Bullfighting and banditry almost go hand in hand in Ronda, or at least they did in the early days when the Romero dynasty first came to prominence. A major part of the culture and history of modern Andalucia, bullfighting shows no signs of diminishing in Southern Spain, in fact both main political parties in the parliament of Andalucia seem determined to protect the art for the enjoyment of future generations.
Banditry on the other hand has had a much longer history, and these days is nothing more than a romantic memory, the last bandits having been shot or arrested by Franco’s Guardia Civil in the middle of the 20th century. Starting in the 9th century during the rise of the Islamic era, banditry was often more about politics and tax avoidance than outright thievery, though of course the objective was always to relieve wealthier people of their precious possessions.
Aristocrats and wealthy officials who had cause to travel between the cities and towns of Al-Andalus, the Taifas, and the Kingdom of Granada were the prize most bandits dreamed of encountering since Spain’s feudal system that existed until the 19th century was not known for being in the least fair to those who had nothing or found themselves at the bottom of society.
The overwhelming majority of the population lived in abject poverty and a man really only had two options for improving their lot, find a job with a landowner as a soldier or perhaps if he was lucky as a herald assisting the lord by keeping his armor in good working order. The second option was to follow the dishonourable path of becoming a bandit, living in the mountains and only coming into town when it was safe to do so.
It was into this feudal society that bullfighting developed primarily as a form of training for knights on horseback, after all a horse that would stand its ground against a bull would also stand its ground in battle, and in those times Spain was not at peace being engaged in wars in Europe, North Africa, and in the Americas.
Some academics have speculated that bullfighting actually began in pre-Roman societies around the Mediterranean, and certainly there are records of young Greek men jumping over charging bulls and practising acrobatics, but the pure art of killing a bull seems to have been more or less developed by noblemen of the medieval era, though not necessarily in Spain.
Francisco Romero became a renowned bullfighter by accident, leaping to the defense of a nobleman who had fallen from his horse in the path of a wounded bull. Francisco defended the stricken nobleman armed only with his wits and a hat, and so impressive was his effort that others soon took up the art of the torero on foot.
An edict by Philip V of Spain in the 18th century banning noblemen from the cruel and barbaric spectacle of killing a bull set the stage for impoverished young men to finally break free of their roots and become men of substance legally instead of the traditional route of being a bandit. As so often happens in history, the Romero family were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of this new found opportunity.
The most famous of the Romero’s was Pedro Romero Martinez, born the 19th day of November 1754 he was the third in a line of toreros, including his father Juan Romero and brother Joseph Romero, though credit for creating the Ronda style of bullfighting belongs to Pedro’s grandfather Francisco.
Pedro Romero however goes down in history as the true father and master of the Rondeño style since it was he who perfected the craft and laid down the first rules of engagement, and it in his honour that Ronda’s Corrida Goyesca and Pedro Romero Feria is held. One of his most enduring lessons to aspiring toreros is the idea that “whoever wants to be bullfighter has to think that from the waist down there is no movement. Bullfighting is not done with the legs, but with the hands”.
It was Pedro Romero and his arch nemesis Pepe Hillo who were the toreros honoured to open the new Plaza de Toros in Ronda in 1785, an event that even to this day is remembered in Ronda as being one of the defining moments of Ronda’s recent golden age. The Plaza de Toros is owned by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, the same group of noblemen whose unfortunate member was rescued by Francisco Romero.
The connection between bullfighting and banditry continued with many bandits engaging not just in contraband, but also in the spectacle of the bullfight. It isn’t surprising that toreros and bandits would know each other, in the main they would come from the same barrios, would drink in the same taverns, and probably were fast friends when the constabulary weren’t watching.
One of the main reasons banditry was so hard to eradicate is that each successive bandit leader would be a folk hero for making sure to always attack tax inspectors and other officials since in those times the common man firmly believed he was downtrodden by the landed gentry. History suggests the story was less one sided than they believed it to be, but there you have it, those who feel disadvantaged will always take out their frustrations on those who are better off then them.
Without doubt the most famous of the bandoleros was a ruthless murderer named El Tempranillo who seemed to derive pleasure from killing those who couldn’t afford to pay his fees for crossing his territory. El Tempranillo, whose real name was José Maria Hinojosa Cabacho was born in the village of Jauja on the 21st June 1805, to a poor family just before the time of the Spanish War of Independence from France.
During those times French Imperial troops were being harassed at every turn and would often take preventative action that involved what we would now consider mass murder. In any event El Tempranillo was raised in this environment and it is said he killed his first man at the age of thirteen, though history doesn’t record who his victim was.
El Tempranillo led the authorities a merry chase around the mountains which he and his gang knew like the backs of their hands, even going so far as to embarrass the town mayor and officials of Grazalema when he and his posse rode into the village to have his son baptised in the Nuestra Señora de la Aurora church, much to the dispair of the local government who learned after that the village folk had prevented the town hall from sending word of El Tempranillo’s whereabouts.
Despite his reputation for violence, El Tempranillo was also known to be quite charming and popular with the ladies, at one point being quoted as having told a wealthy lady in her carriage that her hand ws so beautiful it had no need for adornments, and then proceeded to remove her rings, before kissing her hand and bidding her a safe journey.
A violent man such as El Tempranillo couldn’t be expected to live a long life, and he didn’t, but it wasn’t the gallows or a firing squad that saw the end of El Tempranillo. Instead he accepted a pardon from King Fernando VII and became head of the Escuadrón Franco de Protección y Seguridad Pública de Andalucía, and it was while chasing another bandit known as El Barbarello that El Tempranillo was mortally wounded, dying in Alameda on the 23rd of September 1833.
It was the control of the Sierras enjoyed by El Tempranillo and his successors that led the Spanish government to establish the Guardia Civil after his death, their taskbeing to find and apprehend or kill bandits who continued to terrorise the nobility and traders on their ways about Andalucia.
One of the more famous bandits, at least internationally, was the bandolero Tragabuches, a local man born with the name José Ulloa who was a huge fan of Pedro Romero and indeed started his life as a bullfighter, but after discovering his wife in the arms of another man, killed him in hot blood and then fled to the mountains of the Serranía and took up a life of banditry. Whilst his story is true, Bizet’s opera Carmen, which is somewhat based on the life of Tragabuches blurs the truth a bit and has contributed to Tragabuches being better known than he perhaps deserved.
The very last of the great bandits to have survived in the mountains with his gang was Pasos Largos, a man still remembered by Rondeños some of whom to this day remember his death since it was so recent, 1934 to be exact. Pasos Largos was an angry and often violent man who killed out of revenge and spent as much of his life behind bars as he did in the mountains, but finally being killed in a shootout with the Guardia Civil after he refused to surrender to them on charges of poaching, theft, and murder.
These days the bandoleros of the Serranía de Ronda are romanticised and form a part of local culture and history, with many of their names reflected in local businesses, such as El Tempranillo wine, or the restaurant Tragabuches, or the hiking club Pasos Largos and they enjoy as much stature in death as their torero peers, the Romero and the Ordoñez dynasties of Ronda.