Wha’s like us? Quite a lot of folk: 2. Sardinia

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by Paul Kavanagh

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, slightly smaller than Sicily.  It sits amongst a network of sealanes which have for thousands of years been amongst the busiest in the world.  Despite this, Sardinia owes its unique character to long isolation from the lands which border the Western Mediterranean.  For many hundreds of years, Sardinia was considered a wild world apart from civilised Europe or North Africa.

Sardinia first makes a shadowy appearance in history in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts which mention raiders from a land called Sherden whose pirate ships assailed the prosperous towns of Egypt’s Nile Delta. The Sherden are claimed by some to have been from Sardinia, although others believe they came from lands in modern Turkey.  Archaeological discoveries on the island point to a sophisticated culture, characterised by defensive structures called nuraghes which were similar in form and function to the much later brochs of Pictish Scotland.  The people of the nuraghes maintained extensive trading and economic links with the eastern Mediterranean.  

In the early centuries of the first milennium BC, Sardinia attracted the attentions of the Phoenicians.   The Phoenicians originally came from the area of Lebanon but had founded an important colony around the city of Carthage in modern Tunisia.  Sardinia was a rich source of lead and silver, trading links between the island and Carthage grew in importance.  The Carthaginians sought control of the mines which produced the valuable metals and eventually founded colonies around the coasts.  Despite resistance from Sardinian tribes, they gradually came to exert their control over the entire external trade of the island.  

After the wars between Rome and Carthage control of Sardinia passed to Rome. The island was officially annexed to Rome in 238 BC, and would remain a part of the Roman Empire or its successor states for the next 1000 years.

Like the Carthaginians, the Romans were concerned to exploit the mineral wealth of Sardinia to the maximum.  Roman mines were forbidding and dangerous places, mine workers were slaves, prisoners of war, and criminals condemned to work to death. Untold thousands of slaves were imported into Sardinia by the Romans, bringing the Latin language with them. Once on the island, the slaves were not permitted to leave. 

1. It is unknown what language or languages were spoken by the native Sardinian tribes, but sometime during the early part of the Roman period the indigenous language began to give way to a form of Latin.  Modern Sardinian descends from this early imported Latin, which differs in a number of important respects from the Vulgar Latin which was later to spread over much of the Roman Empire.  It is not an Italian dialect, although popularly regarded as such. 

Despite the Romanisation of Sardinians in language, Roman power over the interior of the island remained weak.  The tribes in these regions, called Barbaria by the Romans (modern Barbagia), were pretty much left to their own devices.  Even when the Romans officially adopted the Christian religion, the Sardinians remained faithful to their ancient gods. To the Romans the interior of the island became synonymous with heathen barbarians, theft, kidnappings and paganism.

Rome eventually fell to a different brand of barbarian, the Goths.  In the confused centuries after the fall of Rome, the island fell into the hands of the Byzantine Greek Eastern Roman Empire, which had largely escaped the chaos into which the West had descended.  The Byzantine Greeks succeeded in converting the pagan Sardinians to Christianity, but the island was remote from the centres of power in Constantinople, and Byzantine control remained weak and easily challenged.  

The Byzantines organised the island administratively into regions governed by a judge, or giudiche in Sardinian, each of whom administered the law in a territory called a giudigadu.  Although originally appointees of the Byzantine Emperor, the position of giudiche came to be hereditary.  The Byzantine judges soon came to learn that they could only remain in power with the consent of the rebellious and independent-minded local tribespeople.

The Arab invasions of North Africa gravely weakened Byzantine power.  When Sicily was conquered by the Arabs in the 10th century, Sardinia became isolated from the rest of the Empire and the giudigadus became indpendent kingdoms.  There were four kingdoms, Arborea, Calari, Logudoru and Gallura.  Intriguingly, the kingdoms were organised on a basic principle familiar to Scots. The giudiche was head of state, but the land and its people were not the personal property of the monarch.  The monarch ruled because the people consented to his rule – or her rule, as Sardinia had several queens who reigned in their own right.

The clans which controlled the various kingdoms disputed control of the island amongst themselves for many hundreds of years.  Settlement on the coasts declined due to attacks from Saracens and the interior of the island largely went its own way in isolation from the rest of the world.  

But Sardinia could not remain hermetically sealed.  Through dynastic marriage and alliances, the title of giudiche came to be held by foreign princes, Pisans and Genoese from Italy and Catalan speaking Aragonese from Iberia.  Gradually Pisa, Genoa and Aragon began to assert direct control over the giudigadus.  During this period, settlers from the Italian mainland and Corsica began to arrive in Sardinia in significant numbers.  In the north they were influential enough to cause the Sardinian language to disappear and it was replaced by dialects similar to the Tuscan based dialects of Corsica.

Eventually Aragon came out on top and took over Calari, Logudoru and Gallura, which they established as the Kingdom of Sardinia, one of the realms of the Aragonese monarchy along with Aragon itself, Catalunya, the Balearics and Valencia.  Catalan influence grew strong, thousands of Catalan speakers from Catalunya, the Balearics and Valencia began to settle in Sardinia.  Even today the townspeople of Alghero (L’Alguer in Catalan) on the west coast of Sardinia remain Catalan speakers.  Catalan became the sole written and literary language of the island.  The unwritten Sardinian language borrowed hundreds of words from Catalan.

One of Sardinia’s most famous queens was Eleanora of Arborea (1347-1404).   Although herself born in Catalunya and married to a Genoese nobleman, she fiercely defended the independence of Arborea from Aragon.  Her most notable achievement was to codify and publish Sa Carta de Logu, a compilation of Sardinian laws and legal rulings.  This traditional law code remained in force throughout the island until the 18th century, and was most notable for the high legal status it granted to women.  But Arborea’s independence did not long survive Eleanora’s death, and her kingdom too became part of Aragon.  Sardinia remained an Aragonese possession when the Aragonese monarchs formed a dynastic union with Castile in 1479.

For four hundred years the Kingdom of Sardinia was one of the kingdoms of the Spanish realm.  Castilian Spanish replaced Catalan as the official language of the kingdom in the 17th century.  Although enjoying a degree of autonomy in theory, in practice Sardinia was administered as an integral part of Spain.  Cultural influences flowed from Spain to Sardinia, giving local culture a distinctly Iberian veneer which is still perceptible today.  Sardinia, as modern Sardinians like to remind the visitor, was a part of Spain for three times longer than it has been a part of Italy.

But the period of Spanish rule was not a happy one.  The island was exposed to the growing threat of pirate raids from the ‘Barbary Coast’ in nearby North Africa.  The raiders pillaged towns and crops, and took many local people off as captive to be sold in the slave markets.  Despite the construction of a series of defensive towers around the coastline, the population declined in the coastal districts as people moved inland to the relative safety of the mountains.  A series of severe famines struck during the 16th and 17th centuries, causing the deaths of tens of thousands.  

Eventually Sardinia’s fate was to be decided by events far away.  At the beginning of the 18th century a crisis in the succession to the Spanish throne plunged Europe into war.  The major European nations each took sides in support of their favoured candidate.  As a consequence of the treaties settling the war, in 1713 Sardinia was removed from Spanish control and given to the Hapsburgs of Austria.  The Spaniards briefly regained control in 1717, but three years later Sardinia was ceded to the House of Savoy, rulers of the region around Turin.

The Sardinians did not take kindly to Savoyard rule.  Sardinia was administered as a province of Savoy, and all positions of power were held by Savoyards.  The Savoyards succeeded in alienating both the traditional nobility of Sardinia, and a peasant population which was growing increasingly disaffected by the creaking feudal system still imposed upon them.  Inspired by the French revoltion a series of rebellions rocked the island, culminating in 1794 in the full scale Anti-Feudalist revolt led by Juanne Maria Angioy.  

The revolt was sparked off after the Sardinian noble houses repelled a French invasion.  The French had recently seized control of the neighbouring island of Corsica, and were seeking to increase their power in the islands of the Western Mediterranean.  The Sardinian nobles convened the traditional parliament, the Stamenti, and issued five demands to the Duke of Savoy as monarch of Sardinia to respect the traditional rights and autonomy of the island.  Although hardly revolutionary, the demands were condemned by the Savoyards who began to arrest prominent Sardinians.  Popular outrage swept Sardinia and by 1795 almost the entire island was in the hands of Angioy’s supporters.  The Savoyards were forced to accede to the rebels’ demands.  However, Savoy soon signed a peace treaty with France, and so felt no need to deal softly with the Sardinians.  The rebels were crushed and Angioy fled into exile in France.  He never saw Sardinia again.  

Throughout the 19th century Sardinia remained a sleepy backwater.  It was officially unified with the remainder of Savoy in 1823 and lost its status as a kingdom. As Turin was a rapidly industrialising area, Sardinian intellectuals looked to the developing middle classes of that city for inspiration.

There were beneficial effects on the Sardinian economy during this period, the first railways were built, and the main road from Cagliari to Sassari, previously a rutted pathway, was upgraded to a highway.  The mining industry once again became a major employer.  Modern urban planning was introduced, and the cities experienced a rapid growth in population.   When France exerted control over North Africa in the 19th century, the long threat of pirate raids was finally ended.  This permitted developments in the fertile coastal districts of Sardinia which had previously been abandoned.

In 1863 Italy was unified.  The House of Savoy had supported the campaign to unify the Italian states, and so Victor Emmanuel, the head of the House of Savoy, was chosen as monarch of the new Italian kingdom.  Once again Sardinia sank into relative obscurity and decline.  The new Italian state had little interest in this far away island remote from the Italian mainland, which maintained a reputation for barbarism, lawlessness and primitive living standards.  Malaria remained a serious problem in coastal regions.  Funds intended for development and health care were regularly diverted into the pockets of corrupt officials.  During the Fascist period, Sardinia was used as a dumping ground for political opponents of the Mussolini regime.

Although far from the centres of Italian power and influence, Sardinia continued to produce outstanding and world famous intellectuals and writers, although they exclusively wrote in Italian.  Amongst the best known Sardinians are the famous Communist writer and polemicist Antonio Gramsci, and the writer Grazia Deledda who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1926.

In 1948 with the creation of the Italian Republic, Sardinia became one of Italy’s five autonomous provinces. 2. Sardinia is the only autonomous region governed by its own Statute of Autonomy, second only to the Italian constitution itself as a source of legal authority.  Sardinia was granted this status due to its geographical remoteness from the rest of Italy, but also out of fear of Sardinian separatism as the island was in many ways the least Italian of Italy’s provinces.

Due to the ineffectiveness of government and widespread corruption, funds intended for the development of Sardinia were still going into the pockets of corrupt officials.   Clientelism and nepotism ruled the day.  The island became the home to bases housing 70% of the Italian military – suspicion of the military amongst mainland politicians was such that they preferred to keep them at a safe distance.  As a result the crime rate in Sardinia soared, as bored, unpaid, and ill-educated conscripts ran amok.  

The oil crisis devastated the petrochemical industry which had begun to become established in Sardinia in the 1960s as a part of the Italian government’s efforts to modernise the island’s economy.  Thousands lost their jobs.

Today the Sardinian economy has recovered to a some extent, giving the island the highest average income amongst southern Italian provinces.  The tourism industry dominates the economy and is the largest single earner.  Along with tourism, commerce, public employment, and service industries  account for 68% of the island’s jobs.  The chemical industry is the largest single employment provider in industry.    

Awareness of Sardinia’s status as a place apart from Italy led to the creation after the First World War of the first Sardinian nationalist party, the Partito Sardo d’Azione (Sardinian Action Party).  The party was in favour of increased autonomy within the Italian state, and official recognition of the Sardinian language.  In the election of 1921 the party captured 36% of the Sardinian vote.  

However wider social tensions in Italy, which led to the eventual seizing of power by Mussolini, caused the party to divide into left and right wing factions.  The far right section of the party merged with Mussolini’s fascists.  Ever since, the Sardinian nationalist movement has been plagued by internal divisions and party splits driven by personality clashes between party leaders.  The combined vote share of all the nationalist parties averages around 20% and has done so consistently since the 1980s.  Individually the parties are weak and these divisions are exploited by the dominant ‘unionist’ parties.  

Given the divisions and tensions between the various Sardinian nationalist parties, it is unlikely under present circumstances that they will achieve their goal of independence.  Their combined vote share shows little sign of increasing much above the 20% mark, and the various parties remain as divided and mutually antagonistic as ever.  However a crisis within the notoriously crisis prone Italian state could very easily alter this position rapidly, producing a rapid shift in Sardinian public opinion.  For Sardinians, Sardità ‘Sardinian-ness’ is far more important than being Italian.

1. Linguists classify Sardinian as being in a group by itself amongst Romance languages, the daughters of Latin.  Sardinian is held to be the first daughter language to break away from common Vulgar Latin.  Italian is more closely related to Romanian or Portuguese than it is to Sardinian.

Sardinian still preserves words from Classical Latin which have been lost from the other daughter languages of the Roman tongue, eg domus ‘house’, cras ‘tomorrow’.  Some other words retain pronunciations which the Roman Emperors would recognise, in many Sardinian dialects the word for 100 is chentu, pronounced ‘kentoo’, exactly as Nero or Hadrian would have pronounced the Classical Latin word centum. (The final -m had ceased to be pronounced by the time of the Emperor Augustus.)

In other ways the Sardinian language has evolved along lines of its own.  Despite no Celtic speakers ever being known to settle in Sardinia, the Sardinian language has evolved a system of consonant mutation remarkably similar to that found in modern Celtic languages. Porcu is ‘pig’ in Sardinian, but ‘the pig’ is su borcu, su vorcu or su orcu according to dialect.  Consonant mutation is ignored in modern Sardinian spelling.   

2. The others are the bilingual German-Italian Alto-Adige/Südtirol, the French speaking Val d’Aosta, Friuli Venezia Giulia where many people speak Friulan (related to Swiss Romantsch) or Slovene, and Sicily.  The autonomous provinces retain between 60% and 100% of all taxes levied in the province.