Bandits and Robbers of India

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.

Clive1
Robert Clive and the British East India Company are victorious at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (c) Wikimedia Commons

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.

Shah_'Alam_conveying_the_grant_of_the_Diwani_to_Lord_Clive
The signing of the Treaty of Allahabad, granting the diwai of Bengal to the British East India Company (c) Wikimedia Commons

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.

Rohilla
A Rohilla kidnapping a child–illustration from the America edition of Macfarlane’s book

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.

Charles_D'Oyly00
Calcutta in 1848 (c) Wikimedia Commons

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.


In-Text References

[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.

Further Reading:

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)

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Jack ‘Sixteen-String’ Rann (1750–74)

The eighteenth century was without a doubt the golden age of highwaymen, being the era in which robbers such as Jack Sheppard (1702–24), Dick Turpin (1705–39), and James Maclaine (1724–50). Most of the ‘celebrity’ highwaymen lived in the earlier part of the century, however, and as the Georgian era progressed, highwaymen were increasingly condemned in newspapers and by others. There was one outlier, however: his name was John ‘Sixteen-String Jack’ Rann who, with his fine clothes and polite manner, was the last of the gentlemanly highwaymen.[i]

Rann1
Illustration of Jack Rann and Miss Roche from 1774.

Rann was born in Bath of honest and respectable parents who, although they were destitute, raised him well. They could not afford any schooling for him, so at an early age he was sent to work. He made money by selling goods from a cart and through this formed a friendship with an aristocrat who was visiting the spas at Bath. The town in this period was what is known as a ‘Spa Town’. The underground springs were assumed to possess restorative powers and the great and the good flocked there, as well as to other places such as Harrogate, to ‘take the waters’. The lady took Rann into her service when he was about 12 years old and he returned to London with her when the spa season was over. By all accounts, the noblewoman was very pleased with his work. Rann, however, wanted to be his own boss and so, parting ways with the lady amicably, he resolved to set up his own business.

Rann 2
Title page to the earliest account of Rann’s life, c. 1774.

He could not read and write, but he knew how to drive a cart and had saved up a little capital from his time working in service. So he immediately purchased a post-chaise and started his own business as what we might now think of as an upper-class taxi driver. He would drive clients home after their nights out and through this made many friends in fairly high places. He did this part time while serving as an army officer’s errand boy. Perhaps as a result of mixing with the upper classes, Rann began to emulate gentlemen in his style of dress, and due to his fine clothes he was nicknamed ‘Sixteen-String Jack’.

Unfortunately his business folded because, along with purchasing high value clothes, he also frequented upper-class drinking establishments and soon ran into debt, to the tune of £50 (this was the equivalent to £4,335 in today’s money).[ii] In order to avoid the bailiffs, Rann turned pickpocket and soon fell in with two other young men engaged in the ‘profession’, known by the names of Jones, Clayton, and Colledge, who encouraged Rann to stick to this new way of life. Contemporary biographers record that his descent into a criminal course of life was also abetted by his budding relationship with a sex worker named Miss Roche.

With his friends, Rann commenced a series of robberies throughout London. He liked to live dangerously: he would taunt the Bow Street Runners, London’s first police force, by leading them on a chase throughout London and then giving them the slip. He also did not try to hide his identity: at one point, so his biography records, Rann was being hunted by John Fielding’s runners when he arrived at a turnpike and told the toll keeper:

“I am Sixteen-String Jack, the famous highwayman – have any of Sir John Fielding’s people been this way?”

“Yes,” said the man, “some of them are but just gone through.”

Rann replied, “If you see them again tell them I am gone towards London.”

And then he rode off with the most unconcern.[iii]

He was actually arrested three times in the last four years of his life on multiple counts of highway robbery. Yet none of the prosecutors could ever make the charges stick due to lack of evidence.

20180423_161137
Jack Rann at the Old Bailey

However, his downfall came when he robbed Dr William Bell, who was the chaplain to Princess Amelia (1783–1810) while he was travelling on Uxbridge Road. Rann was reportedly most uncivil about the whole affair:

Rann crossed the head of [Bell’s] horse and, demanding his money, said, “Give it to me and take no notice, or I’ll blow your brains out.”

The doctor, not wanting to test Rann’s threat, gave him 1s 6d as well as a tortoise-shell watch.[iv] Rann and his fellow robbers needed to get rid of their stolen goods, however, and on the same day as the robbery Miss Roche visited a pawn-brokers in order to exchange it for money. The pawnbroker assumed that the watch had not been acquired honestly, and so quietly alerted the authorities. Runners were sent to watch Roche’s apartment and the instant that Rann and his pals approached they were all arrested.

Rann’s accomplice, Clayton, was acquitted on all charges (accounts do not say why although it may due to the fact that he turned king’s evidence). Roche was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for fourteen years. Rann himself was sentenced to be hanged. While he was understandably dismayed at the sentence, he did not let this put him off from enjoying his last few days in gaol. While confined in Newgate prison he entertained several ladies with food and drink. He was finally put to death on 30 November 1774, one of the 35,000 people who suffered under the harsh penal laws in place between 1770 and 1830.[v] Rann’s biographer actually regretted the harsh sentence that was passed upon him:

As in the course of these memoirs we have had occasion to draw a parallel between the offences of Sixtreen-String Jack and the accumulated guilt of others, we cannot help observing, that though his charges are many, yet compared with those of a blacker dye, who have received mercy, we cannot help wishing, that this once happy young man might receive some proportion of that heaven-like attribute, and be endowed with grace sufficient to become a useful member of society.[vi]

What was the point, argues the author, of executing a young man when others had committed worse crimes and gotten away with them? Would it not be more useful to society as a whole if this enterprising young man was pardoned and given the opportunity to turn his hands to a useful trade? It is during the late eighteenth century that concerns gradually began to be raised in some quarters about the efficacy of the death penalty, although they were very much in the minority and, of course, Britain did not abolish it until the 1960s.

While earlier criminals such as Maclaine and Sheppard were celebrated in the press, Rann merely cut a rather ridiculous figure. The general public had grown tired of highwaymen after the 1760s. Newspapers had taken over the reporting of crime from the criminal biographies and pamphlets of individual criminals’ lives that had flourished in the earlier part of the century. They often reported crime in a matter of fact way, and instead of providing lengthy justifications for criminals’ actions, endeavoured instead to emphasise the suffering of the victim in accounts of crime. Lincoln B. Faller also argues that a middle-class consciousness seeped into popular crime literature, and the middle classes, who at this time were wanting to differentiate themselves both from the aristocracy and the plebeian classes, actively disowned any identification that they might have had with such low lives. And it was, after all, the middle classes whom highwaymen robbed the most.[vii]

While heavily fictionalised stories of some highwaymen such as Sheppard and Turpin remained popular into the Victorian period, being featured in novels and penny dreadfuls, poor Jack Rann, who really wanted to be classed alongside the ‘great’ highwaymen of old, was easily forgotten.


[i] This account is based upon readings from the following sources: The Annals of Newgate; or, Malefactors’ Register, 4 vols (London: J. Wenman, 1776); Andrew Knapp and William Bawldwin, The Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactors’ Bloody Register, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824); A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, alias Sixteen-string Jack (London: Bailey, 1774); The Malefactor’s Register; or, the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, 5 vols (London: A. Hogg, 1779).

[ii] See National Archives’ Currency Converter <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter> [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[iii] Knapp and Bawldwin, The Newgate Calendar, 3: 2.

[iv] Ibid., p. 4.

[v] For statistics see V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

[vi] A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, p. 4.

[vii] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 191-93.

“Robin Hood’s Rescue of the Three Squires” and the Political Economy of Banditry

Many Robin Hood ballads were printed as broadsides during the seventeenth century. The majority of them depict Robin Hood as a rather inept outlaw who, every time he stops somebody, tends to get beaten up. Some of them do, however, present us with a picture of what we expect Robin Hood to do: mount a heroic fight against the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. One such ballad is Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires, which is the title that the American Scholar, Franis J. Child gave it. However, the ballad sometimes has variant titles such as Robin Hood Rescuing the Widow’s Three Sons (Child actually records three different versions of this ballad, though none of the stories in any of them significantly diverge from the other).

RH and Woman
Robin Hood talking to the ‘silly’ old woman

The story is a basic one in which one day Robin comes across an old woman who is weeping. Robin approaches her and asks her what is wrong:

What news? What news? Thou silly old woman?

What news hast thou for me?

Said she, There’s three squires in Nottingham town

Today is condemned to die.[i]

(‘Silly woman’ was not meant to sound disparaging. Instead it meant ‘old’ or ‘frail’ woman). The sheriff has had three young men arrested and they have been sentenced to be hanged. In some versions of this tale, it is the woman’s sons who are to be hanged.

What happens next is rather interesting, however: everybody knows that Robin Hood’s sworn enemy is the Sheriff of Nottingham. In most stories, from the medieval poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450) down until modern films, he will often do anything he can to get one over on the sheriff.  However, in this ballad it is clear that Robin has a criteria for judging whether someone is worthy of being rescued:

O have they parishes burnt? He said,

Or have they ministers slain?

Or have they robbed any virgin.

Or with any man’s wives lain?

They have no parishes burnt, good sir,

Nor yet have ministers slain,

Nor have they robbed any virgin

Nor with other men’s wives lain.

O what have they done? said bold Robin Hood,

I pray thee tell to me.

It’s for slaying of the king’s fallow deer,

Bearing their long bows with thee.[ii]

Robin does not decide to automatically ride to their rescue, it will be noticed. He first ascertains what type of criminals the men due to be hanged are; whoever the writer of this ballad was it is obvious that he is a very moral, asking as he does whether they have killed any ministers or committed adultery. Furthermore, several medieval and early modern texts state that Robin never harmed women, so in this case he has to ascertain that too. Robin’s attitude here, in fact, demonstrates a rudimentary awareness of the political economy of organised crime and its relationship with the state and law enforcement.[iii] Throughout history, organised crime networks are content to not cause too much trouble for local law enforcement. In fact, laying low and not bothering law enforcement in their daily duties is often beneficial for bands of criminals: it takes the heat away from them. Furthermore, the merry men need to be seen as the ‘good guys’; they depend, as all bandits do (cf. Hobsbawm’s Bandits, 1969) upon the goodwill and favour of the people; not a single soul would look favourably upon Robin and his men if they were to rescue from the gallows arsonists, adulterers, or those who mistreated women.

RH and Gallows
Robin Hood rescuing three men from the gallows

Luckily for the woman and her three sons, it seems that the sheriff has indeed unjustly arrested them. The men appear to be kindred spirits of Robin’s for they have only hunted the king’s deer. Robin, therefore, decides to rescue all of the men. On his way to Nottingham, he meets a beggar and asks to change clothes with him (presumably, he thinks he will be too recognisable in his suit of Lincoln green). The execution is taking place just outside the castle walls. Once there, Robin finds a crowd gathered around the gallows, and the sheriff asks if anyone will serve as the hangman for the three young felons. Robin (as the beggar) volunteers. At the foot of the gallows, Robin blows his horn and

The first loud blast that he did blow,

He blew both loud and amain,

And quickly sixty of Robin Hood’s men,

Came shining over the plaini.

O who are you the sheriff he said,

Come tripping over the lee?

The’re [sic] my attendants brave Robin did say,

They’ll pay a visit to thee.[iv]

In revenge for attempting to execute some poor young lads who probably only wanted to feed themselves, the outlaws grab hold of the sheriff and take him back to the forest. They then erect a gallows there and hang him instead.

In conclusion, although the legend of Robin Hood seldom features in discussions of organised crime, banditry, and its relationship to the state, it is clear that whoever wrote this ballad had an idea that bandits could not simply thwart the actions of members of law enforcement as they pleased. Modern portrayals of Robin Hood also hint at this pattern of behaviour in Robin Hood’s gang; in the 1980s television series entitled Robin of Sherwood (1984–86), Robin recognises the value of not killing the sheriff; the outlaws need the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne to stay alive because, in spite of the fact that the sheriff is ever ready to hunt them down, the outlaws must not be seen as the aggressors and certainly not as people who would kill wantonly. To quote a very recent, though entirely unrelated, fictional portrayal of organised crime, the television series Gotham: when a low-ranking member of an organised crime is holding Jim Gordon captive and is ready to kill him, the big boss comes along and stops them from being killed; he reminds his minion that “there are rules”. Similarly with Robin Hood, there were rules to be followed; Robin’s arch-enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, but that did not necessarily mean that Robin was ever ready to defy the sheriff for no good reason.


[i] ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires’, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. by Francis J. Child, rev. ed., 5 vols (New York: Dover, 2003), 3: 180.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See the following works for more information on the operations of organised crime and the history of organised crime: S. Skaperdas, ‘The political economy of organized crime: providing protection when the state does not’, Economics of Governance, 2: 3 (2001), 173-202; Kelly Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’, Global Crime, 9: 1 (2008), 35-51; Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)

[iv] ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires’, 3: 181.

Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

Passo di Lupo: An Italian Bandit

An outlaw’s life was not a merry one: in the 1820s, banditry in Italy was rife; at this time, a young travel writer named Charles Macfarlane was touring the country and managed to obtain a rare interview with one of these brigands.

I recently managed to track down a copy of Charles Macfarlane’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833). The early nineteenth century was a good time for an aspiring author to be writing about outlaws and highwaymen. Walter Scott had already authored Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819). Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin had released a new multivolume edition of The Newgate Calendar (1824), and Edward Bulwer Lytton had published Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), two crime novels, to critical and popular claim. Macfarlane probably presumed that he could capitalise on the popularity of the ‘Newgate Novel’ (named after the infamous London gaol), by offering an updated version of Charles Johnson’s and Alexander Smith’s famous eighteenth-century Lives of the Highwaymen books.

Banndits 4
Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

(A quick plug: I shall also be following in the footsteps of Johnson, Smith, and Macfarlane when my forthcoming book, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (2018) is published).

 

However, instead of the sensationalised style of writing adopted by his eighteenth-century forbears, Macfarlane pursues a different approach: he warns the reader in his preface that

You will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those that occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. [You] will meet with men strangers to that virtuous violence of robbing the rich to give to the poor.[i]

This was not mere moralising, for Macfarlane does fulfil his promise to the reader that he will not be overly romanticising them. As for the famous Robin Hood principle of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Macfarlane is sceptical, or rather, cynical, about this practice:

They [bandits] give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to induce the poor to remain passive while they carry out their work of depredation against the rich.[ii]

Thus, Macfarlane’s purpose in writing the Banditti is not to render bandits in a Scott-esque romantic mode, but to present a picture of criminality.[iii] Such intentions anticipate Charles Dickens’s remarks upon thieves in the preface to Oliver Twist (1838), where, referring to Captain Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727), he says that in his depiction of thieves there will be

No canterings upon moonlit heaths, no merry makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jack boots, no crimson coats and ruffles.[iv]

Macfarlane was first and foremost a travel writer, and one example he gives of this decidedly unromantic view of a bandit’s life is in his account of a meeting with a former bandit named Luca whose nickname was ‘Passo di Lupo’ (Wolf’s Step).

Bandit 3
Italian Bandits. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti. (c) Stephen Basdeo

Let me provide some context first: Italy is still a relatively young nation state. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, it was divided into a series of small sovereign states. This state of affairs continued until the nineteenth century, and after the upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), which in reality was the first ‘world war’,[v] the division of the country was as follows: the Pope directly ruled Rome and a large part of central Italy; the House of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the north of the country, which also included Nice (now part of France); the regions of Lombardy and Venetia were subject to rule by the Habsburg monarchy, while southern Italy and Sicily, known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were ruled by the Bourbon dynasty.[vi] None of these states had any effective form of law enforcement beyond the local militia, and these structural weaknesses make the more rural areas of a country more likely to develop a problem with banditry.[vii] Even when Italy was unified in 1861 under the banner of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, it still experienced a problem with banditry until World War Two (1939–45), as the case of Salvatore Giuliano (1922–50) attests.

And this was the state of Italy when Macfarlane met Passo, while traveling through Abruzzi during the 1820s, which was then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Passo was a former member of a fearsome gang of outlaws named the Vardarelli, whom Macfarlane met at a gathering in the town square. He made enquiries as to who the strange-looking man was, and his guide immediately recognised him as a local famous former outlaw. This is the description of his appearance that Macfarlane gives:

I was struck with  the appearance of a fellow with the deep scar of an old wound across his swarthy brow, and his left arm in a sort of sling.[viii]

Macfarlane’s first question was to ask him what motivated him to become a bandit:

“Please your excellency,” said [Luca], “I was making love with a Paesana, and had the misfortune to give a blow of the knife to one I thought my rival.”[ix]

Understandably, the authorities attempted to arrest Luca for having killed a man, although Luca himself viewed this as a wholly unreasonable persecution.[x] In fairness to Luca, however, the vendetta – the settling of feuds through violence – was a custom amongst both the elites and the plebeian classes between the Renaissance and the twentieth century, and it still persists among organised crime groups in Italy. Thus, Luca’s view of the authorities’ apprehension of him as unreasonable should be viewed in context.[xi] 

Banndit 2
Bandits in a standoff with the local milita. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Luca’s brush with the law made him seek out the company of a famous group of brigands, the Vardarelli, who operated in Ponte di Bovino, a mountain range about thirty miles from his home in Monte Gargano. However, he was not welcomed with open arms at first. The brigands distrusted him at first, and he was effectively a prisoner in the camp for a number of weeks and not permitted to venture outside of it. Only after having proved himself to them by taking an oath administered by a local priest who ministered to the bandits was he finally allowed to accompany the robbers on their excursions. Nevertheless, Luca looked back to his robbing days with nostalgia, as Macfarlane records that,

I thought the fellow’s hawk-like eyes still beamed joyfully as he talked of stopping government mails and diligences, and rich graziers from the fairs of Foggia; and as he told me, how, at times, he had scoured the whole plain of Apulia and crossed the mountains of Basilicata, and plunged into other provinces – meeting nowhere a formidable resistance – nearly everywhere an impunity of plunder.[xii]

However, Luca recalled that the bandit chiefs kept the lesser people of the gang in a state of near poverty: the guappi, or the bullies of the gang, kept the lion’s share and threw morsels only to those below them. Then again, Macfarlane says that Luca recalled never being able to spend the little money that he did get on the few luxuries he desired. The townsfolk were generally hostile to them, which made it a no-go area. It did not help the robbers’ cause, of course, that they were indiscriminate in whom they chose for their victims, for they robbed peasants as well as rich farmers. The peasants were only left alone or given money if they needed a hiding place in the winter months. Lodging in a peasant’s house then brought with it a further threat of being betrayed to the authorities for the reward money. During the milder seasons, their accommodation was scarcely more inviting as they slept in cold caves. As a result, food could often be scarce, and Luca recalls that often they were so hungry that sheep were stolen from fields and eaten raw on the spot.[xiii] Scarcity of food meant that quarrels often broke out between the bandits. Duels were conducted and these frequently resulted in the death of a gang member.[xiv]

Eric Hobsbawm in his seminal study of banditry states that bandits often have short careers due to the fact that their ‘profession’ is a high risk one and conducive to a long life. In fact, the typical bandit’s career can be as short as two years before being either captured and punished, or returns to mainstream society.[xv] The man whom Macfarlane interviewed fell into the latter camp. Macfarlane asks him what induced him to forsake his former accomplices. It transpired that his arm had been badly injured in an altercation with the Bourbon government militia. He was permitted by some sympathetic townsfolk to shelter and recuperate in one of their houses, hidden from the authorities. Although he recovered, his injuries meant that he would not be of any further use to his fellow brigands. Luckily at this time, with banditry being so endemic in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, King Ferdinand decided that, instead of fighting what seemed like an ever losing battle, he would simply extend a pardon to all bandits who wished to take up the offer. Passo was one of those who took advantage of this. Little is known of how Lupo died – after their encounter Macfarlane does not know.


References

[i] Charles Macfarlane, Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (Philadelphia: G. Evans, 1833), p. 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, rev. ed. (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1841), p. x.

[v] Michael Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[vi] For more information on the history of Italy during the 19th century see the following: Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[vii] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2004).

[viii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 16.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Raymond E. Role, ‘The War Games of Central Italy’, History Today, 49: 6 (1999), online edn. http://www.historytoday.com/raymond-e-role/war-games-central-italy [Accessed 11 November 2017].

[xii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 17.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 18.

[xv] Hobsbawm, Bandits, pp. 34-45.

Mack the Knife: The “True” Story Behind the Song

The popular song Mack the Knife was based upon the story of an eighteenth-century highwayman named Captain Macheath. This post traces the literary life of this fictional character.

Most people, at some point in their lives, will have heard the song Mack the Knife, which has been covered by a wide range of singers including Louis Armstrong (1901–71), my personal favourite, Bobby Darin (1936–73), Frank Sinatra (1915–98), and Roger Daltrey (1944–). Few people will realise, however, that the song is based upon the story of a fictional eighteenth-century highwayman named Captain Macheath, who first appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727) and whose story was subsequently reimagined in Bertold Brecht’s The Three-Penny Opera (1928).

Macheath 6
John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728)

Gay’s opera was essentially the first ‘jukebox musical’: it took the tunes of contemporary popular folk songs, changed their lyrics, and inserted them into the narrative. It tells the story of a womanising highwayman, Macheath, based upon the real-life thief, Jack Sheppard (1702–24), who has a romance with the daughter of the thief taker, Peachum. The latter is a character based upon Sheppard’s nemesis, Jonathan Wild (c. 1688–1725). As thief taker, Peachum controls all the crime in London in his capacity as the main law-enforcer, and has the power of life and death over his criminals. He takes exception to the proposed marriage between Macheath and his daughter and resolves to have him hanged. What follows is a comical tale of encounters with sex workers, escapes from gaol, until finally he is taken to be hanged. Instead of being hanged, however, the playwright steps on to the stage and proclaims a reprieve at the last moment, saving the heroic highwayman from the gallows.

The play did much to cement the image of the heroic highwayman in public consciousness with contemporary audiences, which built upon previous portrayals of some robbers as noble and generous in criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734).[i] In turn, later highwaymen such as James Maclaine (1724–50) fashioned themselves as modern-day Macheaths in order to curry favour with the public. In his play, Gay had a wider point to make, however: he wanted to criticise the government; the leading ministers of state were no better than the corrupt thief takers who patrolled London’s streets and who, while they prosecuted certain small-scale, petty criminals, left larger crimes unpunished. Thus we see Peachum in the opening scene of The Beggar’s Opera singing:

Through all the employments of life

Each neighbour abuses his brother;

Whore and rogue they call husband and wife,

All professions be-rogue one another.

The priest calls the lawyer a cheat,

The lawyer beknaves the Divine,

And the statesman because he’s so great,

Thinks his trade as honest as mine.[ii]

He then proceeds to say

A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for ‘tis fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by ‘em.[iii]

A particular target of Gay’s attacks in The Beggar’s Opera was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745). Widely viewed as corrupt, even though nobody ever managed to trace any particular frauds or embezzlements to him, to satirists in the eighteenth century he represented all that was wrong with the ruling aristocratic oligarchy.

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(Portrayals of Captain Macheath/Mack the Knife through the Ages)

During the Victorian period, with the rise of the penny dreadful publishing industry, tales of highwaymen became immensely popular with both adults and youths of the lower middle and working classes. Dick Turpin (1705–39) appeared regularly in the columns of these cheap magazines, as did older highwaymen such as Robin Hood and the afore-mentioned Jack Sheppard. The actual stories differed little from other contemporary tales of highwaymen, being mostly full of daring adventures, escapes from the police, and the rescue of young maidens from aristocratic villains. Pierce Egan (1814–80), an author about whom I have written a lot on this website, authored Captain Macheath: The Highwayman of a Century Since (1840). Later anonymously-written penny dreadfuls include a long running serial in the magazine Tales of Highwaymen (1865–66), as well as Captain Macheath: The Prince of the Highway (1892), which is a virtual plagiarism of Egan’s earlier novel.

The song Mack the Knife does not appear in Gay’s opera, but appeared Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera. While in Gay’s earlier play, Macheath is a jovial and relatively good-natured fellow who flinches from using violence, Brecht gives us a Macheath, or a ‘Mack the Knife’ who, it is hinted, has a darker side to his character. This comes through most clearly in the song entitled Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, sung usually at the beginning of the play, which is the song we all know as Mack the Knife:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

But the knife that Macheath carries,

No one knows where it may be.[iv]

The song then gives us a litany of some of the quite brutal crimes attributed to Macheath/Mack the Knife:

On a blue and blamy Sunday

On the Strand a man  has lost his life.

A man darts around the corner,

People call him Mack the Knife.

 

And Schmul Meier is still missing,

One more wealthy man removed,

Somehow Mackie has his money,

Yet nothing can be proved.

 

Jenny Towler was discovered,

With a knife stuck in her chest,

Mackie strolls along the dockside,

Knows no more than all the rest.

 

Seven children and an old man,

Burned alive in old Soho

In the crowd stands Mack the Knife

Who’s not asked and doesn’t know.

 

And the widow not yet twenty

Only her name could she say,

Defiled one night as she lay sleeping

Mackie what price did you pay?[v]

Murder, arson, and rape: all of these crimes are attributed to Macheath; even though he is the hero of the tale, he is certainly not as noble and gentlemanly as the Macheath of Gay’s story. The story of the play is essentially the same as The Beggar’s Opera, although it is set in Victorian London instead of Georgian London as Gay’s play was: Mack the Knife marries Polly Peachum, to the chagrin of her father Peachum who is an underworld crime lord; in concert with the Chief of Police, Peachum convinces the policeman to gather enough evidence to hang Mack. Eventually Mack is arrested and is taken to be hanged, but at the last minute a pardon arrives from Queen Victoria for him. He is released and is soon elevated to a Baronetcy, the implication being that he can now steal from people legally because he is a member of the aristocracy. Through this means, Brecht, a socialist, offers a critique of the corruption endemic in the modern capitalist city in which thieves are no better than the elites, which is a similar argument to that made by Gay almost two centuries before.

Later singers, such as the ones I pointed out in the introduction, adapted Brecht’s Moritat and gave it the title of Mack the Knife. We see a slight return in these later songs to a friendlier portrayal of Macheath, such as that contained in the Bobby Darin lyrics:

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe

And he keeps it, ah, out of sight.

Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe

Scarlet billows start to spread

Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe

So there’s never, never a trace of red.

Now on the sidewalk, huh, huh, whoo sunny morning, un huh

Lies a body just oozin’ life, eek

And someone’s sneakin’ ’round the corner

Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

 

There’s a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river don’tcha know

Where a cement bag’s just a’drooppin’ on down

Oh, that cement is for, just for the weight, dear

Five’ll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town

Now d’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe

After drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash

And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor

Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?

 

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry

Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown

Oh, that line forms on the right, babe

Now that Macky’s back in town.

 

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry

Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown

Yes, that line forms on the right, babe

Now that Macky’s back in town

Look out, old Macky’s back

It appears that there are still heavy penalties for those who cross his path, but at least he does not rape women or burn whole families alive in their houses.

For those interested in seeing original versions of The Three-Penny Opera, see the following youtuve videos:

And the Roger Daltrey version of the movie can be found here:


References

[i] For a detailed and scholarly discussion of highwaymen and masculinity see the following: Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). For further reading on The Beggar’s Opera (1728) see the following: Lucy Moore, The Thieves’ Opera (London: Penguin, 1997).

[ii] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, 3rd Edn (London: J. Watts, 1729), p. 1.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Translated approximately from the original German.

[v] Bertolt Brecht, The Three-Penny Opera (1928).