By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXVII. CALABRIAN BRIGANDAGE
The last genuine bandit of the Sila was Gaetano Ricca. On account of some trivial misunderstanding with the authorities, this man was compelled in the early eighties to take to the woods, where he lived a wild life (alla campagna; alla macchia) for some three years. A price was set on his head, but his daring and knowledge of the country intimidated every one. I should be sorry to believe in the number of carbineers he is supposed to have killed during that period; no doubt the truth came out during his subsequent trial. On one occasion he was surrounded, and while the officer in command of his pursuers, who had taken refuge behind a tree, ordered him to yield, Ricca waited patiently till the point of his enemy’s foot became visible, when he pierced his ankle-bone with his last bullet and escaped. He afterwards surrendered and was imprisoned for twenty years or so; then returned to the Sila, where up to a short time ago he was enjoying a green old age in his home at Parenti–Parenti, already celebrated in the annals of brigandage by the exploit of the perfidious Francatripa (Giacomo Pisani), who, under pretence of hospitality, enticed a French company into his clutches and murdered its three officers and all the men, save seven. The memoirs of such men might be as interesting as those of the Sardinian Giovanni Tolu which have been printed. I would certainly have paid my respects to Ricca had I been aware of his existence when, some years back, I passed through Parenti on my way–a long day’s march!–from Rogliano to San Giovanni. He has died in the interval.
But the case of Ricca is a sporadic one, such as may crop up anywhere and at any time. It is like that of Musolino–the case of an isolated outlaw, who finds the perplexed geographical configuration of the country convenient for offensive and defensive purposes. Calabrian brigandage, as a whole, has always worn a political character.
The men who gave the French so much trouble were political brigands, allies of Bourbonism. They were commanded by creatures like Mammone, an anthropophagous monster whose boast it was that he had personally killed 455 persons with the greatest refinements of cruelty, and who wore at his belt the skull of one of them, out of which he used to drink human blood at mealtime; he drank his own blood as well; indeed, he “never dined without having a bleeding human heart on the table.” This was the man whom King Ferdinand and his spouse loaded with gifts and decorations, and addressed as “Our good Friend and General–the faithful Support of the Throne.” The numbers of these savages were increased by shiploads of professional cut-throats sent over from Sicily by the English to help their Bourbon friends. Some of these actually wore the British uniform; one of the most ferocious was known as “L’Inglese"–the Englishman.
One must go to the fountain-head, to the archives, in order to gain some idea of the sanguinary anarchy that desolated South Italy in those days. The horrors of feudalism, aided by the earthquake of 1784 and by the effects of Cardinal Ruffo’s Holy Crusade, had converted the country into a pandemonium. In a single year (1809) thirty-three thousand crimes were recorded against the brigands of the Kingdom of Naples; in a single month they are said to have committed 1200 murders in Calabria alone. These were the bands who were described by British officers as “our chivalrous brigand-allies.”
It is good to bear these facts in mind when judging of the present state of this province, for the traces of such a reign of terror are not easily expunged. Good, also, to remember that this was the period of the highest spiritual eminence to which South Italy has ever attained. Its population of four million inhabitants were then consoled by the presence of no less than 120,000 holy persons–to wit, 22 archbishops, 116 bishops, 65,500 ordained priests, 31,800 monks, and 23,600 nuns. Some of these ecclesiastics, like the Bishop of Capaccio, were notable brigand-chiefs.
It must be confessed that the French were sufficiently coldblooded in their reprisals. Colletta himself saw, at Lagonegro, a man impaled by order of a French colonel; and some account of their excesses may be gleaned from Duret de Tavel, from Rivarol (rather a disappointing author), and from the flamboyant epistles of P. L. Courier, a soldier-scribe of rare charm, who lost everything in this campaign. “J’ai perdu huit chevaux, mes habits, mon linge, mon manteau, mes pistolets, mon argent (12,247 francs). . . . Je ne regrette que mon Homere (a gift from the Abbe Barthelemy), et pour le ravoir, je donnerais la seule chemise qui me reste.”
But even that did not destroy the plague. The situation called for a genial and ruthless annihilator, a man like Sixtus V, who asked for brigands’ heads and got them so plentifully that they lay “thick as melons in the market” under the walls of Rome, while the Castel Sant’ Angelo was tricked out like a Christmas tree with quartered corpses–a man who told the authorities, when they complained of the insufferable stench of the dead, that the smell of living iniquity was far worse. Such a man was wanted. Therefore, in 1810, Murat gave carte blanche to General Manhes, the greatest brigand-catcher of modern times, to extirpate the ruffians, root and branch. He had just distinguished himself during a similar errand in the Abruzzi and, on arriving in Calabria, issued proclamations of such inhuman severity that the inhabitants looked upon them as a joke. They were quickly undeceived. The general seems to have considered that the end justified the means, and that the peace and happiness of a province was not to be disturbed year after year by the malignity of a few thousand rascals; his threats were carried out to the letter, and, whatever may be said against his methods, he certainly succeeded. At the end of a few months’ campaign, every single brigand, and all their friends and relations, were wiped off the face of the earth–together with a very considerable number of innocent persons. The high roads were lined with decapitated bandits, the town walls decked with their heads; some villages had to be abandoned, on account of the stench; the Crati river was swollen with corpses, and its banks whitened with bones. God alone knows the cruelties which were enacted; Colletta confesses that he “lacks courage to relate them.” Here is his account of the fate of the brigand chief Benincasa:
“Betrayed and bound by his followers as he slept in the forest of Cassano, Benincasa was brought to Cosenza, and General Manhes ordered that both his hands be lopped off and that he be led, thus mutilated, to his home in San Giovanni, and there hanged; a cruel sentence, which the wretch received with a bitter smile. His right hand was first cut off and the stump bound, not out of compassion or regard for his life, but in order that all his blood might not flow out of the opened veins, seeing that he was reserved for a more miserable death. Not a cry escaped him, and when he saw that the first operation was over, he voluntarily laid his left hand upon the block and coldly watched the second mutilation, and saw his two amputated hands lying on the ground, which were then tied together by the thumbs and hung round his neck; an awful and piteous spectacle. This happened at Cosenza. On the same day he began his march to San Giovanni in Fiore, the escort resting at intervals; one of them offered the man food, which he accepted; he ate and drank what was placed in his mouth, and not so much in order to sustain life, as with real pleasure. He arrived at his home, and slept through the following night; on the next day, as the hour of execution approached, he refused the comforts of religion, ascended the gallows neither swiftly nor slowly, and died admired for his brutal intrepidity.” [Footnote: This particular incident was flatly denied by Manhes in a letter dated 1835, which is quoted in the “Notizia storica del Conte C. A. Manhes” (Naples, 1846)–one of a considerable number of pro-Bourbon books that cropped up about this time. One is apt to have quite a wrong impression of Manhes, that inexorable but incorruptible scourge of evildoers. One pictures him a grey-haired veteran, scarred and gloomy; and learns, on the contrary, that he was only thirty-two years old at this time, gracious in manner and of surprising personal beauty.]
For the first time since long Calabria was purged. Ever since the Bruttians, irreclaimable plunderers, had established themselves at Cosenza, disquieting their old Hellenic neighbours, the recesses of this country had been a favourite retreat of political malcontents. Here Spartacus drew recruits for his band of rebels; here “King Marcene" defied the oppressive Spanish Viceroys, and I blame neither him nor his imitators, since the career of bandit was one of the very few that still commended itself to decent folks, under that regime.
During the interregnum of Bourbonism between Murat and Garibaldi the mischief revived–again in a political form. Brigands drew pensions from kings and popes, and the system gave rise to the most comical incidents; the story of the pensioned malefactors living together at Monticello reads like an extravaganza. It was the spirit of Offenbach, brooding over Europe. One of the funniest episodes was a visit paid in 1865 by the disconsolate Mrs. Moens to the ex-brigand Talarico, who was then living in grand style on a government pension. Her husband had been captured by the band of Manzi (another brigand), and expected to be murdered every day, and the lady succeeded in procuring from the chivalrous monster–"an extremely handsome man, very tall, with the smallest and most delicate hands"–an exquisite letter to his colleague, recommending him to be merciful to the Englishman and to emulate his own conduct in that respect. The letter had no effect, apparently; but Moens escaped at last, and wrote his memoirs, while Manzi was caught and executed in 1868 after a trial occupying nearly a month, during which the jury had to answer 311 questions.
His villainies were manifold. But they were put in the shade by those of others of his calling–of Caruso, for example, who was known to have massacred in one month (September, 1863) two hundred persons with his own hands. Then, as formerly, the Church favoured the malefactors, and I am personally acquainted with priests who fought on the side of the brigands. Francis II endeavoured to retrieve his kingdom by the help of an army of scoundrels like those of Ruffo, but the troops shot them down. Brigandage, as a governmental institution, came to an end. Unquestionably the noblest figure in this reactionary movement was that of Jose Borjes, a brave man engaged in an unworthy cause. You can read his tragic journal in the pages of M. Monnier or Maffei. It has been calculated that during these last years of Bourbonism the brigands committed seven thousand homicides a year in the kingdom of Naples.
Schools and emigration have now brought sounder ideas among the people, and the secularization of convents with the abolition of ecclesiastical right of asylum (Sixtus V had wisely done away with it) has broken up the prosperous old bond between monks and malefactors. What the government has done towards establishing decent communications in this once lawless and pathless country ranks, in its small way, beside the achievement of the French who, in Algeria, have built nearly ten thousand miles of road. But it is well to note that even as the mechanical appliance of steam destroyed the corsairs, the external plague, so this hoary form of internal disorder could have been permanently eradicated neither by humanity nor by severity. A scientific invention, the electric telegraph, is the guarantee of peace against the rascals.
These brigand chiefs were often loaded with gold. On killing them, the first thing the French used to do was to strip them. “On le depouilla." Francatripa, for instance, possessed “a plume of white ostrich feathers, clasped by a golden band and diamond Madonna” (a gift from Queen Caroline)–Cerino and Manzi had “bunches of gold chains as thick as an arm suspended across the breasts of their waistcoats, with gorgeous brooches at each fastening.” Some of their wealth now survives in certain families who gave them shelter in the towns in winter time, or when they were hard pressed. These favoreggiatori or manutengoli (the terms are interconvertible, but the first is the legal one) were sometimes benevolently inclined. But occasionally they conceived the happy idea of being paid for their silence and services. The brigand, then, was hoist with his own petard and forced to disgorge his ill-gotten summer gains to these blood-suckers, who extorted heavy blackmail under menaces of disclosure to the police, thriving on their double infamy to such an extent that they acquired immense riches. One of the wealthiest men in Italy descends from this class; his two hundred million (?) francs are invested, mostly, in England; every one knows his name, but the origin of his fortune is no longer mentioned, since (thanks to this money) the family has been able to acquire not only respectability but distinction.