It was a day in April, three hundred and ten years ago. One Sebastià Ribas was driving his cart along a track in Sencelles. Nothing is known about Sebastià, except that he may have been a merchant. This hint comes from the goods he had in his cart. He was confronted by two bandits and was left injured, after they had stolen sheets, wheat and rice. The theft of this latter commodity is interesting in that rice wasn't common in Mallorca.
Perhaps the bandits had been particularly attracted to Sebastià's cart for this reason. Or, more likely, they were simply opportunists, looking to steal what they could. Four months later, Antoni Mas from Santa Margalida was driving his cart. Three bandits attacked him. It is not known what was stolen from him, but it is known that Antoni was shot. There was robbery with extreme violence on the ways and tracks of Mallorca, but it was nothing new.
Almost five hundred years before Sebastià Ribas and Antoni Mas suffered at the hands of bandits, Jaume I conquered Majorca.
From 1229 onwards, it has been argued, the people of the island lived in fear, a violent Mallorcan society having owed much to the division of land after the conquest. There was no army as such in Mallorca, so nobles established private armies in their territories. These served dual purposes - defence forces against possible pirate attacks and for resolving (or starting) internal conflicts. Villages and their families thus became part of a network of communities often intent on revenge for one reason or another.
Available arms were to be greatly reinforced by what was brought back from the defence of Bugia in Algeria in 1515 - Mallorcan and Balearic forces had gone to the aid of the Spanish governor. Firearms were no longer the preserve of the aristocrats.
The major eruptions of violence on the island were those of the Revolt of the Part Forana (outside the Ciutat, i.e. Palma) in 1450 and the Revolt of the Germanies (the Brotherhoods) from 1521 to 1523. Grievances common to both were the appalling social conditions that many islanders suffered from, and neither revolt was to resolve anything.
Clans had meanwhile emerged that grouped together small gangs who were the legacy of the private armies formed by the thirteenth-century nobles.
There was the Torrella versus Puigdorfila vendetta that lasted all of 120 years between 1460 and 1580, and this was to soon be followed by the Canamunt versus Canavall, which endured until past the middle of the seventeenth century.
Pacts of silence meant that the Audiencia royal court was never able to truly deal with the armed gangs that existed in parts of Mallorca. The church was often complicit in giving refuge to gang members, who came from different backgrounds and had different motives.
Two classes of bandit were established. The “bandoler” belonged to a “bàndol”, which operated under a gang leader and guarded specific territory. The bandolers were assassins who enjoyed the protection of their villages, their mayors and, more often than not, the local churches. The “bandejat” was a man raised outside the law or who was cast out from society. Anyone who didn’t recognise the established order was classified as a bandejat. An example was the leader of the Part Forana revolt, Simó 'Tort' Ballester. Another was Mateu Reus, aka 'Rotget'.
The idea that the Mallorcan bandit was like some masked highwayman is a long way from the reality. He was part of a structure that developed over the centuries, while his role evolved. In certain instances, such as the Revolt of the Part Forana, the bandit had a political function. Generally, however, he was an almost semi-legitimate figure, given protection by his community in acting on behalf of that community, even if this did entail assassination and robbery. Some bandits were knights. Others were ordinary men responding to poverty and to the needs of their families and communities.
But what about the attacks on Sebastià Ribas and Antoni Mas? It is more than likely that they were the victims of the highwayman-robber type of bandit, opportunistic thieves who had nothing to do with organised banditry. By 1711, the people of the island had grown tired of all the violence, while the ending of the Canamunt-Canavall feud (given as 1666) resulted in an environment in which there were still bandits but not the gangs as had previously existed.
However, the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession led to a flare-up of the old-style banditry. The authorities of the Bourbon king, Felipe V, were determined to stamp it out, but they came across a bandit, treated in folklore as a kind of Robin Hood, who supposedly had magical powers to prevent his detention. He was Mateu Reus - Rotget.
In November 1728, the authorities set a trap for him. He was captured at Lluc Sanctuary and was executed two months later. Five hundred years after the conquest and the path to banditry, Rotget was Mallorca’s last “great” bandit.
Until, and some might say, others were to emerge some time later.