Socio-environmental crisis and banditry: A case of river piracy in late nineteenth-century Poland
Around 1900, Poland experienced a sharp rise in crimes committed by gangs, including armed robbery, extortion, and heinous crimes. This article examines one such crime: a case of river piracy that was brought before the courts in Płock in April 1901. Among the ranks of the accused were eleven men suspected of having committed robberies and extortions of lumber merchants operating along the Vistula River over the span of around ten years. Our approach aims to reconstruct the defendants’ life stories and living conditions on an economic, social, and environmental level. Similar in many respects to the “primitive rebels” described by Eric Hobsbawm, the Płock “pirates” were certainly not activists acting in support of a clear project of social upheaval. Rather, they were impoverished workers seeking for the means to survive, in a context of high unemployment and declining local lumber and fish resources. Under the microscope of the microhistorian, this case reveals the importance of social and environmental change in manifestations of day-to-day violence in late nineteenth-century Poland.