All countries have them; outlaws and criminals that have reached almost legendary status. Names like Spartacus, Robin Hood and Jesse James have sparked the imagination of both writers and ordinary people since thousands of years. In this article series I intend to write about some of these that have had their base in Brazil. I will start out with the most iconic of them all.
O Lampião – The King of Cangaços
Virgulino Ferreira da Silva was born in 1897 in a town called Serra Telhada in the state of Pernambuco. He received a decent education, the interest for politics and literature he aquired he would maintain throughout his life. After his father had been killed by the army he, supposedly in wrath, joined a band of cangaceiros. The Cangaço were a semi-revolutionary formation roaming the Northeast interior robbing and looting for food, extremely poor conditions and abusive land-owners were the main reasons to the existance of this movement. By 1921 he had assumed leadership of the band, a position he would keep until his death. His group of skilled guerilla-style warriors, that at times included more than 100 men, would make a presence in 8 northeastern states. He was given the nickname O Lampião which is Portuguese for kerosene lamp.
To Steal From the Rich and Give To the Poor – At Least For a While
Under his leadership him and his band started to gain fame as they also distributed what they had adquired to poor people in the regions they operated, o Lampião became known as a modern Robin Hood. They soon abandoned their chivalrous ways and started working for the government of Getúlio Vargas, after a move to the states of Bahia and Sergipe they survived as arms dealers. His status as outlaw varied over the years and with who was in power at the time, at one point he and his band were actually given uniforms and federal authority, from this moment he was referred to as Capitão (Captain) by his supporters. The last few years the band was actively hunted by the police, an activity received a lot of press even internationally. When Lampião and his band was caught and killed in 1938 they decapitated heads went on tour around parts of the Northeast, probably as a display from the people in power to show what happens if you defy them.
The Fashion That Conquered the World
One of the most notable aspects of the band was the way they dressed, decorated their weapons and used perfume. The trademark glasses Lampião wore was supposedly to hide the fact that he was blind on one eye, perhaps glasses also was seen as a symbol for learning and intelligence. O Lampião was a very vain man, and extremely conscious of the image he produced of himself; though it was only when he joined with a woman it took a really strong expression, together with his wife Maria Bonita he created a fashion that is alive until today. Even if most of the time were on the road they always brought with them a Singer sewing machine. The base for their clothes was the typical wear to the Sertão were they were from, they added amulets and medallions, wore rings and silk scarfs from Paris. The hair was long and they used vast amounts of French perfume. According to legend they police chasing them tracked them easily since the reflections of their many trinkets were seen from miles away and the scent of their perfume was so strong it was no match for the dogs in the hunting party to follow. The fame of the band actually made the fashion become popular in Hollywood where it founds its way into both pirate and cowboy movies. If you compare the image in this article with what Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean series is wearing, it is hard not see the resemblance. I will further develop the fashion part in another article.
After His Death He Became a Symbol
The English historian Eric Hobsbawm once called Lampião a social bandit who worked as a symbol of revenge for the many mistreated and abused people that was living in the Northeast of Brazil. Recent researchers have often painted a picture of a man more bent on cruelty and personal gain than on political justice. It is very hard to know how much is true about him; the forces against him painted a picture of the leader of a band that raped and pillaged with no discretion, for others he was a rebel fighting for the poor. Until today he remains an important symbol, during festivals it is common to dress in the flamboyant ways of his band. He is the most famous of all outlaws of Brazil.
Sources and for further reading:
– Lampião e Maria Bonita: Amor e morte no cangaço
– Lampião: Herói ou bandido?
– Infonet – Lampião
– Portal São Francisco: Lampião
– Pernambucano de Mello, F. “Guerreiros do Sol: Violência e Banditismo no Nordeste Brasileiro” (2004)
– Chandler, B.J. “Lampião – O Rei dos Cangaceiros” (1981)