Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell

Truant and Rebel

Giuseppe (Joseph) Garibaldi was born at Nice on July 4, 1807. Nice is now, and has been since 1860, a French town, but between these dates it was included in the kingdom of Piedmont, and its Italian name is Nizza. The Garibaldis were pure Italians, having come thirty years before from Chiavari, on the other side of Genoa. It is quite possible, however, that hundreds of years ago a forefather of theirs was one of the Longobardi or German barbarians who crossed the Alps and settled in the north of Italy, which they won with the sword. The name points to that conclusion, and very fit was that name for Italy's deliverer, meaning something like 'warrior bold.' It is first cousin, though one might not think it, to our 'Hereward.' All this, however, has no bearing on Garibaldi's nationality.

Our hero's father did not spring from the ranks of the nobility. He was an honest shipmaster, and not rich. Domenico Garibaldi, however, was resolved to give his son a good education, no matter what the cost, and it seems a pity that his parental sacrifice should have been wasted. His son, alas! did not love school, and was a sad truant. When he should have been poring over his books, he with his cousin was exploring the mountains, or down in the harbor feasting his eyes on ships and sailors arrived from distant climes.

One of his early companions had a vivid remembrance of those days, of which he thus writes:

"Though Peppino [Giuseppe] was a bright, brave lad, who planned all sorts of adventures, played truant when he could get the loan of a gun or coax one of the fishermen to take him in his boat, went oyster-trawling, and never missed the tunny festival at Villafranca or the sardine hauls at Limpia, he was often thoughtful and silent, and when he had a book that interested him would lie under the olive-trees for hours reading, and then it was no use to try to make him join any of our schemes for mischief. He had a beautiful voice, and knew all the songs of the peasants and sailors, and a good many French ones besides. Even as a boy we all looked up to him, and chose him for our umpire, while the little ones regarded him as their natural protector. He was the strongest and most enduring swimmer I ever knew, and a very fish in water."

When a small boy, Garibaldi helped a washer-woman out of a deep ditch. She was the first of sixteen persons whom he saved from drowning—which shows that his skill and gallantry were not confined to the battlefield. This youthful heroism, however, hardly compensated for his backwardness as a student, and his education in the ordinary sense ceased when he was fifteen. One of his masters knew English and would have taught it to him, but the boy threw away this opportunity of learning what he afterward called "the beautiful tongue of Byron." He did learn—and forgot—a little Latin; French he acquired quite easily, and he made some progress—not much—in mathematics. He mastered the elementary, but necessary, accomplishments of reading and writing, by the help of which he could indulge his refined tastes. His independence of spirit led him to peruse the poetical works of Voltaire, and he went so far as to commit certain passages to memory. But it was Ugo Foscolo, a living Italian poet, who cherished noble aspirations for his country and for humanity, who most fascinated him and won his homage; indeed, all through his life Garibaldi was fond of quoting that writer. He himself in later years attempted verse, but though he felt the charm of poetry and music, his romantic sentiments clothed themselves more naturally in deeds than in words. His vocation was not to compose stanzas, but to re-create a nation. Yet it is pleasant to reflect that he was not so devoid of culture as his misspent schooldays threatened to leave him. Possibly his education might have been prolonged, had he been more earnest and industrious; as it was, he brought about a crisis by a daring act of revolt, which will be best described in his own words:

"Tired of school, and unable to endure a sedentary life, I proposed one day to some companions of my own age to run away to Genoa without any definite plan, but meaning in effect to seek our fortune. No sooner said than done. We seized a boat, embarked some provisions and fishing tackle, and sailed eastward. We were already off Monaco, when a vessel sent by my good father overhauled us, and brought us back deeply humiliated. An abbe had revealed our flight. See what a coincidence! An abbe, the embryo of a priest, and I am so ungrateful as to persecute these poor priests!"

After that Domenico Garibaldi deemed it advisable to give up the struggle and send his son to sea. He began as a cabin-boy, and in ten years rose to be captain in the merchant service. If he looked for adventures, he was not cheated of his desire. Thrice he was captured by pirates, who stripped him of everything he possessed. In his second voyage his father's little vessel touched at the Papal States, and that good man took him on a visit to Rome, which made an ineffaceable impression on the youth. The sight of the Coliseum and other ruins reminded him of the city's former greatness and inspired the dream of a new Rome freed from ecclesiastical thraldom.

"The Rome," he writes, "that I beheld with the eyes of my youthful imagination was the Rome of the future—the Rome that, shipwrecked, dying, banished to the farthest depths of the American forests, I never despaired of; the regenerating idea of a great nation, the dominant thought and inspiration of my whole life."

Sixty years before the same vision had prompted the English historian Gibbon to undertake The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The two great men, so different in other respects, had one point in common—scorn of the priests who ruled the Eternal City.

Very soon Garibaldi was to share the efforts of his countrymen to rid themselves of the Austrian and Papal incubus. Ciro Menotti and the Carbonari had raised the standard of liberty in Central Italy; the Austrians had repressed the movement with merciless severity, and the gallant Menotti had been hanged; but the cause did not die. In 1832 Garibaldi met a party of French exiles, followers of Saint-Simon, and became enamored of their extreme views. The next year, at a port in the Black Sea, he fell in with a friend of Mazzini, the prophet of 'Young Italy,' who recommended him to join the association. Garibaldi was delighted with the man and his message, which he received as a political gospel. "Columbus," he writes, "was not so happy at the discovery of America as I was at finding a man actually engaged in the redemption of our country."

Mazzini had gone to reside at Marseilles, and thither, on his return from the Levant, Garibaldi repaired and enrolled himself as a member of 'Young Italy.' The objects of this society were to form Italy into a nation and inaugurate a popular system of government. Italy was then simply "a geographical expression." Lombardy and Venetia were provinces of the Austrian Empire. Piedmont and Sardinia composed one kingdom, and Naples and Sicily—"the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies," as it was called—formed another. The Papal States were the temporal possessions of the Church. Besides these, there were various other small states, such as Parma, Modena, Tuscany, and the tiny republic of San Marino. To an Italian patriot nothing could have been more distressing than to behold his country thus weak, enslaved, and dismembered. Mazzini's political creed was republican, and no wonder. His native land had been sacrificed to dynastic interests, to aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege, and therefore these things presented themselves to him in an odious light.

In February 1834 another rising took place. Mazzini crossed into Savoy with a mixed force of Italians, Poles, French, and Germans, hoping that he would be joined by Piedmontese veterans who had served under the great Napoleon; and Garibaldi was detached to win over the navy, which he entered for the purpose. Both were disappointed. Neither by land nor by sea did they meet with any support, and no course remained for them but to retreat. Mazzini returned in hot haste to Switzerland, while Garibaldi, disguised as a peasant, fled from Genoa over the mountains to Nice, and thence to France, where he was safe. At Marseilles he read in the papers that he had been condemned to death by the Piedmontese Government, in whose eyes he was a traitor. He had had a lucky escape.