Readers of Gristly History might recall an earlier post about the mysterious existence of a platypus on a sixteenth-century carving in Viseu Cathedral, Portugal. Historian Robert Bremner alerted me to this fascinating indication of a direct or indirect Portuguese knowledge of Australia at this very early date and has now provided his photographs of the carvings.
The Power of Narrative
Some of the most widespread and pernicious forms of untruth come in the form of stories. Urban legends (or ‘myths’), fake news and conspiracy theories have a story structure.
An old favourite horror legend tells of a young couple making out in their car at a lonely place. They hear a noise outside and the man goes to investigate. While he is gone, his girlfriend turns on the car radio to hear a news bulletin that a dangerous maniac has escaped from the local asylum. The boyfriend does not return and the girl become very frightened. Suddenly, she hears a thumping noise on the roof of the car – ‘thump, thump, hump. Terrified, she screws up her courage, opens the door and gets out to see what is causing the noise. Squatting on the roof of the car is the grinning maniac holding the bloodied head of her boyfriend and banging it on the car roof – ‘thump, thump, thump. A favourite among teenagers, this modern legend was always told as a true story and gave nightmares to generations. It might still do so.
Conspiracy theories also have a story structure. The QAnon delusion is that a network of Satanic paedophilic cannibals is running a global sex trafficking network. President Trump is waging a desperate, covert war against the shadowy figure of ‘Q’ who heads the network. This story, or one of its versions, is worthy of a superhero movie, possibly in production as I write. It is a complete fiction, of course, but very many Americans, and possibly others, believe it to be true.
Stories like these are told as truth by someone, or ones, the hearer knows, whether personally and face-to-face or through social media. This certifies the claims in the stories as credible through the curious human tendency to believe what we are personally told.
These stories fill an information gap, answer questions, solve a mystery etc., satisfying the human absence of knowing, something we have found unbearable throughout history and probably long before. We must have information, explanation, something, no matter how unverifiable and incredible.
The End of Experts
In the past (before the WWW), it was possible for fake news and other misinformation to be rebutted by those with authoritative credibility – scientists, academics, politicians (some, at least). With the growth of doubt and the demotion of ‘experts’ to simply wielders of another opinion, this is no longer possible. Now, one opinion is as good, or bad, as another, no matter whether it is informed or not.
Paradoxically, greater access to tertiary education since the 1960s has demystified them. Professors are no longer rarefied geniuses pronouncing on their subject from afar as unchallengeable experts. Wafter spending lots of face to face time learning with them, we know they are just the same as the rest of us. While this is good form an equalitarian perspective, it has contributed to the undermining of experts.
The growth of the WWW dimension of the internet, particularly that part of it called ‘social media’, has been the single most damaging element in this decline of truth. The sludge that makes up conspiracy theories, urban myth and fake news and the like was always present in society. But individuals only heard, and repeated, it through their limited oral networks, limiting the damage.
Social media, by contrast, expands everyone’s networks, amplifies what is said on and through them, as well as diffusing it instantaneously around the globe. The ability of social media to mimic the intimacy we all associate with personal, face-to-face interaction is a major element in the spread of misinformation.
To some extent, what is often referred to as ‘information overload’ is a part of the problem. As we have all become increasingly inundated with information through innumerable channels, our ability to screen it, verify or even absorb it has plummeted. Now, we all search for the quickest and shortest scrap of information we can find. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is the ideal medium to satisfy this need.
The mainstream, mostly commercial, media of press, TV and radio has had a paradoxical role in all this. On the one hand, journalists and some organisations have honoured their ethics and traditions in battling lies, half-truths, dodgy statistics and so on. The emergence of fact checking organisations, sometimes linked with universities, is symptomatic of the desperate need to control the flow of misinformation.
On the opposite side of the ledger, we have seen the rise of ‘shock jocks’ and similar thunderers, usually employed by right-leaning media, belligerently trumpeting fake news and generally playing to the prejudices of their audiences. This has come at the expense of respect for credible, informed opinion and comment, as the possessors of such knowledge are execrated as ‘experts’ who have somehow come to be unreliable, biased or simply wrong because the shock jock, somehow, knows better.
Altogether, these powerful, intertwining forces have produced an information environment where lies rule and verifiable, evidenced facts are dead. The most dramatic demonstration of this process, and its consequences, has been in the United States of America over the last four years. It seems that more than seventy million Americans believe the demonstrable lies about the Presidential elections of 2020, as well as a bubbling brew of conspiracy theories, fake news and simple lies. The end result was the storming of America’s Capitol in January 2021 by thousands of such people, some armed and apparently determined to do harm to their democratically elected representatives.
Incredible scenes, yes, but the result of widespread credulity created by the appearance of truth.
Secret societies of one kind or another have been around forever. Familiar examples are the various form of Freemasonry to which many people – mainly men – have belonged over many centuries. Although its origins lie in the trade secrets and self-protection needs of stone masons, the modern Freemason’s movement has long been a highly formalised and respectable organisation, with ‘temples’ in plain sight and making considerable contribution to the betterment of society.
But there are other types of secret society with similar origins yet much more covert and basic than the masons. These take the form of groups that started to form in the eighteenth century to protect occupational secrets, help each other out and generally protect their members from employers and others with more money and power than themselves. Possibly devolutions of medieval craft guilds, these societies operated covertly within the lower levels of rural and, to some extent, urban society, employing secret passwords, initiation rituals and oaths of loyalty unto death. The ‘Miller’s Word’ and, later, the ‘Horseman’s Word’, were among these folkloric keepers of secrets and traditional wisdom that gave them, it was believed by some, magical powers.
“So help me Lord to keep my secrets and perform my duties as a horseman. If I break any of them – even the last of them – I wish no less than to be done to me than my heart be torn from my breast by two wild horses, and my body quartered in four and swung on chains, and the wild birds of the air left to pick my bones, and these then taken down and buried in the sands of the sea, where the tide ebbs and flows twice every twenty four hours – to show I am a deceiver of the faith. Amen.”[i]
Among their other useful purposes, these societies functioned as basic trade unions for their members, protecting their privileges and standing – and so their wages and conditions – within the rural occupational hierarchy and providing some group solidarity when required.
Interestingly, one of the famed early attempts to form a rural trade union at Tolpuddle in Dorset, also featured lurid initiation rites. These seem to have been similar to the secret oath taking of the Words, with the addition of some more theatrical elements, such as the display of a skeleton. Other early attempts to form a trade union, in this case by the bricklayers of Exeter, could involve ritualistic paraphernalia and covert as described by the police who arrested the men at the Sun Inn, Exeter in 1834:
Upon entering the room we found a great number of persons present, I believe about sixty. We found also in the room the articles now exhibited which consisted of a figure of death with the motto, ‘Remember thy latter end’, two wooden axes, two drawn swords, two scabbards, two masks, two white garments, a Bible, a book marked ‘A’ and diverse papers. “When I came into the room, several of the men – I saw three or four – appeared to have been blindfolded and I saw them pulling the handkerchiefs, with which they had been blinded, from their eyes.”
In another troubled context, convicts on Australia’s notoriously brutal Norfolk Island were said to have formed a secret fraternity known as ‘The Ring’, which policed relations between the gaolers and the gaoled and dealt out justice to any who broke the rules. They too were said to have colourful ceremonies and chilling oaths, including this one:
Its initiations involved drinking blood, accompanied by a dreadful oath of eternal loyalty. When the Ring decided to meet, word went through the prison that no non-member, including guards, should enter the prison yard. The leader, known as ‘the One’, entered the yard first and faced a corner of the wall. He was followed by the Threes, Fives, Sevens and Nines, each arrayed in a semi-circle behind him. All were masked. Satanic prayers were intoned:
Is God an officer of the establishment?
And the response came solemnly clear, thrice repeated:
No, God is not an officer of the establishment.
He passed to the next question:
Is the Devil an officer of the establishment?
And received the answer–thrice:
Yes, the Devil is an officer of the establishment.
Then do we obey God?
With clear-cut resonance came the negative–
No, we do not obey God!
He propounded the problem framed by souls that are not necessarily corrupt:
Then whom do we obey?
And, thrice over, he received for reply the damning perjury which yet was so true an answer:
The Devil–we obey our Lord the Devil!
And the dreaded Convict Oath was taken. It had eight verses:
Hand to hand,
On Earth, in Hell,
Sick or Well,
On Sea, on Land,
On the Square, ever.”
And ended — the intervening verses dare not be quoted —
” Stiff or in Breath,
Lag or Free,
You and Me,
In Life, in Death,
On the Cross, never.” [ii]
A cup of blood taken from the veins of each man was then drunk by all.
After these rites were performed, the Ring would conduct their business. Usually it was a trial and sentence of suspected collaborators among the convict population or of any of their gaolers who showed an inclination to be lenient to the prisoners.
Most of his comes from later fictioneers, such as ‘Price Warung’ (William Astley) and Marcus Clarke and is obviously gussied up to chill their readers. Historians have queried whether there ever was a ‘Ring’. Probably. Prison gangs are, and were, commonplace. Was it ever this gothic? Highly unlikely. But the documented existence of the secret societies of millers, horsemen and early trade unionists, with their traditional skills, self-protection and folk magic, suggest that the existence of such groups was possible.
The beliefs and the needs behind such organisations were powerful enough to create and maintain them, often over considerable periods of time, at least in the occupational if not the penal contexts. It is thought that the Horsemen’s Word was still well entrenched in parts of Scotland and East Anglia until the 1930s, by which time, of course, their competitive advantage had disappeared with the mechanisation of pretty well everything and the fading of the horse from serious work.
[i] Neat, Timothy (2002). The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
[ii] Marcus Clarke For the Term of His Natural Life, first published in serial form in the Australian Journal between 1870-1872. ‘Price Warung’ (William Astley), wrote a number of related stories based on interviews with convicts, beginning with ‘The Liberation of the First Three’ in his Tales of the Convict System, Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1892.
Who are these blokes and what are they talking about?
Just in time for Christmas, my new book is a repackaging of the original editions, unavailable for some years, but back by popular demand. As you can tell from the title, it is a collection of Aussie yarns, legends, lore and language aimed at the interested general reader.
The cover photograph, sourced by the publisher, was a mystery. It was ideal for the book, but where did it come from and who are the men in it? Turns out that they are the ancestors of reader Rhonda Orr, who writes:
… The chap on the right is my Great Grandfather, Mr David Hughes. The chap to the left of him is Mick Ryan and the next one is Paddy Cullen. The younger male in the background near the horses (on back cover) is my Great Grandfather’s eldest son Roy Hughes (approx age 16). My grandfather was his younger son, Merlin Hughes (not pictured).
Roy Hughes went on to be the first ACT Police officer appointed as a mounted Constable in 1927 based at Duntroon.
The photo was taken around 1915-1917 (?) somewhere on the Jenolan Caves road around Rydal (NSW) area, which is where they lived around that time…
If you fancy a good read, or know someone who would, you can buy the Big Book of Great Australian Bush Yarns here or anywhere online. (It has plenty of stories about the cities, outback and oceans, as well).
It is known by many names. The ‘Black Book’, ‘Dr. Faust’s Hell-Master’, the ‘Book of Cyprianus’, among others. Whatever it is called and wherever it is said to be, this grimoire is to be handled with extreme care. The book has the ability to summon up demons, vast spells and generally confer upon its user, great magical power. Its misuse can be disastrous. The Russian soldier who conjured up a bevy of menacing demons when he inadvertently began to read his comrade’s copy of the book found this out the hard way. ‘Give us work’, the demons demanded. Apparently familiar with the folk tradition that the only way to be rid of demons is to ask them to perform impossible tasks, the frightened soldier does just that as the demons close in upon him:
‘… The soldier reflected awhile, and then said, “Fill up the cisterns of all the baths in the town with water brought thither in a sieve.”
The demons flew away. In two minutes they returned and said, “It is done! Give us some more work to do — quick!”
“Pull the Voivode’s [Governor’s] house down, brick by brick; but take care you do not touch or disturb the inmates; then build it up again as it was before.”
The goblins disappeared, but in two minutes returned. “It is done!” they cried. “Give us more work — quick!”
“Go,” said the soldier, “and count the grains of sand that lie at the bottom of the Volga, the number of drops of water that are in the river, and of the fish that swim in it, from its source to its mouth.”
The spirits flew away; but in another minute they returned, having executed their task. Thus, before the soldier could think of some new labor to be done, the old one was completed, and the demons were again at his side demanding more work. When he began to think what he should give them, they pressed round him, and threatened him with instant death if he did not give them something to do.
The soldier was becoming exhausted, and there was yet no sign of his comrade’s return. What course should he take? How deliver himself from the evil spirits?
The soldier thought to himself, “While I was reading the book, not one of the demons came near me. Let me try to read it again; perhaps that will keep them off.”
Again he began to read the book of magic, but he soon observed that as he read the number of phantoms increased, so that soon such a host of the spirit-world surrounded him that the very lamp was scarcely visible.
When the soldier hesitated at a word, or paused to rest himself, the goblins became more restless and violent, demanding, “Give us work to do! Give us work!”
The soldier was almost worn out, and unhappily knew not how to help himself. Suddenly a thought occurred to him, “The spirits appeared when I read the book from the beginning; let me now read it from the end, perhaps this well send them way.”
He turned the book round and began to read it from the end. After reading for some time he observed that the number of spirits decreased; the lamp began again to burn brightly, and there was an empty space around him. The soldier was delighted, and continued his reading. He read and read until he had read them all away. And thus he saved himself from the demons.
His comrade came in soon afterwards. The soldier told him what had happened.
“It is fortunate for you,” said his comrade, “that you began to read the book backwards in time. Had you not thus read them away by midnight they would have devoured you.”[i]
Legends of the Black Book were widely collected in Germany and Scandinavia. They highlight the strong and broad folk beliefs about magic and the Devil. The folk Devil, though, is usually unlike the image of His Satanic majesty that is usually presented in more literary treatments, such as Goethe’s Faustus and Marlowe’s Faust. The Devil is definitely satanic and evil but is often portrayed as a bit of a dill, easily outsmarted by clever humans, like the Russian soldier with knowledge of the black arts.
The boy’s head was shaved bare. A bloody bandage swathed what was left of his right ear. The kidnappers sliced a piece of it off and sent the bloody morsel to the eight-year-old’s parents to convince them that they would ‘cut him up into little pieces, bit by bit.’
It was now six months since Farouk Kassam had been spirited away from his Arab-Belgian hotelier family in Sardinia’s Porto Cerva. The bandits demanded three million pounds ransom, a huge sum in 1992. Still so today.
The kidnapping touched the Italian nation. A note from the abducted boy was published in the press. ‘Help me, mummy’ the child begged. Millions draped bed sheets from their balconies to protest the brutal kidnap. Farouk’s mother appealed for Sardinians to ignore the code of silence that always surrounded bandit activities. Police and commandoes were massed for attacks on the bandits, but they were too slow.
While the drama continued on Sardinia and across the country, a man known as ‘The Scarlet Rose’ was quietly taken from his mainland prison and spirited back to his island birthplace. As hundreds of armed police prepared to attack the kidnappers, little Farouk Kassam was suddenly released. The official story was that the kidnapper’s fled in fear of the police. But when the Scarlet Rose was questioned by suspicious reporters he said that he was involved but ‘I can’t say any more. I’m surrounded by policemen.’ Then he was taken back to his mainland prison.
Who was this mysterious figure with enough influence to compel hardened bandits to release their prey?
Like many Sardinian bandits, Graziano Mesina was born into a large family of shepherds in 1942. He was in trouble with the law early and was arrested at the age of fourteen in possession of a rifle. In 1960 he was again arrested but soon performed the first of his many escapes from custody. There followed many years of kidnapping and related crimes, some involving the traditional Sardinian code of revenge, interspersed with shorter and longer periods of imprisonment, during which Mesina attempted numerous escapes.
Over this period, his image as an admired bandit grew, assisted mainly by the press, songs, books on his exploits and the mysterious intervention in the Kassam kidnapping. He was pardoned by Presidential decree in 2004 and returned to his home village of Orgosolo, often called the bandit capital of Sardinia. Here he began taking tourists to his old hideouts in the Supramonte Massif, a region of high plains, canyons and caves, classic bandit lands.
Mesina also went into the travel business and appeared to be going straight after decades of crime and jail time. But in 2013 he was again arrested, this time on drug trafficking charges. The now-ageing bandit was eventually sentenced to thirty years prison and his previous pardon revoked. He was, again mysteriously, released in 2019 and at the time of writing is still alive – and free.
Over a long career, ‘The Scarlet Rose’, was probably the culmination of a lengthy tradition of Sardinian banditry sustained mainly through kidnapping and extorting the rich, or at least those perceived to be rich by the chronically deprived Sardinian rural classes. Mesina’s later career reflects the decline of kidnapping for ransom as a profitable activity and its replacement with drug trafficking and robbery, as practiced by the current generation of Sardinian criminals.
All cultures have stories explaining the origins of the world and of themselves. The Biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is perhaps the most familiar. Memorable and influential, it is only one of many ways in which people have turned the fundamental question of human origins into story. This story was collected from the indigenous people of Smith Sound region in the early 20th century by Knud Rasmussen.
Born in Greenland to Danish parents, Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933) became a noted explorer and anthropologist. His knowledge of Inuit language and custom allowed him to live and work with Greenlanders. In a number of expeditions between 1902 and 1933 he collected a vast amount of traditional information as part of a scientific attempt to discover the origins of the Inuit people (then known as ‘Eskimo’). This story tells of the earth’s beginning, as well as the coming of humanity and death.
Our forefathers have told us much of the coming of earth, and of men, and it was a long, long while ago. Those who lived long before our day, they did not know how to store their words in little black marks, as you do; they could only tell stories. And they told of many things, and therefore we are not without knowledge of these things, which we have heard told many and many a time, since we were little children. Old women do not waste their words idly, and we believe what they say. Old age does not lie.
A long, long time ago, when the earth was to be made, it fell down from the sky. Earth, hills and stones, all fell down from the sky, and thus the earth was made.
And then, when the earth was made, came men.
It is said that they came forth out of the earth. Little children came out of the earth. They came forth from among the willow bushes, all covered with willow leaves. And there they lay among the little bushes: lay and kicked, for they could not even crawl. And they got their food from the earth.
Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them? It is not clearly known. When did they find each other, and when had they grown up? I do not know. But the woman sewed, and made children’s clothes, and wandered forth. And she found little children, and dressed them in the clothes, and brought them home.
And in this way men grew to be many.
And being now so many, they desired to have dogs. So a man went out with a dog leash in his hand, and began to stamp on the ground, crying ” Hok — hok — hok! ” Then the dogs came hurrying out from the hummocks, and shook themselves violently, for their coats were full of sand. Thus men found dogs.
But then children began to be born, and men grew to be very many on the earth. They knew nothing of death in those days, a long, long time ago, and grew to be very old. At last they could not walk, but went blind, and could not lie down.
Neither did they know the sun, but lived in the dark. No day ever dawned. Only inside their houses was there ever light, and they burned water in their lamps, for in those days water would burn.
But these men who did not know how to die, they grew to be too many, and crowded the earth. And then there came a mighty flood from the sea. Many were drowned, and men grew fewer. We can still see marks of that great flood, on the high hill-tops, where mussel shells may often be found.
And now that men had begun to be fewer, two old women began to speak thus:
“Better to be without day, if thus we may be without death,” said the one.
“No; let us have both light and death,” said the other.
And when the old woman had spoken these words, it was as she had wished. Light came, and death.
It is said, that when the first man died, others covered up the body with stones. But the body came back again, not knowing rightly how to die. It stuck out its head from the bench, and tried to get up. But an old woman thrust it back, and sai :
“We have much to carry, and our sledges are small.”
For they were about to set out on a hunting journey. And so the dead one was forced to go back to the mound of stones.
And now, after men had got light on their earth, they were able to go on journeys, and to hunt, and no longer needed to eat of the earth. And with death came also the sun, moon and stars.
For when men die, they go up into the sky and become brightly shining things there. [i]
[i] Knud Rasmussen (coll), Eskimo Folk-Tales, edited and rendered into English by W Worster. Gyldendal, London, 1921, pp. 17-18. See also Noel K McDermott, ‘Unikkaaqtuat: Traditional Inuit Stories’, PhD thesis, Queen’s University, 2015 at https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/handle/1974/12806/McDermott_Noel_K_20154_PhD.pdf.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y, accessed May 2017.
Vassilis Palaiokostas was born in 1966 in central Greece. The village of Moschofyto suffers fierce mountain cold in winter and life there was hard for Vassilis, his father and older brother Nikos. Later they moved to Trikala. The quietly intense boy went to work in the cheese factory for a couple of years but in 1979 began his criminal career stealing video equipment in company with Nikos. Later they teamed up with Costas Samaras, known as ‘The Artist’, a man who helped the brothers graduate from opportunistic thieving to sophisticated robberies of jewelers and banks.
From the beginning of this stage of his career, Vassilis displayed a certain style. Holding up a jeweler’s shop the gang bought themselves valuable time by blocking the local police into their own station. Around this time Vassilis developed a reputation as a friend of the poor by liberally rewarding his supporters with his loot.
As Greece lurched into the 1990s Vasillis took another step towards his image as the Greek Robin Hood. Imprisoned for trying to break his brother out of goal in Larissa by driving a tank through the walls, he soon escaped from another prison with the help of knotted bedsheets. His escapades were already taking on the character a Hollywood movie. His next heist would only develop it further.
In 1992 Vassilis, Nikos and The Artist robbed the bank in Kalambaka. They took a lot of cash from the safe and as they sped away from the pursuing police, Vassilis threw handfuls of banknotes out of the window of their stolen car. People rushed to scoop up the money, hampering the police pursuit and allowing Vassilis and his accomplices to escape again.
Now the legend of the Greek Robin Hood really began to bloom. The crime was notable as the biggest ever Greek bank robbery, netting 125 million drachmas. During their getaway the thieves stole another car but later returned the vehicle to its rightful owner with 15 000 drachmas for its use. According to a detective on the case, Vasilis even gave the car a polish.
Vassilis and his gang reappeared in 1995. Now practicing the traditional crime of the bandit, they kidnapped wealthy industrialist Alexander Haitoglou as he left his villa in Thessaloniki. The hostage was well treated and a large ransom of 260 million drachma requested. After reportedly enjoying the company of the bandits, Haitoglou was released unharmed. The police could not quite match that amount when they posted a reward of 250 million drachm. While the authorities fruitlessly scoured the country for the elusive outlaws, Vasilis was handing out large sums from the ransom to local people, including 100 000 drachmas as a dowry for orphan girls unable to raise it themselves.
Disappearing into the mountains yet again, Vassilis was involved in a car accident in December 1999. Stoned and slightly injured, Vassilis effectively gave himself away to his rescuers. He was sent to goal for 25 years on the kidnapping charge. Firstly, in Corfu then in the maximum security Korydallos prison he made several unsuccessful escape attempts. But in June 2006 he found a novel way to regain his liberty.
With a gun held at his head by Nikos, a frightened helicopter pilot landed on the Korydallos prison exercise yard. As the guards raised the alarm, Vassilis and an Albanian cell mate scooted across the yard and into the helicopter which took off again. Once more Vassilis was free. The price of freedom included an entry onto the most wanted list.[i]
In June 2008 another wealthy industrialist spent some time as a guest of the affable Vassilis. When the reputedly 12 million Euro ransom was paid, the bandit sent his captive home in a stolen BMW. But Vassilis had little time to enjoy and redistribute the proceeds. He was tracked down and arrested in August 2008, saying to the police who arrested him ‘I played and lost, you are victorious.’ The following January he was in Athens for a pretrial hearing. Outside the court a crowd of famers and anarchists shouted for the bandit’s freedom and cried insults at the police.
By now, the activities of Vassilis and his companions were being seen in political terms. The economic and political woes of Greece produced a climate in which handing out stolen money to the poor, eluding and fooling the police as well as staging spectacular jailbreaks were seen by many as justifiable acts against the system. Vasillis was a hero, an outlaw hero.
But not to the authorities, He was imprisoned in Korydallos, along with Rizai, to await a February trail with a guaranteed outcome. The day before the trail, as the prisoners exercised in the yard, a helicopter roared overhead. On board was, it is said, Rizai’s blonde girlfriend Mitropia menacing the pilot with a hand grenade and a machine gun. She dropped a rope ladder and Vassilis and Rizai swarmed up it into the aircraft and their second flight to freedom. Fire from the guards damaged the helicopter but a successful emergency landing saw Vassilis, Rizai and Mitropia get clean away. [ii]
Floundering in the depths of the global financial crisis, the conservative Greek government of the time was heavily criticized by the opposition. The conservative daily Eleftheros Typos blared ‘Carbon-copy fiasco’ and ‘Embarrassment’ at the news. A public prosecutor called for an investigation while the jail director and the inspector of jails both lost their jobs.[iii]
Although vanished from the authorities, including a CIA anti—terror unit said to be hunting him, Vassilis continued his Robin Hood activities providing money to the poor of the Trikala area for expensive medical treatment. He drove around the country in stolen VW Toureg’s and continued to rob banks. He escaped several close calls with the police and, another mark of the Robin Hood image, penned letters to the press justifying his actions and proclaiming that he had never used violence. Unwisely, he authenticated the letter with an inked impression of his fingerprint.
In June 2010 a letter bomb addressed to the Public Order Minister of Greece killed his assistant. Police said they found a fingerprint of the outlaw on the remains of the device and Vassilis Palaiokostas instantly transformed from criminal to terrorist. He is now the subject of a 1.4 million Euro reward and almost as many rumours. He is often sighted and occasionally dodges police fiercely determined to capture him again. Known locally as ‘The Phantom’, he is thought to be living within a sympathetic community feeling betrayed and oppressed by the penurious state of contemporary Greece. Everyone waits for him to strike again.[iv]
[iv] ‘The Uncatchable’, a BBC documentary by Jeff Maysh on the life and crimes of Vassilis Palaiokostas was broadcast in 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_8700/index.html
India’s long and unhappy history of dacoity, or banditry, can be traced to at least the fifth century invasion of the sub-continent by Scythian tribes. The ongoing issues of caste, religion and land continued to fuel the rise of armed groups disenchanted with one or more aspects of their lot and, in a few cases, the lot of those like them. These groups usually consisted of those from lower, poorer castes and they generally preyed on the richer castes, especially the Brahmins. Surplus booty of food, clothes and money was sometimes distributed among the caste, family and clan groups from which many dacoits came, engendering a positive attitude towards them from many, if not all. The best-known bandit, outside of India, is Phoolan Devi.
Confused and contradictory though much of her story seems to be, Phoolan Devi conducted her struggle not along territorial borders, but along and across the boundaries of India’s caste system and the boundaries of gender implicit in that system. Born into a low caste Uttar Pradesh family in 1963, the problem of land was an integral element of her upbringing. There was a dispute between her father and her high-caste cousin over ownership of a large portion of the family holding. The illiterate Phoolan’s struggle for restitution of what she considered to be stolen property is a foundational and recurring theme of her life story. Before then she had been sold into marriage to a much older man at the age of 10. He abused her and she returned to her village the following year, beginning a life of frequent absences from home as she was often used by other men, coming to be seen as a shamed woman. She was arrested in 1979 on a charge related to the land dispute, imprisoned for a month and frequently raped.
After her release she was captured by a gang of dacoits, the higher caste leader of which abused her until eventually shot dead by his lieutenant Vickram Mallah, an admirer of Phoolan’s and also from a low caste. Vickram, a Robin Hood figure in his own right, became gang leader with Phoolan as his ‘wife’. Even by dacoit standards this was sensational news and began Phoolan’s legend, the songs celebrating her vindicated honour, low caste revenge on the dacoit leader and her elevation to the status of outlaw, or bhagis (rebels), as they are known in this part of India.
Vickram and Phoolan led their gang in abductions, murders and hold-ups of trains and homes throughout Utter Pradesh and Madya Pradesh, developing a fearsome reputation and mostly avoiding the increasing attentions of the authorities with ease. During this time Phoolan developed a reputation for an ability to read omens, greatly assisting the gang to avoid capture. Ignoring one such omen in August 1980, Vickram was shot dead by two gang members returned from prison. It was a caste revenge killing for the death of the previous leader, the two murderers, brothers Lala Ram and Sri Ram, also being high caste.
Phoolan was taken to the village of Behmai where she was imprisoned, abused and savagely humiliated until being spirited away by supporters. These included a man bearing the name of the famous dacoit Man Singh, with whom Phoolan formed a new gang and a new relationship. Almost eighteen months later, on St Valentine’s Day 1981, she returned to Behmai looking for the brothers Ram. They could not be found, but when Phoolan and her dacoits left the village, twenty-two of its high caste young men were dead.
In February 1983, Phoolan Devi and her gang surrendered to the authorities of Uttyar Pradesh in a stage-managed ceremony designed both for local and media consumption. A deal had been done in which the restoration of Phoolan’s family holding featured strongly, as did a range of other conditions ensuring that the outlaws would not be hanged, only imprisoned. Most of these undertakings were not honoured by the state.
Phoolan Devi spent the next eleven years in gaol. Surviving this, she was released on parole while the widows of Behmai pursued her with petitions for legal proceedings regarding the St Valentine’s Day massacre. She avoided this threat and, in the turgid politics of India in 1996 she was elected to the lower house of India’s Parliament as a member of the Samajwadi Party representing the low caste political interests. Three masked men assassinated her in 2001, perhaps for political reasons, perhaps for revenge.
By then her legend had already grown to significant size, with a feature film and documentary about her life being broadcast internationally. She publicly and legally objected to the feature, Bandit Queen, as inaccurate and, with the aid of professional writers, produced her autobiography, I, Phoolan Devi in 1996. It became an international best seller.
There are numerous references in her autobiography to the dacoit practice of giving money stolen from the rich to the poor. Her experiences before and during her outlaw years give her a strong sense of the wrongs done to the low caste and poor, her own experiences making her an avenger of those communal wrongs as well as those perpetrated against her.
The complexities of the caste system also play an important part in her story, as do the political and religious machinations of the sub-continent. The role of the media in promoting her as ‘the bandit queen’ cannot be overlooked, nor can her abilities as a spin-doctor. Her own lawyer is reported to have said:
“her endless, boundless ways of reinventing herself. …”I don’t think her past can ever be absolutely corroborated now. So many of her close associates are dead, killed in sticky encounters; her family changes its story every day, as she does; so much of her past has been deliberately obscured.”
With a rope around his waist, Henry Squirrel clambered down the bow of the foundering Delawareand disappeared into the pounding waves. It was just before 9 0-clock on a Friday morning in September 1863. A gale had taken away the Delaware’s jib and main anchor, forcing Captain Baldwin to drive his 241-ton brigantine onto the rocky and desolate coast near Wakapuaka in an attempt to save the lives of his charges.
Smashed insensible against the rocks, the valiant chief mate was only just hauled back onto the deck as the winds howled through what was left of the masts and rigging. They laid him on a bunk in the forecastle and tried to bring him round. He spoke briefly but then relapsed and they moved his body to the deckhouse. No one else volunteered to try to get a lifeline to the shore. Without it all eleven aboard the ship were doomed.
But just then five figures appeared on the empty beach. Four Maori men and a Maori woman. Led by the woman, they plunged straight into the dangerous surf, making for a rock near the stricken vessel. They reached it and scrambled onto its slippery surface. The crew of the Delaware managed to throw them the weighted lead line used for calculating the depth of water.
The rescuers swam back to shore, dragging the line to which the sailors had attached a long cable. Two men remained on the beach to hold the lifeline while the woman and the other two men again swam to the ship. They held themselves steady in the pounding waves helping the shaken survivors haul themselves to safety. One by one they struggled to the sand, alternately jerked into the air, then dropped beneath the waves as the ship rolled towards the shore then back towards the crashing seas.
Remaining aboard until the end of the rescue, Captain Baldwin was finally brought to the shore. Just as he was landed, the cable that had miraculously held as the crew and only passenger and crew were helped to safety, parted. But all was well. An amazing rescue had been carried out with the loss of only one life.
But an hour or so later, to the horror of everyone on the beach, they spotted the mate on the deck of the Delaware calling for help. He had recovered consciousness and was searching desperately for a way to escape the foundering ship. But no one could help him:
‘Those who had been saved frequently went down to the water’s edge, and gave him cheering words; telling him to hold on until the tide should turn, and that then he certainly would be rescued.’
Henry Squirrell managed to make his way along the deck and catch hold of the rigging. He held on but ‘At length fatigue, and, no doubt, the injuries received when in the water, caused him to loose his hold, he was washed overboard …’ [i]
As these grim events took place, the Maori rescuers warmed, fed and sheltered the lucky ten on the beach and in their pah. Next day the storm had blown itself out. Broken crates, torn blankets, shawls, saddlery and clothing strewed the sand for two miles. The battered remains of Henry Squirrel, the bravest man on the Delaware, were washed ashore as well. Captain Baldwin went to the beach:
‘I went down and saw a dead body, and after cutting away his clothes which were then lying over his face, I was that it was the body of my chief mate. I assisted to carry his body up out of reach of the tide, where it now lies.’
The bravery of the Maori rescuers was highlighted at the inquest, especially that of the woman. Her name was Hūria Mātenga – Julia to the British settlers. She was given fifty pounds, as were her husband Hemi (Martin) and Rotate (Robert). The other two men received ten pounds each, considerable sums in that time. Each of the rescuers also received a gold watch and the deserved acclamation of the settlers.
Inevitably, Julia was hailed as the ‘Grace Darling of New Zealand’, after the Longstone Lighthouse Keeper’s daughter who played a major role in rescuing survivors of the Forfarshire, wrecked off the Northumberland coast in 1838. Grace Darling was known throughout the British empire as a great heroine:
And like her, Julia, your name and deed will find a place in local history. Your brave act is one of which a queen might be proud. We present you with a watch whereon your children and their successors may read with pleasure an inscription which testifies to the esteem in which you are held by the settlers of Nelson.
Hemi responded in his own language, saying that the Maori wished only to save the lives of their shipwrecked European friends and had no thought of receiving any reward.[ii]
[i] Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, volume xxii, issue 86, 8 September 1863, an eyewitness account.
[ii] Alfred Sanders, History of New Zealand, 1642–1893, 2 vols, 1896-1899