In 1884, cholera tore through Italy, claiming thousands of lives. Despite a three-year prison sentence hanging over his head, Errico Malatesta joined other revolutionary anarchists on a daring mission to Naples—the heart of the epidemic—to treat those suffering from the disease. In so doing, he and his comrades demonstrated an alternative to coercive state policies that remains relevant today in the age of COVID-19.
The following text recounts the story of the outbreak and Malatesta’s intervention, including all the available primary materials about the Italian anarchists’ participation, some of which have not previously appeared in English. Much of the historical background is drawn from Frank M. Snowden’s excellent Naples in the Time of Cholera, 1884-1911. Thanks to Davide Turcato, the editor of Malatesta’s complete works; the Centre International de Recherches sur l’Anarchisme in Lausanne; and radical archivists and librarians everywhere who preserve anarchist history, enabling us to learn from the past.