BANDIT LANDS 11 – The Little Angel

Horace Vernet (French, 1789-1863). ‘Italian Brigands Surprised by Papal Troops,’ 1831. oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum (37.54): Acquired by William T. Walters, 1876.

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Angelo Duca was born in the town of San Gregoria Magno in the province of Salerno around 1734. His parents were probably tenant farmers and he received no education, though was considered a leader among his schoolmates. By hard work and application Duca was able by the age of twenty to make enough to buy a small block of land on which he built himself a house. This was a considerable accomplishment and the young man looked set for a prosperous and rewarding life.

But the local landholder, Francesco Carraciolo, possessor of several titles including Duke, took offence at the young shepherd’s small plot of land within his otherwise lordly domain and began amusing himself by trespassing upon the property, much to the futile irritation of the struggling owner. This situation had been in place for some time when Duca’s young nephew inadvertently strayed across the boundary into the duke’s land and was set upon by one of the duke’s gamekeepers. Angelo was outraged and confronted the gamekeeper, demanding the return of the boy’s jacket, which, in accordance with the practice of the time, the duke’s man had retained until a forfeit was paid. There was an argument, escalating into gunplay, firstly by the gamekeeper and then by Angelo who shot and killed one of the duke’s horses. This unfortunate act sealed Angelo’s fate.

He attempted to approach the duke’s administrator with an undertaking to pay compensation for the horse and increase the workdays he was obliged to provide to the duke’s estate each year, as well as the tithe he was required to provide at harvest time. His representations were rejected and the duke had an injunction brought against Angelo that involved the forfeit of his house and land. Angelo attempted to gain the intercession of a more fair-minded relative of the duke, but this only made matters worse and Angelo now had only one option left. He must ‘go in to the hills’ and become a bandit. As Benedetto Croce, the first historian to seriously study Duca’s case put it: ‘public opinion was not wrong in considering him unjustly persecuted’.

Duca joined the band of Tommaso Freda, a violent brigand, learning the tricks of the trade. When Freda was executed by his own men for the price on his head, Duca probably became the leader, perhaps having his nickname of ‘little angel’ bestowed at this time. Unlike Freda though, Angiolillo  insisted on strict discipline among his men and was transparently honest in dividing the shares of captured booty, taking only the same as his men, an almost unheard-of equality among brigands. Operating mainly in the mountainous north of Basilicata in southern Italy and surrounding regions, ‘the little angel’ was reputed never to have killed without justification and, in legend at least, murdered no one at all. His main method of obtaining funds was said to be by extorting it from those able to pay, usually through polite threatening letters. 

His legendry includes a tale of how he robbed a bishop on his way to Naples. Angiolillo  asked the cleric how much money he had and was told that the man possessed a thousand gold coins. The bandit then asked how long the bishop would be in Naples and was told that he would be there for one month. Saying that he would only need half that amount to accommodate himself for that period of time, Angiolillo  relieved him of five hundred gold coins saying he was happy to take only that amount and wished him well for the remainder of his journey.

In one story Angiolillo  relieves a wealthy Benedictine abbot of half his store, dividing the booty between his own band, poor peasants and providing the dowry for a young girl. As a woman who could not secure a dowry at this time and place was usually condemned to a life of prostitution, this is an especially significant outlaw hero action and one with which Angiolillo  is frequently credited in his folklore. He is also said to have established his own court, taking the role of the magistrate to settle local disputes, nearly always favouring the poor. He righted wrongs against discriminated priests and forced farmers and administrators to reduce the price of corn so that the poor might be fed. 

On another occasion he invaded the banquet of the Duke of Ascoli, relieving the nobles of gold and food which, according to his ballad:

Then he went down, and for the ladies and the poor,

He had a dinner of good things prepared,

And said: ‘If the lords are feasting,

So too must poverty feast!’.

In another Angiolillo legend the great bandit comes across a poor man being dragged to gaol because he cannot pay back the money he owes the usurer. Angiolillo first releases the man, then confronts the usurer, inflicting a moralistic speech upon him and then burning his records and taking all his money. This he, of course, distributes among the poor. These and many other Robin Hood-like actions, real or not, earned Duca the traditional honoured brigand title of ‘King of the Countryside’.

Angiolillo ’s afterlife was further polished by his numerous victories against the forces sent to hunt him down, most notably at Calitri where he and eleven men roundly thrashed a force of thirty-seven soldiers. These escapades and his increasingly flamboyant style, which included having glittering uniforms made for his men and himself, all contributed to the growth and spread of his fame and by all accounts he was treated as near-royalty by the people of the region and provided the essential sympathy and support required to keep all outlaws at large.

In common with many other outlaw heroes of myth and history, Angiolillo  was deeply religious. This also caused him to believe that he was magically or divinely protected from danger and harm.  He supposedly wore a magic ring that warded off bullets, a useful protection commemorated in at least one folktale. Another of his legends emphasises the universal skill of the noble robber to fool his enemies by disguise.

One of the most commonly-told oral traditions of Duca, told both to feet-on-the-ground historians Croce in the late nineteenth century and, eighty years later, to researcher Paul Angiolillo  (no relation to Duca), focuses the outlaw’s legend. Once, seated inconspicuously in a tavern the outlaw overheard a full regiment of soldiers boasting how they would defeat the notorious brigand. He was so enraged that he revealed himself and challenged the soldiers to capture him. Recovering from their astonishment, the soldiers rushed him. The outlaw grabbed a length of hard-dried codfish and laid about them as they came, forcing them all to run away.

Angiolillo’s end came in 1784 and conformed to the pattern of the outlaw hero. Betrayed by a member of his gang, he was finally run to ground in the Capuchin monastery of Muro Lucano. Wounded himself, and with another wounded accomplice, Angiolillo was trapped in the monastery tower and burned out by the soldiers. His companion was taken but told the soldiers that his leader was dead, a ruse they initially believed. 

But then Angiolillo made a dramatic reappearance, falling to the ground from a great height and injuring himself as he landed. In the confusion and in his disguise, he was able to walk through the line of soldiers and take shelter in an aqueduct. Alas, a young boy saw him and alerted the troops. At this point, according to legend, Angiolillo’s magic ring had fallen off, thus explaining his capture. 

The outlaws were taken to Salerno and held awaiting trial. So popular was Angiolillo that many volunteered to defend him in court. But the King decreed that the dangerously popular outlaw was to be hanged without the formality of a trial, an action that would later be strongly criticised by the Sardinian ambassador in a report to his government on the administration of the Kingdom of Naples just two years later. Angiolillo’s body was drawn and quartered, the various grisly parts being publicly displayed in those parts of the country where his depredations had been most frequent.

Angiolillo’s ballads further embellished the considerable legend of his life and a contemporary reported in the early 1790s that the Neapolitans ‘look upon him as a martyr, who perished as a victim of his love for the people.’ His songs were in oral tradition until at least the end of the nineteenth century and continued to circulate in street pamphlets during the early twentieth century. A number of writers, including Dumas, romanticised the real and attributed deeds of Angelo Duca, ‘the little angel’ who became ‘King of the Countryside’ in late eighteenth century southern Italy.

SOURCES:

Croce, B, Angiolillo (Angelo Duca): Capo di Banditi, Pierro, Naples, 1892.

Paul F. Angiolillo, A Criminal as Hero: Angelo Duca, Regents Press of Kansas, Lawrence, c1979.

Guiseppe Goran, Mémoires secrets at critiques des cours, des goveurnementsts, et des moeurs des princpaux états de l’Italie, Paris, 1793.

BANDIT LANDS 10 – The Hassanpoulia of Cyprus

(NB: Most diacriticals omitted)

The Hasan Bullis

In the 1880s mountainous Paphos was one of the poorer regions of Cyprus. Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived side-by-side under the control of a British administration that had perpetuated the Ottoman system of considering the Turks and Greeks on the island as members of their own ‘nations’, with their own religious, legal and educational institutions. Cyprus had a history of occupation and domination reaching back to the ancient Egyptians so the British, who assumed control in 1878, were just the latest in a long line of colonisers. The actions of the Hassanpoulia (poulia means ‘birds’) as the family confederacy and the other members of its gang were known, came to be seen by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots as a form of revolt against British authority. The British administration certainly perceived the activities of the gang and the considerable sympathy and support they commanded among the dispossessed and disgruntled peasantry, as a potential source of political trouble.

But within a decade of the deaths of the Bullis two distinctly different traditions developed. The Turkish Cypriot tradition continued to present the Bullis as heroic outlaws but in Greek Cypriot epics they are treated much more negatively. The disjunctions between the two traditions reveal both the ambivalence of outlaw heroism and the potency of the tradition itself, as seen in the extent to which the composers and singers of the Greek epics needed to demonise the Bullis.[i]

The events that generated these traditions began in May 1887 when the 19 or-so years old Turkish Hasan Bulli was accused of theft. The accusation was denied and Hasan took to the hills. According to one version of the story he became involved in a feud with another outlaw over Hasan’s uncle’s young wife and was eventually framed and arrested. He soon escaped and continued his lawless existence, still trying to kill his rival. He survived the next eighteen months of attempted betrayals and traps by robbing the local herds and apparently polarising opinion for and against him. Eventually he contracted malaria and, in a weakened state, gave himself up to the police. Convicted and sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which he served in an untroubled manner for six years, even being allowed the privileges of a trusty.

But in 1894 he heard that his two brothers Kaymakam and Hüseyin had been betrayed and arrested. They had been involved in a Greek-Turkish dispute over a woman and were accused of murder. Hüseyin attempted to escape and join them but was killed by prison guards. His brothers gathered a band of outlaws and survived until their killing or capture and execution in 1896. Large rewards were offered in vain by the British for the capture of the outlaws. 

In 1895 the Outlaw’s Proclamation Act was also passed in an attempt to limit the influence of their activities which, whatever their intent, were widely interpreted by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots at the time as being directed against the British. This act was another descendant of the medieval notion of outlawry and effectively subverted the usual legal processes ‘extraordinary powers being given to the Executive to remove from the disturbed districts, persons suspected of assisting and harbouring the outlaws’.[ii] Application of the Act in the districts of Limassol and Paphos involved the arrest and gaoling of the main holders of flocks. The success of the outlaws in eluding capture for so long is a clear testament to their support from the larger populace, as was the necessity to hold their trial elsewhere and to bury their executed remains within the prison walls.

From early in the twentieth century there arose two oral epics about these events and their protagonists – a Greek work of 318 verses and a near-400-verse Turkish work. The Greek poem acknowledges the bravery, escaping and disguising abilities (including dressing as women) of the Hassanpoulia, common features of outlaw hero traditions:

They used to fly like birds

And they used to try a different costume everyday

They used to be dressed like a Turk one day

And like a Greek the next day…

But they are also savage rapists and promiscuous murders rather than revolutionaries and the Muslim Hassanpoulia’s end is attributed to the curse of a Christian priest.

The same events are interpreted quite differently in the Turkish-Cypriot epic. The kidnappings and rapes made much of in the Greek story are rapidly passed over as everyday events. The various murders are portrayed as justified retribution against informers and the Hassanpoulia swear to die fighting rather than surrender to the British overlords:

I died but I did not surrender to the British

and:

Let the British hang me, pity on me

Death is much better for me than this outrage.

The Turkish version is much what might be expected of an outlaw hero tradition from almost anywhere in the world. The hero is wronged, is a great escaper, a brave hero, a friend of his own people and an avenger of their injustice against their oppressors. To fail, he – in this case, ‘they’ – must be betrayed. The importance of female and male honour, while often encountered in other outlaw hero traditions, is especially intense in this culture and forms not only the rationale for most of the criminal activities of all the brothers but is also the pivotal difference between the Turkish and Greek traditions. So important is the moral code of the outlaw hero tradition forbidding the misuse of women, that the events, real or not, are graphically highlighted in the Greek version of the abduction of the Turkish women:

She was sleeping with her husband, when

She was forcefully taken away, and

Almost her poor husband was killed.

They have their turns over her, one by one

Who is going to ask about her, who is she going to complain to

Blood is gushing from her like a fountain…

And also in the Greek version:

Three insatiable monsters suddenly entered the house

They took her away and spent the night somewhere else

At an isolated sheep fold, at a remote cottage

They almost killed her, and tore her breasts.

The Hassanpoulia have continued to play an important cultural role in the fractured politics of Cyprus. While both Greeks and Turks, in Paphos at least, may have seen the outlaws as an expression of their dislike of British rule and supported them accordingly, the increasingly polarised politics of the succeeding century have solidified the opposing interpretations. In the now Greek southern Cyprus the Hassanpoulia are common bandits, while in the northern Turkish sector of the island they are symbols of the popular struggle against colonial oppression.[iii] [iv]  [v]


[i] Ismail Bozkurt, ‘Ethnic Perspective in Epics: The Case of Hasan Bulliler, Folklore Vol. 16,http://haldjas.folklore.ee/folklore/vol16/bulliler.pdf, Presented to the ISFNR 2000 Conference, Kenyatta University, July 17th–22nd, 2000.

[ii] Bryant, R., ‘Bandits and ‘Bad Characters’: Law as Anthropological Practice in Cyprus, c. 1900’, Law and History Review vol 21, no 2, Summer 2003, par 55 (online).

[iii] Though see Paul Sant Cassa’s ‘Banditry, Myth and Terror in Cyprus and Other Mediterranean Societies’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 35, No. 4, Oct. 1993, which argues that ‘the Hassanpoulia were never incorporated in a Cypriot national rhetoric and subsequent Cypriot agonistes modelled themselves on the equally dubious Greek klephts rather than their own home-grown variety’. p. 794.

[iv] At http://www.cypnet.co.uk/ncyprus/culture/hasanbullis/, accessed October 2004. The article is based on the following cited sources: N. Gelen, “Bir Devrin Efsane Kahramanlari: Hasan Bulliler”, Halkin Sesi Matbaasi, Nicosia, 1973, B. Lyssarides, “Hassan Poulis, the Jesse James of Old Cyprus”, Cyprus Weekly, No.815, p.11, G. Serdar, 1571’den 1964’e Kibris Turk Edebiyatinda Gazavetname, Destan, Efsane, Kahramanlik Siiri: Arastirma-Inceleme, Ulus Ofset, Nicosia, 1986, O.Yorgancioglu, Kibris Turk Folkloru, Famagusta, 1980; pp. 91-107.

[v] Lyssarides, B. 1995. ‘Hassan Poullis, The Jesse James of Old Cyprus’,

The Cyprus Weekly, July 14–20. 

BANDIT LANDS 9 – The Scarlet Rose

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.


BANDIT LANDS 8 – Vassilis Palaiokostas, ‘The Phantom’

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]


[i] BBC News 14 September 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5346616.stm, September 2016

[ii] BBC News 22 February 2009 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7904624.stm

[iii] BBC News 17 March 2013 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-21822775

[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

BANDIT LANDS 7 – INDIA’S BANDIT QUEEN

ca. 1900s, India — India: Family group of Dacoits (Robbers).

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.”

BANDIT LANDS 6: JURO JANOSIK

Attribution below *

The great hero of the Slovak people is an outlaw named Juro Janosik. Born around 1688 of poor parents in the politically unsettled region of Northern Slovakia, the young Janosik fought in one of the rebellions of the peasantry (that of Rakoczy II from 1703-1711) against the repressive aristocracy of the time and place. Janosik later became a soldier in the Imperial army. While serving as a guard in one of the Emperor’s gaols he met a prisoner named Thomas Uhorcik who had for some years been a brigand and resister in one of the robber gangs that roamed Northern Slovakia during this period. Uhorcik would later initiate Janosik into a life of brigandry that would evolve into the legend of the Slovakian Robin Hood.

By 1711 Janosik had left the Imperial army and returned to his home country, where he again met with Uhorcik and was drafted into a gang of brigands. Janosik quickly demonstrated an aptitude for the outlaw life and was elected leader of the gang, his exploits in robbing especially the aristocracy earning him the approval and support of the many disaffected people in the region, and far beyond. His headquarters were in thick pine forests in the mountainous area known as ‘King’s Plateau’, but he operated throughout and beyond the eastern counties of Slovakia and into neighbouring Moravia, Silesia, Poland and Hungary, apparently generating sympathy and support wherever he went.

Despite their being little historical evidence of Janosik giving to the poor, there is a strong tradition that he gave jewels stolen from a Lord Skalka to the ladies of Tarchova. He was also said to possess a number of magical objects, including a belt that made him invincible, a shirt that made him invulnerable to bullets and a general ability to carry out superhuman feats.

In spite of these useful skills and amulets, Janosik was captured in 1712 but, like many an outlaw hero, managed to escape, adding further to the already established legend. Also according with the outlaw hero tradition was the manner of his recapture. Betrayed either by one of his gang or by his girlfriend, he was taken the following year. At his trial Janosik was keen to clear his name of crimes he did not commit, mainly those involving violence or ungallant behaviour. He admitted to those he had perpetrated, none of which had involved killing. He also revealed the names, though not the whereabouts, of his comrades and the location of his treasure. 

The defence made an appeal for leniency but Janosik was condemned to a double punishment: he was first to be stretched on the rack for his lesser crimes, then hanged for his greater ones. Within a day or two of the verdict the sentence was carried out and the great robber, already a national hero, was hanged in front of a vast crowd. According to tradition he died game, performing a lively folk dance in his shackles four times around the gallows, beneath which he was buried after the sentence had been carried out.

Now Janosik’s afterlife could begin. One tradition has it that his body was buried in the crypt of the church in St. Mikulas. Here the hero lies completely preserved until the day when a new Janosik will arise and strike down the oppressors of his people.

Writing in 1929, Cyprian Tkacik observed that Janosik’s home country ‘and many other regions in the Pohron and Malohont districts, abound even today in folk songs, ballads, and stories of his exploits on behalf of the poor and the oppressed’.[i] There are still hundreds of folksongs celebrating Janosik, his life and his myth.[ii]

Janosik is far more than just a robber, he is the very model of the noble thief, robbing the rich, helping the poor, harming none, righting wrongs and ‘gallant, generous, honest, and honorable with his people.’ He has been celebrated in poetry, novels, drama, art, art song, folk ballads, placenames, film, popular iconography and a continuing repertoire of legends about his deeds, his treasure and his heroic status. [iii]  Like a select few outlaw heroes, including Robin Hood and Ned Kelly, Janosik has transcended the role of outlaw hero to become a culture hero, sleeping until the day his people need him.


  • Attribution: Juraj Jánošík (1688–1713), a Slovak Carpathian Highwaymen – a statue in the Smetana Park in Hořice, Jičín District, the Czech Republic.
    Sculptor: Franta Úprka (1868–1929).Čeština:Juraj Jánošík (1688–1713), slovenský zbojník – socha z roku 1919 ve Smetanových sadech v Hořicích v okrese Jičín. Autor návrhu: Franta Úprka (1868–1929). Picture: Ben Skála

NOTES

[i]  Tkacik, Cyprian, O. S. B. ‘Janosik The Slovak Robin Hood In the Light of Documentary Evidence and Popular Legend’, (Parts 1 and 2) Slovenske Pohl’ady (Slovak Review)Vol. XLV, Nos. 1-2, 1929, accessed at http://www.iarelative.com/history/janosik.htm July 04

[ii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p. 47.

[iii] Tkacik, Part 2.

BANDIT LANDS 5 – ‘PIGEON’

Pigeon

 

Australia’s vast and mostly arid northwest had been largely ignored until the 1880s when its almost infinite acres attracted sheep and cattle farming and its seas an embryonic pearling industry. As settlement increased, the newcomers increasingly encroached on the traditional lands of the many indigenous groups in what would become known as the Kimberley region. Some of these groups resisted, others seemed to fade away as the frontier pushed relentlessly north and east. The Bunuba were not inclined to simply walk off their land and nurtured an ongoing resistance that eventually produced an outlaw hero.

Jandamarra (Jandamurra) was already approaching initiation age when his country became the object of commercial and political interest. At around eleven years of age he was taken into employment on a local station to be trained as a stockman. One of the attractions for settling the Kimberley was the availability of cheap indigenous workers for the labour intensive pastoral and pearling enterprises. The settlers hoped that if they got the ‘natives’ when they were young they could at once be dispossessed of their land and trained as useful hands. Jandamarra appeared to be the ideal type of such conversions, quickly excelling at the necessary skills and eventually also becoming a crack rifle shot. Although he was unusually short for a Bunuba man – they were typically six-foot or more – he had great speed and agility, leading to the settlers nicknaming him ‘Pigeon’.

Working and living in the company of the settlers caused Jandamarra to grow up without being initiated into the spiritual secrets that would rightly have belonged to a Bunuba man. Aboriginal belief revolves around the sanctity of the land and everything within it and upon it. Bound up with this spiritual system are interrelated social, economic, political and legal systems. Once the ‘law’ is lost or untaught, so the individual is disadvantaged – potentially lethally – in the Aboriginal world. Although Jandamarra would come to know his country, its gullies, hills, trails and caves intimately, he was never fully a man in Bunuba society.

None of these matters worried Jandamarra, it seems. He was content to work for the settlers and even to become a ‘blacktracker’ or adjunct member of the police force and take part in tracking down other Aboriginal men and women wanted by the law. There were many of these in the Kimberley of the 1880s. As settlement increased, so did resistance to it. Stock were speared, supplies stolen and whites attacked by one or usually small groups of Aborigines. The settlers reacted with violence based on fear as much as racism and there was an ongoing level of attack and counter-attack as Aborigines sought to stem the unstoppable advances of the settlers and they sought to ‘disperse’ them so their stock could graze the grassland and drink from the waterholes.

A noted Bunuba warrior of the time was a man named Ellemarra. Through the late 1880s he offered fierce and ongoing resistance to the settlers, often being arrested but usually escaping again. So dangerous did Ellemarra become that the settlers called for ‘the whole tribe of natives inhabiting the Napier Range to be outlawed’.[i] While there was no official proclamation of outlawry, the settlers were increasingly prepared to take the law in to their own hands and to protect themselves by hunting and gunning down those Aborigines they believed meant to harm them. Ellemarra was among the most wanted of the resisters and Jandamarra, caught between the worlds of white and black, formed part of a police party sent out to bring him in, effectively going against his own people. Ellemarra was flogged and imprisoned. He eventually escaped again but was recaptured and chained with a group of other Aboriginal prisoners. Possibly with the help of Jandamarra, Ellemarra managed to break his chains and escape again.

Now Jandamarra had to again take part in tracking Ellemarra down, under the command of a policeman named Richardson. Jandamarra led the policeman to his countrymen and they were captured in late October, 1894, the largest haul of resisters the police had yet netted. Richardson delayed returning with them in order to gain a greater allowance for being on active duty. It was a fatal mistake.

The Bunuba men naturally placed pressure on Jandamarra to let them go and acknowledge his true Bunuba identity. Eventually Jandamarra accepted their argument released Ellemarra and shot Richardson dead while he slept. The two men then released their comrades, took the guns and ammunition and disappeared into the bush. They soon raised a large group of Bunuba and engaged in a large-scale battle with police sent to track them down for the murders of a number of settlers in November. Ellemarra and a number of Bunuba women were killed in the shooting and Jandamarra seriously wounded. He managed to escape, evading the pursuit through his unparalleled knowledge of the country.

While Jandamarra was in hiding, recovering from his wounds, the government sent police reinforcements to the Kimberley as quickly as was possible at the time. An undeclared war was in progress. It would make Jandamarra a great hero to his people and their struggle. The police had almost convinced themselves that the Bunuba resistance was broken when rumours of Jandamarra’s survival were confirmed in May, 1885. Jandamarra and the Bunuba now conducted a guerrilla war. Police continually came across the outlaw’s tracks, only to lose them in the rocks and ravines.

Bunuba people also misled the police with false information, making the police look like fools, further demoralising them. In October 1895, Jandamarra became over-confident and failed to post a guard around his camp. He and his band were surprised by the police. Employing his legendary agility, Jandamarra disappeared into a convenient cave, but most of his band was captured.

Over the following months Jandamarra concentrated on harassing and demoralising police and settlers by demonstrating his mastery of the country and of stealth. Robbing storehouses, visiting police camps at night, shadowing police patrols, always ensuring they knew that he had been among them. Jandamarra, the uninitiated man now came to be seen by his own people as a lawman, an individual with great spiritual authority and great magical powers. He was said to be able to turn himself into a bird and to fly away from the police. He was also said to be invulnerable because his real spirit was hidden at his hideout and it was only his animated body that crossed his country to taunt the police and the settlers.

This went on for many months, interspersed with moments of violence and the besieging of the police outpost at Lillimooroola station, immediately below the limestone cliffs that marked the easily defended edge of Bunuba country. Towards the end of 1896 the settlers began forcing their cattle deep into Bunuba land, effectively going behind Jandamarra’s front line. The Bunuba resistance went back into action with psychological warfare and attacks on settlers. The police cranked up their attempts to end the conflict, committing more atrocities against the Bunuba, but had no more success than in their previous attempts.

But within the police ranks was a secret weapon. An Aboriginal member of the force named Micki was from far outside Bunuba country and had no loyalty towards Jandamarra’s fight. He was also considered to have magical powers by the Aborigines. On March 23, 1897 Micki was solely responsible for capturing five of Jandamarra’s band. Jandamarra attempted to free his comrades but was badly wounded. He was pursued through the ranges as he struggled towards his hideout cave at Tunnel Creek, thirty miles east. He made it back inside the cave through one of its many secret entrances, but Micki was waiting for him outside the cave’s main entrance. On April Fool’s Day, the two lawmen faced each other with Winchester rifles. Jandamarra missed and Micki’s shot sent him hurtling down a 100-foot cliff. The police reached the scene, confirmed the body was that of their feared foe and then chopped the head from the torso with a tomahawk. It was reportedly despatched to adorn the trophy wall of a British arms manufacturer.

The Bunuba resistance was finally broken with Jandamarra’s death. But his legend lives on, becoming a powerful oral tradition in the Kimberley. [ii]

NOTES

[i] Quoted in Pederson, H & Woorunmurra, B, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance, 1995, p. 49. See also Aboriginal History 9:1, 1985, passim and p. 98, note 26.

[ii] In 2004 a folklife fieldwork project recorded further strong traditions about Jandamarra and his legend from his descendants. See ‘Report on the Western Australian Folklife Project, 2004’ National Library of Australia and WA Folklore Archive, Curtin University.

BANDIT LANDS 4 -‘THE LAMP’

Lampeao2

Lampião and some of his cangaceiros. Lampião is left of centre, to the right of him is Maria Bonita. The distinctive leather hats with upturned brims and leather clothes can be seen. The men have Mauser rifles, a great deal of ammunition and several have long peixeira knives thrust though their waist-belts.

 

Under his cangaçeiro or bandit name of Lampião – ‘The Lamp’ –  Virgulino Ferreira da Silva (1897-1938) followed a nearly twenty-year career of banditry in the Brazilian backlands from before the age of twenty until his grisly death in 1938.

Known as Lampião from his reputed ability to light up the darkness with rapid fire from a lever-action Winchester rifle, his gang’s gang’s first major attack was very much in the Robin Hood mould.

With around fifty men, Virgulino attacked the home of a wealthy aristocratic widow with good political connections. This was profitable and gained the outlaw the immediate attention of the press. His legend now began.

Over the next sixteen years and through several states, Lampião and his various gangs fought pitched battles with police and the volantes, or ‘flying squads’ formed especially to hunt down bandits. They kidnapped police, politicians, judges, the wealthy and the not so wealthy demanding and usually receiving hefty ransoms for their safe return. Towns and farms were plundered, travellers robbed, and sometimes murdered.

As the years passed, Lampião became increasingly savage in his actions, which included torture and humiliation of enemies and informers as well as raping several women. A number of unfortunates were castrated at his orders and he is said to have gouged out the eyes of one poor man in front of his wife and children. He then shot his victim dead through the empty eye sockets. Other atrocities are recorded and documented.[i]

The reality of Lampião’s banditry was therefore very much at odds with the benign image of Robin Hood. Although he professed strict rules about violence and rape, Lampião was feared as a cruel and sometimes sadistic killer, not only of those who opposed him, including peasants, but also of his own men who offended in some way. Over the course of his bandit life Lampião’s power and wealth grew, though most of this seems to have been used in the expensive business of maintaining a band almost continually on the run.

In 1926 he had a flirtation with the politics of his time and place, being given a commission as ‘Captain’ by one group of revolutionaries, together with a promise of amnesty when they came to power. In return, the bandit was to hunt down and eliminate one of their enemies. Lampião soon returned to his bandit ways, but from then retained the title of ‘Captain Silvino’.

Periods of pillage and plunder were followed by times of partying and celebration. Lampião was a noted party-thrower, his wealth allowing him to entertain his friends and allies in style. He was also a flashy dresser in the colourful style universally favoured by cangaçeiros. Distinctive upturned hat, scarf, crossed bandoliers of bullets, rings, boots and liberal applications of eau de cologne and hair pomade, allowing friend and foe alike to smell their presence. The list of possessions made at Lampião’s death included a hat and chinstrap adorned with fifty gold trinkets, rings set with precious stones, gold coins and medallions. His weapons were set with gold and silver and even his haversacks were heavily embroidered and fastened with gold and silver buttons.[ii]

Lampião’s success as a Robin Hood figure despite his cruelties, was largely due to his network of connections at various levels of backlands society and his ability to manipulate the outlaw hero code. He threw coins to the children of the poor and made generous gifts to peasants suffering from droughts and other hardships. He usually kept a tight rein on the carnal instincts of his men and he knew how to use the media. As one of Lampião’s historians put it, the bandit ‘was not unconcerned with his own image’.[iii]

In addition to playing to the press, Lampião has the distinction of being the first bandit to be filmed in action. While Pancho Villa had been filmed in the field for Barbarous Mexico, a documentary released in 1913, he had assumed the more respectable role of revolutionary general for that piece of propaganda. Lampião’s ten minutes of celluloid immortality show him and his men in their natural bandit habitat. Lampião was an enthusiastic collaborator in this public relations initiative.

A number of feature films have since been made based on Lampião’s legend, including one titled Lampião, Beast of the Northeast (1930). His afterlife is also assisted by the folk ballad tradition and an ongoing series of cordels glamorising the outlaw’s life and death, sold cheaply on the streets, initially in regional centres though today freely available in the larger Brazilian cities.

By 1930 the bandit’s fame had reached The New York Times, which in the following year predictably portrayed him as a Robin Hood. While Lampião evinced little interest in helping the poor, he was able to motivate support and sympathy in both high and low sectors of backlands society. Like some other bandits who were seen as possibly useful tools, if properly managed, he was able to call on the intercession of local political figures and power brokers, notably Padre Cicero for favours, money and shelter. His coiteros, or sympathisers, were not only in the upper echelons, though, and the ‘barefoot coiteros’ as the poorer sympathisers were known, assisted by providing the police and volantes with misleading information about the bandits’ movements.

As in other cases of rural banditry, the sympathisers and families of the outlaws experienced harassment from the police, including imprisonment without trial. In the Brazilian situation, this was exacerbated by the inability of the police to act against the wealthier and more influential individuals who colluded, willingly or otherwise, with Lampião due to their powerful political connections. It was not until a degree of inter-state cooperation between police forces and governments developed in the 1930s that Lampião and other cangaçeiros began to feel serious pressure from the authorities.

lamp3

The religious currents of the backlands were also an important element of the cangaçeiro. The endemic poverty and devastating droughts that ravaged the region gave rise to numerous extreme and millennial religious movements, some of which became linked with revolutionary political activity. Lampião and many of his followers were deeply pious and came to display religious tokens and images of Padre Cícero on their costumes. These were partly related to the belief that such tokens made them invulnerable to bullets, a belief shared by most other Roman Catholic backlanders. By the time of his death, Lampião had become ‘almost a beato, a kind of holy person common to northeastern Brazil.’[iv] This belief did not save the outlaw from his almost inevitable end.

The ‘king of the backlands’ as he was often dubbed, met his doom in the usual manner of the outlaw hero. Early one fine morning a party of police crept carefully towards the sleeping cangaçeiros. So confident were the outlaws of their safety that they had not bothered to post a guard. ‘Lampião’ was clearly visible, sleeping close by his outlaw bride, Maria Bonita (originally Maria Déia). Deliberatel,y the police took aim. One of the bandits, more awake than the others, sensed something wrong and raised the alarm. The police opened fire on the surprised and confused band. Many of the bandits escaped but Lampião was targeted and fell in the first burst of bullets. Maria Bonita and a few loyal comrades fought to the death.

As the gun smoke cleared, the triumphant police strode into the shattered outlaw camp, checking that the outlaws were all dead. One took out a long, sharp knife of the kind favoured by the backlands outlaws and hacked off Lampião’s head. Then Maria Bonita’s head was also severed from her body. The grisly trophies were placed in a jar of kerosene and ridden through the district, proof that the police had at last killed the great cangaçeiro chieftain. A soldier cut off the hand of one of the dead outlaws, packing the severed body part in his pack so that he could later strip the rings from the dead fingers. In keeping with the savage nature of the cangaçeiro and the embedded cultural notions of honour and dishonour in backlands, Bonita’s body was further humiliated.[v]

In an alternative version of the great bandido’s death, it is said that he and his men had already been betrayed to death by poison when the police arrived at the scene of the final shootout. In 1959 the head of the peasant unions claimed the bespectacled outlaw as a pioneer of agrarian land reform and resister of official injustice.

In the early 1970s historian Billy Jaynes Chandler, in Brazil to research his book on Lampião, was told that the notorious cangaçeiro was not dead at all, but living his life out quietly on a farm somewhere: ‘the majority of backlanders with whom I talked in rural areas and small towns held this opinion’.[vi] The outlaw’s granddaughter has published her own version of Lampião’s life, death and afterlife, and the commemorative structures marking the place of his death are the site of considerable touristic and carnivalesque interest.

According to an Al Jazeera report of early 2007, the outlaw now ‘features in a new TV mini-series, one of Brazil’s most famous singers will wear a costume of Maria Bonita at this year’s carnival and another samba school will parade with a huge puppet of the legendary north-easterner.’[vii]

Betrayed, butchered, beheaded and beatified, Lampião’s already powerful legend has long outlived him and shows no signs of fading away.

 

NOTES

[i] See Chandler, B., The Bandit King: Lampião of Brazil, Texas A&M University Press, College Station and London, 1978.

[ii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, 2000, p. 92.

[iii] Chandler, B., The Bandit King, p. 68.

[iv] Chandler, B., The Bandit King, p. 208.

[v] Chandler, B., The Bandit King p. 226, quoting an eyewitness he interviewed, note 24.

[vi] Chandler, B., The Bandit King, p. 240.

[vii] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/archive/archive?ArchiveId=18847, accessed February 2007.

BANDIT LANDS 3 – CAPTAIN SILVINO –

antoniosilvino

Faked, but Silvino’s head is on the middle body

 

Brazil was colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th century. A strong sugarcane economy developed along the coast, while the more arid interior was largely ignored until land was required for food to feed a growing population. The serteao or ‘backlands’ were then opened up mainly for beef ranching on large landholdings. Over time, these were increasingly broken up into unviable smaller holdings through the inheritance system, a situation that formed the economic basis for the banditry that became endemic to the backlands. Other factors included the ongoing series of disastrous droughts between 1887 and 1919, together with the weakness of law and order throughout the backland states.

From the 1870s until the 1940s, Brazil experienced a form of rural banditry known as the ‘cangaço’, a term meaning the yoke of oxen, possibly a reference to the bandits’ habit of carrying rifles slung behind their necks. Endemic in the spare and arid northeast of the country the cangaço was characterised by armed bands of men who roamed the countryside robbing farms and travellers, sometimes abducting them for ransom, extorting from local businesses with ‘protection’ rackets and even invading regional cities. The cangaçeiros, as these bandits were known, were led by men to whom the gang members pledged loyalty unto death. Many of these leaders achieved notoriety and even celebration as outlaw heroes, including Jesuíno Brilhante, Adolfo Meia-Noite, Sinhô Pereira e Luiz Padre and Antônio Silvino.

Manuel Batista de Morais was a member of a respected ranching family with a history of cangaçeiros activity. This included the Robin Hood figure of the early outlaw hero, Jesuíno Brilhante, and that of Manuel’s great uncle, Silvino Aires de Cavalcanti e Albuquerque, who eluded the authorities for a quarter of a century. In 1897 Manuel murdered two men in revenge for his father’s death. Revenge murders were a common element of backland society. These were a product of the exaggerated sense of personal and family honour mixed with machismo that characterised the culture, aggravated by perennial disputes over land tenure and ownership of stock, a common frontier tension point that also played an important part in American and Australian outlawry. These murders meant that Manuel became a cangaçeiro and he joined his great uncle in the bandit life. After Silvino’s eventual capture in 1899, Manuel took his great uncle’s name as his own bandit pseudonym and also took over as leader of the gang that he had once commanded.

Good-looking, strong and an expert marksman, ‘Captain Silvino’ as he was popularly known in standard outlaw style, operated until his betrayal in 1914. He was known during his time as a ‘gentle cangaçeiro’ who mostly robbed the rich, including the British-owned Great Western Railway Company that became a major feature of the backlands economy from 1900. His raids on this enterprise were widely, if probably inaccurately, regarded as attempts to defend the backlands from the incursions of yet another colonising power. He was careful to distribute some of his booty amongst the poor, he righted wrongs related to boundary and domestic disputes and was usually seen to be scrupulous in respecting the honour of women.[i] Like many successful outlaws he was careful to maintain his image as a noble robber, both in his more public actions, such as burning the captured mailbags of the Great Western Railway, and in his considerable and considered dealings with the press. His legendry included a supernatural ability to disappear and reappear in order to escape pursuers. He was also portrayed, and largely seen as, a friend of the poor, as a contemporary newspaper account put it:

‘… he protects the people, the anonymous masses with whom he divides his pillage and in whose bosom he does his best source of support … . He does not dishonour families and he has a mania for harming the public authorities …’[ii]

After his capture Silvino was imprisoned, spending the next twenty-three years in gaol. He was pardoned in 1937 and given a government position, returning to the Paraíbo backlands, where he died in 1944. Despite his unromantic post-outlaw life, such had been his fame as a cangaçeiro that his Robin Hood legend continued during these years and developed further after his death, celebrated in cordel – small, cheap and very popular booklets –in ballads and in Brazilian oral tradition. He was also the subject of romanticised fiction and popular biography until at least the 1960s.[iii]

NOTES

[i] On this point, see Lewin, L., ‘The Oligarchical Limits of Social Banditry in Brazil: The Case of the ‘Good’ Thief Antônio Silvino’ in Slatta, R. (ed.), Bandidos: The Varieties of Latin American Banditry, Greenwood Press, NY, 1987, pp. 85-86. (Originally published in Past & Present 82, February 1979, pp. 116-46).

[ii] Quoted in Lewin, p. 77.

[iii] Lewin, note 5, p. 92, notes 10 and 19, pp. 93-4.

BANDIT LANDS 2 – WITH HIS PISTOL IN HIS HAND: GREGORIO CORTEZ

Gregorio_Cortez_Pictured_in_1901

Gregorio Cortez Pictured in 1901

 

Perhaps the most surprising fact in the extensive folklore that surrounds the figure of Cortez is that his outlawry lasted only ten days. Action-packed though those ten days were, they would perhaps only have given rise to such a legend in a region like the Border. While the existing legendry of Cortinas was strong in the years immediately after the earlier bandit’s death, the discontents and tensions that originated the legend and kept it alive were also still smouldering.

The incident that turned Gregorio Cortez from an obscure small farmer and vaquero was not unlike that which had set Cortinas upon his influential path. Nor was it unlike the situation in other places, such as Australia, where stock theft was the background to many bushranging outbreaks. Cortez and his family had been involved in stealing horses, which explains why Sheriff W Morris and two deputies wanted to question him about a missing horse one day in June, 1901. The lawmen arrived at the small plot Cortez and his brother, Romaldo, rented near Kennedy. According to the court evidence there were language difficulties during the questioning which led the Sheriff to draw his pistol and fire on the brothers, wounding Romaldo. Cortez returned fire and killed the Sheriff.[i] Cortez fled on foot and began walking towards Austin, eighty miles away.

A manhunt was quickly initiated and Cortez’s wife and children, his mother and sister-in-law were illegally gaoled, a tactical error frequently made by authorities during episodes of outlawry. During the manhunt Cortez shot and killed another two lawmen and embarked on another walking feat, this time a 100-mile journey from Belmont towards Laredo. With the newspapers referring to Cortez as ‘an arch-fiend’ and a $1000 reward on his head, Mexican-Americans instead saw Cortez as one of their own making a heroic stand against American oppression and injustice. At the same time, Anglos in a number of towns rioted and a number of Mexican-Americans were killed. Despite this there was some admiration in the English language press for Cortez’s endurance and his ability to elude pursuers through his excellent knowledge of the country. Eventually he was captured on June 22, 1901 when a friend led the posse to his hiding place. The Judas in this case was the ironically named Jesús González, later vilified by some Mexican-Americans as a traitor.

There followed a number of trials and verdicts and a lynching attempt on Cortez. He eventually began serving a life sentence for the murder of the Sheriff in 1904. Cortez had become a cause celebre, his case attracting attention throughout the Hispanic world. Agitation for his release continued until 1913 when he was freed on a conditional pardon. He then fought in the Mexican revolution and died of pneumonia in February 1916.

The legendry of the man ‘with his pistol in his hand’ is extensive and still powerful in the folk traditions of the Border. Américo Paredes documented and interpreted these, noting his Robin Hood-like attributes:

In some of his feats the Cortez of the legend resembles folk heroes like Robin Hood. Like Robin he surprises his enemy and provisions himself from them, taking food, arms, and other necessaries and letting them go unharmed. In a way reminiscent of Robin Hood, Pancho Villa, and the Saxon King Alfred, Cortez comes into town in disguise while the chase after him is on, mingles with the townspeople and listens to the tales told about him.[ii]

The corrido of Gregorio Cortez, in its numerous variants, concentrates mainly upon the bravery of Cortez in the face of the hated Texas Rangers, the rinches:

Then said Gregorio Cortez,

With his pistol in his hand,

‘Don’t run you cowardly Rangers,

From a real Mexican.’[iii]

In 1982 a feature film on the outlaw’s life and legend reached the silver screen, as the mass media picked up on another suitable storyline. This was just another stage in the evolution of the Cortez legend, one that graphically demonstrates the interaction of fact and folklore, as noted by Paredes:

            … one of the most striking things about Gregorio Cortez is the way the actual facts of his life conformed to pre-existing legend. In his free, careless youth, in the reasons for his going outside the law, in his betrayal, his imprisonment, and release and even in the somewhat cloudy circumstances surrounding his death – the actual facts of Cortez’s life (so far as we know them) follow the Border-hero tradition that was already well established before Cortez made his celebrated ride.

Paredes goes on to describe how the facts of Cortez’s life fitted the outlaw hero legend, and vice versa:

It was as if the Border people had dreamed Gregorio Cortez before producing him, and had sung his life and deeds before he was born.[iv]

The brevity of his outlaw career meant that Gregorio Cortez had little time to generate and nurture a Robin Hood reputation for himself. Nevertheless, his legend developed quickly among his supporters and sympathisers. He is compelled to go outside the law by unjust treatment; he acts only against the representatives of the oppressive American laws; he skilfully eludes his pursuers and is finally betrayed by a friend. He is certainly brave, even though he does not die game. In the circumstances of his time and place, even his ten-day defiance of authority was sufficient to turn him into an outlaw hero among the disaffected Mexican-American population of the border region.

 

SOURCES

[i] Mertz, R., ‘No One Can Arrest Me: The Story of Gregorio Cortez’, Journal of South Texas 1, 1974.

[ii] Paredes, A., With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, University of Texas Press, Austin, (1958), 1990, p. 120.

[iii] Paredes, p. 164 (variant C)

[iv] Paredes, p. 125.