Brazil was colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th century. A strong sugarcane economy developed along the coast, while the more arid interior was largely ignored until land was required for food to feed a growing population. The serteao or ‘backlands’ were then opened up mainly for beef ranching on large landholdings. Over time, these were increasingly broken up into unviable smaller holdings through the inheritance system, a situation that formed the economic basis for the banditry that became endemic to the backlands. Other factors included the ongoing series of disastrous droughts between 1887 and 1919, together with the weakness of law and order throughout the backland states.
From the 1870s until the 1940s, Brazil experienced a form of rural banditry known as the ‘cangaço’, a term meaning the yoke of oxen, possibly a reference to the bandits’ habit of carrying rifles slung behind their necks. Endemic in the spare and arid northeast of the country the cangaço was characterised by armed bands of men who roamed the countryside robbing farms and travellers, sometimes abducting them for ransom, extorting from local businesses with ‘protection’ rackets and even invading regional cities. The cangaçeiros, as these bandits were known, were led by men to whom the gang members pledged loyalty unto death. Many of these leaders achieved notoriety and even celebration as outlaw heroes, including Jesuíno Brilhante, Adolfo Meia-Noite, Sinhô Pereira e Luiz Padre and Antônio Silvino.
Manuel Batista de Morais was a member of a respected ranching family with a history of cangaçeiros activity. This included the Robin Hood figure of the early outlaw hero, Jesuíno Brilhante, and that of Manuel’s great uncle, Silvino Aires de Cavalcanti e Albuquerque, who eluded the authorities for a quarter of a century. In 1897 Manuel murdered two men in revenge for his father’s death. Revenge murders were a common element of backland society. These were a product of the exaggerated sense of personal and family honour mixed with machismo that characterised the culture, aggravated by perennial disputes over land tenure and ownership of stock, a common frontier tension point that also played an important part in American and Australian outlawry. These murders meant that Manuel became a cangaçeiro and he joined his great uncle in the bandit life. After Silvino’s eventual capture in 1899, Manuel took his great uncle’s name as his own bandit pseudonym and also took over as leader of the gang that he had once commanded.
Good-looking, strong and an expert marksman, ‘Captain Silvino’ as he was popularly known in standard outlaw style, operated until his betrayal in 1914. He was known during his time as a ‘gentle cangaçeiro’ who mostly robbed the rich, including the British-owned Great Western Railway Company that became a major feature of the backlands economy from 1900. His raids on this enterprise were widely, if probably inaccurately, regarded as attempts to defend the backlands from the incursions of yet another colonising power. He was careful to distribute some of his booty amongst the poor, he righted wrongs related to boundary and domestic disputes and was usually seen to be scrupulous in respecting the honour of women.[i] Like many successful outlaws he was careful to maintain his image as a noble robber, both in his more public actions, such as burning the captured mailbags of the Great Western Railway, and in his considerable and considered dealings with the press. His legendry included a supernatural ability to disappear and reappear in order to escape pursuers. He was also portrayed, and largely seen as, a friend of the poor, as a contemporary newspaper account put it:
‘… he protects the people, the anonymous masses with whom he divides his pillage and in whose bosom he does his best source of support … . He does not dishonour families and he has a mania for harming the public authorities …’[ii]
After his capture Silvino was imprisoned, spending the next twenty-three years in gaol. He was pardoned in 1937 and given a government position, returning to the Paraíbo backlands, where he died in 1944. Despite his unromantic post-outlaw life, such had been his fame as a cangaçeiro that his Robin Hood legend continued during these years and developed further after his death, celebrated in cordel – small, cheap and very popular booklets –in ballads and in Brazilian oral tradition. He was also the subject of romanticised fiction and popular biography until at least the 1960s.[iii]
[i] On this point, see Lewin, L., ‘The Oligarchical Limits of Social Banditry in Brazil: The Case of the ‘Good’ Thief Antônio Silvino’ in Slatta, R. (ed.), Bandidos: The Varieties of Latin American Banditry, Greenwood Press, NY, 1987, pp. 85-86. (Originally published in Past & Present 82, February 1979, pp. 116-46).
[ii] Quoted in Lewin, p. 77.
[iii] Lewin, note 5, p. 92, notes 10 and 19, pp. 93-4.