Lampião is a controversial figure in Brazilian history

LAMPIÃO THE KING OF CANGAÇOA visionary, fearless and intelligent warrior. Nobody denies Lampião's virtues. Now researchers question the true historical role of Virgulino Ferreira. by Lira Neto

They made murder a macabre ritual. The long dagger, up to 80 centimeters in length, was driven with a sharp blow into the base of the victim's collarbone – the popular “soap dish”.

The sharp blade sliced ​​through flesh, severed arteries, punctured the lung, pierced the heart, and when it was withdrawn, it produced a spectacular spurt of blood. He was one less policeman or informer in the caatinga – and one more dead in the cangaço's accounts.

When they didn't kill, they insisted on wounding, mutilating, leaving visible scars, so that the marks of violence could serve as an example. They drew deep wounds in the shape of a cross on men's foreheads with the knife, disfigured the faces of women with a hot iron to mark the cattle.

Exactly 70 years after the death of the cangaço's main leader, Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, Lampião, the aura of heroism that for some time has been tried to attribute to cangaceiros gives way to a less idealized interpretation of the phenomenon.

A series of books, theses and academic dissertations released in recent years argue that it makes no sense to worship the myth of an idealist Lampião, a primitive revolutionary, insurgent against the oppression of large estates and the injustice of the northeastern sertão.

Virgulino would not be a romantic vigilante, a Robin Hood of the caatinga, but a cruel and bloodthirsty criminal, allied with colonels and large landowners.

Contemporary historians, anthropologists and social scientists reach a conclusion that is not comfortable for the memory of cangaço: in rural Brazil in the first half of the 20th century, the action of gangs such as Lampião played a role equivalent to that of the drug traffickers who today kidnap, kill and corrupt in the great metropolises of the country.

Cangaceiros and traffickers

It was the outlaws who introduced large-scale kidnapping in Brazil.

They took hostages in exchange for money to finance new crimes. If they did not receive ransom, they tortured and killed the victims, with gunshots or stab wounds. Extortion was another source of income. They sent letters, in which they demanded astronomical amounts in order not to invade cities, set fire to houses and shed innocent blood.

They offered safe-conducts, with which they guaranteed protection to those who gave them shelter and coverage, the so-called coiteiros. They were always ruthless with anyone who crossed their path: they raped, castrated, terrorized. They corrupted military officers and civil authorities, from whom they received arms and ammunition.

A weapons arsenal ever more modern and with greater firepower than that used by the troops that fought them.

“Violence is more perverse and explicit where the largest contingent of poor and excluded populations is located. Before, banditry took place in the countryside; Today, organized crime is more evident on the periphery of urban centers,” says anthropologist Luitgarde Oliveira Cavalcanti Barros, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and author of the book A Derradeira Gesta: Lampião e Nazarenos Guerreando no Sertão.

The teacher points out similarities between the methods of cangaceiros and drug dealers: “Most of the residents of today's favelas are not criminals. In the sertão, the cangaceiros were also a minority. But, in both cases, the honest and working population is subjected to the regime of terror imposed by the bandits, who dictate the rules and live at the expense of collective fear”.

In addition to fear, the cangaceiros exerted fascination among the sertanejos. Entering the cangaço represented, for a young man from the caatinga, social ascension. It meant entering a community of men who boasted of their audacity and courage, individuals who exchanged the drowsiness of peasant life for a daily life full of adventures and dangers.

It was a way of access to quick and bloody money, conquered by iron and fire. “The procedural correlations between yesterday's cangaceiros and today's traffickers are evident. Strictly speaking, they are old professors and modern disciples”, says researcher on the subject Melquíades Pinto Paiva, author of Ecology of Cangaço and member of the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute.

man and legend

Virgulino Ferreira da Silva reigned in the caatinga between 1920 and 1938. The origin of cangaço, however, is lost in time. Long before him, since the 18th century, there were already armed gangs operating in the sertão, particularly in the area where the cattle cycle in the Northeast avenged, a territory where violence, the law of colonels, poverty and drought prevailed.

The word cangaço, according to most authors, derived from “canga”, a wooden piece placed on the neck of pack oxen. Like cattle, bandits carried their belongings on their shoulders.

One of the forerunners of cangaço was the legendary José Gomes, the devilish Cabeleira, who terrorized the lands of Pernambuco around 1775.

Another that marked the time was the potiguar Jesuíno Alves de Melo Calado, Jesuíno Brilhante (1844-1879), famous for distributing among the poor the food he plundered from government convoys. But the first to deserve the title of King of Cangaço, for the daring of his actions, was Antônio Silvino (1875-1944), from Pernambuco, the Golden Rifle.

Among his exploits, he ripped up the rails, chased engineers and kidnapped employees of Great Western, an English company that built railroads in the interior of Paraíba.

Lampião always stated that he entered the life of a bandit to avenge his father's murder. José Ferreira, a pack animal driver and small farmer in Serra Talhada (PE), was killed in 1920 by police sergeant José Lucena, after a series of hostilities between the Ferreira family and neighbor José Saturnino.

In the backlands of that time, revenge and offended honor went hand in hand. Taking justice into one's own hands was considered legitimate and the absence of revenge was understood as a symptom of moral laxity. “In my land,/ the cangaceiro is loyal and brave:/ he swears that he will kill and kills”, says the poem “Terra Bárbara”, by Jáder de Carvalho (1901-1985), from Ceará.

In the same year of 1920, Virgulino Ferreira joined the group of another famous cangaceiro, Sebastião Pereira e Silva, Sinhô Pereira – according to some authors, who nicknamed him Lampião. Like everything else in the biography of the Pernambuco native, the reason for the code name is controversial.

Some say that the baptism was due to the fact that he handled the rifle with such speed and dexterity that the successive shots lit up the night. His right eye, blind due to glaucoma, aggravated by an accident with a thorn in the caatinga, did not affect his aim.

Others believe the version attributed to Sinhô Pereira, according to which Virgulino would have used the flash of a shot to find a cigarette that a colleague had dropped on the floor.

The cangaço has not had a prominent leader since 1914, when Antônio Silvino was arrested after a fight with the police. It was only after 1922, after taking over from Sinhô Pereira's gang, that Virgulino would become the maximum leader of the cangaceiros.

An excellent strategist, Lampião distinguished himself by his bravery in fights with the police, as in 1927, in Riacho de Sangue, during a clash with men led by Major Moisés Figueiredo from Ceará. Lampião's 50 men were surrounded by 400 police.

The shooting was raging and the police victory was imminent. Lampião ordered the cease-fire and the sepulchral silence of his band. The police fell into the trap. She stepped forward and, when she got close, was met with heavy fire. Surprised, the soldiers retreated.

The ability to outwit the pursuers earned him the reputation of possessing supernatural powers and, after escaping numerous ambushes, of having his body closed. In the same month as Riacho de Sangue's ambush, Lampião and his gang fell into a new ambush. A traitor offered them a poisoned dinner in a house surrounded by police.

When the first cangaceiros began to feel ill, Virgulino realized the plot and tried to flee, but found himself cornered by an intentional fire in the forest. What was supposed to be a trap ended up saving the cangaceiros' skin: they disappeared in the smoke, as if by magic.

But Lampião's greatest asset was to cultivate a large network of coiteiros. This ensured the longevity of his career and the extension of his domain. The performance of his band extended to Alagoas, Ceará, Bahia, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe. Lampião came to command a nomadic army of more than 100 men, almost always distributed in subgroups, which gave mobility and hindered the action of the police.

In 1926, in a tone of defiance and mockery, he even sent a letter to the governor of Pernambuco, Júlio de Melo, proposing the division of the state into two parts. Júlio de Melo to be content with one. Lampião, self-proclaimed “Governor of the Sertão”, would rule the other.

There are disagreements – and passionate discussions – around the historical figure of Virgulino. Did he run gang rape sessions or, on the contrary, punish gang members who raped women? Did he castrate enemies, as did so many others involved in the bandit?

There are controversies. “Lampião was neither a demon nor a hero. He was a cangaceiro. Many of the cruelties imputed to him were practiced by individuals from other sides. I interviewed several ex-cangaceiros and none of them confirmed stories about the rapes and castrations carried out personally by Lampião”, says researcher Amaury Corrêa de Araújo, author of seven books about cangaço.

The narratives of old cangaceiros contrast with the version published by the newspapers of the time, which generally had the police as their main source. With so many stories and stories surrounding the figure of Lampião, it becomes difficult to separate the man from the legend. “I think that is precisely there, in this multiplicity of perspectives and versions, the great strength of the character he was.

This is what even helps us to understand its dimension as a myth”, explains French historian Élise Grunspan-Jasmin, author of Lampião: Senhor do Sertão (Edusp).

“VP Lamp”

A book recently released in France promises to raise the bar for this discussion. Signed by writer Jack de Witte, Lampião VP, still without a publisher in Brazil, compares the trajectory of Rei do Cangaço with that of Rio de Janeiro drug dealer Marcio Amaro de Oliveira, Marcinho VP, protagonist of the book-report Abusado, best-seller by journalist Caco Barcelos.

“What produces violence in favelas? Misery, social injustice, the police and corrupt politicians. The same causes produce the same effects,” says De Witte. Historian and professor at Unicamp Jayme Pinsky warns: “It is rather simplistic to compare cangaceiros and drug dealers. There is a risk of committing the historiographical sin of anachronism”. Read: analyze a historical moment based on concepts and ideas of another.

It was common currency among specialists to interpret the “King of Cangaço” as a “social bandit”, an expression created by the English historian Eric Hobsbawm to define the outlaws that emerged in agrarian societies in transition to capitalism. In Bandidos (University Forensics), 1975, Hobsbawn cites Lampião, Robin Hood, and Jesse James as examples of noble robbers, daring avengers, defenders of the oppressed.

The revolutionary image began to take shape in 1935, when the National Liberation Alliance cited Virgulino as one of its political inspirers. The thesis was reinforced in 1963 with the release of a classic on the theme, Cangaceiros e Fanáticos, in which the author, Rui Facó, justifies the physical violence of cangaço as a response to social violence. At the same time, federal deputy Francisco Julião, representative of the Peasant Leagues and political activist for agrarian reform, declared that Lampião was “the first man in the Northeast to fight against large estates and arbitrariness”.

“Lampião was not a revolutionary. His desire was not to act on the world to impose more justice on it, but to use the world to his advantage”, says the historian Grunspan-Jasmin, echoing Frederico Pernambucano de Mello, one of the greatest specialists in cangaço today. A researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation and author of Guerreiros do Sol: Violence and Banditry in the Northeast of Brazil, Mello says that the cangaceiro and the colonel were not rivals.

The colonels offered arms and protection to cangaceiros, who, in return, provided militia service. Two of the greatest coiteiros in Lampião were powerful men: Bahia colonel Petronilo de Alcântara Reis and Army captain Eronildes de Carvalho, who would later become governor of Alagoas. “I prefer the conservative classes: farmers, ranchers, merchants,” Virgulino said in a 1926 interview.

Caatinga marketer

The idea that Lampião was an avenger is also contested by Mello. He argues that, in almost 20 years of cangaço, Lampião would never have made an effort to get revenge on Lucena and Saturnino, the policeman and former neighbor responsible for his father's murder.

According to one of Virgulino's men, Miguel Feitosa, the Medal, Saturnino had even sent a uniform and a cut of fabric with the aim of sealing peace between them. A carrier would have thanked him for Lampião.

The same Medal said that former soldier Pedro Barbosa da Cruz proposed killing Lucena for money. “Never mind, these are old questions”, Lampião would have replied. According to the author of Guerreiros do Sol, the cangaceiros used the discourse of personal revenge and charity gestures as “ethical shields” for acts of banditry.

Despite the arduous life, those who entered the bandit could hardly (or wanted) to leave it. There was a notorious pride in belonging to the gangs, also revealed in the clothing of the cangaceiros. The excess of adornments, the ornaments on the hats, the colorful embroidery were typical of the cangaço's final moments. Lampião was a man very concerned with his public image, which helped him to remain in the national memory.

The King of Cangaço was also the king of personal marketing. Just as he loved to appear in newspapers and magazines, even allowing himself to be photographed and even filmed, he made his warrior costume an ostentatious and vain trademark. “In this, perhaps only the medieval European knight or the eastern samurai can rival our captain of the cangaço”, wrote Pernambucano de Mello.

The anthropologist Luitgarde Barros sees another point in common with current criminality: "The traffickers also like to show off their status as criminals and have a characteristic visual code, made up of hoods and skull tattoos all over the body."

Police violence is another aspect that brings Lampião's universe closer to the world of trafficking. As is the case today in favelas dominated by organized crime, the brutality of backcountry brigands was only matched by the brutality of the steering wheels – the police forces whose soldiers were nicknamed by cangaceiros as “monkeys”.

In the heyday of cangaço, there were no big differences between the action of bandits and soldiers. It was not uncommon for them to dress in the same way – which caused confusion – and they would side with each other. Cangaceiros such as Clementino José Furtado, known as Quelé, left the group and went to close ranks amid the wheels. The Mormaço bandit made the opposite move. He had been a police bugler before joining Lampião.

As is common in the story of most criminals, a tragic and violent death marked the end of Virgulino's days. Betrayed by one of his trusted coiteiros, Pedro de Cândida, who was tortured by the police to denounce the gang's whereabouts, Lampião was surprised at his hiding place in Grota do Angico, Sergipe, on July 28, 1938.

After a battle of just 15 minutes against Lieutenant José Bezerra's troops, 11 cangaceiros fell on the battlefield. All of them had their bodies cut off by the police, including Lampião and Maria Bonita.

For more than 30 years, their heads remained unburied. In 1969, they were still in the Nina Rodrigues museum, in Bahia, when they were finally buried, at the request of relatives of the most mythological – and feared – couple in the cangaço.

Lampião's saga in the caatinga

1898 – Virgulino Ferreira da Silva is born on June 4, in the district of Vila Bela, now Serra Talhada, Pernambuco. He is the third of nine children born to José Ferreira and Maria Lopes.
1915 – Fight begins between the Ferreira family and the neighbor José Saturnino.
1920 – José Ferreira is killed. Virgulino and three brothers (Ezequiel, Levino and Antônio) join the bandit. During a shootout in Piancó (PB), he is wounded in the shoulder and groin: these are the first scars in a series that he will collect in his life.
1922 – Sinhô Pereira leaves the cangaço and Lampião takes the place of boss. The first major feat is an assault on the house of Baroness Joana Vieira de Siqueira Torres, in Alagoas.
1924 – Shot in the right foot, in Serra do Catolé, municipality of Belmonte (PE).
1925 – He becomes blind in his right eye and wears glasses to disguise the problem.
1926 – Father Cícero visits Ceará and receives the rank of captain of the “patriotic battalion”, in charge of fighting Coluna Prestes. In Itacuruba (PE) he is shot in the shoulder blade.
1927 – Attack of the gang in Mossoró (RN). The city resists. It is one of the biggest defeats of his career.
1928 – The action of the Pernambuco police makes it cross the São Francisco River and start to act preferentially in Bahia and Sergipe.
1929 – First meeting with Maria Bonita, on her father's farm, in Malhada do Caiçara (BA).
1930 – Maria Bonita becomes his wife and joins the band. The government of Bahia offers a reward of 50 contos de réis for those who deliver him dead or alive. In Sergipe, he is shot in the hip.
1932 – Expedita, his daughter with Maria Bonita, is born.
1934 – Eronildes Carvalho, army captain and coiteiro de Lampião, is appointed governor of Sergipe.
1936 – Lebanese Benjamin Abraão, ex-secretary of Padre Cícero, convinces Virgulino to let himself be filmed in the documentary Lampeão. The film is collected by the Estado Novo.
1938 – On July 28, the gang is surrounded in Angico (SE). Lampião, Maria Bonita and nine cangaceiros are murdered.

cangaço tricks

Strategies and techniques to outwit enemies
Although it is inappropriate to refer to the cangaceiros as guerrillas – they had no political purpose – it is undeniable that they used typical guerrilla tactics. Used to living in the caatinga, they were not easy prey for the police, especially for units displaced from cities with a mission to fight them in the sertão.

One of the biggest difficulties in facing them was that they preferred quick and ferocious attacks, which surprised the opponent. They also had no qualms about running away when they were cornered. There were those who confused this with cowardice. It was a tricky strategy.

Tropa de Elite

The bands were always small, with a maximum of 10 to 15 men. This ensured the mobility needed to carry out surprise attacks and to retreat in dangerous situations.

dead of night

Instead of traveling on horseback along roads and trails known to the police, they covered long distances on foot through the caatinga, preferably at night. To prevent new access routes to the hinterland from being opened, workers were murdered on highways and railways.

the paraphernalia

All of the cangaceiro's belongings were carried by his body. As it was not possible to carry much luggage, money and food were placed in pots buried in the ground, to be retrieved later.

desert foxes

Cangaceiros were masters at hiding tracks. A few tricks: wear your sandals backwards on your feet. From the footprints, the police thought they were going in the opposite direction (detail); walking in single file, backwards, stepping on the same footprints, erased with foliage; jumping over a ledge, giving the impression of vanishing into thin air.

Dead weight

With the exception of abductees, they almost never took prisoners in combat, as this would hamper their ability to move quickly. Nor did they keep colleagues injured or with limited mobility.

your master sent

To resolve internal disagreements in the gang, Lampião always planned a major attack. All members of the group united against the enemy and put aside their differences among themselves.

the infiltrators

Whoever gave shelter and hiding place to cangaceiros was called coiteiro and acted in exchange for money, armed protection or even fear. Coiteiros who betrayed trust were killed to set an example.

Escape route

The cangaço's main areas of action were close to state borders. In case of persecution, they could cross them to be safe from attack by the local police.

Friendly and enemy fire

During the fighting, there was a fundamental rule: in case of retreat, never leave weapons for the enemy; in victories, seize his arsenal.

God and devil in the land of the sun

The night that Padre Cícero talked to Lampião

There, face to face, for the first and only time, were Lampião and Padre Cícero, the two greatest myths in all of Northeastern history. A third mythological figure was indirectly responsible for that unusual meeting: Luís Carlos Prestes, the commander of the Prestes Column, a guerrilla military movement that since the previous year has snaked through the interior of the country, facing the troops of President Artur Bernardes.

When the revolutionary column marched towards the Northeast, the federal government had no doubts: it summoned the local political leaders to form their own armies and fight the rebels.

In the book O General Góes Deposta, from the 1950s, General Góes Monteiro, head of the General Staff of operations against the column, assumes that he had the idea of ​​summoning jagunços and cangaceiros to face the advance of Prestes.

In Ceará, it fell to deputy Floro Bartolomeu, doctor and political ally of Father Cícero, to make the official invitation to Lampião's gang to join the “Patriotic Battalion”. In February 1926, Father Cicero still tried for a peaceful solution.

He sent the revolutionaries a letter urging them to lay down arms. In exchange, he promised them shelter in Juazeiro do Norte (CE), where they would have legal guarantees that they would be subjected to fair treatment. According to the report of Lourenço Moreira Lima, secretary of the revolutionary column, the message was received.

“We had the opportunity to read this letter, written with great ingenuity, but which highlighted the priest's intimate and sincere desire to achieve peace”, wrote Moreira Lima in his campaign diary, published in 1934.

The request, as you know, was ignored. When Lampião arrived on the 4th of March in the city of Juazeiro do Norte, responding to Floro's call, he was no longer there. Sick, the federal deputy had traveled to Rio de Janeiro, where he would end up dying.

Father Cícero then found himself with a problem on his hands: welcoming the famous bandit and his goats in the city and, even more, fulfilling what had been agreed between Lampião and the deputy, with the proper approval of the federal government: the cangaceiro should receive money , weapons and the rank of captain of the “Patriotic Battalion”.

Lampião and 49 other cangaceiros occupied a house close to Floro's farm, on the outskirts of the city, and then settled in Juazeiro do Norte, in the manor house where João Mendes de Oliveira, a well-known popular poet in the region, lived. It was there that, from the window, Virgulino threw coins at the people and where, during the night, Father Cicero found the gang.

The bandits, kneeling in deference to the priest, are said to have overheard the priest trying to convince their leader to drop his bandit as soon as he returned from the campaign against Prestes. The only federal official available in the city was then called, agronomist Pedro de Albuquerque Uchoa, to draw up a document that would supposedly guarantee safe conduct for the gang through the sertões and, above all, grant the promised patent.

The paper, as Lampião discovered as soon as he left town, had no legal value, which did not prevent him from signing, from then on, “Captain Virgulino”. Aware of the wrongdoing, the cangaceiro no longer bothered to fight the Prestes column.

He had already obtained enough money and weapons to go on his bandit path, now proudly flaunting his false military rank. Later, agronomist Uchoa justified his role in the episode: in front of Lampião, he would sign anything. “Until the removal of the President of the Republic”, he said.

Bonnie and Clyde from the backcountry

The love of Maria Bonita and Lampião provoked a revolution in the daily lives of cangaceiros

A sertaneja softened the stone heart of the King of Cangaço. It was Maria Gomes de Oliveira, Maria Déa, also known as Maria Bonita. Separated from her former husband, shoemaker José Miguel da Silva, Zé de Neném, was the first woman to enter the bandit.

Before her, other brigands had had a wife and children, but until then no wife had dared to follow her partner in the wandering life in the middle of the caatinga.

The first meeting between the two was in 1929, in Malhada de Caiçara (BA), in the house of Maria's parents, then 17 years old and the niece of a coiteiro from Virgulino. The following year, the girl left her family and joined the bandit, to live with the man she loved.

When he heard the news, the old master of Lampião, Sinhô Pereira, was surprised. He had never allowed the presence of women in the pack. He imagined that they would only bring discord and jealousy among his “goats”.

But after Maria Déa's arrival in 1930, many other cangaceiros followed the boss's example. A cangaceira woman did not cook, did not wash clothes and, as no one in the cangaço had a house, she also had no other domestic obligations.

At camp, cooking and washing was a task reserved for men. They also just made love, they didn't make war: with the exception of Sila, wife of cangaceiro Zé Sereno, they didn't participate in the combats – and with Maria Bonita it was no different. Their role was to keep their men company.

The children that were being born were given to be raised by coiteiros. Lampião and Maria had a daughter, Expedita, born in 1932. Two years earlier, the one who would be the couple's firstborn had been stillborn, in 1930.

Among couples, infidelity was punished within the notion of honor of the caatinga: cangaceiro Zé Baiano killed his wife, Lídia, with a club when he discovered that she had betrayed him with his colleague Bem-Te-Vi. Another bandmate, Moita Brava, caught his companion Lili in love with the goat Pó Corante.

He murdered her with six shots at point-blank range. The arrival of women coincided with the period of decadence of the cangaço. Ever since he had Maria Bonita by his side, Lampião changed his life as an eternal nomad for increasingly longer moments of rest, especially in Sergipe. Maria Déa's influence on the cangaceiro was visible.

“Lampião was quite changed. His aggressiveness was diluted in Maria Déa's arms”, says researcher Pernambucano de Mello. It was in one of those moments of pause and idyll in Sergipe's hinterland that the King of Cangaço was surprised and killed, in Grota do Angico, in 1938, after a battle against Lieutenant José Bezerra's troops.

It is said that when his head was cut off, the most famous of all the cangaceiras was injured, but still alive.

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