Palermo, capital of British business

From the United Kingdom to Sicily, just for a bottle of wine. If you were never wondering how much intuition can an Englishman have for business reading this story you will find some answers.

Everything started at the beginning of the 19th century when all around England the Porto wine – a dessert wine with a very defined taste – was so famous that the Englishmen couldn’t renounce it. Usually, rich people and aristocrats sipped it in the final part of a formal dinner, while smoking a cigar, or during a more comfortable situation such as being in their smoking dress and slippers seated in a cosy armchair.

Benjamin Ingham and a Marsala bottle label

A merchant from Yorkshire, called Benjamin Ingham, learnt that in Sicily a wine similar to the Porto and the Madeira was made, but economically more convenient for business with the UK compared with the Portuguese one (we already covered some aspects of it here). He discovered that when he arrived in Sicily in 1806 as a soldier of the British troops sent to the island to oppose Napoleon’s advance. So he moved to Palermo and started his (various) businesses that increased a lot in a relatively short period of time. At the end, he was also in a position to sideline his rival John Woodhouse, who was then the leader in this area because his father had already started this business at the end of 1700.

Nelson loved the wine and Woodhouse was able to secure an incredible deal with the Navy for the provision of Marsala wine instead of Madeira. He started adding some spirit to the wine to maintain its taste because of the long sea voyages, while Ingham joined also some sugar to make it sweeter and more enjoyable. At this point, Benjamin Whitaker (Ingham’s nephew, son of his sister Tina) joined him. Because the business was growing significantly, in the 40’s both of them decided to fit out their own proper fleet for the export activities (of the wine in particular) with North America and the Far East. Their friend Vincenzo Florio, in those days one of the most famous and rich merchants in Palermo, also took part in the project. He was one of the merchants that during the unification of Italy (1860-1861) lent Garibaldi one of the ship of the fleet he assembled for his venture, and eventually entered the commerce of Marsala himself purchasing the wineries of the Woodhouse family in the late 19th century.

Label of a bottle of Marsala by Woodhouse

The Inghams and the Whitakers spent a lot of time in Palermo and they were very happy. They married into the aristocracy and contributed actively to the fortune of the city, cultivating simultaneously their business interests and a deep interest for knowledge. Joseph Whitaker and his cousin Benjamin Ingham junior, for instance, started the project to build the Anglican Church of the Holy Cross (“Chiesa anglicana della Santa Croce”). Whilst Joseph Whitaker jr – an expert ornithologist, interested in botany and archaeologist – at the beginning of 1900 bought the island of San Pantaleo and started important excavations, giving us the opportunity to now visit the important Punic archaeological site of Motya, part of the UNESCO World Heritage. We must thank him also for building the fantastic Villa Withaker a Malfitano (also known simply as “Villa Malfitano”), now a really important touristic site for the city and a “must see” for every tourist that wants to spend his holidays in Palermo. You might already have seen it in “The Godfather part III” movie: it is the place where Michael Corleone is triumphalistically welcomed upon his arrival in Palermo.

Villa Malfitano Whitaker
Villa Malfitano Whitaker

What remains of these two families are the scientific discoveries and the monuments they left us as a present. The Marsala wine remains as well, and we can still offer it at the end of a formal dinner, or sip it sitting in a cosy armchair, remembering the old times when the link between Sicily and Great Britain was so important and deep.