Lampião (“Oil Lamp” in Portuguese) was the nickname of “Captain” Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, the most famous leader of a Cangaço band (marauders and outlaws who terrorized the Brazilian Northeast in the 1920s and 1930s).
Virgulino was born in June 7, 1897 in the village of Serra Talhada, in the sertão (semi-arid backlands) of the state of Pernambuco, as the third child of José Ferreira da Silva and Maria Lopes, a humble family of peasants. Until 21 years old, he was a hard-working leathercraft artisan (he was also literate and used reading glasses — both quite unusual features for the rough and poor region where he lived). He lived with his family in a deadly feud with other local families until his father was killed in a confrontation with the police in 1919. Virgulino sought vengeance and proved to be extremely violent in doing so. He became an outlaw and was incessantly pursued by the police (whom he called macacos or monkeys). In the next 19 years, with his small band of cangaceiros (men of cangaço) which was never larger than about 50 heavily armed men on horses wearing leather outfits including hats, jackets, and trousers to protect them from the thorns of the caatinga (dry shrubs and brushwood typical of the dry hinterland of Brazil’s Northeast), sandals, and ammunition belts. Their weapons were mostly stolen from the police and paramilitary units and consisted of Mauser military riflesand a variety of smaller firearms including Winchester rifles, revolvers and the prized Mauser semi-automatic pistol. Lampião used to attack small cities and farms in seven states, kill people and cattle, take hostages for ransom, torture, fire-brand, maim, rape, and ransack. He was joined in 1930 by his girlfriend, Maria Déa, nicknamed Maria Bonita, who, like other women in the band, dressed like cangaceiros and participated in many of their actions. They had a daughter in 1932.
Finally, on July 28, 1938, Lampião and his band were betrayed by one of his supporters and were ambushed in one of his hideouts, the Angico farm, in the state of Sergipe, by a police troop armed with machine guns. In a quick battle, Lampião, Maria Bonita and 9 of his troops were killed. Their heads were cut and sent off to Salvador, the capitol of Bahia, for examination by specialists at the State Forensic Institute, and later, for public exhibition, and only after 1971 the families of Lampião and Maria Bonita were able to reclaim the preserved heads to finally bury them.
Thus started the legend of Lampião and Maria Bonita, who became subjects of innumerable folk stories, books, popular pamphlets (cordel literature), songs, movies, and a number of TV soap operas, with all the elements of drama, passion, and violence typical of “Far West” stories. By many, he was considered a folk hero, a kind of Robin Hood and the head of apeasant revolt against the all-dominant, feudal farmers of the region (the so-called coronels). The fact remains that he was the most notorious of the many rural bandits (in his own admission) that infested the poor hinterland of Northeast Brazil.
For a photo album of cangaceiros set to music, see the video below, (which was) followed by a Joan Baez song called ‘Muié Rendera’ which is typical of the music of the time. Muié is short for mulher, or woman, although not a word for educated people. Render means to render, yeild, command or pay.
Joan Baez – Muié Rendera (removed by Youtube)
Olê muié rendera
Olê muié rendá
Tu me ensina a fazê renda (You teach me to make a living)
Que eu te ensino a namorá (And I’ll teach you to date)
Lampião desceu a serra (Lampião came down from the mountain)
Num baile da cangaceira (For a cangaceira dance)
Olê muié rendera
Olê muié rendá