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Lampião - The greatest hero in Brazilian folklore.

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The greatest Brazilian folk hero

Virgulino Ferreira da Silva was born in 1897 in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco. This is the hash country described by Euclydes da Cunha in his famous work, The Backlands (Os Sertoes). It is a land of little water, much cactus and scrub vegetation, not unlike that of the American Southwest. Although one of the oldest areas of Brazil, it has traditionally been one of the most backward. Few people received anything beyond a rudimentary education. Local society was ruled by large landholders and political bosses, often one and the same.

Captain Virgulino, AKA Lampiao, in typical hat

These bosses and/or landowners had their armed men, just like the big ranchers in Arizona or the Mafia street enforgers. They were called Cangaceiros - men of the Cangaço, as the badlands are called.

 
Lampiao and Maria Bonita with photographer The man was not camera shy. No one seemed to have trouble finding him except for the police.

As Virgulino grew up, he and his family got entangled in the ever-present local feuds, the reason being, of course, defense of honor. The family somehow ended up of the bad side of the local police, and in a raid on his home, Virgulino's father was killed. It was an event that the police would regret. At age 25, Virgulino became Lampião, the scourge of the backlands and killer of police and soldiers, which he always called macacos (monkeys). For the next 15 years he would never be far from the headlines of newspapers throughout Brazil.

Lampiao is often said to be the Robin Hood of Brazil. No way! Not unless Robin Hood started his career robbing sick bed-ridden 90 year old ladies. Lampião was a complex man, religious yet brutal. He was also vain, appearing in dozens of photos and giving interviews whenever possible. His band rarely totaled more than 40 men, but he would fight battles against up to 200 militia or special police.

 
Lampiao and company. One of many pictures of the cangaceiros. They are all armed to the teeth. Lampiao is fourth from left in front row. Notice characteristic dark glasses.

It is hard to imagine that a small band of bandits was able to operate in the open against state police and troopers for a decade and a half. But in the Northeast of Brazil in the 20s and 30s, the roads were cattle trails, water was scarce, the police corrupt, local bosses were fearful, telegraph lines almost non-existent and people didn't want any more trouble in their already hard lives. Most of the population had nothing that Lampião or his band wanted.

Hero or bandit?

Captain Virgulino, as Lampião liked to call himself, had no shortage of enemies. The fact that he would shoot any officer or trooper on sight insured that they would be mortal foes. The state and local politicians resented his prestige and power. But catching and killing Lampião was not easy. He knew the country side, he had spies, and he had friends. Most of the police sent against him were not overly enthusiastic about the possibility of getting ambushed in the brush. The cancageiros also had women in their band. The most famous was Maria Bonita (Pretty Mary), Lampião's companion until death.

Because the police did nothing against him, most of the people reluctantly helped him. Not many folks joined him, however. Lampião was not a revolutionary, he was a bandit. Those who opposed him could lose everything, including their lives. In the event of betrayal or squealing to the police, the cancageiros were merciless. On the other hand, if Lampião and company came to town, and he had no reason to be mad at you, and you had nothing he wanted, quite often he would arrange a party with music and plenty of cachaça, and everybody would have a grand old time.

The dark side of Lampiao

Not only did Lampião wipe out whole households of enemies at times, he would assault small towns and cities alike, killing police, asking local merchants for "contributions", seizing any good he could carry off and often distributing those which he could not to the local population. Often women were raped. Mostly, these were women associated with the police and/or any opposing faction. Early in his career, Lampião and over 20 of his band gang raped a young wife of a soldier, while the poor man was forced to watch. Incidents of Lampião digging out a man's eyeballs with a knife and cutting off a woman's tongue have also been substantiated.

 
Death in the morning

So Lampiao lost his head! It was a hard life, and both sides were cruel.

In 1938, Lampião's long career ended. In the end, he was betrayed by one of the local supporters, who under threat of torture, told the soldiers were the outlaws were. On a beautiful July morning 50 soldiers armed with machine guns crept up and surprised an equal number of cangaceiros. About forty bandits managed to escape, but the leaders were clearly visible and were targeted in the first shots. Lampião and Maria Bonita were among the dozen bodies left dead after 20 minutes of battle. To insure that the news of Lampião's often heralded demise would be believed, the soldiers took the heads of the captives to Salvador, were they remained on display for over 30 years.

Lampiao's death signaled the end of an era. Maria Bonita and Lampião had a daughter, who is still living last I heard. The cangaceiros still live in popular folklore, cordel literature, comics, TV and movies. Best of all, the band's favorite song, Mulher Rendera, which they would sing as they went into a town, is a wonderful tune almost every Brazilian knows. For a good (and very romanticized and sanitized) version of Lampião and his merry men, I recommend the movie Lampião, O Rei do Canganço with Leonardo Vilar and Gloria Menezes.

From Omulu Capoeira Guanabara

But that was not the end of the story.... When arriving in hell, Captain Virgulino set about to organize things, kicking butt.


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