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Banditry appears to be a universal phenomenon. It’s hard to find people in the world who have not had (or have) bandits: cold, calculating individuals insensitive to violence and death. Without going into the merits of the atrocities committed by the Portuguese colonisers, who enslaved black Africans and almost exterminated the native Indians of the country, Brazil’s Northeast region experienced a period of almost half a century of violence, especially in the late 1870s after the great drought of 1877.
The monopoly of land and servile labour, remnants of the hereditary captaincies, always kept the population impoverished and prevented development in the Northeast, despite the efforts of Joaquim Nabuco and the abolition of slavery. People continued to be relegated to the status of objects, whose main duty was to serve the landowners.
While capitalism was advancing in major urban centres, remaining in rural areas was the delay of the large property: the presence of semi-feudal landlordism, a dominating element from the monarchy to republic that remained untouchable in their privilege. The problems of wealthy families were settled among themselves without the intervention of the state, but with the substantial help of their faithful subordinates: the police, sheriffs, judges and politicians.
In the late 19th century, the sugarcane mills were swallowed up by the factories, but the pre-capitalist production relations were preserved: rural workers become mere semi-serfs. And the landowner – the so-called “Colonel” – was the legitimate social arbiter, commanding over all (from priests to police), with the full support of the state machine. Standing up to the Colonel was therefore something that no one dared to do.
It is also important to record the presence of the colonels’ hired thugs or capangas [goons], those who were employed as cowboys, farmers or even murderers, defending the interests of the boss, his family and property tooth and nail.
With the semi-feudal production relations, the weakness of the institutions responsible for order, law and justice, and the occurrence of great injustices – family killings, sexual violence, theft of livestock and land – as well as periodic droughts that aggravated hunger, illiteracy and extreme poverty, the people in the country sought to take justice into their own hands, creating as a form of defence a social phenomenon that propagated revenge and further violence: the cangaço.
Besides bandits, two other elements that appeared in the northeastern backlands were religious fanaticism and messianism, such as Canudos (Bahia) with Antonio Conselheiro; Caldeirão (in Araripe, Crato, Ceará) with Beato Lourenço; and his followers in Pau de Colher, Bahia. Bandits, religious fanaticism and messianism are important events in the Northeastern civil war: they represent alternatives through which the local population could retaliate against their suffering, ensuring a place in heaven, feeding their spirit of adventure and/or getting easy money.
The word cangaço comes from the word canga or cangalho, which translate to ‘yoke’: a wooden beam that enables oxen to work together. Just as oxen bear yokes to optimise their labour, the men carrying rifles on their backs are called cangaceiros.
Cangaço was born in the 18th century, a period when the country’s interior had not yet been tamed. Even then, the bandit Jesuíno Brilhante (aka Cabeleira) attacked Recife, but was arrested and hanged. From Ribeira do Navio, Pernambuco, came bandits Cassemiro Honório and Márcula. This had become a lucrative profession, giving rise to various groups who robbed and killed in the caatinga, like Zé Pereira and the Porcino brothers; and Sebastião Pereira and Antônio Quelé. In the beginning, they represented groups of armed men in the service of the powerful colonels.
The first major cangaceiro [bandit] appeared in 1897: Antônio Silvino. With a reputation as a gentlemanly bandit who respected and helped many, he roamed for 17 years in the backlands of Alagoas, Pernambuco and Paraíba. He was arrested by the Pernambuco police in 1914. Another famous bandit was Sebastião Pereira (aka Sinhô Pereira), who formed his band in 1916. In the early 20th century, against the power of the colonels and the lack of justice and law, such individuals entered banditry in order to avenge their families’ honour.
To combat this new social phenomenon, the Government created the “volantes” [paramilitary police]. The members of these police squads disguised themselves as bandits, trying to find their hiding places. Soon it was difficult to know who was who. From the bandits’ point of view, they were simply the “monkeys”, and these “monkeys” acted with more ferocity than the bandits themselves, creating a climate of great violence throughout the northeastern backlands.
On the other hand, the police called anyone who in any way helped the bandits “coiteiros”. Residents of the semi-arid region – residents, cowboys and farmers, for example – also fell into this category.
Under orders from their superiors, the volantes started to act as true “death squads”, beating, torturing, bleeding and/or killing coiteiros and bandits. If the bandits used violence, they were therefore acting fully outside the law. But the paramilitary police did so with the full support of the law.
From this context the figure of Fr Cicero Romão Batista arose, nicknamed Santo de Juazeiro [the Saint of Juazeiro] by his fanatics, who believed he had the power to perform miracles and, above all, saw him as a divine figure. Deified in the Northeast’s rural areas, Father Cicero reconciled antagonistic interests and dampened conflicts between social classes. Amid beliefs, superstitions and miracles – often merely simple hygiene advice or intervention in malnutrition – he attracted large pilgrimages to Juazeiro, especially because his advice was free. Despite being a good conciliator and a beloved figure among the bandits, the Saint of Juazeiro actually used his religious influence to act on behalf of the “colonels”, excusing them for the violence and injustices committed.
Amid this turmoil came the most important of all the bandits and who resisted the police’s siege for the longest (about twenty years): Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, Lampião, also called King of Banditry and Governor of the Semi-arid Region. The members of his band had long hair, scarves around their necks, lots of jewellery and an overpowering perfume. Their names and nicknames were: Antônio Pereira, Antônio Marinheiro, Ananias, Alagoano, Andorinha, Amoredo, Ângelo Roque, Beleza, Beija-Flor, Bom de Veras, Cícero da Costa, Cajueiro, Cigano, Cravo Roxo, Cavanhaque, Chumbinho, Cambaio, Criança, Corisco, Delicadeza, Damião, Ezequiel Português, Fogueira Jararaca, Juriti, Luís Pedro, Linguarudo, Lagartixa, Moreno, Moita Braba, Mormaço, Ponto Fino, Porqueira, Pintado, Sete Léguas, Sabino, Trovão, Zé Baiano, Zé Venâncio and others.
Women entered banditry from 1930. It all started with Maria Bonita, Lampião’s companion, and then come others. Although they did not join directly in the fighting, women were valuable contributors, participating indirectly in the brigades and/or more dangerous work, taking care of the wounded, cooking, washing, and especially making love with the outlaws. They always carried short-barrelled weapons (like Mausers) and, were ready to shoot in self-defence.
Whether representing a safe haven or functioning as an important point of support to beg for mercy, the female representatives contributed much to calming and humanising the bandits, and increasing their level of caution and limiting the excess of their abuse. The most famous cangaceiras [female bandits] in the Lampião gang, along with their companions, are: Dadá (Corisco) Inacinha (Gato), Sebastiana (Moita Brava), Cila (José Sereno), Maria (Labareda), Lídia (José Baiano) and Neném (Luís Pedro).
Like other women from the Northeast’s semi-arid region, the women received the paternalistic protection of their companions, but their daily life was really very difficult. Carrying pregnancies to term, for example, in the discomfort of the caatinga meant much suffering for them. Sometimes, they had to walk several leagues soon after birth to escape the volantes. If they had not possessed unusual stamina, they could not have survived.
Due to the instability and the many problems of life in banditry, the men did not allow the presence of children in the band. Once their children were born, they were delivered to relatives not engaged in banditry, or left with the families of priests, colonels, judges, the military or farmers.
It is noteworthy that a decisive factor for the extermination of Lampião gang was the use of a machine gun that the bandits tried to buy but were unsuccessful. On 28 July 1938, Lampião was surprise-attacked in Grota de Angico, a place that he’d always judged as the safest of all. The King of Banditry, Maria Bonita, and some other bandits were killed quickly. The rest of them could escape to the caatinga. With Lampião, the most famous historical character of Brazilian popular culture also died.
In Angicos, the dead were beheaded by the volantes and the heads were displayed in several states in the Northeast and South. Subsequently, they were put on display at the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador for about 30 years. Despite many protests to bury the mummified remains, the Museum’s director – Estácio de Lima – was against burial.
After the death of Lampião, Corisco tried to take over the position of head of the bandits for two years. His intelligence and competence, however, were incomparable to those of Virgulino.
On 23 March 1940, volante Zé Rufino fought the gang. Dadá was seriously wounded in her right foot; Corisco was hit in the back with a shot that went through him, leaving his intestines exposed. The couple was then transported to the hospital in Ventura. Due to gangrene, the right leg of Dadá (Sérgia Maria da Conceição) was amputated at the hip, but Corisco (Cristino Gomes da Silva Cleto) did not resist his injuries and died on the same day.
The faithful friend of Lampião was buried on 23 March 1940 in the town cemetery of Miguel Calmon, Bahia. Ten days after the burial, his body was exhumed: his head and his right arm were cut off and these were also put on display at the Nina Rodrigues Museum.
At that time, banditry was already in steep decline, and with Lampião the last leader of this social phenomenon died. Bandits who were arrested and convicted were able to be reintegrated into society. Some of them were: José Alves de Matos (Vinte e Cinco), Ângelo Roque da Silva (Labareda), Vítor Rodrigues (Criança), Isaías Vieira (Zabelê), Antônio dos Santos (Volta Seca), João Marques Correia (Barreiras), Antônio Luís Tavares (Asa Branca), Manuel Dantas (Candeeiro), Antenor José de Lima (Beija-Flor), and others.
After decades of protests by families of Lampião, Maria Bonita and Corisco, on 6 February 1969, by order of the Governor Luís Viana Filho, and complying with the Brazilian penal code that imposes due respect for the dead, the heads of Lampião and Maria Bonita were buried in the cemetery of Quinta dos Lázaros in Salvador. On 13 February that year, the governor also authorised the burial of Corisco’s head and arm, and the heads of Canjica, Zabelê, Azulão and Marinheiro.
To conclude, information has been recorded regarding some former bandits who returned to social life. After the fight at Grota de Angico, Criança fled to São Paulo and acquired his own home and grocery store, married Ana Caetana de Lima and had three children: Adenilse, Adenilson and Vicentina.
Zabelê returned to his corral, as did Beija-Flor. They remained poor, illiterate and disadvantaged. Candeeiro followed the same path, but did become literate.
Vinte e Cinco would work as an employee of the Electoral Court in Maceió, marry nurse Maria de Silva Matos and have three daughters, Dalma, Dilma and Deborah.
Volta Seca spent a lot of time in the Feira de Curtume prison in Bahia. He was initially sentenced to 145 years, which was later commuted to 30 years. He was pardoned by President Getúlio Vargas in 1954 however, and served 20 years. Volta Seca married, had seven children and became a brakeman on the Leopoldina railroad.
Also known as Anjo Roque, Labareda got a job with the Salvador Prison Board, married and had nine children.
And intriguing as it may seem, the former bandit Saracura became an employee at two museums: the Nina Rodrigues Museum and the Museum of Criminal Anthropology, the same that exposed the mummified heads of his old comrades.
Recife, 30 October 2006.(Updated on 26 June 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, August 2016.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Cangaço. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.