By Stephen Basdeo
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British East India Company established a number of fortified trading settlements—“factories”—in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. The trading company boasted its own army and as it sought to increase its influence over Indian rulers and secure ever more favourable trading terms, it regularly got involved in territorial disputes between local Indian princely states, as well as against the French East India Company. When the first “World War” broke out in 1756—the Seven Year’s War, between the Kingdom of France and Great Britain and their respective allies—the British East India Company found itself fighting against the French Company and the Nawab of Bengal’s army.
Had the French and the Nawab of Bengal succeeding in expelling the British company from the subcontinent forever, then the history of Britain in India might be consigned to a mere footnote in history. But the British won: as a result of its victory against the Nawab of Bengal and French East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company annexed the region of Bengal. A vast part of the subcontinent was now under the control of a trading company, and Company rule was confirmed when the Treaty of Allahabad was signed in 1765, when the Mughal Emperor granted the British company the diwani of Bengal—the power to levy taxes on the inhabitants. From this point onwards, the Company expanded and consolidated its power not only over the territories it annexed, but also over the numerous princely states. By the nineteenth century it was clear that the British were there to stay.
Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969) tells us that, in times of political crisis, banditry usually flourishes. This is especially the case in regions of the world which are less urbanised or industrialised, and where the reach of “the long arm of the law” extends only as far as where there is a policeman or some other form of law enforcement to actually enforce the law. Hobsbawm chooses to focus principally upon Southern Italy, Central, and South America; it should come as no surprise to us, however, that in India during the early nineteenth century, banditry likewise flourished during this period which witnessed a number of rapid political changes, during the decline of an old empire and the rise of a new one.
Back in Britain, crime literature was as popular as ever: two lawyers named Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin published a new edition of The Newgate Calendar in four volumes in 1824, with an extended edition comprising five volumes a year later—such was its commercial success. Walter Scott published Rob Roy (1818) which thoroughly romanticised the image of the highland outlaw and freedom fighter. Pierce Egan the Elder (1772–1849) would be making money covering sensational trials alongside his sports journalism. Penny bloods such as those written by G. W. M. Reynolds “exposed” the hidden criminal underworld of the nineteenth-century industrial city.[i] And Charles Macfarlane, in emulation of earlier eighteenth-century criminal biographies, published The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Nations (1833).
Just like it says on the tin, Macfarlane—a travel writer—wanted to shine a light on the lives and careers of highwaymen from Europe and also in England’s newly-acquired dominions in the subcontinent. So alongside tales of Italian bandits we also meet robbers from as far afield as Afghanistan and India.
There is some racialism in Macfarlane’s description of robbers from the Far East. Of “oriental” highwaymen, Macfarlane tells us that
Compared indeed with the hordes—the hosts—the almost nations of marauders in the East, our most numerous troops of [European] banditti sink into the insignificance of mere gangs. Their crimes, too, are tame and colourless contrasted with the full fire of Oriental atrocity.[ii]
This immediately marks out Indian bandits as a lesser and more savage ‘race’ than their European counterparts. In Europe, it was a—ultimately false—but widely held belief that highwaymen would simply rob you but rarely resort to violence. Macfarlane’s words on Indians, however, recycle orientalist stereotypes about the ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’ of people in the East. Of course, when one actually reads Macfarlane’s book, the crimes committed by Indian bandits are no better or worse than those committed by the Italian robbers of whom he was so fond.
One of the most notorious gangs of bandits in India were the Rohilla, who ‘infested’ the region of Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh, in the northern part of India. One of their primary grievances was the fact that, unsurprisingly, they did not like being ruled by the British. On this matter, Macfarlane quoted Bishop Herber who told him that:
The conquest of Rohilcund by the English and the death of its chief in battle, its subsequent cession to the Nawab of Oudh … form one of the worst chapters of English history in India … by all I could learn, the people appear by no means to have forgotten or forgiven their first injuries.[iii]
According to Macfarlane—and we must bear in mind that crime writers in this period were prone to completely inventing the odd fact or five—the Rohilla band were primarily former soldiers who had fought against the British. Feeling angry that the British had taken control of their region, they took to the forests around the foothills of the Himalayas and began to prey upon unsuspecting travellers. In view of the fact that their problems were mainly with the British occupiers, one might have assumed that they would only have targeted British travellers. Yet Macfarlane records that they robbed people of all ethnicities; British travellers, in fact, usually travelled in well-armed convoys, so it was not always wise for them to attack lest they bring the full force of the Company Raj upon them. So we might make a further assumption here that it was Indians themselves who bore the brunt of their depredations. They were most famous, as well, for creeping into villages late at night and stealing horses—an offence of similar magnitude to that of car stealing today.
We must, furthermore, view their political grievances with a pinch of salt: there is evidence that groups like the Rohilla had flourished even under the Mughal Empire. For this reason, B. Cohen describes them more as outlaws-cum-mercenaries, willing to hire out their arms to the highest bidder whatever their grievances might be.[iv]
The English tried all manner of things to catch the ring leaders of this notorious band, including offering a reward of up to 10,000 rupees to anyone who might betray their location. But the local population kept their mouths shut. This shows that the Rohillas were a very successful organised crime group—or a very brutal one. All gangs of bandits usually pay off the local inhabitants to keep them quiet, as Macfarlane told readers in his preface:
Before the reader proceeds further I will warn him that he will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those who occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. He will meet with men strangers to that virtue of robbing the rich to give to the poor. They give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to avoid detection.[v]
These men were hardly the Robin Hoods of their day. They were brutal, cared not who they robbed. They were not even overtly political, thus they cannot be placed into Hobsbawm’s paradigm of the bandit as a proto-revolutionary type of figure. They really were just thugs. Of course, while we describe these men with terms such as “bandit” or “outlaw”, we have to ask ourselves whether, in an era of colonialism when the men were living under the rule of a British trading company—a company described as “the original corporate raiders” by some—who the real outlaws and bandits of the period truly were.
[i] Stephen Basdeo, ‘”That’s Business”: Organised Crime in G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 54–75.
[ii] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (Philadelphia: G. Evans [n. d.]), p. 258.
[iii] Macfarlane, p. 280.
[iv] B. B. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism in India’s Deccan 1850–1948 (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 16.
[v] Macfarlane, p. 2.
Basdeo, Stephen, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018)
Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits, 2nd edn (London: Pelican, 1972)
Howe, Stephen, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Knapp, Andrew and William Baldwin, eds. The New Newgate Calendar, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824)
Scott, Walter, Rob Roy, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1818)