in the history of medicine. 

Lind divided the patients into six pairs and gave each group a different treatment, including two patients who received no treatment at all and served as the control group. One of the groups, which received two oranges and a lemon each day, showed great improvement until the fruit ran out after six days. Lind concluded that citrus fruits contain some kind of component that cures scurvy. Only nearly 200 years later, in 1932, was it proven that this component is vitamin C, vital for producing the protein collagen, which is essential for building tissues and bones.

This discovery was met with great opposition since people found it difficult to believe that such a severe disease could easily be cured with a small glass of lemonade. One of the first to adopt the discovery was Captain James Cook, who made sure to provide citrus fruits to his sailors during his long voyages among the southern islands and thus almost completely prevented their death from scurvy. During the 1790s, the British Fleet finally adopted a policy that required every ship to carry a large supply of citrus fruits or lemon juice, affecting thus not only the health of the sailors, but also the economy of a large island in the Mediterranean Sea.


​הניסוי הקליני המבוקר הראשון בהיסטוריה גילה תרופה קשה למחלה איומה. ג'יימס לינד | מקור: ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל

The first controlled clinical experiment in history resulted in the discovery of a simple cure for a terrible disease. James Lind | Source: Wikimedia Commons 

A Paradise for Citrus Fruits

Sicily is in many ways an ideal habitat for citrus trees. Citrus trees are very sensitive plants that require a warm temperate climate with temperatures in the range 13-30℃. Since temperatures on this Mediterranean island are in the range 10-22℃, it is very suitable for growing citrus fruits. The preferred regions for orchards on this island are the coastal plains, where temperature fluctuations are relatively small. This is particularly significant during winter nights, since the citrus flowers are very sensitive to the cold, and even brief exposure to frost is enough to kill them. 

The first lemon trees were brought to Sicily in the 10th century by the Muslims and established well. The fertile soil of the island also contributed to their success, assisted by a branched irrigation system for the trees, which require a constant supply of water throughout the year. For several centuries, the orchards in Sicily were grown mainly for local consumption, but the new discovery turned them into a particularly lucrative industry within a few decades. 

Estimates show that for the first twenty years after the implementation of the new guidelines, until 1814, the British Fleet consumed 7.3 million liters of lemon juice, most of which came from Sicily. This was just the beginning. For 15 years, from 1835 to 1850, the number of lemon juice barrels exported annually from the Sicilian harbor of Messina jumped from a mere 740 to over 20,000. During the 1850s, about 80,000 dunams (8,000 ha) of lemon orchards on the island produced about 750,000 barrels for export. Within thirty years this area grew three-fold to almost 270,000 dunams (27,000 ha), which produced 2.5 million cases of citrus fruit.


מ-740 חביות ל-2.5 מיליון תיבות תוך קצת יותר ממאה שנה. פרדס בסיציליה | צילום: Shutterstock

From 740 lemon barrels to 2.5 million cases of citrus fruit in nearly 50 years. An orchard in Sicily | Photo: Shutterstock 

A Paradise for Criminals

Unfortunately, Sicily in the second half of the 19th century was also an ideal habitat for crime, and here the citrus industry played an important role. The great profits from the exports capitalized on the weakness of the new Italian government, which conquered the island in 1861 from the House of Bourbon, on the way to unifying Italy for the first time under one government. This was joined by the feudal tradition, which still survived in some parts of the island, and of course, poverty; together they facilitated the development of a large organized crime group - the Mafia.  

The wars that fragmented Italy in the 18th century gave rise to many militias in its different regions, particularly in the south. The army of Giuseppe Gribaldi himself, who brought about the liberation of Sicily, comprised mainly volunteers, some of whom were criminals, who banded together into armed secret societies upon their return home . Since the new Italian government in Sicily was too weak to enforce the law, the citrus growers were forced to hire these organizations to protect their yields and negotiate on their behalf with the merchants. Today we would call this protection. 

However, the growth of the Mafia was not uniform and in some parts of the island it was more prosperous than in others. A study from 2017, conducted by researchers in England, Ireland and Sweden, revealed that these regions were the ones dominated by the citrus industry, and tried to explain why this was so. 

The researchers used a survey conducted by the Italian member of parliament, Abele Damiani, during the 1880s, which included, among other things, data on the extent of crime in different regions of the island as well as on the prevalent forms of crime. They used the data on crime in Sicily as an index of the presence of the Mafia in the different regions of the island, and tested it against data on the extent of lemon production in each region. For additional tests they used data from a report on crime written by Antonio Cutrera, a policeman from Palermo, in 1900, which focused on eastern Sicily, examining only the villages with prominent presence of the Mafia; thus, the data is only partial.

From analysis of the data it appears that indeed there was a strong connection between the prevalence of citrus growing and the presence of the Mafia. The presence of citrus crops raised the likelihood of local Mafia presence in a village by 54%. In contrast, no similar correlation was found with the other large export industries on the island, including olives, grapes and sulfur; thus it appears that the economic activity of the Mafia certainly focused on the citrus market. 

"Citrus fruits were undoubtedly the business around which the Mafia developed”, says John Dickie, who published a book on the Sicilian Mafia in 2004. “All of the early Mafia bosses known to us in Palermo in the 19th century were lemon merchants, orchard owners or orchard watchmen”.

מחלה שקטלה מיליוני ימאים. איור ממחברתו של רופא בצי הבריטי במאה ה-19 | מקור: ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל

A disease that decimated millions of sailors. Illustration from the notebook of a doctor in the British Fleet in the 19th century | Source: Wikimedia Commons


Squeezing Juice

Some of the traits of the citrus fruits made their growers particularly vulnerable to threats and extortion. These sensitive crops were very vulnerable to damage to the irrigation channels, and the trees required five years from planting until they began to produce fruit, during which time the growers required financial support. And if that wasn’t enough, it was very easy to enter the orchard in the dark of night and steal a significant number of fruit straight off the trees. The growers were in dire need of protection from bandits, and who could protect them better than the bandits themselves? “There was a great number of places in which the gangsters could initiate extortion activities”, explains Dickie.

Nevertheless, the researchers warn that far-reaching conclusions should not be drawn from their findings, since history and economics are complex fields that cannot be reduced to one single component on influence, such as the lemon trade. The only thing that is certain is that lemon juice was one of the factors tha contributed to the development of organized crime.

With time, scurvy disappeared completely, and today it is a rare disease that mainly affects people with particularly extreme nutritional deficiencies. Furthermore, Sicily has since lost its dominant role in the global lemon market, but in the meantime the Mafia has become a fearsome global criminal organization. An Italian government official who was exposed to reports on the acts through which the Mafia took control of Sicilian citrus growing, summed it up well: “After you’ve read enough stories on the crimes these people perpetrated, the fragrance of the citrus blossoms begins to resemble the stench of corpses”.