In Search of: Robin Hoods of the World

Every country has its Robin Hood… — Lawrence G. Green

Ah, but is that really true? My husband called me from work the other day; the question had somehow come up with his colleagues, and he turned to me, as the closest thing to a “folklore expert” he knows. It sounds like a statement, that ought to be true, doesn’t it? So far, I’ve only come up with a few, but this seems like a great question to throw out there into Bloglandia….

Robin Hood shoots with Sir Guy
Source: Wikimedia

By Robin Hood I mean primarily someone who is alleged to have robbed the rich to give to the poor, or at least defended the poor in some extralegal way. A folk hero is preferable: someone who was supposed to be a historical person (or maybe more than one; Wikipedia lists several people who might have been the “real” Robin Hood). For this list, I’ll accept fictional characters, especially if they are based on historical persons. In either case, I’d like someone who has in some way entered his country’s popular “folk” culture, in the way that Superman or Davy Crockett have entered the folk culture of the United States.

So here’s my list, so far, of international Robin Hoods. I’m hoping my readers can contribute more.

Dulla Bhatti (Pakistan/India — Punjab)

Mughal Infantryman
Source: Wikimedia

Dulla Bhatti (Rai Abdullah Khan Bhatti) was a legendary sixteenth century outlaw from the Sandal Bar area of Punjab, in what is now Pakistan. He led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar. He is a popular folk hero in Punjab, and is supposed to have regularly “liberated” the tributes and taxes sent to the Emperor and redistributed them to the poor. Many of his exploits are now associated with the winter solstice festival, Lohri.

Dulla Bhatti was the first international Robin Hood I thought of, because I’ve written about him before. Here’s a Dulla Bhatti article that I shared on the Non Stop Bhangra website a few years ago, in honor of Lohri.

Song Jiang and his 108 Bandits (China)

Shi Jin, Kuniyoshi
Shi Jin, one of the 108 Bandits, by Kuniyoshi
Source: The Kuniyoshi Project

The colleagues my husband was chatting with happened to be Chinese, and Song Jiang was the first Robin Hood they thought of. Song Jiang was an outlaw some time during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), active in what are now the provinces of Shandong and Henan. He appears to have been a historical figure, first mentioned in documents from the early 12th century, with 36 bandits. His legend became the subject of the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, which dates at least in part from the 14th century (the first known complete edition — 100 chapters — dates from 1589). The novel increased the number of bandits to 108, and presents Song Jiang and his men as defenders of the people against corrupt government officials.

There are several Japanese translations of Water Margin, including one illustrated by Hokusai. Utagawa Kuniyoshi produced the enormously successful series of woodcuts, 108 Heroes of the Water Margin, over the period 1827-1830. There are also several English translations, notably Pearl S. Buck’s All Men are Brothers and Sidney Shapiro’s Outlaws of the Marsh.

You can read about Water Margin, Song Jiang, and his bandits, here.

Zorro (California)

Zorro, All-Story Weekly
Source: Wikimedia

I tried to come up with an American Robin Hood; the first, and so far only, figure who comes to mind is Zorro. Zorro is different from the other Robin Hood figures I’ve mentioned so far, in that he’s purely fictional. His “feckless aristocratic fop by day, swashbuckling hero by night” persona is rather like the Scarlet Pimpernel, except Zorro defends the poor and the indigenous, rather than rescuing French aristocrats.

Zorro is American in the broad continental sense, rather than in the “United Statesian” sense: he is an aristocratic Californio living in Los Angeles during the period when California was part of Mexico, so his character is not a United Statesian hero. On the other hand, Zorro’s creator, Illinois born, California-residing pulp author Johnston McCulley, was USAian, so you can’t call Zorro a Mexican figure, either. I’ll go with Californian.

Zorro first appeared in “The Curse of Capistrano,” serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919, and the Douglas Fairbanks film The Mark of Zorro came out in 1920. The character was so popular that McCulley went on to write over sixty more stories, and in 2005, Isabel Allende wrote a Zorro origin story, the novel Zorro. How cool is that?

Some say Zorro was partially inspired by real-life California bandit Joaquin Murieta, who is a bit of a legend in his own right. The Murieta legend says that he started as a respectable miner in the California gold fields; Anglos stole his claim, raped his wife, and lynched his brother. Murieta swore vengeance on all Yankees, and became an outlaw. Based on that description I can see Murieta as a symbol of California-Mexican resistance to the Anglo encroachers, but he doesn’t really strike me as a Robin Hood.

I’m still looking for a USAian Robin Hood — and a Mexican one, too for that matter. All suggestions welcome.

You can read The Mark of Zorro (the novelization of “The Curse of Capistrano”) at the Internet Archive. There’s a fun chronology of Zorro, here.

If you are curious about Joaquin Murieta, there’s an article about his legend here.

Ishikawa Goemon (Japan)

Execution of Goemon Ishikawa
The Execution of Goemon Ishikawa
Source: Wikimedia

Japan has two Robin Hoods on this list (overachievers!). The first is 16th century folk hero Ishikawa Goemon, said to be the son of a samurai family who turned ninja and outlaw after his father’s murder. He robbed lords, merchants and clerics, and gave his plunder to the peasants. Goemon was boiled alive (ick!) after a failed assassination attempt on warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In memory of that, the cauldron-shaped Japanese bathtubs are called goemonburo (Goemon bath). Brrr…..

You can read about Ishikawa Goemon here, and on Wikipedia.

Jirokichi the Rat (Japan)

Jirokichi the Rat
Jirokichi the Rat, portrayed by Kodanji Ichikawa IV
Source: Wikimedia

Nakamura Jirokichi, aka, Jirokichi the Rat, aka Nezumi Kozō (“rat-boy”) was a 19th century Japanese thief and folk hero. He confessed to robbing over 100 samurai homes, amassing 30,000 ryō over fifteen years. As far as I can tell, his reputation for giving his spoils to the poor comes from the fact that when they arrested him, he appeared to have no money. On the other hand, he supposedly served all his wives with divorce papers just before his arrest, to save them from being punished along with him. That was nice of him.

Why “the Rat”? The story I like is that he carried a bag of rats with him on his jobs, turning them loose as he broke in, so the occupants of the house would think any noises they heard were just due to the vermin. Clever.

You can read about Jirokichi the Rat here, and on Wikipedia.

Jirokichi the Rat is also notable because a movie based on his legend, Oatsurae Jirokichi Koshi (1931), is the only completely preserved silent film by Japanese director Ito Daisuke. You can find the film on Vimeo, here. The movie has English subtitles and a Japanese benshi (character voices and commentary) track.

Scotty Smith (South Africa)

Scotty Smith
Image: Wikimedia

The Lawrence Green quote that I began this post with refers to Scotty Smith (1845–1919), born George St Leger Lennox into an aristocratic Scottish family. He moved to South Africa in 1877. He was a highway man, horse-thief, cattle raider, and according to Green, a British secret agent. He died at the age of 72, a respectable man.

There’s a great story about Smith meeting a broke farmer who, not recognizing Smith, wishes out loud that he could capture the famous bandit for the reward money. Smith then reveals his identity and forces the now-reluctant farmer at gunpoint to turn him in. The farmer does, gets the reward money, and Smith breaks out of jail a few hours later.

You can read Lawrence Green’s account of Scotty Smith in Chapter 7 of his book To the River’s End, here. I have to say, his legend notwithstanding, he sounds rather unsavory — especially that part about the Bushman skeletons.

Im Kkeokjeong (Korea)

Im Kkeokjeong
Statue of Im Kkeokjeong at Goseokjeong, Cheorwon.
Photo: travel oriented, Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Im Kkeokjeong was a 16th century peasant (What is it about the 16th century? So many Robin Hoods!) who led an uprising against the Joseon-era yangban aristocracy in the Gyeonggi and Hwanghae provinces. The peasants were revolting against the oppressive taxes imposed on them by the yangban officials. Kkeokjeong’s group called themselves the Noklimdang (The Green Forest Union), and robbed yangban officials and government granaries, redistributing the wealth and food back to the peasantry. Im Kkeokjeong was captured and executed in 1562. He is the inspiration for the character Hong Gildong, hero of the late 16th-early 17th century novel Hong Gildong jeon (The Story of Hong Gildong).

You can read about Im Kkeokjeong here and here.

That’s all I have time for, at the moment, but I would love to hear more! Who are some other Robin Hoods of the world?

6 thoughts on “In Search of: Robin Hoods of the World

  1. Here’s to real Robin Hoods and especially to those who find a way to help within the law. God knows, there is enough to do and much necessity to do it now.

  2. Bushrangers Ned Kelly and Captain Thunderbolt in Australia. Phoolin Devi from India, William Tell form Switzerland (fictional), Janoj Janucek from Slovakia…check out Graham Seal’s fantastic book “Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History”.

    1. Awesome! Thank you! William Tell hadn’t occurred to me — I think mostly of the apple story, as I imagine a lot of people do. Phoolan Devi sounds really interesting. And I will check out the book — thank you for the recommendation!

  3. Roberto Cofresi of Puerto Rico – In a nutshell, he robbed Spanish trade ships with an and gave the loot to the poor. He was eventually captured by the U.S. Navy and was executed with his crew by firing squad at the Spanish fort El Morro.

    Check out the book The Treasures of Roberto Cofresi by Lubos Kordac

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