Lampião: The Northeast’s Legendary Bandit
Written by Stephen Guild
Every country has its folk heroes, and Brazil is no different. The outlaw, Lampião, is certainly one of the most colorful and controversial of them all. He has been compared to Robin Hood and regarded as a peasant revolutionary against the feudal farmers of the region by some. Others have considered him brutal and ruthless and a vicious, merciless, psychopathic thug.
Lampião, originally Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, was born in 1897 in the village of Serra Talhada, in the sertão (semi-arid backlands) of the state of Pernambuco, which traditionally has been one of the most backward areas of the country. Virgulino, however, was literate and used reading glasses, an anomaly for the region where he lived. He was a leather craft artisan, who lived with his family until he was 21, when his father was killed in a confrontation with the police. He vowed revenge on the police and formed a gang called the cangaceiros (men of the cangaço, or badlands).
He called himself Lampião, which means “lantern,” because he carried a lantern during his nighttime raids. Another version holds that his name referred to “lightning,” because of the lightning quick raids he made on small cities and farms across the Nordeste. Killing people and cattle, ransacking, taking hostages for ransom, torturing, fire-branding, maiming, and raping by the cangaceiros were common. Incidents of Lampião digging out a man’s eyeballs with a knife and cutting off a woman’s tongue have been verified.
He was joined in 1930 by his girlfriend, Maria Bonita (Beautiful Mary), who had long black hair, big sultry eyes, and a shapely body. It was love at first sight – and they clearly shared more than just romance. The gang had ridden into her town on the first day they met, and she walked up to him, pointed to a man and said “That is my husband – shoot him.” Lampião drew his pistol and shot the man in cold blood. When the cangaceiros rode out of town, Maria Bonita was at Lampião’s side and remained there until their violent deaths together.
Captain Virgulino, as Lampião liked to call himself, had no shortage of enemies. He and the police were mortal foes. The state and local politicians resented his prestige and power. As hard as they tried, 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 less than enthusiastic about getting ambushed in the brush.
Those who opposed him could lose everything, including their lives. If betrayed to the police, the cancageiros were merciless. On the other hand, if Lampião and his henchmen came to town, and he had no grudge or couldn’t find anything of value he wanted, he would quite often arrange a party with music and plenty of cachaça.
Finally, in July of 1938, Lampião and his band were betrayed by one of his supporters and were ambushed in one of his hideouts in the state of Sergipe by police armed with machine guns. Their heads were cut off and first brought to Recife as proof they were actually dead. One account has the police officer who killed Lampião showing the heads he was carrying in a suitcase to a fellow traveler while riding the train to Recife. Eventually, the heads were taken to Bahia, where they were on display for many years, until the families of Lampião and Maria Bonita were able to reclaim the preserved heads to finally bury them.
Lampião and Maria Bonita have become subjects of innumerable folk stories, books, popular pamphlets (cordel literature), songs, movies, and a number of TV soap operas. The gang’s favorite song, Mulher Rendera, which they would sing as they went into a town, is a tune almost every Brazilian knows and is also the name of a popular chain of restaurants. The Museum of Mamulengo in Olinda has a whole floor dedicated to representations of Lampião and Maria Bonita.
Like any legendary figure, Lampião is a mixture of fact and fiction, but there is no denying that he was one of the most notorious bandits in Northeastern Brazil.
The author gratefully acknowledges the many sources that were consulted in the writing of this article. While they provide the foundation, the interpretation and opinion are entirely those of the author.
Stephen Guild is Executive Editor of Recife Guide.