No point in legalizing weed for recreational use

By Adam Ramos

Adam Ramos delves into the recent past to see if the promised benefits from legalizing marijuana for recreational use in some parts of the United States have been realized.

Marijuana has never been a controversy in the United States until the past 20 years.  The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana is based upon the arguments that U.S states will earn more money and get rid of criminal activity like gangs, black-markets, and cartels.  When looking at the states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, however, all the great things that were said to come with legalization, never came.  Recreational marijuana should be kept illegal because it does not bring in the money it was promised; it does not take control of the production and sale of marijuana out of the hands of criminals and it comes with health risks.

At a federal level, cannabis is illegal yet many states have and are attempting to make this drug legal at the state level.  So far there have already been nine states, as well as Washington D.C., to legalize marijuana for recreational use and there are 32 states that have legalized the substance for medical use.  The process in which these states went through to legalize marijuana for recreational use, was by passing a ballot like Colorado and Oregon did.  Oregon held a ballot upon so-called Measure 91 which allowed for

Adult possession of less than one ounce of marijuana [which] was decriminalized on the first of July 2015, [then] sales of retail marijuana through existing dispensaries began in October 2015, and licensing of retail stores started in October 2016.[1]

Now, readers were not born yesterday: when someone approaches a black-market cannabis dealer, they ask for a certain amount of the substance, they pay for it, and the transaction is completed with only two parties involved.  When people purchase from a dispensary, however, there are three parties involved in the transaction: the consumer asks the dispensary for the same amount of the substance, and they pay for that in addition to the state tax that they have on marijuana.  This way dispensaries make money from selling marijuana, while the state makes their money from this by adding a tax on it.

One of recreational marijuana biggest claims for legalization, is the fact that marijuana has such a high demand and when the state has it to supply, large amounts of money will be produced, benefiting the state as a whole. Yet when we look at the states that have already legalized marijuana for recreation use, this is not the case.  J. Sullum reveals that

In Feburary 2014, a month after legal recreation pot sales began in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper projected that marijuana taxes would raise $118 million for the following fiscal year.[2]

But when the fiscal year ended, only $66 million had been earned.  That number is just scrapping by $59 million, which is only half of what the Governor predicted would be raised and only represented 0.3 percent of the state’s $23.1 million budget.

After one year, not even one percent of the state’s budget had been affected by marijuana legalization, adding little to state coffers. 

To give the benefit of the doubt, that figure was only one year of marijuana being legalized, so after a few years of operation, this should have surely changed.  The Colorado Legislative Council say otherwise, projecting 83 million in 2017-2018 which, yet again, is nowhere close to the $118 million predicted by Governor John Hickenlooper.  This minute sum of money accumulated from recreational marijuana sales was collected with heavy taxes on marijuana sales.

guzman arrest
Mexican cartel leader, Guzman, arrested – has legalizing marijuana for recreational use really taken control of the drug’s sale out of criminals’ hands?

In Colorado. when they passed the Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana, policy-makers decided that marijuana should be “taxed in a manner similar to alcohol”—that is, that taxes should be kept fairly low. But in practice Colorado is taxing marijuana much more heavily than they do alcohol, and just like Colorado, Washington also places high taxes on recreational marijuana sales with a 37 percent marijuana-specific tax, in addition to standard state and local sales taxes which makes marijuana purchased from state dispensaries almost fifty percent more expensive than it would be normally.

These high taxes do not help recreational marijuana’s campaign at all for a few reasons, and far from taking control away from criminal gangs, criminals’ control of the marijuana trade have actually increased. High taxes are causing a reverse effect by causing consumers to look elsewhere to purchase marijuana, resulting in the increase in black market and the state losing money. In Washington, the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) established quotas for marijuana production based on the assumption that state-licensed stores would initially capture 25 percent of the market,[3] but after a year of legal sales the LCB Deputy Director Randy Simmons put the stores’ share of total cannabis consumption at 10 percent, meaning that the other 90 percent was still being distributed by the untaxed black market.  With such high taxes on marijuana, consumers will not want to purchase from state dispensaries, causing the black market to always exist. This of course may make some readers think that the states where marijuana is legal should not tax the substance so highly, but any significant reduction in taxes would decrease the already modest gains from taxable sales of marijuana.

High taxes are not the only reason that the black market is still thriving.  There are other laws that have been made that, again, cause a reverse effect on legalizing recreational marijuana’s campaign.  Vermont allows for home growing of marijuana but there are certain factors that come from this resulting in small scale marijuana distribution.  An adult is permitted to have one plant growing in their house at one time and according to Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division and evidence suggests that one mature plant produces 335 grams a year but can be even more if plants are grown outside.  Even the heaviest of smokers would only need one plant to fulfill their needs as well as exceed the 28-gram limit allowed for recreational use.  In states like Alaska, Colorado and Washington D.C, adults can have up to six plants, but only three can be flowering at one time.  If all three of those plants are mature and in the correct conditions, 1005 grams of weed can be produced.[4]

If one plant can produce more than enough for one person, why can three be grown at one time and produce such an extreme amount?  This is when the question arises: what do they do will all the extra marijuana? This is where the black market is fueled to continue to exist.

All this extra marijuana will not be thrown away but will be sold.  This presents people who would have never sold marijuana with the option of now selling it illegally.  This also presents the opportunity for those people already involved in the black market to grow marijuana legally and then sell it.  This was the case in Colorado where

Local officials said that Mexican cartels were growing marijuana under the cover of legal operations.[5]

If the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use wanted to maximize their income, why allow for individuals to grow their own to the point where they will not ever spend a penny at one of the state dispensaries? They lose customers who would be initially spending money on the state tax. By allowing for individuals to grow their own, it does nothing but fuel the black market and cause the state to lose money.

Aside from the negative effects Recreational marijuana has on the legalized states, there are also the many negative effects that marijuana has on health.  Marijuana is a substance that impairs you; your vision, way of thinking, actions, and reaction time are all things that occur when a person has taken marijuana. As a result

After retail stores opened in Colorado, emergency room visits related to marijuana shot up nearly 30% and hospitalizations related to marijuana rose 200%.[6]

These health-related incidents are all due to people having attempted to carry out dangerous or hazardous activities such as driving having taken the substance.

Also—in spite of some recreational marijuana activists’ attempts to downplay the health effects of the drug itself—marijuana does affect the brain in many different ways such as increasing the risk of developing schizophrenia, depression and other psychiatric disorders, so researchers at Harvard University and Northwestern University found when their studies revealed that some recreational marijuana smokers had abnormalities in the shape, volume, and density of certain areas of the brain”.[7]

The brain is not the only way health is affected; most people smoke marijuana along with tobacco which damages the lungs and causes respiratory problems—a perhaps unsurprising side effect of the drug’s use. While it is obvious that cigarettes affect your lungs and body in terrible ways, there is evidence to suggest that smoking one marijuana joint is as damaging to the lungs as five tobacco cigarettes.[8]

Critics might say that alcohol has health risks, that it is legal, and adults should make up their own mind about what they want to put in their bodies. To raise such an objection is merely a bit of “whataboutery”. The debate here is about marijuana; many U. S. states are attempting to make it legal without analyzing the effects on other states that have it already legalized it.


Recreational marijuana activists promised less black-market activity—the opposite has happened.  The high state taxes on marijuana caused people to turn back to the black market and allowing home growing resulted in more illegal activity, thereby reducing the amount of money the states can make.  While high promises were made about the amount the amount of revenue a state could earn from legalizing the substance for enjoyment, the amount of money actually coming in is nowhere close to what was promised. And none of the supposed benefits of legalizing cannabis for enjoyment come negate the negative health effects of its use. Medicinal marijuana is fine—but let’s at least be honest about the fact that very few benefits will come from making the substance legal for recreational purposes.

[1] S. Fiala, et al, ‘Exposure to Marijuana Marketing After Legalization of Retail Sales: Oregonians’ Experiences, 2015-2016′, American Journal Of Public Health, 108: 1 (2018), 120-127.

[2] J. Sullum, ‘Americans Love Pot Taxes’, Reason, 47: 9 (2016), 42-46.

[3] Sullum, op cit.

[4] Jonathan P. Caulkins, ‘Considering marijuana legalization carefully: insights for other jurisdictions from analysis for Vermont’, Addiction, 111: 12 (2016), 2082–89.

[5] Anon, 2018. ‘Recreational Marijuana’. [online]. Available at: [Accessed                  23 September 2018].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.



By Stephen Basdeo

Since the Victorian era, even though they lack a formal written constitution, the English people have always enjoyed a high degree of freedom of speech and political freedom. In the early nineteenth century, many journalists and publishers on the radical end of the political spectrum found themselves in the dock on charges of sedition. Yet sedition has always been a very vague idea and, for most people, is synonymous with treason.

The latter had been clearly defined in legal terms with the passage of the Treason Felony Act (1848), which held that a person was guilty of treason if they were to:

Within the United Kingdom or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose our Most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, or royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, or of any other of her Majesty’s dominions and countries, or to levy war against her Majesty, within any part of the United Kingdom, in order by force or constraint to compel her to change her measures or counsels, or in order to put any force or constraint upon or in order to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament, or to move or stir any foreigner or stranger with force to invade the United Kingdom or any other of her Majesty’s dominions or countries under the obeisance of her Majesty, and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them, shall express, utter, or declare, by publishing any printing or writing or by any overt act or deed.[1]

The date on which that Act was passed is significant; the year 1848 saw a high degree of Chartist activity, culminating in the large open air pro-democracy demonstration at Kennington Common; and a few leading Chartist activists such as William Cuffay were prosecuted under the Treason Felony Act. In reality, the Chartists were never revolutionaries and most Chartist thinkers envisaged a place for the monarchy in a reformed and democratic parliamentary system.

Interior of 19thc. Courtroom

The Treason Act did little to clear up a question which some law-makers were asking themselves, namely: what was sedition? Could one be guilty of sedition but not treason? How were the two offences to be separated? Treason was the carrying out of a physical act intended to deprive Her Majesty of her kingdom, of course, but was a person who, say, merely published an inflammatory remark about the Queen and the government still guilty of treason – a very serious offence – or seditious libel?

The answer to this question came in a trial held in February 1868, during which two Fenian newspapers, the Irishman and Nation, the proprieters of whom had Irish nationalist sympathies and who resented the domination of Ireland by the British were hauled into the dock to answer charges of sedition.[2] The proprietor’s defence counsel claimed that they were just the neutral transmitters of information in the same way that The Times might publish a speech by a foreign actor criticising the British government yet remain guilt-free from committing a seditious act. The newspaper owners could not be charged with treason, for they had done nothing physically to ‘move, stir, compass, or design’ to deprive the Queen of her kingdom. So instead they were charged with seditious libel.

Sedition had been a common law offence since the seventeenth century and had indeed focused upon published writings, but taking the law at its word (the original Act is only a few lines long), sedition could include anything from the publication of a satire on government policy to an outright call for rebellion printed in the columns of a newspaper. So, it was up to the judges in question – Mr. Justice Fitzgerald and Mr. Baron Deasy – when a Grand Jury was assembled in the Fenian Case to define just what, exactly, seditious libel was; sedition preceded the act of treason, though it was not necessarily treason in itself:

A seditious libel was a crime against society nearly allied to treason, which it but too frequently preceded but by a short interval. It was a comprehensive term, and embraced all those practices, whether by word, or deed, or writing, which were calculated and intended to disturb the tranquillity of the State and lead the Queen’s subjects to resist or subvert the established government and laws of the Empire. Its objects were to create commotion and introduce discontent and disaffection, to stir up opposition to the laws and Government, bring the administration of justice into contempt, and its natural and ultimate tendency was to excite the people to insurrection and rebellion.[3]

The focus here, it will be noticed, was upon the written word; to be seditious was to write something which was not only critical of the government – if that was the only criteria, indeed, many of the leading radical journalists of the Victorian era such as G. W. M. Reynolds would have found themselves in the dock – but the writing(s) in question had to constitute a call to arms to other people to ‘disturb the tranquillity of the State’. Thus, if any of Her Majesty’s subjects took the seditious message to heart and acted upon, say, a call to arms and open rebellion and tried organising a revolution, the subject would be guilty of treason, while the publisher of the newspaper would be guilty of sedition.

Fenian Activists rescuing their comrades from gaol

But was this not all a bit subjective? Printed matter that was considered as seditious in one era was not necessarily so in another. I take the example here of Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler (1817); it was called seditious by one MP in Parliament when it was first published and, having just come out of over 25 years of war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Southey’s talk of liberty, equality, and brotherhood might well have been interpreted as seditious. But when the collected poetical works of Robert Southey were published in the 1850s by a variety of publishers, it was hardly seditious at all, and was probably rather quaint. Similarly, Thomas Paine’s writings in the 1790s were considered seditious by the government of the day yet in the late Victorian period one could get hold of a cheap copy of Paine’s writings fairly easily.

That was the whole point, however, according to Justice Fitzgerald. Time and context determined whether something was seditious, and while authors may be the main culprits in committing the act of sedition, publishers themselves were just as guilty if they published a particular set of writings at a time of political agitation and disturbance, as Fitzgerald went on to say when he commented upon the defendants’ key defence, that they were just a neutral transmitter of information:

The law gave no such sanction, and did not in the abstract justify or excuse the republication of seditious articles, no matter from what source they might be taken. In reference to all such publications the time, the object, and all the surrounding circumstances ought to be taken into consideration, and might be as such as would rebut any inference of a criminal intention in the publisher. If, for instance, one of the leading newspapers of this country should publish in good faith the proceedings of a foreign conspiracy with a view to communicate information or as a warning to the nation, accompanying it with proper editorial comments,, those remarks would, by any rational mind, negative the idea of any seditious design. But if, on the other hand, at a period of great political disturbance and disaffection, when treasonable confederacies existed urging on the deluded people to armed insurrection, a journal was found deliberately to devote a considerable portion of its issue to the re-publication from foreign sources of treasonable and seditious articles addressed to the people of this country, and without a word of warning or a note of disapproval, then it would be but reasonable to infer that the publisher intended what was the natural result of this course of action – namely, to promote seditious purpose.[4]

Of course, this all sounds rather worrying so far; in theory, the government could simply say that certain writing(s) were seditious and the poor authors and their publishers could be hauled into court on what were quite serious charges. Luckily, this was not the case; the prosecution had to prove seditious intent.

The indictment for sedition must specify the acts, the overt or open acts, by which seditious intent was evinced, and in the cases to be specially submitted for their consideration the acts relied on as indicating the seditious spirit of the accused party were certain newspaper publications which were alleged to print seditious libels.[5]

With the authors of seditious works, intent was perhaps easier to prove; they had probably written many seditious works before and seizure of letters, diaries, unpublished articles and copies of published articles might go some way to proving seditious intent on the part of the author. It was trickier to punish the publishers; a number of manuscripts might pass through their printing house and an allegedly seditious work might be one among a number of their output which involved a number of supposedly respectable publications too.

G W M Reynolds – one of the great radicals of the Victorian era.

Yet according to Justice Fitzgerald, publishers were a greater danger to the government than the authors of seditious works:

It was scarcely necessary for him to point out to them that to accomplish treasonable purposes, and to delude the weak, the unwary, and the ignorant, no means could be more effectual than a seditious press. With such machinery the preachers of sedition could sow widecast those poisonous doctrines which if unchecked culminated in insurrection and revolution. Lord Mansfield likened a seditious press to Pandora’s Box – the source of every evil. These words might be of a seditious character, but … they scatter the poison far and wide’.[6]

Sedition of course was a lesser crime than treason;

Being inconsistent with the safety of the State, is regarded as a high misdemeanour, and as such punishable with a fine and imprisonment; and it had been truly said that it was the duty of the Government, acting for the protection of society, to resist and extinguish it at the earliest moment.[7]

The Treason Felony Act provided for a much harsher sentence than a fine and imprisonment. The Grand Jury eventually decided to indict the proprietors of the Irishman and Nation for treason; this did not harm either of the papers’ fortunes, however, for both lasted until c. 1900.

[1] An Act for the Better Security of the Crown and Government of the United Kingdom, ch. 12. 11 & 12 Victoria (London: HMSO, 1848), online edn. [Accessed 23 November 2018].

[2] ‘Ireland: From Our Own Correspondent’, The Times, 12 February 1868, 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018).

Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” (2018)

Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo

As a fan of English radical history (did I mention I once wrote a book about Wat Tyler?), I was really looking forward to Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018). For the first time I’d see a visual representation of the infamous Peterloo Massacre which occurred in Manchester in 1819; I would see the great radical orator Henry Hunt delivering one of his famous speeches (well, I’d see an actor doing it, but as a historian, this is as close as I’m going to get in seeing one of my heroes in action). The artfully edited trailer made it look a little bit like an English Les Miserables.

Hunt at St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, as represented in the movie.

The event itself was a national scandal. In August 1819, nearly 60,000 pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, to hear Hunt speak on the subject of parliamentary reform. The crowd, which was socially diverse, as neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote at this point, had many grievances. These included the fact that none of them could vote, as well as the fact that the largely aristocratic British government had enacted the Corn Laws–tariffs on imports of grain which protected the businesses of the landed classes and kept the price of bread high–the effects of which were exacerbated by high unemployment following the demobilisation of soldiers after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). But at the meeting, from an upper room in a house in Mount Street, the Manchester Magistrates grew nervous and called the cavalry out on the protesters who, drunk, attacked the peaceful protesters with their sabres.

George Cruikshank, Massacre at St Peter’s or “Britons Strike Home” (London, 1819).  BM 1876,0510.980

It is estimated that around 15 people died on the day, while a further 700 were injured, and countless more may have died of their injuries later. The event was a national scandal and became an important moment in British working-class and labour history.

One of the things that the film does very well is the depiction of the actual massacre itself. There is little background music to dramatize the situation which lends a sense of realism to the portrayal of it; we see the protesters gathered as normal trying to catch a glimpse of Hunt and hear him, then at the back of the crowd the cavalry begin charging at them. To the viewer, as it must have seemed to the crowd at the time, this is initially a bit confusing–just why are the cavalry, who are not exactly galloping fast at first, coming towards the crowd? Then the cavalry begin striking people, and the carnage ensues.

I have also changed my mind about another aspect of the movie which I initially disliked: the political speeches. A good portion of the movie is taken up with various characters uttering speeches at meetings in favour of political reform, with some of the dialogue taken directly from primary sources. Initially, I was a bit underwhelmed; the actors chosen, such as Nico Mirallegro, are not ‘great’ orators, and on a first viewing I felt that he did not give enough ‘umph’ to his demands for liberty. Yet this does actually convey the fact that the ordinary working men who gathered in taverns and in fields in Manchester in 1819, would not have been great orators.

Of course, this is a qualified change of heart on my part. While the sheer amount of speeches in various places does nicely illustrate the fact that there was lots of radical political activity going in many places and promoted by members of both the middle and the working classes, there was no need to quote some of the speeches in their entirety. As any undergraduate history student is told: do not give lengthy quotations; your job is to distil the information and create an argument or narrative out of the information you had. The filmmakers did not follow this basic rule.

In fact, as a historian, I feel as though I am betraying my profession when I say this, but: sometimes movie-makers can pay too much attention to detail when making their films. Let me explain: Maxine Peake is a brilliant actress, and played the part of Nellie admirably, yet her explanation of the Corn Laws was so dry and academic that I half-expected a fully formatted Chicago Style footnote to flash up on the bottom of the screen listing the source. Now, obviously, working-class women in the nineteenth century were intelligent and often well-informed about political matters, but it would have been enough to simply say something along the lines of “the price of bread is high”. It felt a bit too academic.

Adam Buck, Henry Hunt (c.1810). (c) National Portrait Gallery.

While the above are minor quibbles, my real problem is with the portrayal of Henry Hunt as an arrogant and self-centred arse who is dismissive towards poorer people. This is simply wrong; Hunt was named at the time as:

The Poor Man’s Protector.

He spoke over a thousand times at mass meetings about parliamentary reform and of about the need for working-class (a term which he largely pioneered) and middle-class representation in parliament. This was often at great personal financial cost to himself.

After the massacre, Hunt was arrested for two years yet from his cell continued to campaign tirelessly for political reform. The final verdict on his character, however, should be given by the people of Manchester themselves. The Newgate Calendar records that:

Hunt was drawn about two miles by women, and ten miles by men. In fact, his return was one long triumphal procession, waited upon by thousands, on horse, on foot, and in carriages, who hailed him with continued shouts of applause. The sensation produced throughout the country by this fatal business was intense. Hunt’s conduct was universally applauded, and he received the thanks of nearly every county in England, and those even who opposed him on principle now forgot their enmity, and hailed him as the uncompromising champion of liberty. His entry into London was public, and some of the first characters of the day honoured him with their presence, whilst hundreds of thousands welcomed him with deafening applause.

Ultimately, the film is visually impressive, but at a personal, human level it fails to impress.

Yobs from Richmond Arrested for Stealing Football

By Stephen Basdeo

Young lads have always enjoyed playing football, but sometimes their love for it can land them in trouble with the police. This is as true today as it was in the Victorian era, where in court records we find two residents from Richmond, London, William Ford, aged 19, and Henry Hold, aged 15, arrested for having broken into a shop and stealing a football.

On 20 December 1894, Mr James Burford, the Managing Director of the London and Birmingham Manufacturing Company, left £1 in the cash register and 1 shilling and threepence in the bowl on the cashier’s desk, locked up the office went home for the evening. When he came back the next morning, he found that the till and the money on the side had been emptied, and that a football was missing from his shop.

Hooligans in the Victorian Era

It’s pretty obvious that Ford and Holt were not master criminals; the best criminals are never caught and they tend to keep quiet about the offences they’ve committed. Not so with these two delinquents; to other members of the local community they decided to announce their intention to burgle other businesses in their home neighbourhood.

Their inability to keep their traps shut about their past robberies and their intentions to go about robbing other people naturally aroused the suspicions of the local bobby, Sergeant Hawkins, who decided to collar the lads a few days later – policemen were much more heavily involved in their local communities than they are today – and at their homes the policeman informed Holt that he had come to arrest them for breaking into Burford’s shop. In their possession, he found a brand new football which matched the description of the missing football from Burford’s factory.

The Old Bailey in the 19th Century

The two delinquents were hauled to the Police Court (now known as the Magistrates Court) where they were cross-examined; they insisted that they had purchased the football off a random stranger, a defence that was given very little credit by all present, for in the words of Burford himself, although the design was common, he had no doubt that the ball in the boys’ possession was his missing football:

Cross-examined by MR. DRAKE. Castle Yard is in Hill Street, about three minutes’ walk off—this football has been very little Used—I recognise it by the letter “U” stamped on the bottom—we have only just commenced keeping them—it is a common class of football—the “U “is not our mark; it is a common trade mark; we have no private mark on it.

Re-examined. I have very little doubt it is the ball I missed.

Holt had pleaded Not Guilty originally while Ford changed his plea to Guilty, but the magistrate found them Guilty.

Ford was sentenced to six months hard labour, while Holt was given nine months.

We know little of Ford and Holt’s life after this event. Holt died in 1904 but his death records do no state the cause of it.

Ford, however, was charged with theft again in 1901, and sentenced to another 9 months of hard labour, after which he was discharged as an ‘Habitual Criminal’. Today, of course, 9 months for stealing a few pounds and a football would barely even attract the attention of a magistrate and still less would it warrant a custodial sentence.

Further Reading: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 01 November 2018), January 1894, trial of WILLIAM FORD(19) HENRY HOLT(15) (t18940108-209).

The Meaning of ‘Mafia’

By Stephen Basdeo

The early 1860s in Italy was a decade of hope.

King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had, with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s help, unified the whole of the Italian peninsula under his rule, where previously the region had been divided into a number of small petty kingdoms, often ruled by foreigners.

It seemed like the dream of the Italian radicals – that of the Risorgimento (‘rebirth’) – had finally been realised, a sentiment that is reflected in the Cango degli Italiani (1847), which is now used as the Italian national anthem:

Noi fummo da secoli [We were for centuries]

Calpesti, derisi [Downtrodden, derided,]

Perché non siam popolo, [Because we were not one people,]

Perché siam divisi. [Because we were divided.]

Raccolgaci un’unica Bandiera, una speme: [Let one flag, one hope gather us all]

Di fonderci insieme Già l’ora suonò. [The hour has struck for us to unite].

Yet the dream turned sour and far from a unification it looked increasingly as though Piedmont-Sardinia had merely conquered or colonised the rest of Italy – Victor Emmanuel even retained the regnal number ‘II’, instead of opting to be named Victor Emannuel I of Italy. Some of the tax and conscription measures passed by the new government prompted angry rebellions in the southern part of the peninsula and banditry became rife, which of course made the government send troops into the region to put down the bands of brigands that flourished there.

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

If the southern part of the mainland had its problems, Sicily was deemed to be virtually lawless. Sicilians had often been viewed by northern mainlanders, if not with contempt and suspicion, at least as an exotic ‘Other’. They were to all intents and purposes a separate people with their own customs. Law enforcement here was practically non-existent which, as in the region of Naples, still suffered from endemic banditry.

According to Robert M. Dainotto, about this time a new word appeared in the Italian language which was ‘shrouded in mystery, eerie in sound, mysterious in origin, menacing in the images it evoked’.

The word was mafia.

It is true that the word had been around before; a record from the Inquisition in 1685 lists a case of alleged witchcraft as maffia, and a successful but short lived play by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca entitled The Mafioisi of Viccaria (1863) used the word to describe a set of law-breakers.

The word originally signified a state of mind, an attitude that was opposed to all forms of central and governmental authority, and only later was it applied to paramilitary groups which had been hired by Sicilian landowners to protect their estates from brigands. It was a marriage of convenience; it gave men from the poorer classes a wage and an escape route from dire poverty while more affluent citizens could carry on their businesses without hindrance from brigands.

Yet these ‘mafia’ paramilitary groups soon became aware of just how powerful they were – they sought to gain the upper hand over the Sicilian propertied classes by controlling local businesses and taking a cut out of their takings, while in some cases they even ejected business owners and farmers from their properties.

The first notable instance we have of a mafia-style group taking extorting money from and then taking control of a thriving business occurred in the 1870s. Just like they are today, back in the 1800s, Sicilian lemons were popular with consumers, and anyone who bought into the citrus business could make themselves a nice profit.

Italian lemon grove

So Dr Gaspare Galati thought when he inherited an already thriving large lemon grove with state-of-the-art irrigation pumps in 1872. The warden of the farm, a man called Benedetto Carollo, began taking many of the lemons under Galati’s nose and selling them for his own gain. Carollo’s main purpose, however, was to run the business into the ground so others could buy the farm for a negligible amount. Carollo was sacked and his replacement was shot; the perpetrator was identified as a man named Signor Giamonna, who according to the local authorities was a pillar of the community. Although Giamonna attempted to murder the new warden, Giammona visited him at his sickbed and apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’, after which the replacement warden retracted his accusation and Giamonna never faced any consequences for his attempted murder.

In 1875, feeling exasperated and powerless, Dr Galati abandoned the lemon grove and it was taken over by Giamonna.

In the same year, a Professor of History named Pasquale Villari decided to turn his attention to the problem of lawlessness in Sicily. In his Southern Letters (1875), he attributed the rising crime rate in Sicily to the dire economic inequality of the region and to the fact that the policies of central government were widely disliked, and he used the word ‘mafia’ to describe the groups of law-breakers and paramilitary ‘protection’ groups which flourished in the region.

Pasquale Villari

Dr Galati decided to get in touch with Villari and relate his experiences with these new mafia-style groups, detailing their strange rituals and outlining their crimes in exact detail. Giamonna’s mafia group seemed all-powerful and sinister, willing to even resort to murder if they were crossed.

It was in Villari’s Southern Letters, therefore, that the Mafia, as we understand it today, was born.

The information for this post is taken from a reading of Robert M. Dainotto’s The Mafia: A Cultural History (2015), particularly chapter one.


Sir Robin William V. Harcourt Hood, M. P.

By Stephen Basdeo

Whenever a politician proposes raising a new tax or cutting a public service, a newspaper columnist will often respond that the proposed changes are ‘Reverse Robin Hood’. Alternatively, those who look favourably upon governmental tax and finance reforms might attempt to portray the politician in question as embodying Robin Hood values. We see this in the case of Donald Trump’s recent tax reforms, in which newspaper comic artists, as well as some gifted and not-so-gifted meme-makers on both sides of the debate portrayed Trump as an outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, or who steals from the not-so-fortunate to give to the rich.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Robin Hood, as previous research of mine has shown, has always stood in for politicians when satirists wish to make a point about a politician’s – or indeed any public body’s – financial management of the country. Back in 1727, two ballads entitled Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster equated the ‘robbing’ Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with the outlaw of medieval legend.[1] Other writers in the Georgian era went further and argued that robbing civil servants are more skilled at hiding their frauds than Robin Hood ever was:

Had [Robin Hood] turn’d his head to politics, had he been placed in the finances, or promoted to the station of Paymaster, Receiver General, Treasurer […] and robb’d the Exchequer, as Falstaff says, with unwash’d hands; had he plunder’d the publick, in a civil employment, till he had been almost the only rich man in the kingdom, we may conclude from many passages of history that there would have been no signs of him at this day.[2]

And it was no different during the Victorian era. Railway fares have always been the bane of workers in the United Kingdom and we see in this era satirical poems depicting Robin Hood and Little John tiring of their life in the greenwood and opting to become railway bosses instead, so they can steal from people legally.

One of the most famous satirical magazines in Victorian Britain was Punch, and British politicians were not immune from the Punch Brotherhood’s pens. In 1894, the Liberals were in power, and Sir William Vernon Harcourt introduced a new budget which proposed a very modest form of wealth redistribution to help the poorer classes of society, but it was a measure to which the conservative press objected.[3] The measures included financing modest increases in ‘dole’ for working families using funds raised from increased death duties. The ‘Graduation’ to which the ballad refers was Harcourt’s introduction of an estate tax, payable upon a person’s death, of one per cent on properties worth £500, and eight per cent on properties worth £1 million.[4] Harcourt tried to sell it as a graduated income tax which would be paid by only the wealthiest, and this would be sure to go down well with working-class householders (the male heads of working-class households could vote since 1867).

Harcourt 1

Thus in the poem Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce, which is written in faux-Middle English, Robin stands in for Harcourt who robs a merchant in Sherwood Forest:

“There thou speketh soothe,” the Merchaunte cried,

“Thou scourge of Propertie!

But the thing thou dubbest ‘Graduation,’

Is Highway robberie!”

“Robberie?” quoth Bold Robin Hood,

“Nay that’s a slanderous statement.

Redistribution it is not Theft –

Nor Exemption, nor Abatement.

“I robbe thee not, thou Mammonite!

The aim of all my Labours

Is – to ease thee of superfluous wealth

For the goods of thy poorer neighbours!”[5]

The poem was accompanied with a full page illustration depicting ‘Sir Robin Hood Harcourt (addressing “The Marchaunt”)’ saying ‘“Nay, Friend, ‘Tis no robbery! I do but ease you of this to relieve your poorer brethren”’.[6]

Clearly the writer of this piece was opposed to the measures, like the Tory opposition were. And it the fact that this rather small poem was given such prominence tells us something about the political leanings of the magazine in the so-called ‘golden age’ of Punch. When it was originally founded in the 1840s, it was a fairly liberal magazine which, being founded by Henry Mayhew of London Labour and the London Poor fame, was sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Yet during its golden age, it became a magazine that was (small ‘c’) conservative in its outlook and enjoyed in the middle-class drawing room. Although it hardly liked Disraeli, it often favoured the Tory party over the Liberals. The complaint expressed in this poem, therefore, is, what we might term today, a ‘middle-class problem’. It was not the working class who had to worry about death duties so, very oddly, although readers of Punch were supposed to disapprove of Harcourt’s redistributive graduated tax, Robin Hood is still, in spite of the fact that readers were meant to disapprove of Harcourt’s actions, a man of the people.


[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1 (2017), 15-31.

[2] ‘Bravery: The Characteristic of an Englishman’, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, No. 8 (1738), 300.

[3] ‘Sir William Harcourt’s Possible Budget’, The Spectator, 24 March 1894, p. 7.

[4] Donald Read, The Age of Urban Democracy, 1868-1914 (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 295.

[5] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 210.

[6] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 211.