BANDIT LANDS 4 -‘THE LAMP’

Lampeao2

Lampião and some of his cangaceiros. Lampião is left of centre, to the right of him is Maria Bonita. The distinctive leather hats with upturned brims and leather clothes can be seen. The men have Mauser rifles, a great deal of ammunition and several have long peixeira knives thrust though their waist-belts.

 

Under his cangaçeiro or bandit name of Lampião – ‘The Lamp’ –  Virgulino Ferreira da Silva (1897-1938) followed a nearly twenty-year career of banditry in the Brazilian backlands from before the age of twenty until his grisly death in 1938.

Known as Lampião from his reputed ability to light up the darkness with rapid fire from a lever-action Winchester rifle, his gang’s gang’s first major attack was very much in the Robin Hood mould.

With around fifty men, Virgulino attacked the home of a wealthy aristocratic widow with good political connections. This was profitable and gained the outlaw the immediate attention of the press. His legend now began.

Over the next sixteen years and through several states, Lampião and his various gangs fought pitched battles with police and the volantes, or ‘flying squads’ formed especially to hunt down bandits. They kidnapped police, politicians, judges, the wealthy and the not so wealthy demanding and usually receiving hefty ransoms for their safe return. Towns and farms were plundered, travellers robbed, and sometimes murdered.

As the years passed, Lampião became increasingly savage in his actions, which included torture and humiliation of enemies and informers as well as raping several women. A number of unfortunates were castrated at his orders and he is said to have gouged out the eyes of one poor man in front of his wife and children. He then shot his victim dead through the empty eye sockets. Other atrocities are recorded and documented.[i]

The reality of Lampião’s banditry was therefore very much at odds with the benign image of Robin Hood. Although he professed strict rules about violence and rape, Lampião was feared as a cruel and sometimes sadistic killer, not only of those who opposed him, including peasants, but also of his own men who offended in some way. Over the course of his bandit life Lampião’s power and wealth grew, though most of this seems to have been used in the expensive business of maintaining a band almost continually on the run.

In 1926 he had a flirtation with the politics of his time and place, being given a commission as ‘Captain’ by one group of revolutionaries, together with a promise of amnesty when they came to power. In return, the bandit was to hunt down and eliminate one of their enemies. Lampião soon returned to his bandit ways, but from then retained the title of ‘Captain Silvino’.

Periods of pillage and plunder were followed by times of partying and celebration. Lampião was a noted party-thrower, his wealth allowing him to entertain his friends and allies in style. He was also a flashy dresser in the colourful style universally favoured by cangaçeiros. Distinctive upturned hat, scarf, crossed bandoliers of bullets, rings, boots and liberal applications of eau de cologne and hair pomade, allowing friend and foe alike to smell their presence. The list of possessions made at Lampião’s death included a hat and chinstrap adorned with fifty gold trinkets, rings set with precious stones, gold coins and medallions. His weapons were set with gold and silver and even his haversacks were heavily embroidered and fastened with gold and silver buttons.[ii]

Lampião’s success as a Robin Hood figure despite his cruelties, was largely due to his network of connections at various levels of backlands society and his ability to manipulate the outlaw hero code. He threw coins to the children of the poor and made generous gifts to peasants suffering from droughts and other hardships. He usually kept a tight rein on the carnal instincts of his men and he knew how to use the media. As one of Lampião’s historians put it, the bandit ‘was not unconcerned with his own image’.[iii]

In addition to playing to the press, Lampião has the distinction of being the first bandit to be filmed in action. While Pancho Villa had been filmed in the field for Barbarous Mexico, a documentary released in 1913, he had assumed the more respectable role of revolutionary general for that piece of propaganda. Lampião’s ten minutes of celluloid immortality show him and his men in their natural bandit habitat. Lampião was an enthusiastic collaborator in this public relations initiative.

A number of feature films have since been made based on Lampião’s legend, including one titled Lampião, Beast of the Northeast (1930). His afterlife is also assisted by the folk ballad tradition and an ongoing series of cordels glamorising the outlaw’s life and death, sold cheaply on the streets, initially in regional centres though today freely available in the larger Brazilian cities.

By 1930 the bandit’s fame had reached The New York Times, which in the following year predictably portrayed him as a Robin Hood. While Lampião evinced little interest in helping the poor, he was able to motivate support and sympathy in both high and low sectors of backlands society. Like some other bandits who were seen as possibly useful tools, if properly managed, he was able to call on the intercession of local political figures and power brokers, notably Padre Cicero for favours, money and shelter. His coiteros, or sympathisers, were not only in the upper echelons, though, and the ‘barefoot coiteros’ as the poorer sympathisers were known, assisted by providing the police and volantes with misleading information about the bandits’ movements.

As in other cases of rural banditry, the sympathisers and families of the outlaws experienced harassment from the police, including imprisonment without trial. In the Brazilian situation, this was exacerbated by the inability of the police to act against the wealthier and more influential individuals who colluded, willingly or otherwise, with Lampião due to their powerful political connections. It was not until a degree of inter-state cooperation between police forces and governments developed in the 1930s that Lampião and other cangaçeiros began to feel serious pressure from the authorities.

lamp3

The religious currents of the backlands were also an important element of the cangaçeiro. The endemic poverty and devastating droughts that ravaged the region gave rise to numerous extreme and millennial religious movements, some of which became linked with revolutionary political activity. Lampião and many of his followers were deeply pious and came to display religious tokens and images of Padre Cícero on their costumes. These were partly related to the belief that such tokens made them invulnerable to bullets, a belief shared by most other Roman Catholic backlanders. By the time of his death, Lampião had become ‘almost a beato, a kind of holy person common to northeastern Brazil.’[iv] This belief did not save the outlaw from his almost inevitable end.

The ‘king of the backlands’ as he was often dubbed, met his doom in the usual manner of the outlaw hero. Early one fine morning a party of police crept carefully towards the sleeping cangaçeiros. So confident were the outlaws of their safety that they had not bothered to post a guard. ‘Lampião’ was clearly visible, sleeping close by his outlaw bride, Maria Bonita (originally Maria Déia). Deliberatel,y the police took aim. One of the bandits, more awake than the others, sensed something wrong and raised the alarm. The police opened fire on the surprised and confused band. Many of the bandits escaped but Lampião was targeted and fell in the first burst of bullets. Maria Bonita and a few loyal comrades fought to the death.

As the gun smoke cleared, the triumphant police strode into the shattered outlaw camp, checking that the outlaws were all dead. One took out a long, sharp knife of the kind favoured by the backlands outlaws and hacked off Lampião’s head. Then Maria Bonita’s head was also severed from her body. The grisly trophies were placed in a jar of kerosene and ridden through the district, proof that the police had at last killed the great cangaçeiro chieftain. A soldier cut off the hand of one of the dead outlaws, packing the severed body part in his pack so that he could later strip the rings from the dead fingers. In keeping with the savage nature of the cangaçeiro and the embedded cultural notions of honour and dishonour in backlands, Bonita’s body was further humiliated.[v]

In an alternative version of the great bandido’s death, it is said that he and his men had already been betrayed to death by poison when the police arrived at the scene of the final shootout. In 1959 the head of the peasant unions claimed the bespectacled outlaw as a pioneer of agrarian land reform and resister of official injustice.

In the early 1970s historian Billy Jaynes Chandler, in Brazil to research his book on Lampião, was told that the notorious cangaçeiro was not dead at all, but living his life out quietly on a farm somewhere: ‘the majority of backlanders with whom I talked in rural areas and small towns held this opinion’.[vi] The outlaw’s granddaughter has published her own version of Lampião’s life, death and afterlife, and the commemorative structures marking the place of his death are the site of considerable touristic and carnivalesque interest.

According to an Al Jazeera report of early 2007, the outlaw now ‘features in a new TV mini-series, one of Brazil’s most famous singers will wear a costume of Maria Bonita at this year’s carnival and another samba school will parade with a huge puppet of the legendary north-easterner.’[vii]

Betrayed, butchered, beheaded and beatified, Lampião’s already powerful legend has long outlived him and shows no signs of fading away.

 

NOTES

[i] See Chandler, B., The Bandit King: Lampião of Brazil, Texas A&M University Press, College Station and London, 1978.

[ii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, 2000, p. 92.

[iii] Chandler, B., The Bandit King, p. 68.

[iv] Chandler, B., The Bandit King, p. 208.

[v] Chandler, B., The Bandit King p. 226, quoting an eyewitness he interviewed, note 24.

[vi] Chandler, B., The Bandit King, p. 240.

[vii] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/archive/archive?ArchiveId=18847, accessed February 2007.

BANDIT LANDS 3 – CAPTAIN SILVINO –

antoniosilvino

Faked, but Silvino’s head is on the middle body

 

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]

NOTES

[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.

BANDIT LANDS 1 – CORTINAS

Juan_Nepomuceno_Cortina

Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894), aka ‘Cortinas’

 

Bandit lands are places where outlaws can base themselves and their confederates, operate their criminal enterprises and also hide from the law or other antagonists. These secret spaces can be mountains, forests, river valleys, marshes, or along borderlands – wherever access is difficult and solitude assured. They have existed everywhere since ancient times. Some still do.
 
Quite a few of the outlaws who have inhabited these wild areas have become, rightly or wrongly, popular heroes, celebrated in rousing songs and fiery stories. Here’s the first of an occasional Gristly History series about them titled ‘Bandit Lands’.

 

CORTINAS – ALONG THE RIO GRANDE

The ‘Border’, being the contested land between America and Mexico, has a long, unsettled history. Incursions, lynchings, riots, wars, smuggling and ongoing antagonism between Anglos and Mexican-Americans have produced some celebrated outlaw heores. The earliest of these was a well-born man who became known as ‘Cortinas’.

Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894) was known from the time of his outlawry as ‘Cortinas’. His family had aristocratic origins and a large landholding in the lower Rio Grande Valley, particularly around the south Texas city of Brownsville, across the border from Matamoros. After fighting in an irregular unit during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, Cortinas returned to the family farm which he appears to have used as a base for rustling. He was twice indicted for these offences but was able to escape arrest through the family political connections.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially declared the border between Mexico and the United States in 1848, relations between the Anglos and Mexican Americans in the Brownsville area deteriorated. One of the major issues was the belief that Americans were using their superior knowledge of the legal system to enable them to procure ever-greater amounts of land at the expense of Mexican-Americans new to the country.

One day in July 1859 Cortinas witnessed the Brownsville Marshall, Bob Spears, arresting and pistol-whipping a man who had worked on his mother’s farm. There was a confrontation in which Cortinas shot and killed the Marshall and escaped with the prisoner. Cortinas was outlawed and from then on became a guerrilla, fighting the Americans and also operating in the politics and conflicts within Mexico itself. In September 1859 he and his men attacked and occupied Brownsville, shooting five locals. Cortinas eventually retreated to the family ranch from where he later issued a proclamation defending the rights of Mexican-Americans and demanding that any who infringed them be punished.

There was ongoing violence between Cortinas’ men and various groups of Texas Rangers sent against him. Cortinas issued a second proclamation, calling on Governor Sam Houston to recognise and protect the legal rights of Mexican-Americans. By this time the outlaw’s numbers had expanded to around 400-armed men. There was further fighting with Texas Rangers in December which resulted in Cortinas retreating to Mexico and finally to the Burgos Mountains where he holed up for a year.

He returned to the American side of the Border during the Civil War, fighting against the Confederates. He then became embroiled in the politics and turmoils of Mexico, returning again to the Border in 1870. Despite attempts to have him pardoned for his crimes, based on his support of the victorious Union during the Civil War, Cortinas was forced to return to Mexico in 1871.

In later years the cattle ranchers of the Nueces Strip accused him of being the ringleader of a large rustling operation and he was eventually removed to Mexico City through American diplomatic pressure. From this time Cortinas passes from the large events of his time. He spent the sixteen years between 1877 and his death from pneumonia in 1894 in prison and under house arrest.

Despite obscurity, neglect and vandalism of his grave, Cortinas’ legend among Mexican- Americans is firmly established.[i] He is the subject of a famous corrido, or ballad, that portrays him as a great hero and friend of the Mexican people, whose death caused the gringos to celebrate:

That famed General Cortinas
is quite sovereign and free,
the honor due him is greater
for he saved a Mexican’s life.
The Americans made merry,
they got drunk in the saloons,
out of joy over the death
of the famed General Cortinas.[ii]

Cortinas was, and still is, a hero of the Mexican-American people. Stories and songs of his real and fanciful actions remained strong in oral tradition and prepared the way for the greatest of all the Border outlaws, Gregorio Cortez.

NOTES

[i] Thompson, J. (ed), Juan Cortina and the Texas-Mexico Frontier 1859-1877, The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas, Southwestern Studies 99, 1994, pp. 93.

[ii] Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997.

THE ROBIN HOOD FACTOR

 

Known to generations of English-speaking peoples, and beyond, as the forest archer in Lincoln green, Robin Hood is the undisputed model of the outlaw hero. His image has undergone many transformations since his first brief mention in medieval manuscripts and has come to embody all the essential elements of the noble robber. Whether we see Robin Hood as a shadowy guerrilla fighter, a cast-out noble or as a wisecracking and nimble-limbed Errol Flynn, he is the righter of wrongs, friend of the poor and foe of the corruptly powerful. In one version or another he has been, and continues to be, celebrated in literature, art, folklore, film and television, board games, placenames and tourist ventures. His progress from a few passing references to international symbol of resistance and justice has been achieved through more than six centuries of defying authority, eluding capture and escaping death. His most important activity is to rob the rich and to redistribute their wealth to the poor.
This record is especially impressive for a man who never was, or at least, who has never been found. Robin Hood’s appropriately elusive existence has been researched by many over the centuries, with nothing more to show than a few theories, suppositions and intriguing references to someone who might have been the real Robin Hood. The truth, of course, is that the ‘real’ Robin Hood is not in history but in our heads, hearts and hopes. He is a myth. Even if someone can prove that he lived and carried out just a few of the things with which he is credited, it would make no difference to the way we understand Robin Hood today. He is so engraved into the well-worn cultural grooves that sustain his image, and those of others in the same mould, that he seems likely to remain with us for a very long time.
Ever since Robehood’ or ‘Robinhood’ is first mentioned in early thirteenth century legal records the outlaw has existed in a shadow world between history and fantasy. The first passing literary mention of a hero by that name is in Langland’s 1377 poem, Piers Ploughman.  Further references appear in various chronicles and Robin Hood gradually emerges as a fully-fledged defier of authority. A 1439 petition to Parliament concerned one Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a fugitive who had gathered a band around him which “beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurrection went into the wodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee”.  In Southacre, Norfolk, during 1441 labourers and yeomen threatened to kill a Sir John Harsyk. They blocked the road and chanted ‘We are Robynhodesmen. War, war, war’.
By the mid-1550s Robin Hood had become a troublesome enough character to require official suppression. The Scots Parliament of 1555 banned the presence of figures representing the outlaw and his gang in public festivities such as May Day games. Those who persisted were threatened with banishment. This was a disproportionately strong punishment for the brawling, drinking and nuisance-making that purported to be the reason for banning the outlaw from a major form of revelry.
Although the notion of robbing the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor is a later refinement, the portrayal of Robin Hood as the friend of the poor is an early element of his image. In the various versions of the fifteenth century romance, A Geste of Robyn Hode, Robin is a heroic figure and ‘a good outlaw’ who ‘dyde pore men moch god’. By the early seventeenth century Robin Hood has become not just a friend of the poor but also a man who deliberately targets the rich on behalf of the poor.  In a 1622 poem by Thames waterman John Taylor, the poet writes:
…Robin Hood with little John agreed
To rob the rich men, and the poore to feed.
In ‘The True Tale of Robin Hood’ (1632) Robin is a morally upright friend of the poor – ‘all poore men pray for him,/And wish he well might spede.’ He helps distressed travellers on the road, assists widows and orphans, protects women, generally operates against the established power and corruption of the church and robs the rich, particularly those who ‘did the poore oppresse’. He does not harm the humble workers nor harm any man ‘That him invaded not’.  The outlaw is finally betrayed to death by ‘A faithlesse fryer’.
Robin Hood’s status as a commoner, one of ‘us’ is also powerful, despite the seventeenth and eighteenth-century resurrection of the medieval version of the outlaw as a wronged aristocrat. In the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’, the potter bests the outlaw, after which Robin symbolically exchanges clothes with him and in this trickster disguise goes off to Nottingham for further encounters with the Sheriff and, as it turns out, his wife. This is similar in some ways to the later ‘Robin Hood and the Pedlar’ in which a pedlar defeats Robin in a fight and is symbolically incorporated into the ‘band of merry men’, an incident echoed in the ballad of the eighteenth century English outlaw hero, Dick Turpin.
Robin Hood passed from street literature and ballads into the more respectable form of the novel from 1819 when Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was first published. Ever since he has been the subject of countless treatments. He has featured in operas and musicals since the mid- nineteenth century, in film and television since 1908 when a silent film was produced and has a strong presence in the video gaming industry and in comic books.
Robin Hood has continued to be connected with political discontent and action. The Poll Tax rioters of 1990 who invaded Nottingham Council Chambers disguised themselves in hoods of Lincoln green and dissident French electricity workers borrowed the mantle in 2004, specifically identifying with the English outlaw. The Robin Hood mantle has been claimed by many anti-capitalist organisations and initiatives since.

The county of Nottinghamshire vigorously promotes the mythology for tourism and there is even an American charity named the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as a hedge fund named for the outlaw. There is no end to the presence of Robin Hood in modern culture.

The combined effect of this weight of history, myth, romance and commercial and media exploitation has produced a global icon. The man who never was is everywhere. He belongs to everyone and his name is known around the world. But the image of the ‘good robber’ is not his alone. Thousands of brigands, bandits and outlaws in many different times and different places have also been celebrated as friends of the poor and definers of the strong. Some recent examples include ‘the Greek Robin Hood’, Vassilis Palaiokostas, currently on the run, ‘the Barefoot Bandit’, Colton Moore and even the chainsaw charmer drug lord, Pablo Escobar. He was killed in 1993 but lives on in his legend as a friend of the poor in his home country of Colombia.

NOTE: For a more detailed look at the enduring mythology of the green archer, see ‘The Robin Hood Principle’.

 

KEYWORDS: Robin Hood, outlaw hero