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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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).

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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] 

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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.

Post-Apocalyptic Bandits: Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826)

I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole. [i]

The Last Man (1826)

Mary Shelley is popularly known as the author of the gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Her talents were not limited to the creation of horror stories, however, for, unbeknownst to most general readers today, she also gave birth to another genre: the post-apocalyptic story. The novel interests me for two reasons: I enjoy post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, and the principal protagonist, Lionel, spends the first few chapters of the novel as a bandit.

The Last Man was published in three volumes in 1826, presents a vision of England in the year 2073: England has become a republic, but a deadly plague is sweeping the earth. Society breaks down, and England and Scotland become increasingly lawless places. On the continent, in France as in Britain, all government infrastructures have broken down and a Messiah-like cult leader has taken political power and promised his followers that, in return for their support, they will be spared from disease.

Before this nightmarish vision of society comes about, however, we first meet Lionel as a boy in rural Cumberland. Shelley’s vision of England in 2073 is a lot different to the emerging industrial powerhouse that she would have been familiar with in the 1800s. We see a predominantly agrarian country composed of peasants and lords. For her description of Lionel’s early life, Shelley follows a similar formula to that found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), and The Newgate Calendar (1784). We are told that Lionel was born to poor but honest and respectable parents, but due to them having died when he was young, and having a duty to care for his sister, Perdita, in his adolescent years he is forced to pursue a career as a shepherd.

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Title Page to the First Edition

Lionel soon finds that he must supplement this meagre income from shepherding by becoming a bandit. Although the novel is set in England in the future, Shelley likely based her depiction of banditry upon the stories she had heard of them when visiting Italy in 1818.[ii] At this time, the after-effects of the political upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), combined with rising food prices and the sale of common lands, meant that many southern Italians turned to banditry in order to sustain themselves. Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969), when speaking of the types of men who turn to crime, notes that in predominantly agrarian societies such as nineteenth-century Italy, shepherds often turned to banditry, not only due to their low socio-economic status, but also because they often become acquainted with such highway robbers, which offers them a route into banditry:

There are, once again, the herdsmen, alone or with others of their kind – a special, sometimes a secret group – on the high pastures during the season of summer pasture, or roving as semi-nomads across the wide plan … the mountains provide their common world, into which landlords and ploughmen do not enter, and where men do not talk much about what they see and do. Here bandits meet shepherds, and shepherds consider whether to become bandits.[iii]

Thus Lionel tells us that,

I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain.[iv]

Another thing which, in agrarian societies, makes banditry an attractive option for shepherds is their existing familiarity with the terrain. This means that they are often able to attack travellers quickly, and then swiftly disappear into the hills and mountains of the countryside to avoid pursuit.[v] Although it should be said that the youthful Lionel is not the world’s most skilled bandit, for he regularly finds himself in the town lock-up:

It was seldom indeed that we escaped, to use an old-fashioned phrase, scot free. Our dainty fare was often exchanged for blows and imprisonment.[vi]

While other countries also suffered socio-economic setbacks in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was Italy which witnessed the largest amount of banditry. Shortly after Shelley authored The Last Man in 1826, Charles Macfarlane published The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in all Parts of the World (1833), which deals mainly with contemporary Italian brigands. A further indication of how common ‘shepherd-banditry’ was in Italy during the nineteenth century is provided by Hobsbawm, who notes that, for example, during the 1860s, out of thirty three bandits arrested, twenty eight of them listed their occupations as either ‘shepherd’, ‘cowherd’, or ‘field guard’.[vii]

Make no mistake, however, for Lionel and his fellow brigands bear no resemblance to the ‘good’ outlaw/Robin Hood archetype:

I feared no man, and loved none … My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness.[viii]

However, Lionel changes his course of life when the deposed king, Adrian, comes to live in the same area as Lionel, having been pensioned off by the new Republican government. It turns out that Lionel’s father had been friends with Adrian’s in his youth, and the latter does all he can to help ‘civilise’ Lionel and turn him from his lawless ways. Eventually Adrian succeeds in educating and refining the manners and morals of his new friend, and the pair forms a strong friendship.

Of course, this is not to last, for soon the plague makes its way to England spreading havoc and desolation. In this volatile situation, four people, Lionel, Adrian, and two other survivors attempt to journey to a colder climate where, they hope, the disease will not be as virulent. However, along the way all but one of them succumbs to the disease. The remaining character, Lionel, “the last man”, is then shipwrecked on a Greek island. The novel ends in the year 2100.

This is not one of Shelley’s most famous novels, but it was one of her personal favourites. Given the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic stories such as The Walking Dead, etc., perhaps you migth also consider giving it a read.


[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 3 Vols. (London: H. Colburn, 1826) [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[ii] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-intro.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p. 39.

[iv] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-1.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p.39.

[viii] Shelley, The Last Man, op cit.

Thomas Dun: A Medieval Pirate & Highwayman

Robin Hood was not the only famous law breaker in medieval times. Alongside Robin Hood were figures such as Adam Bell and the subject of this blog post, the medieval pirate Thomas Dun.

When the word ‘pirate’ is mentioned, many people will have in mind the image of an eighteenth-century pirate: an eye-patch wearing, sabre rattling, and rum-sodden dissolute character. This is an image that was first given to pirates in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). It is an image that has gained further traction recently in Disney’s series of films entitled Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011) as well as the television show Black Sails (2014 onwards).

eustacethemonk
The Execution of a Medieval Pirate, Eustace the Monk

But piracy in the medieval period was different from the eighteenth century. Often pirates were merchants who had been permitted, as part of their employment, to plunder foreign ships. The right to plunder foreign ships was granted by the King, providing that the Crown received a portion of the booty. Thus we should think of these pirates more as ‘privateers’ under contract with the monarch, rather than the semi-organised criminal networks that existed in the eighteenth century.[i]

Regarding Thomas Dun, little is known of his life and exploits, but modern-day historians place him during the time of Edward II and the Scottish Wars. Apparently he fought on the side of Robert the Bruce, whose forces were engaged in repelling the English occupation of Scotland.[ii] To place the events of Thomas Dun’s life in terms of people’s understanding of popular culture, then, this man lived shortly after the events of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart (1995). The campaign against the English forces occurred in both England and Ireland, and as the Scottish King had no navy to speak of, he employed Dun to ferry Scottish soldiers across the Irish Sea.[iii] There also is another story about him purportedly having raided the port of Holyhead, Wales in 1315.[iv] And that is, in all honestly, the extent of what we know of the man’s life.

As with the lives of so many criminals, however, the details are embellished and their life story becomes something unrecognisable. Thomas Dun’s story was recounted in a number of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), all of which were written in the eighteenth century, which is over five hundred years after he is said to have lived.

Lincoln B. Faller divides the representation of criminals during the eighteenth century: heroes, in which category belong figures such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and James Mclean (1724-1750); there are also ‘buffoons’, and the type of thieves that belong in this category are men such as John Wheeler, a housebreaker who burgles a house and inadvertently ends up having sex with the mistress of the house. Finally, there is the brute, and into this category belongs killers such as Sawney Beanne and Dun.[v]

Smith and Johnson are at pains to present Dun as the worst type of criminal imaginable. Johnson says that

A man who is not forced from necessity, or a desire of pleasure, to become dishonest, but follows his natural dispositions in robbing and maltreating others, will, generally, be found to be destitute of every humane and generous principle. So will it be found with this character – a person of mean extraction.[vi]

Criminal biographers were never interested in historical facts, evident by the inclusion in their compendiums of the life of that noted robber, Sir John Falstaff. Thus, instead of depicting Dun as a Scottish pirate who flourished during the fourteenth century, he becomes an English highwayman who lived in the reign of Henry I, operating in the latter part of his reign. In fact, Scotland is not mentioned once in these criminal annals. Dun’s haunt is now depicted as being in Bedfordshire where,

He continued to commit many petty thefts and assaults, but judging it safer to associate himself with others, he repaired to a gang of thieves, who infested the country leading from St. Alban’s to Towcester, and they became such a terror.[vii]

Having spent half of his criminal career robbing and plundering in Bedfordshire, he then moved to Yorkshire (so say the criminal biographers), and proceeded to ‘commit many notorious robberies along the river Ouse’.[viii] After this he returned to Bedford and was eventually caught and suffered a gruesome death, according to Smith:

At length, seeing he could not escape and that he must die, he yielded, and then the executioners chopping off each hand at the wrists, his arms were cut off at the elbows, and all above that again within an inch of his shoulders; next his feet were cut off beneath the ankles, his legs chopped off at the knees, and his thighs cut off five inches below the trunk, which after severing his head from was burnt to ashes.[ix]

There is not a more graphic account of execution than this in most of the criminal biographies I have seen. Smith and Johnson’s accounts then both end with saying that the town of Dunstable takes its name from the robber, due to the fact that Henry I built a garrison there. This, however, is pure fiction, and academics have provided more plausible accounts of the town’s etymology:

The English Place Name Society tells us that the first part of the name, dun, means hill, while the second part, originally written as staple, refers to a post, possibly marking a boundary. Dunestaple (or Dunestapel), as it was first called, was therefore the place at the post, or boundary marker, by the hill.  Another theory, while agreeing about the meaning of dun, is that staple comes from the French word for market, estaple, and the name therefore means the market by the hill, or Downs.[x]

While his story continued to appear in some versions of The Newgate Calendar, Thomas Dun appears to have been forgotten about for a while, and his story did not make it into either Charles MacFarlane’s The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) or Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits Of English Highwaymen, Pirates And Robbers (1834). Curiously, the next literary representation of Dun’s life appears in a comic entitled Crime Must Pay the Penalty (1948).

thomas-dun-comic

As we can see, this is just one instance of how a criminal’s life has been remoulded and readapted throughout the centuries, and how the original historical details, such as Dun being a Scottish pirate, becomes unrecognisable when the details are placed in the hands of various authors who care not for historical facts.


Works Cited

Illustrations from comic taken from: https://pappysgoldenage.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/number-1923-thomas-dun-undone.html

[i] ‘Piracy in Medieval Europe’ Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library ed. by Jennifer Stock 3 Vols (Farmington Hills, MI: UXL, 2011), 3: 17-34.

[ii] William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (New York: Viking, 2014), p.120.

[iii] Tim Hodkinson, The Waste Land (Lulu Publishing, 2015), p.6.

[iv] ‘Photo Essay: Thieves, Pirates and Conwy Castle – a trip through medieval Wales’ Irish History Podcast [Internet <http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/photo-essay-thieves-pirates-and-conwy-castle/> Accessed 9 February 2017].

[v] 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), p.127.

[vi] Charles Johnson, Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Street Robbers (London, 1734; repr. T. Tegg, 1839), p.81.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen ed. by Arthur Heyward 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1933), p.17.

[ix] Smith, Highwaymen, p.19.

[x] Joan Curran, ‘Town History: 12th Century’ Medieval Dunstable [Internet <http://medievaldunstable.org.uk/thistory.html> Accessd 9 February 2017].

From Barman to Highwayman: The Case of William Hawke (d.1774)

Not every highwayman throughout history has achieved the fame of Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), Rob Roy (1671-1734), Dick Turpin (1705-1739), or Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). The names of most of the highwaymen who flourished in London during the eighteenth century have faded into insignificance. William Hawke is one such highwayman whose life story, while just as interesting as the robbers alluded, never had his story picked up by the likes of Walter Scott (1771-1832) or William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882).

hawke1
The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 135.

William Hawke was born at Uxbridge, Middlesex around the middle of the eighteenth century. He moved to London after the death of his father. Once in the capital, he gained employment in a public house in St. Giles. This area of London was known for its high levels of criminality, and it is during his time as a bar tender that he first became acquainted with some shady characters from the Georgian criminal underworld.

The men that he fell in with encouraged him to try a few turns as a highwayman, running with a partner named James Field.

Both Hawke and Field were apprehended by the authorities in January 1771 for stealing a leather notebook and £20 from a gentleman named John Gordon.[i] Although the theft of a sizeable sum of £20 would have warranted the death penalty in the eighteenth century, it seems the evidence against them was inconclusive. Both men produced witnesses who testified to their good character, and Field claimed that the £20 was his own money:

Field’s Defence.

I have had many a twenty pound note of my own property.

Hawkes’ Defence.

I was going to the play with my wife’s sister and Mr. Field. Roades came up and walked with us; I did not know him at first; he saw me pull my watch out; and wanted to buy it; he got from me; he was to give me two guineas and a half for it; he gave me a guinea; Mr. Field gave him his watch; he gave him nothing. We were several times after him about the money.[ii]

This is probably why Field and Hawkes got off with the comparatively lighter sentence of Transportation to the Americas for a total of 14 years (this is the time, it will be remembered, that Britain still “owns” the Thirteen American Colonies, later to become the USA).

hawke2
William Hawke Robbing Capt. Cunningham at Gunpoint – Illustration from The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 133.

Somehow, and the details here are sketchy, the pair managed to escape from the Americas, and by 1772 were back in London practising their former trade. The Newgate Calendar records that Hawkes,

Upon his return to England he committed a surprising number of most daring robberies; and several months elapsed before the thief takers knew him to be the man by whom the roads about London were so dangerously infested.[iii]

Hawkes proved to be quite a hard man to catch indeed. The ingenious Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding (brother of the novelist-turned-magistrate, Henry Fielding), directed London’s rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, to watch Hawkes’ wife (the Metropolitan Police would not be established until the 19th century).

The Runners kept watch over the wife, and one night, as Hawkes lay sleeping in her arms in a rented apartment, Constables Bond and Lee went up the stairs and,

Entered the front room, and there discovering Hawke slumbering in bed, threw himself across the highwayman, who, twisting the sheet around Bond’s head, reached at a pistol that was under the pillow, at which instant Smith entered, and caught hold of his hand. With much difficulty Hawke was secured.[iv]

In court the next morning, on 18 May 1774, two gentleman named Captain Cunningham and Charles Hart appeared to give evidence against him:

Hart. A gentleman: I live in May’s Buildings. On the 28th of last March, between the hours of nine and ten in the evening, Capt. Cunningham and myself were stopped in a coach near the Half-way-house leading from Knights-bridge to Walham Green , by one man on horseback; he said to the coachman, God d – n your blood stop, or I’ll blow your brains out! uponwhich I let the glass down which was then up, and he put a pistol to my breast, and demanded my money; I had one shilling and sixpence and some halfpence loose in my waistcoat pocket; I gave him that; I had half a guinea in my fob, which I preserved; he said to me, God d – n you, do you give me nothing but halfpence! I told him it was all I had, and desired him to take the pistol from my breast. In the interim Capt. Cunningham was moving a pocket book from his right hand waistcoat pocket into his left hand breeches pocket, in which were bank notes to the amount of between four and five hundred pounds; he had twenty-six or twenty-seven, guineas in his breeches pocket, but being in liquor he refused being robbed, and said he would not be robbed; the prisoner saw the pocket book, and took the pistol from my breast, and said, God d – n you, give me the pocket book![v]

Hawkes maintained his innocence throughout the whole trial, simply saying:

I am innocent of this affair: I leave myself entirely to the mercy of this honourable Court. I have been guilty of affairs of the kind, but am innocent of this. I am a jeweller by trade: I am twenty-three years old: I have a wife and two small children.[vi]

Despite the protestations of his innocence, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

By the account recorded in The Newgate Calendar, he was quite stoic about the whole affair.

When he was taken to Tyburn on 1 July 1774 (the site of public executions until 1783), he gave a good show to the assembled mob. He dressed in his smartest coat, with a flower affixed to the breast pocket, gallantly saying ‘how do you do’ to spectators as he passed by in the cart.

The noose was placed around his neck at the foot of Tyburn tree, and as he felt the cart about the move away he leaped up into the air. This ensured that his neck was instantly dislocated and that he never suffered in pain.


References

ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM BOOKS IN MY PERSONAL COLLECTION

[i] James Field, William Hawke, Theft > pocketpicking, Theft > receiving, 16th January 1771 (t17710116-39) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), p.133.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] William Hawke, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 18th May 1774 (t17740518-26) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[vi] Ibid.