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 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 1 – CORTINAS

Juan_Nepomuceno_Cortina

Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894), aka ‘Cortinas’

 

Bandit lands are places where outlaws can base themselves and their confederates, operate their criminal enterprises and also hide from the law or other antagonists. These secret spaces can be mountains, forests, river valleys, marshes, or along borderlands – wherever access is difficult and solitude assured. They have existed everywhere since ancient times. Some still do.
 
Quite a few of the outlaws who have inhabited these wild areas have become, rightly or wrongly, popular heroes, celebrated in rousing songs and fiery stories. Here’s the first of an occasional Gristly History series about them titled ‘Bandit Lands’.

 

CORTINAS – ALONG THE RIO GRANDE

The ‘Border’, being the contested land between America and Mexico, has a long, unsettled history. Incursions, lynchings, riots, wars, smuggling and ongoing antagonism between Anglos and Mexican-Americans have produced some celebrated outlaw heores. The earliest of these was a well-born man who became known as ‘Cortinas’.

Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894) was known from the time of his outlawry as ‘Cortinas’. His family had aristocratic origins and a large landholding in the lower Rio Grande Valley, particularly around the south Texas city of Brownsville, across the border from Matamoros. After fighting in an irregular unit during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, Cortinas returned to the family farm which he appears to have used as a base for rustling. He was twice indicted for these offences but was able to escape arrest through the family political connections.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially declared the border between Mexico and the United States in 1848, relations between the Anglos and Mexican Americans in the Brownsville area deteriorated. One of the major issues was the belief that Americans were using their superior knowledge of the legal system to enable them to procure ever-greater amounts of land at the expense of Mexican-Americans new to the country.

One day in July 1859 Cortinas witnessed the Brownsville Marshall, Bob Spears, arresting and pistol-whipping a man who had worked on his mother’s farm. There was a confrontation in which Cortinas shot and killed the Marshall and escaped with the prisoner. Cortinas was outlawed and from then on became a guerrilla, fighting the Americans and also operating in the politics and conflicts within Mexico itself. In September 1859 he and his men attacked and occupied Brownsville, shooting five locals. Cortinas eventually retreated to the family ranch from where he later issued a proclamation defending the rights of Mexican-Americans and demanding that any who infringed them be punished.

There was ongoing violence between Cortinas’ men and various groups of Texas Rangers sent against him. Cortinas issued a second proclamation, calling on Governor Sam Houston to recognise and protect the legal rights of Mexican-Americans. By this time the outlaw’s numbers had expanded to around 400-armed men. There was further fighting with Texas Rangers in December which resulted in Cortinas retreating to Mexico and finally to the Burgos Mountains where he holed up for a year.

He returned to the American side of the Border during the Civil War, fighting against the Confederates. He then became embroiled in the politics and turmoils of Mexico, returning again to the Border in 1870. Despite attempts to have him pardoned for his crimes, based on his support of the victorious Union during the Civil War, Cortinas was forced to return to Mexico in 1871.

In later years the cattle ranchers of the Nueces Strip accused him of being the ringleader of a large rustling operation and he was eventually removed to Mexico City through American diplomatic pressure. From this time Cortinas passes from the large events of his time. He spent the sixteen years between 1877 and his death from pneumonia in 1894 in prison and under house arrest.

Despite obscurity, neglect and vandalism of his grave, Cortinas’ legend among Mexican- Americans is firmly established.[i] He is the subject of a famous corrido, or ballad, that portrays him as a great hero and friend of the Mexican people, whose death caused the gringos to celebrate:

That famed General Cortinas
is quite sovereign and free,
the honor due him is greater
for he saved a Mexican’s life.
The Americans made merry,
they got drunk in the saloons,
out of joy over the death
of the famed General Cortinas.[ii]

Cortinas was, and still is, a hero of the Mexican-American people. Stories and songs of his real and fanciful actions remained strong in oral tradition and prepared the way for the greatest of all the Border outlaws, Gregorio Cortez.

NOTES

[i] Thompson, J. (ed), Juan Cortina and the Texas-Mexico Frontier 1859-1877, The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas, Southwestern Studies 99, 1994, pp. 93.

[ii] Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997.

THE ROBIN HOOD FACTOR

 

Known to generations of English-speaking peoples, and beyond, as the forest archer in Lincoln green, Robin Hood is the undisputed model of the outlaw hero. His image has undergone many transformations since his first brief mention in medieval manuscripts and has come to embody all the essential elements of the noble robber. Whether we see Robin Hood as a shadowy guerrilla fighter, a cast-out noble or as a wisecracking and nimble-limbed Errol Flynn, he is the righter of wrongs, friend of the poor and foe of the corruptly powerful. In one version or another he has been, and continues to be, celebrated in literature, art, folklore, film and television, board games, placenames and tourist ventures. His progress from a few passing references to international symbol of resistance and justice has been achieved through more than six centuries of defying authority, eluding capture and escaping death. His most important activity is to rob the rich and to redistribute their wealth to the poor.
This record is especially impressive for a man who never was, or at least, who has never been found. Robin Hood’s appropriately elusive existence has been researched by many over the centuries, with nothing more to show than a few theories, suppositions and intriguing references to someone who might have been the real Robin Hood. The truth, of course, is that the ‘real’ Robin Hood is not in history but in our heads, hearts and hopes. He is a myth. Even if someone can prove that he lived and carried out just a few of the things with which he is credited, it would make no difference to the way we understand Robin Hood today. He is so engraved into the well-worn cultural grooves that sustain his image, and those of others in the same mould, that he seems likely to remain with us for a very long time.
Ever since Robehood’ or ‘Robinhood’ is first mentioned in early thirteenth century legal records the outlaw has existed in a shadow world between history and fantasy. The first passing literary mention of a hero by that name is in Langland’s 1377 poem, Piers Ploughman.  Further references appear in various chronicles and Robin Hood gradually emerges as a fully-fledged defier of authority. A 1439 petition to Parliament concerned one Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a fugitive who had gathered a band around him which “beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurrection went into the wodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee”.  In Southacre, Norfolk, during 1441 labourers and yeomen threatened to kill a Sir John Harsyk. They blocked the road and chanted ‘We are Robynhodesmen. War, war, war’.
By the mid-1550s Robin Hood had become a troublesome enough character to require official suppression. The Scots Parliament of 1555 banned the presence of figures representing the outlaw and his gang in public festivities such as May Day games. Those who persisted were threatened with banishment. This was a disproportionately strong punishment for the brawling, drinking and nuisance-making that purported to be the reason for banning the outlaw from a major form of revelry.
Although the notion of robbing the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor is a later refinement, the portrayal of Robin Hood as the friend of the poor is an early element of his image. In the various versions of the fifteenth century romance, A Geste of Robyn Hode, Robin is a heroic figure and ‘a good outlaw’ who ‘dyde pore men moch god’. By the early seventeenth century Robin Hood has become not just a friend of the poor but also a man who deliberately targets the rich on behalf of the poor.  In a 1622 poem by Thames waterman John Taylor, the poet writes:
…Robin Hood with little John agreed
To rob the rich men, and the poore to feed.
In ‘The True Tale of Robin Hood’ (1632) Robin is a morally upright friend of the poor – ‘all poore men pray for him,/And wish he well might spede.’ He helps distressed travellers on the road, assists widows and orphans, protects women, generally operates against the established power and corruption of the church and robs the rich, particularly those who ‘did the poore oppresse’. He does not harm the humble workers nor harm any man ‘That him invaded not’.  The outlaw is finally betrayed to death by ‘A faithlesse fryer’.
Robin Hood’s status as a commoner, one of ‘us’ is also powerful, despite the seventeenth and eighteenth-century resurrection of the medieval version of the outlaw as a wronged aristocrat. In the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’, the potter bests the outlaw, after which Robin symbolically exchanges clothes with him and in this trickster disguise goes off to Nottingham for further encounters with the Sheriff and, as it turns out, his wife. This is similar in some ways to the later ‘Robin Hood and the Pedlar’ in which a pedlar defeats Robin in a fight and is symbolically incorporated into the ‘band of merry men’, an incident echoed in the ballad of the eighteenth century English outlaw hero, Dick Turpin.
Robin Hood passed from street literature and ballads into the more respectable form of the novel from 1819 when Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was first published. Ever since he has been the subject of countless treatments. He has featured in operas and musicals since the mid- nineteenth century, in film and television since 1908 when a silent film was produced and has a strong presence in the video gaming industry and in comic books.
Robin Hood has continued to be connected with political discontent and action. The Poll Tax rioters of 1990 who invaded Nottingham Council Chambers disguised themselves in hoods of Lincoln green and dissident French electricity workers borrowed the mantle in 2004, specifically identifying with the English outlaw. The Robin Hood mantle has been claimed by many anti-capitalist organisations and initiatives since.

The county of Nottinghamshire vigorously promotes the mythology for tourism and there is even an American charity named the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as a hedge fund named for the outlaw. There is no end to the presence of Robin Hood in modern culture.

The combined effect of this weight of history, myth, romance and commercial and media exploitation has produced a global icon. The man who never was is everywhere. He belongs to everyone and his name is known around the world. But the image of the ‘good robber’ is not his alone. Thousands of brigands, bandits and outlaws in many different times and different places have also been celebrated as friends of the poor and definers of the strong. Some recent examples include ‘the Greek Robin Hood’, Vassilis Palaiokostas, currently on the run, ‘the Barefoot Bandit’, Colton Moore and even the chainsaw charmer drug lord, Pablo Escobar. He was killed in 1993 but lives on in his legend as a friend of the poor in his home country of Colombia.

NOTE: For a more detailed look at the enduring mythology of the green archer, see ‘The Robin Hood Principle’.

 

KEYWORDS: Robin Hood, outlaw hero