Over the course of the 19th century, the people of Sicily found themselves at the center of a struggle for freedom, one that ended up being long and often very bloody. It was during these crucial years of struggle that the Sicilian mafia, La cosa nostra (“Our thing”), started to take shape. The original word “mafia” was a part of Palermitan slang, and although the origins of the word are not completely certain, some linguistic historians believe it originally meant “flashy.” One historian of the mafia, Salvatore Lupo, helpfully suggests that it was used in its earliest iterations to vaguely refer to a “pathological relationship among politics, society and criminality.”
In response to the rise of the mafia, the Italian state propagated a doctrine of Sicilian backwardness, which they used to introduce martial law and suspend civil liberties, under the pretext that they were not “ready” for the freedoms enjoyed by other Italian regions. Northerners and foreigners mistakenly (and snobbishly) believed that the mafia was just a relic of the primitive, peasant culture that had dominated the island for centuries, and that it was destined to die out once the island had been properly absorbed into the dominant, mainland culture. Others hypothesized that the corruption in Sicilian culture was just a holdover from the Bourbon government and would soon be extinguished once a formal transition was completed.
Of course, they proved to be dead wrong. The Sicilian mafia was not a criminal underworld or a form of political rebellion, but more of a kingdom within a kingdom. In other words, according to historians of the mafia, it was a network of hidden power, an alternative hierarchy that sometimes worked in concert with and sometimes superseded official forms of law and order.