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Still from The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Still from The Great Train Robbery (1903)

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Brigandage refers to the life and practice of brigands - highway robbery and plunder.


Origin of the word

The brigand is supposed to derive his name from the Old French brigan, which is a form of the Italian brigante, an irregular or partisan soldier. There can be no doubt as to the origin of the word bandit, which has the same meaning. In Italy, which is not unjustly considered the home of the most accomplished European brigands, a bandito was a man declared outlaw by proclamation, or bando, called in Scotland "a decree of horning" because it was delivered by a blast of a horn at the town cross. The brigand, therefore, is the outlaw who conducts warfare after the manner of an irregular or partisan soldier by skirmishes and surprises, who makes the war support itself by plunder, by extorting blackmail, by capturing prisoners and holding them to ransom, who enforces his demands by violence, and kills the prisoners who cannot pay.

Brigandage as resistance

In certain conditions the brigand has not been a mere malefactor. "It is you who are the thieves", was the defence of the Calabrian who was tried as a brigand by a French court-martial during the reign of Joachim Murat in Naples.

Brigandage may be, and not infrequently has been, the last resource of a people subject to invasion. The Calabrians who fought for Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, and the Spanish irregular levies, which maintained the national resistance against the French from 1808 to 1814, were called brigands by their enemies.

In the Balkan peninsula, under Turkish rule, the brigands (called klephts by the Greeks and hayduks or haydutzi by the Slavs) had some claim to believe themselves the representatives of their people against oppressors. The only approach to an attempt to maintain order was the permission given to part of the population to carry arms in order to repress the klephts. They were hence called armatoli. As a matter of fact the armatole were rather the allies than the enemies of the klephts.

Causes of brigandage

The conditions which favour the development of brigandage may be easily summed up. They are first bad administration, and then, in a less degree, the possession of convenient hiding-places.

The highlands of Scotland supplied a safe refuge to the gentlemen reavers, who carried off the cattle of the Sassenach landlords. The Apennines, the mountains of Calabria, the Sierras of Spain, were the homes of the Italian banditos and the Spanish bandoleros (memer of a gang) and salteadores (raiders). The forests of England gave cover to the outlaws, whose very much flattered portrait is to be found in the ballads of Robin Hood. The maquis, i.e. the bush of Corsica, and its hills, have helped the Corsican brigand, as the bush of Australia covered the bushranger.

The great haunts of brigands in Europe have been central and southern Italy and parts of Spain, except those which fell into the hands of the Turks.

England was ruled by William III, when "a fraternity of plunderers, thirty in number according to the lowest estimate, squatted near Waltham Cross under the shades of Epping Forest, and built themselves huts, from which they sallied forth with sword and pistol to bid passengers stand". The Gubbings (so called in contempt from the trimmings and refuse of fish) infested Devonshire for a generation from their headquarters near Brent Tor, on the edge of Dartmoor.

In relatively unsettled parts of the United States there has been a considerable amount of a certain kind of brigandage. In early days the travel routes to the far West were infested by highwaymen, who, however, seldom united into bands, and such outlaws, when captured, were often dealt with in an extra-legal manner, e.g. by "vigilance committees".

The Mexican brigand Cortina made incursions into Texas before the Civil War.

In France there were the Ecorcheurs, or Skinners,in the 15th century, and the Chauffeurs of the revolutionary epoch. The first were large bands of discharged mercenary soldiers who pillaged the country. The second were ruffians who forced their victims to pay ransom by holding their feet in fires. In the years preceding the French Revolution, the royal government was defied by the troops of smugglers and brigands known as faux saulniers, unauthorized salt-sellers, and gangs of poachers haunted the king's preserves round Paris. The salt monopoly and the excessive preservation of the game were so oppressive that the peasantry were provoked to violent resistance and to brigandage. The offenders enjoyed a large measure of public sympathy, and were warned or concealed by the population, even when they were not actively supported.

Brigandage in Greece

In 1870 an English party, consisting of Lord and Lady Muncaster, Mr Vyner, Mr Lloyd, Mr Herbert, and Count de Boyl, was captured at Oropos, near Marathon, and a ransom of £25,000 was demanded. Lord and Lady Muncaster were set at liberty to seek for the ransom, but the Greek government sent troops in pursuit of the brigands, and the other prisoners were then murdered.

In the Balkan peninsula, under Turkish rule, brigandage continued to exist in connexion with Christian revolt against the Turk.

Brigandage in Italy

Until the middle of the 19th century Italy was divided into small states, so that the brigand who was closely pursued in one could flee to another. Thus it was that Marco Sciarra of the Abruzzi, when hard pressed by the Spanish viceroy of Naples - just before and after 1600 - could cross the border of the papal states and return on a favourable opportunity. When pope and viceroy combined against him he took service with Venice, from whence he could communicate with his friends at home, and pay them occasional visits. On one such visit he was led into a trap and slain. Marco Sciarra was the follower and imitator of Benedetto Mangone, of whom it is recorded that having stopped a party of travellers which included Torquato Tasso, he allowed them to pass unharmed out of his reverence for poets and poetry. Mangone was finally taken, and beaten to death with hammers at Naples. He and his like are the heroes of much popular verse, written in ottava rima, and beginning with the traditional epic invocation to the muse. A fine example is The most beautiful history of the life and death of Pietro Mancino, chief of Banditti. It begins:

"Io canto li ricatti, e it fiero ardire
Del gran Pietro Mancino fuoruscito
(Pietro Mancino that great outlawed man
I sing, and all his rage.)

In Naples, every successive revolutionary disturbance saw a recrudescence of brigandage down to the unification of 1860-1861. The source of the trouble was the support the brigands received from various kinds of manutengoli (maintainers) - great men, corrupt officials, political parties, and the peasants who were terrorized, or who profited by selling the brigands food and clothes.

In Sicily, in 1866 two English travellers, Mr E. J. C. Moens and the Rev. J. C. Murray Aynesley, were captured and held to ransom. Mr Moens found that the manutengoli of the brigands among the peasants charged famine prices for food, and extortionate prices for clothes and cartridges.

In Calabria, Giuseppe Musolino (also known as brigante Musolino) was an elusive fugitive, always managing to escape traps. Musolino stirred the imagination of many people in Italy and in short order he became a legend. He became the subject of many Calabrian folk tales and popular songs.

Brigandage in Spain

In Spain brigandage was common in and south of the Sierra Morena. It reached its greatest heights in Catalonia, where it began in the strife of the peasants against the feudal exactions of the landlords. It had its traditional hero, Roque Guinart, who figures in the second part of Don Quixote. The revolt against the house of Austria in 1640, and the War of the Succession (1700-1714), gave a great stimulus to Catalan brigandage. A country gentleman named Pedro Veciana, hereditary balio (military and civil lieutenant) of the archbishop of Tarragona in the town of Valls, armed his farm-servants, and resisted the attacks of the brigands. With the help of neighbouring country gentlemen he formed a strong band, known as the Mozos (Boys) of Veciana. The brigands combined to get rid of him by making an attack on the town of Valls, but were repulsed with great loss. The government of Philip V then commissioned Veciana to raise a special corps of police, the Escuadra de Cataluna, which still exists. For five generations the colonel of the escuadra was always a Veciana. Since the organization of Guardia Civil by the Duke of Ahumada, about 1844, brigandage has been well kept down. At the close of the Carlist War in 1874 a few bands infested Catalonia.

The Sierra Morena, and the Serrania de Ronda, have produced the bandits whose achievements form the subject of popular ballads, such as Francisco Esteban El Guapo (Francis Stephen, the Buck or Dandy), Don Juan de Serralonga, Pedranza, &c. Jose Maria, called El Tempranillo (The Early Bird), was a liberal in the rising against Ferdinand VII, 1820-1823, then a smuggler, then a bandolero. He was finally bought off by the government, and took a commission to suppress the other brigands. Jose Maria was at last shot by one of them, whom he was endeavouring to arrest.

Brigandage in India

The dacoits or brigands of India were of the same stamp as their European colleagues. The Pindaris were more than brigands, and the Thugs were a religious sect.


The literature of brigandage, apart from pure romances, or official reports of trials, is extensiveliterature:

  • Mr McFarlane's Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers (London, 1837).
  • Eugenio de la Iglesia, Resena Historica de la Guardia Civil (Madrid, 1898).
  • W.J.C. Moens, English Travellers and Italian Brigands (London, 1866).
  • S. Soteropoulos (trans. by the Rev. J. O. Bagdon) The Brigands of the Morea (London, 1868).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Brigandage" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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