The last time a 'gentleman of the road' cried 'Stand and deliver!' on an English highway is thought to have been in 1831. High tobymen, or horsed robbers, had yielded the field to low tobymen, or footpads, and roadside thieving had lost its traditional panache. By coincidence 1831 was the year the robber fraternity that had given the word 'thug' to the language came under terminal assault: the British in India, showing a zeal never displayed against England's home-bred highwaymen, rounded up in six years 3266 devotees of thuggee, hanged 412 and imprisoned or transported hundreds more, extinguishing a centuries-old cult. The method of this religious fraternity had been to ingratiate themselves with travellers, strangle them suddenly with a scarf, then rob and bury them. By contrast, the English highwayman behaved, or tried to behave, like a gentleman, boldly confronting the victim at whose head he levelled a pistol, and refraining from shooting him unless he showed unreasonable resistance. This open method of challenge was held to show a manly courage on the part of the robber, such as a soldier might display in battle. Dr Johnson, praising the quality of courage, told Boswell: 'We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch and knocks you down behind your back.' Barabbas as a footpad was contemptible, but Barabbas armed and riding a fine horse was up for admiration. Similar standards did not exist elsewhere in a world much beset by brigandage, freebooting, dacoity and the insolence of outlaws. Hairy ruffians in the mountains of Italy, Greece and Turkey might have their peculiar codes of honour, but by no effort of imagination could they be described as gentlemen, or knights, of the road. Still less could Ireland's rapparees.
LRB 9 May 2002 | PDF Download