‘Bandoleros’ (bandits or brigands) still appeal to the imagination to this day. They are among the most colorful characters in Andalusian history.
The bandits were called ‘Los Reyes de Los Montes’ (the kings of the mountains). They ruled the mountainous landscapes of inland Andalucia, when this region was completely isolated from the rest of Spain. Due to an almost medieval feudal system, at the end of the 18th and early 19th century, there was dire poverty among farmworkers and their families. It is largely thanks to romantic travellers – including many foreign writers fleeing modern, rational Europe looking for inspiration – that these bandits became legendary heroes of almost mythical proportions.
The ghost of the bandits
Over the centuries, the bandits in Andalucia have been variously depicted as paupers, heroes, thieves, romantic buccaneers or bloodthirsty murderers. The bandoleros in Andalucia held out until March 18, 1934. This was the anniversary of the death of ‘Pasos Largos’, the last bandolero in Andalusia.
Bandits and highwaymen are as old as mankind. These bandoleros appeared as a logical consequence of the social and economic conditions in Andalucia two centuries ago. Four major epidemics at the end of the 18th century resulted in a lot of poverty, death, and destruction. By this point, many Andalucians had already moved to the north of Spain in search of a better life.
Forced by misery
Most of the countryside was in the hands of imperious landowners and 80% of the population was day labourers. Forced by personal misery, lack of economic resources, and a desire for rebellion, the young men often took matters into their own hands. They knew the area inside out and already had experience as guerrillas through the war against Napoleon’s armies.
These crooks attacked stagecoaches and carriages in groups in the most unexpected places, terrorizing Andalusia’s main thoroughfares. At that time it was impossible to travel unaccompanied and the rich only moved when it was absolutely necessary. But raiding the wealthy, smuggling tobacco and other products that reached Andalucian ports turned out to be very lucrative.
Because the bandoleros mostly came from large families and were known for their solidarity with the poor, they were often given shelter or could go to ‘ventas’ for food, drink and entertainment. If not, they found something in the mountains, where they sought shelter in caves and abandoned shepherd huts.
Heroes of the poor
The period of these romantic heroes was roughly between 1770 and 1840. The most famous bandoleros among them were: Diego Corrientes (1757), José Ulloa ‘El Tragabuches’ (1781), Juan Caballero ‘El Lero’ (1804) ) and José María Hinojosa ‘El Tempranillo (1805). The latter became leader of the notorious gang ‘Los Niños de Écija’ at a very young age. Écija was the village where these bandits often gathered. Los Niños de Écija terrorized the roads between Málaga, Granada, Córdoba and Seville for years.
The bandoleros lived in what travelers described as romantic times, but often ended in a not too romantic way. With a few exceptions, none of them reached the age of thirty. Repeatedly they were killed by a ‘Miguelete’ (volunteer of the king, then Fernando VII), or were executed after a trial. Regularly after death the body was cut into pieces and the head attached to a pole that then served as a deterrent to living fellow bandits along the road.
End of the bandoleros
The end of the bandoleros began in the mid-nineteenth century. Due to the construction of railway lines and the use of the telegraph, there were fewer travelers who could be raided. Fed up with the terrorism, authorities created the Guardia Civil to end this nuisance forever. In the end, the bandoleros may have disappeared physically, but their spirit still haunts the mountains of Andalusia and returns in the lyrics of flamenco songs and the books of writers from the Romantic period.
Romantic travelers looking for adventure
Large amounts of text are devoted to the bandoleros. It is said that Andalusia was reinvented two hundred years ago by writers and other travelers looking for adventure. Thanks to them, Spain became fashionable again. At the time, the region was visited by writers such as Washington Irving, Prosper Merimeé, Richard Ford, Victor Hugo and Gustave Doré.They saw Andalusia as an exotic and exciting place, against a backdrop of sun, gypsies, smugglers, kind-hearted bandits, bullfights and flamenco. Many travelers had in mind the phrase, which is still sometimes used, ‘Africa empieza en los Pirineos’ (Africa begins in the Pyrenees), when choosing their mystical destination.
Some of these romantic souls even liked to see themselves robbed by a bandit like “El Tempranillo”. So elegant and well-educated that he was famous even far beyond the Spanish borders. The bandoleros were later described as ‘fugitive freebooters who stood up for the oppressed.’ While the bandoleros rebelled against the ruling power, the romantic writing writers rebelled against what in their eyes was becoming increasingly killer and more rational Europe. Maybe that’s why they were attracted to the bandits. Which of course was not always an equally realistic representation of things. Only “El Tempranillo” and Diego Corrientes did not kill anyone during their bandit existence.
‘El Tempranillo’ became famous for distributing his booty to the poor. Prosper Merimeé (the French author of “Carmen”) described him as a handsome, black-haired, blue-eyed, courteous and courageous man. When he attacked a carriage, he first helped the women to a comfortable place in the shade. Rude words never came to his lips and he always made sure that the travelers had enough money left over to reach the next village. Jewels of emotional value were never touched by “El Tempranillo”.
Museo del Bandolero in Ronda
Those who want to know more about bandoleros in Andalusia can visit the Museo del Bandolero in the capital of the bandoleros; Ronda. All facets about the phenomenon have been brought together here by two fanatic collectors. Birth certificates, death certificates (as proof that they really existed), all the books that have ever been written about the phenomenon, photos, drawings and paintings, more than a hundred years old clothing, weapons and other utensils from that time are displayed in five rooms . A small shop sells books, CDs and other souvenirs related to the bandoleros.