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History of Lampedusa, Italy


See Lampedusa guide for highlights and historic monuments

Ancient authors tell us that Lampedusa was inhabited at various times by Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Arab colonies. The presence of amphorae, oil lamps, burial crypts, caves, small dwellings, cisterns, wells, remains of buildings with mosaics and coins of various origins also show the antiquity of the site:

"We have found traces of a Neolithic settlement with embossed ceramic similar to the “Stentinello style” [from the name of a village near Siracusa].” [1] Also, near the port some Roman catacombs were found.

Early history of Lampedusa

It’s likely that Lampedusa, because of its position, had a particular importance in Roman times and also during the following periods. Recent studies have also revealed remains of the Byzantine period:

"[…] We would like to bring to the attention of an unexpected monument of early Christian and Byzantine times (...) on the island of Lampedusa, or a large underground catacomb carved into the soft rock on the south coast (...), which probably dates back to the Byzantine age (6th-7th century AD) (...) It  seems to be a cemetery of a Christian community that was hidden on the island in the 5th century AD, and from Africa rather than from Sicily, which was along the route that connected in late antiquity the East  with the central-western Mediterranean […]" [2].

However, Lampedusa was always inhabited by rather poor people, as were all the Pelagian Islands. The settlement of the island was certainly difficult because of the presence of Saracen pirates that dominated the Mediterranean. F. Maurici writes that:

"[...] the almost total abandonment and sporadic attendance by sailors and pirates characterize the medieval history of Ustica, Lampedusa and Linosa, three small islands, totally isolated and resource-poor (...) Linosa and Lampedusa seem entirely uninhabited between the 12th and 13th century and they will remain so until the mid-19th century [...]" [3].

Lampedusa in the 18th century

We have reliable information on the population of the island only from the mid-18th century onwards, when Ferdinand IV (1751-1825) attempted to colonize it. Those early settlers seem to have been decimated by the plague a few years later.

S. Gatt, a few years later again, founded an agricultural holding and A. Fernandez took three or four hundred people to the island. In 1810 construction of the current castle started, in the place where there were four ancient towers in poor condition. But this attempt at colonization, like the others before it, also failed, and when Captain Smith visited Lampedusa in the 1820s he found only some Maltese farmers around the island, who lived within the caves.

19th century attempts at colonisation

The colonization of Lampedusa by the Bourbon Government dates back to 1843, when Captain Sanvisente, in the name of the King of the Two Sicilies and with the consent of the Princes of Lampedusa, took possession of it. Sanvisente wrote a work about Lampedusa, which shows that in 1847 the island had 700 residents, all natives of different parts of Sicily and adjacent islands, especially of Pantelleria.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in 1860 conquered the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and also the Pelagian Islands were united to enter the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. In 1872 the Italian Government here created a colony of people sentenced to house arrest, which was abolished in 1940.

According to the census of 1881 the population of the town of Lampedusa was 1180 inhabitants.

Etymology of Lampedusa

The Pelagian Islands , as the term suggests, derives from the Greek "Pelaghiai" means "sea", or "the farthest part from the mainland" [4]. Therefore, the meaning of the "Pelagian Islands" could be translated as "the islands of the high sea."

The “pelagic” term also indicates the fauna and flora that live in the open sea. Pliny (23-79 AD),  speaking about the shells off shore, explained that “The ‘Purpurae’ are also known by another name 'Pelagiae'. They are usually different, depending on the variety of the terrain where they live and the food they eat" [5].

Lampedusa, called "Lapadoùssa" by Strabo and Ptolemy, and "Lopadusa" by Pliny, is the largest of the three Pelagian Islands.

With regard to its name, it must be noted that it was known over the centuries with many variations, such as Lopadosa, Lapadusa, Lapedosa, Lipidusa, Lipadusa, lampedosa, Lampidusa, Lanbedusa, Leopadusa, Lepadosa, Lampedola, Lepadula, Lampido, Lampas, and  Lampadous !! The etymological proposals were equally varied, and someone said that the name derived from the frequency of lightnings, others by "Lepas" (rock) or "lepaios" (rocky).

Other scholars believed that the names of Lampedusa and Lampione derived from "lampas" (“torch”), because lights were placed on the islands as a signal for sailors.

Kiepert conjectured a Phoenician word meaning "burn",  a source which he justifies by saying that Lampedusa is essentially volcanic. But the hypothesis does not seem very correct because there is no trace in Lampedusa of volcanoes,and because, while Linosa is of volcanic origin, Lampedusa and Lampione have limy soils of sedimentary origin.

Instead, the assumptions put forward by V. Amico are interesting: "[...] The opinions about the etymology of the name are different; some believe that it comes from the Greek word "rock", "cape", as Lampedusa has plenty of rocks and cliffs, others from a kind of Oyster called 'patella' [...] [13].

In fact, the Greeks called the patellas (a small shellfish which abounded among the rocks of Lampedusa) “Lepas-lepados”; thus it is very likely that the Greek name of "Lopadoùssa" derives precisely from the presence of many "lepadoi", with the meaning of "oyster bed."

Historical confusion about the pelagian islands and Lampedusa

Ptolemy (100-175 AD) spoke of the islands: “[...]The African islands called 'Pelaghiai' are these"[...]. But in respect of the Pelagian Islands, however, some confusion arose from the ancient times. For example, Ptolemy [6] stated that “Pelaghiai” are “Cossyra” (Pantelleria), “Gaulus” (Gozo) and "Melite" (Malta), and he combined "Lopadusa" (Lampedusa) and “Aethusa” (Linosa) with Africa. Strabo [7], on the contrary, called the “Pelagian Islands” only Lampedusa (“Lampedusa, the island of the Pelaghiai").

In maps dating back to the 15th century [8] Lampedusa, Linosa and Lampione are never joined together to form the collective Italian name "Pelagie", although the three islands were joined together by the great Sicilian historian T.  Fazello (16th century).

However, even after Fazello, other historians and geographers continued to divide the three islands. For example, Abraham Ortelius [9] stated that there were five Pelagian Islands; also M.A. Baudrand [10] and F. Ferrari [11] continued to repeat that the Pelagian Islands were five.

Thus, among the ancient and modern geographers there was a great confusion, until they fully recognized the correctness of Fazello’s suggestions, who wrote: "In the midst of the sea between Sicily and Kerkena there are three uninhabited islands called ‘Pelagiae’: Lampedusa, Linosa and Lampione (...) The greatest among these is Lampedusa"] [12].

See also our Lampedusa travel guide and information.

References

1. See G. Radi, “Tracce di un insediamento neolitico nell'isola di Lampedusa”, in “Atti della società Toscana di scienze naturali” [“Traces of a Neolithic settlement on the island of Lampedusa”, in "Proceedings of the Tuscan Natural Science Society"], 1972, Vol. 79: 197-205

2. See “Kokalos”, 2002: 14-15

3. See F. Maurici, “Per la storia delle isole minori della Sicilia” ["On the history of the minor islands of Sicily"] in "Acta Historica et Archeologica Medievalia", Barcelona, 2002; 193

4. See “Poetae Latini minores”, edidit N.E. Lemaire, Parisiis, 1825: 424 note 164

5. See C. Plini Secundi “Historiae Mundi”, Venezia, Antonelli, 1844, Vol. I, Lib. IX: 889

6. “Geographia”, IV, Chapter I, 13

7. “Geographia”, 18, III

8. See A. E.  Nordenskjöld, "Periplus", Stockholm, 1897

9. “Thesaurus Geographicus”, Antwerp, ex officina Plantiniana, 1596

10. “Geographia”, ordine litterarum disposita, Parisiis,  1682

11. “Novum Lexicon geographicum, in quo universi orbis, urbis, regiones, provinciae, regna, maria”, apud Homobonum Bettaninum, 1738, 2 Vol.

12. See E. Thomae Fazelli Siculi or.[dine] Praedicatorum, “De rebus Siculis decades duae”, Panormi [Palermo], 1558

13. See V. Amico, “Topographical Dictionary of Sicily”, 1858: 581