The Bandit of Castellana
By Peter Missler
[This article was first published – in a slightly shorter form - in the George Borrow Bulletin nº 18 (autumn 1999), p. 46-49]
Midway between the Galician cities of Lugo and Coruña, a few hundred yards south-west of a hamlet called Castellana, stands a small stone bridge over the dark waters of the “river” Mandeo. It is no longer in use today. Three new and bigger bridges have been built to its east over the last 150 years, but one can still reach the spot by a steeply sloping path heavily overgrown with brushwood and broken by rocks; a path which once - incredibly - was the Camino Real or main Royal Highway through Galicia. Located deep in the gorge, where the banks come together close enough to be spanned by a single stone arch, and completely invisible from the plains above, it is today the perfect place for a picnic. In Borrow’s time it was an even better one for a hold-up!
The bridge at Castellana (and not Castellanos, as Borrow has it in chapter 26 of The Bible in Spain) was the spot where Borrow, having impatiently galloped ahead of the tardy mail coach and its military escort, was stopped and nearly killed by two armed robbers. As Borrow himself described the episode:
Becoming weary of the slow travelling of the post, I determined to brave all risk, and to push forward. In this, however, I was guilty of no slight imprudence, as by so doing I was near falling into the hands of robbers. Two fellows suddenly confronted me with presented carbines, which they probably intended to discharge into my body, but they took fright at the noise of Antonio’s horse, who was following a little way behind. The affair occurred at the bridge of Castellanos, a spot notorious for robbery and murder, and well adapted for both, for it stands at the bottom of a deep dell surrounded by wild desolate hills. Only a quarter of an hour previous I had passed three ghastly heads stuck on poles standing by the way-side; they were those of a captain of banditti and two of his accomplices, who had been seized and executed about two months before. Their principal haunt was the vicinity of the bridge, and it was their practice to cast the bodies of the murdered into the deep black water which runs rapidly beneath. Those three heads will always live in my remembrance, particularly that of the captain, which stood on a higher pole than the other two: the long hair was waving in the wind, and the blackened, distorted features were grinning in the sun. The fellows whom I met wore the relics of the band. (1)
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(Peter Missler: The Bandit of Castellana, footnote 1).
Borrow, G., The Bible in Spain, chapter 26. See also Borrow’s letter to Brandram from Coruña of 20 July 1837.
Pavement of the Catallana bridge, where El Sastre was shot
The bridge at Castellana was indeed “notorious for robbery and murder”, as Borrow says. An unavoidable bottleneck in the road, completely out of view and offering the victims no possibility of escape, the neat stone bridge could pride itself on being a favourite haunt of both the Carlist guerrillas and common bandits of the 1830s and 1840s. A newspaper clipping from June 1849 still describes it as “extremely dangerous, for being the place where robbers and rogues are in the habit of attacking peaceful travellers with the aim of despoiling them.” (2)
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(Peter Missler: The Bandit of Castellana, footnote 2).
Garcia Barros, J., Medio Siglo de vida Coruñesa, La Coruña, 1970, p. 296.
On March 26th 1836, for instance, the Madrid-Coruña “galera” (a 12-seat stagecoach) was held up here, its mules stolen, the official mail and money robbed and the coach itself burned; and in December of that same year, the combined gangs of the famous Carlist leaders Ramon Ramos and El Cura de Feijoo ambushed a detachment of artillery nearby at the crossroads of Las Cruces, taking a great number of soldiers prisoner and holding them hostage. (3)
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(Peter Missler: The Bandit of Castellana, footnote 3).
The two stories come respectively from Gonzalez Lopez, E., El Reinado de Isabel II en Galicia, Coruña, 1984, p. 382 and from the Fondo Blanco-Ciceron, file “Partes 1837” in the Archivo Historica de la Universidad de Santiago.
In his quickly dashed down afterthought, Borrow says that the men who assaulted him were “relics of the band” of that captain of banditti whose gruesome severed head he saw exposed on a stake a few miles up the road. (4)
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(Peter Missler: The Bandit of Castellana, footnote 4).
Since he says that saw these heads “a quarter of an hour previous” to his arrival at the bridge, it may be surmised that the stakes had been positioned, in keeping with the habit of giving such punishments the greatest possible publicity, at the T-crossing where the road to Santiago (today’s N-643) splits away from the Royal Highway to Coruña (today’s N-VI).
Due to the habit of the daily Gaceta de Madrid to reprint all letters from provincial military authorities that brought interesting (read: good) news of the war, we know who this captain was. He was indeed a common thief, not a politically inspired guerrillero, and got caught and killed, exactly as Borrow says, “two months earlier”. The Gaceta nº 895, of May 18th 1837 contains two letters about the event. In the first
“El teniente (…) D. Sebastian Botellés (…) le participa [al comandante general de Lugo] haber cogido 4 facciosos armadas de la gavilla de Martinez, como igualmente un famoso ladrón de los que acostumbraban ejercer su profesión, el que fue fusilado sobre el puente de la Castellana, aprehendido por el comandante de la columna de Guitiriz”.
“Lieutenant Sebastian Botellés (...) informs [the commander of Lugo] of having caught four armed rebels of the band of Martinez, as well as a famous robber of those accustomed to exercise their profession [on the Royal Highway?], who, seized by the commander of the column of Guitiriz, was shot by firing squad on the bridge of Castellana.”
And the second letter adds the following interesting details:
“El Capitán General de Galicia me dice con fecha 10 del corriente (…) que el teniente Mella capturó al ladrón faccioso llamado El Sastre, el que por las atrocidades cometidas en su país y sobre la carretera real, fue fusilado, y colocado su cabeza en uno de los sitios de dicha carretera donde ejecicia (sic) y con cuyo ejemplar se han presentado a indulto, armados, sus dos compañeros Silvestre Cabado @ Forquinto y Pedro Garcia @ Rilleiro.”
“The Captain General of Galicia informs me on the 10th [of May] (…) that lieutenant Mella captured the factious robber called “The Tailor”, who for the atrocities which he committed in the countryside and on the royal highway, was shot by firing squad, his head being exposed at one of the sites of said road where he committed his crimes, through which example his two accomplishes, Silvestre Cabado a.k.a. “Forquinto” and Pedro Garcia a.k.a “Rilleiro”, have turned themselves in with their weapons for amnesty.” was their practice to cast the bodies of the murdered into the deep black water which runs rapidly beneath (Bible in Spain, chapter 26)
Would these two bandits be the ones who held up George Borrow, having taken up their old profession again, shortly after being amnestied? Or did the two other heads which Borrow saw poised on stakes belong to Forquinto and Rilleiro? We cannot tell. So far nothing else has popped up about the Band of El Sastre, which comes as no surprise seeing the rough and ready justice of the 1830s, which often dispensed with trials, reports and documents.
What we do know is that Borrow was lucky. He was only one brusque movement away from being killed and hurled into that “deep black water” of the Mandeo gorge “which runs rapidly underneath” (it is indeed terribly dark and lugubrious!) - and might never have written those wonderful books of his.