I felt instantly at home in Gaucín, and the more I learn about local history, the more it makes sense. Local culture here is shaped by a mixture of geographical isolation, rough and unforgiving terrain, warfare, class struggle, hard work and disobedience towards authorities, very much reminiscent of my hometown and family background.
In Sweden, like in most European countries, there used to be a grim system of social stratification based on a few, wealthy families owning and controlling the land, leasing it to poor families kept in serfdom and poverty due to strict contracts forcing them to cultivate the land, keep animals, build and maintain property, hunt and fish; all the while giving up most of the fruits of their labour to the landowner who had a birthright to anything coming off the land – and the people “belonging” to it. This is the core of the feudal system. My own family remained in a sort of serfdom until the 1950’s, long after the system was banned in Sweden. I recently learned that Andalucía was one of the last European regions to be rid of feudalism, which, in turn, has shaped its long history of banditry and guerilla warfare.
The countryside surrounding Gaucín has been home to bandits since Roman times. It was – and is – easy to hide in the many secluded and inhospitable valleys and caves around here. Banditry arose in relation to the many wars taking place and the feudal system being particularly exploitative and long lasting. For a long time, people were kept in utmost poverty by a few, rich families who grew wealthier and wealthier thanks to the labour of the many: weaving, producing meat, cheese, wine, olive oil and many other agricultural goods. Following the re-conquest (or reconquista) of Spain in 1492, numerous wars and conflicts took place, draining the land and putting even further strain on the people. By then, Spanish colonialism had taken off, adding to the accumulation of wealth of the upper classes and the subsequent sky rocketing of social injustice. Many historians would, as I understand it, describe the Napoleonic wars in 1808-1812 as the final straw leading to the rise of guerilla groups and the bandoleros of the countryside.
The Napoleonic troops invading Spain were paid by means of foraging through the already impoverished and abused villages of Andalucía. In 1810, the French commander José Bonaparte, with his 6000 soldiers, settled in Ronda, while the head of the Spanish troops – guerilla leader José Serrano Valdenebro – barricaded himself in Gaucín; thanks to its remote location on a mountaintop, serving as a stronghold of Andalucía. After a few setbacks, the French managed to invade Gaucín, forcing the guerilla out of Castillo del Aguilá – the 10th-century castle overlooking the village. 700 members of the many guerilla groups of the serranía then came to the rescue in a David and Goliat-esque attempt to drive the French away; and, miraculously, succeeded – resulting in the Napoleonic troops referring to the serranía as “a french cemetery”. After this intermediate triumf, however, the French invaded Gaucín on six different occasions, burning down 165 houses in the tiny village and slaughtering the population. The rest, as they say, is history: the English-Spanish troops under Lord Wellington eventually got rid of José Bonaparte in 1814.
The Bandoleros, then, consisted of criminals escaping justice, guerilla leaders protecting the people from warlords, and poor andalusians trying to survive on the rugged hillsides. They carved out mountainous territories for themselves and went on to rob mail, gold and other value transports passing through them. Realising that their expeditions and sustenance were dependent on the benevolence of the village people, they made a habit out of distributing their prey amongst them, spreading their riches in a very Robin Hood-like way. The people responded by hiding the bandoleros and defending them against the arms of justice. This is the backdrop of the romantic bandolero-mythology, according to which the bandoleros were the equally feared and beloved working class heroes of the countryside.
Evidently, the chevaleresque and folksy bandoleros, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, were long gone come the 1850’s. By then, most of them resorted to petty crime with the sole objective of enriching themselves, thus losing the support of the people. In 1844, Guardia Civíl was established in order to conquer them; a ninety year-endeavour ending with a shoot out, killing Juan Jose Mingolla Gallardo, who then became known as the last bandolero.
Now, I know of no bandits in the remote, deep forests of my upbringing, but there are certainly some similarities when it comes to the deeply rooted contempt of authorities and the law (often righteous and sound, sometimes misguided), the self-sufficiency of many people struggling to make a living in remote, isolated settings and a scepticism towards the trends and snobbery of the big cities. I think these cultural traits are part of what makes me feel at home here and I’m sure that they’re part of the allure for the many artists, writers, musicians, athletes and hippies coming here. It all makes for an interesting, and surely not entirely smooth, relationship between the local people whose families date back to the Napoleonic wars, Roman times, and even longer, and recently invading hippies attracted to Gaucín for its mystery, history and scenery – bringing a prey of northern European gold, relying on the labour of the locals and trying to make a life in the mountains of Spain.