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Manoel Batista de Morais was born on 2 November 1875, in Afogados da Ingazeira, a small town situated on the banks of the Pajeú das Flores River, in the semi-arid region of Pernambuco. His parents were Francisco Batista de Morais and Balbina Pereira de Morais. In his youth, he became known as Batistinha [little Batista] (or Nezinho). His two brothers were Zeferino and Francisco.
Batistinha had an uncle called Silvino Aires Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, who after having fought with the forces of General Dantas Barreto (the governor of Pernambuco), decided to organise a band and from then on lived by spreading terror all over the semi-arid region.
The group was made up of: Luís Mansidão and his brother, Isidoro, Chico Lima, João Duda, Antônio Piúta, and later his nephews Zeferino and Manoel Batista de Morais (Batistinha).
Silvino Aires spent his days escaping police custody, but was arrested while sleeping by Captain Abílio Novais, near Samambaia, in the district of Custódia, Pernambuco. With the imprisonment of his bandit uncle, Batistinha took command of the band, changed his first name to Antônio (for reasons still unknown today), and his second to Silvino, after his much-admired relative and former leader.
From then on, he was known by his war-name Antônio Silvino and his nickname “Rifle de Ouro” [Golden Rifle]. Prior to Lampião, he was the most famous cangaceiro [bandit] leader, replacing famous cangaceiros such as Jesuíno Brilhante, Adolfo Meia-Noite, Preto, Moita Brava, his uncle – Silvino Aires – and his father – Francisco Batista de Morais (known as Batistão [Big Batista]).
Batistinha had entered cangaço [banditry] with his brother, Zeferino, to avenge the death of his father, Batistão do Pajeú, who had been killed when fighting the police. Batistão was a provocative man, a band leader, wanted by the police and the perpetrator of various murders. Once he dared to go to Afogados da Ingazeira on a busy market day. So the local political boss, Colonel Luís Antônio Chaves Campos, hired a professional killer called Desidério Ramos (who disliked Batistão, much the same as the colonel did), and he killed the bandit with a shot from his blunderbuss. Batistão’s body lay motionless in a street close to the fair. This was in 1896.
Desidério, enjoying the protection of the colonel and top political leader of the region, remained unpunished and well-protected in the semi-arid region. He never showed the slightest bit of fear regarding Antônio Silvino, despite the cangaço putting fear into everyone. So, after much mourning of the loss of his father, the children of Batistão vowed to avenge his death, robbing, assaulting and killing all those who contributed to it.
Some people believe even that Antônio Silvino did not have “bad instincts”, not committing violence like robbing people, businesses, towns and cities unless he had a good reason. The members of his band only took revenge on those who ambushed them with weapons, those that reported them to the police, and the volantes [paramilitary police] who pursued them. At most, if not exactly within the law, they say it was justified by the need to obtain basic elements for the band’s survival: food, money, clothes and weapons.
Other people, however, say that Antônio Silvino spread terror throughout the cities of Pernambuco’s Forest Zone and Agreste and in its semi-arid region and that of Paraíba. On the deeds and courage of the cangaceiro, the popular singer Leandro Gomes de Barros wrote:
Onde eu estou não se rouba [Where I am, no one steals]
Nem se fala em vida alheia, [Nor talks of each other’s life]
Porque na minha justiça [Because in my justice]
Não vai ninguém pra cadeia: [None will go to jail:]
Paga logo o que tem feito [They soon pay for what’s been done]
Com o sangue da própria veia. [With blood from their own veins.]
When Silvino Aires died, several dangerous individuals joined his band and began spreading terror everywhere. They were: Cavalo do Cão [Satan Horse], Relâmpago [Lightning], Nevoeiro [Fog], Bacurau, Cobra Verde [Green Snake], Azulão [Big Blue], Cocada, Gato Brabo [Mad Cat], Rio Preto [Black River], Pilão Deitado [Lying Mortar], Barra Nova [New Bar], Cossaco [Cossack] and others. Antônio Silvino, as leader, began to wear a Colonel’s uniform, complete with bandoliers, a dagger on his waist, a satchel and a rifle in his hand, and for the sake of power and vanity, demanded that everyone call him ‘captain’.
On this, Mauro Mota recorded an event with Antônio Silvino. Upon invading a city in Paraíba, the famous cangaceiro went to the house of an informer and publicly said that he would kill him. The victim’s desperate wife then pleaded: “Captain, do not kill my husband. Have pity on a poor woman and children who will be orphaned.”
To this the cangaceiro replied, “[...] Antônio Silvino does not know how to deny a distraught woman.” [...] “I will spare his life, but so he does not go unpunished, I’ll have to give him a beating.”
At which the woman came to ask him, "Captain, if it is to humiliate my husband, please excuse me: this does not do for a man! Kill him quickly; it is better!”
At that moment, seeing his chance to escape death slipping away, her informant husband interrupted the conversation between the two and said, “Stay out of it, woman, the captain knows what he’s doing!”.
Another episode that occurred was narrated by writer and sertanejo [backcountry man] Ulisses Lins. Once, Antônio Silvino passed through Fazenda Pantaleão, a property owned by Albuquerque Né, the grandfather of Etelvino Lins. As the cangaceiro did not know him, he simply greeted him from a distance, taking off his hat.
When told who it was, however, Antônio Silvino returned to humbly apologise for having passed through his land armed, justifying this by the dangerous life that he led, always running away from enemies and the police. Thus, despite considering the crime as a banality, the cangaceiro knew to respect the authority and the law of the colonel-farmers, who in fact were the most powerful of all.
He even was called the “gentleman bandit”. While not forgiving enemies, he acquired fame for protecting the simple and humble people: women, children, the sick and the elderly. A popular sertanejo poet at that time wrote:
Antônio Silvino é [Antônio Silvino is]
Cangaceiro do sertão, [A bandit from the semi-arid,]
Mas não ataca a pobreza, [But he does not attack poverty]
Antes lhe dá proteção; [Before giving it protection]
Mas tem orgulho em matar [But is proud to kill]
Oficial de galão. [Epaulette officers]
Another popular poet wrote the following cordel poem, as if it were Antônio Silvino himself talking:
Já ensinei aos meus cabras [I have taught my men]
A comer de mês em mês, [To eat once a month]
Beber água por semestre, [To drink water once a semester]
Dormir no ano uma vez, [To sleep just once a year]
Atirar em um soldado [To shoot a soldier]
E derrubar dezesseis. [And take down sixteen]
The governor of Pernambuco, General Dantas Barreto, when confronted with the widespread damage caused by bandits in the state, decided to mobilise the police. So he dispatched countless volantes to the semi-arid region to fight the gang of Antônio Silvino.
The sheriff of Taquaritinga, second-lieutenant Teófanes Torres, commander of one of the volante forces, suspected that the famous bandit was hiding on Joaquim Pedro’s farm. And when he searched inside the house, he noticed that a large sheep had been killed and was being prepared in the farmer’s kitchen.
From that, the lieutenant threatened to shoot the owner of the property if he did not immediately reveal where Antônio Silvino was. One of Joaquim Pedro’s daughters, terrified by the situation, begged: “Tell the truth, Dad!” The farmer finished by then saying that the band was very close, at the edge of a stream; and the officer ordered the troops to proceed to the location and the catch the cangaceiro dead or alive.
The way they took, in the middle of caatinga vegetation in Lagoa da Lage, Santa Maria, Pernambuco, was thick with thorns, mororós, xique-xiques, facheiros and dry jurema branches, causing harm to all those who tried to clear it. But despite the difficulties, the last meeting of Antônio Silvino with the police was on 28 November 1914. Many died in the firefight and few managed to escape. Already shot and to avoid jail, Joaquim Moura, the cangaceiro’s lieutenant, committed suicide with a rifle shot. The confrontation lasted about one hour, the time it took for the band to run out of ammunition.
It was suddenly noticed that Antônio Silvino was running unsteadily, as if wounded. In fact a rifle bullet had pierced his right lung, exiting the sub-axillary region. Bleeding, he made it to a friend's house, asked them to call the police and in their presence said, “I give up!” He was 39 years old.
He was arrested on the spot and taken to Taquaritinga Jail. However, as he was badly injured, he had to travel by horse in a hammock for about 40 kilometres to Caruaru railway station. His final destination was the state capital.
As a reward for heroism for the capture of the “Mussolini sertanejo”, General Dantas Barreto promoted Second-lieutenant Teófanes to lieutenant; Second-sergeant José Alvim to second-lieutenant; and all the others that participated in the confrontation with the gang to corporal.
From Caruaru, Antônio Silvino was transferred to Recife’s Detention House. He was taken on a special train from Great Western, where a crowd was waiting: everyone wanted to see the famous cangaceiro up close.
However, Antônio Silvino was in a bad state as a result of the bleeding he had suffered, was agitated, had difficulty breathing, and was burning up with fever. Doctors diagnosed traumatic pneumonia and applied six dry suction cups to his right hemithorax. Later, they gave him camphor oil and strychnine injections. The patient became calmer, breathing better.
Antônio Silvino became prisoner number 1122 of cell 35 in the East Ray. Because of the many charges against him, from his decision to spend twenty years in the life of cangaço, he was sentenced to 239 years and eight months in prison.
In jail, he had an exemplary behaviour and decided to learn to read and write, using the hours of the day to do something useful. Between classes, he made cufflinks, earrings and small horsehair artefacts, earning some money from the sale of these products.
He became the subject of studies and research, mainly by students of the Recife Law School. However, he did not like to recall his past.
On one occasion, he received a visit from José Lins do Rego, a young lawyer whose desire was to become a novelist. Other times, was approached by Luís da Câmara Cascudo, Nilo Pereira, José Américo de Almeida and various other important personalities. As for journalists, the former cangaceiro systematically refused to meet them.
Antônio Silvino spent twenty-three years two months and 18 days incarcerated. But after this time, he received a pardon from President Getulio Vargas. At the time he said:
Everyone knows my life. Twenty-three years in prison changed my destiny. But tell everyone out there that I never robbed or dishonoured anyone, and if I killed someone, it was in self-defence to avoid falling into the hands of my enemies.
He left prison life happily, like a bird that escaped from its cage. He was 62 years old.
Freed, he decided to walk down Rua Nova, window shopping, go to the Pilar Ice Cream Parlor, visit Boa Viagem beach, and admire Recife and Olinda. He even went to see Rio de Janeiro and President Vargas.
Wanting to settle down in the State’s countryside, Antônio Silvino decided to send a letter to José Américo de Almeida, a renowned politician in Paraíba, asking him for a job because of “his services to the Northeast”. But the writer and politician never answered the letter.
The former prisoner travelled to the semi-arid region of Paraíba. He wandered from town to town, staying with some old friends, but never obtained the financial resources to purchase his long-awaited smallholding and devote himself body and soul to agriculture.
He ended up living with a cousin, Teodulina Alves Cavalcanti, who lived with her husband in a modest house on Rua Arrojado Lisboa in Campina Grande, Paraíba.
Considering that Antônio Silvino spent twenty years risking his life and facing danger on a daily basis, it can be said that the former bandit had a long life. Lampião, for example, was killed in Sergipe in 1938, at 41 years of age. At the time of his death, Antônio Silvino was serving his sentence and, when asked about the incident, he said:
"It did not cause me wonder because life is uncertain, but death is certain. These issues of banditry no longer interest me, for I am a man reborn. I now just want to rest in my old age".
From the dangerous cangaceiro he had been in the past, he was now an old man, but he possessed an enlightened mind and responded well to all the questions asked of him. He made this statement:
"I was never afraid to die standing when I raged through the Northeast, but now, lying, do not want to die, although I do not fear hell, because if I go there, I will fight for a top position, a post of any command. Heaven is where I do not want to go, because it seems to me there’s no battlefield, nor place for a Backwoods Captain like I always was. I want to live a little longer, even with this agony I’m feeling, with this lack of air, with this lack of comfort."
"The justice of men condemned me. The justice of the 1930 Revolution acquitted me, giving me freedom. Illness now holds me and I have to wait for the pronouncement of God’s justice. It is that which is greater than all the justices of the Earth".
Antônio Silvino had eight children: José, Manoel, José Batista, José Morais, Severino, Severina, Isaura and Damiana. He died at the home of his cousin Teodulina on 30 July 1944. Next to a crowd of onlookers, trying to see him for the last time, the former bandit was buried in Campina Grande Cemetery. An elderly lady laid a wreath on his grave, and a young woman laid a bunch of angel trumpets and carnations.
Two and a half years after his death, no family had yet appeared to retrieve Antônio Silvino’s bones. With no alternative, the gravediggers buried the remains in another part of the cemetery. Today, no one knows where.
What is left of Captain Antônio Silvino, the famous Golden Rifle, was lost in the midst of so many other bones that were never claimed. His fame, however, recorded by popular poets in cordel literature and by many intellectuals in various books and periodicals, remains alive and intact throughout Brazil.
Recife, 14 November 2003.
(Updated on 14 September 2007).
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.
ANTÔNIO Silvino [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <http://tokdehistoria.com.br/2011/12/04/a-saga-do-cangaceiro-rio-preto/>. Acesso em: 02 dez. 2016.
BARBOSA, Severino. Antônio Silvino o rifle de ouro: vida, combates, prisão e morte do mais famoso cangaceiro do sertão. Recife: CEPE, 1997.
FERNANDES, Raul. Antônio Silvino no RN. Natal: CLIMA, 1990.
MELO, Frederico Pernambucano de. Quem foi Lampião. Recife/Zurich: Stahli, 1993.
MOURA, Severino Rodrigues de. Antônio Silvino. Revista de História Municipal, Recife, n. 7, p.139-142, ago. 1997.
PORTO, Costa. Os tempos da República Velha. Recife: Fundarpe, 1986. (Coleção pernambucana 2ª fase, v. 26). Edição conjunta de Os tempos de Barbosa Lima, Os tempos de Rosa e Silva, Os tempos de Dantas Barreto e Os tempos de Estácio Coimbra.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Antônio Silvino. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.