By 1834, the term cangaceiro was a derogatory way to refer to poor peasants living in deserted regions of northeastern Brazil. It was an offensive way to refer to someone who failed to adapt to the coastal lifestyle – where all of the development was concentrated back then.
Early in the 19th century, landowners from northeastern Brazil commonly employed armed men as their personal militia, the jagunços. The relationship between those men and their employers was somewhat feudal, and they were barely able to make a living – thus perpetuating a dependency on their lords. As time went by, many of these men wanted out and began to form nomadic bands that would get what they wanted by force. Kidnapping and robbery were two of their most common means of action. At all times, they were heavily armed and dressed in full leather pants, jackets, and hats – to protect them from vegetation spikes and from the scalding sun.
Some cangaceiros, as those bandits became known as, enjoyed much popular support for becoming Robin Hood-esque personas. They would buy goods for higher prices, throw free parties in villages and made acts of charity. In exchange, the public provided them with shelter and helped them escape the police.
Lampião, the King of the Cangaço
The most famous cangaceiro, without a doubt, was Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known by his nickname Lampião (literally Oil Lamp, as he supposedly fired his shotgun so quickly that he could illuminate a room). He invoked terror and admiration in equal proportions during the 1920s and 1930s, and became “The King of the Cangaço” because of his ruthlessness and audacity. A 1959 article published by O Cruzeiro, Brazil’s biggest magazine at the time, explains his legacy like this: “For many, Lampião was nothing more than a blood-thirsty bandit. For many more, though, he was a hero, and remains a fascinating and legendary icon.”
Born in 1889 into a lower middle-class family, he joined the cangaço to avenge his father’s death by the police in 1919. Unlike most cangaceiros, Lampião was fully literate. In 1930, he met his partner Maria Bonita, who became a member of his band – and later a feminist icon, as she enjoyed the same status as male members.
They were both killed on July 27, 1938, after the police ambushed their band in the state of Sergipe. Their bodies were beheaded and their heads were exhibited across many states as a warning to other cangaceiros. It was only in 1969 that the families of da Silva and Bonita obtained the right to bury their remains.
The end and the legacy of the cangaço
Some factors contributed to the demise of the cangaço. One of them is the construction of roads to the northeastern backlands (sertão), which made it more difficult for them to find safe havens. Also, policies to stimulate migration waves to southeastern urban centers presented people with new opportunities for social mobility. We cannot discount the severe repression from the Getulio Vargas government, which decided to eliminate any signs of armed rebellion. Lampião’s death is considered the final blow for the cangaço.
These “social bandits” remained alive in the imagination of northeastern Brazil and have become are the inspiration for many songs and literary works. They are also extremely present in cordel works, a form of oral poetry, where cangaceiros are depicted as heroes against a perverse system. In the cinema, the bandits are the focus of late director Glauber Rocha’s two most influential films: Deus Branco, Black Devil (Original title: Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol) and Antonio das Mortes (Original title: O Dragão da Maldade Contra o Santo Guerreiro).