With the admission of women in 1930, cangaceiros became more 
tolerant and less nomadic, avoiding sanguinary combat and 
adopting new means like intimidation to obtain resources.

Carlos Jatobá

The cangaço was a Brazilian phenomenon of social-banditry until the 1940s. Lampião was Brazil’s most famous cangaceiro ever. Volantes were a tactical and itinerant police force that combated the banditry led by, among others, the famous Lieutenant Bezerra.

A notice—perhaps stranger or uncommon to the inhabitants of the Capital, still sorrowful for the murder of great writer and journalist Euclides da Cunha in the previous day—was published on the front page of the newspaper Gazeta de Notícias from Rio de Janeiro (formerly Brazil’s Capital), in August 16, 1909:

“Aracaju, State of Sergipe – The important city of Propriá, the judicial district headquarters of the same name, was invaded yesterday suddenly by a large group of rural bandits (cangaceiros) that occupy the northern region of this state, which they chose for robberies and depredations.

The local residents of the working city panicked and the police responded to alarms and took steps to resist the invasion, collecting all of the resources at hand, and capturing the cangaceirosthat had resisted, stopping disputed combat. Some policemen were wounded and one cangaceiro died.

Fortunately order was reestablished and people were satisfied with the measures to repress the invasion taken by the police. For this reason, the government of the State is preparing a new force to go in persecution of the cangaceiros.”

The Cangaço

Cangaço, or rural banditry, was a phenomenon of the first four decades of the 20th century in rural areas (sertão) of Brazil. According to Billy Chandler, it happened as a result of an underdeveloped agricultural society. Chandler also remarks in The Bandit King: Lampião of Brazil that “banditry always sparked the interest of the people. In truth, the allure of these outlaws and their legend —without talking about banditry—were universal. The male, or occasionally the female, outlaw as a nomadic bandit is apparently exempt of any societal restriction and that awakes a fiber of our imagination, mainly those ranked more remote in time or space. In this way, English people gravitate towards the facts of Robin Hood and his gang; Americans tell the adventures of Jesse James; Mexicans talk about Pancho Villa; and Brazilians recount stories of Lampião.” (1981: 15).

The Cangaço cycle or as many, like Eric Hobsbawn (a British writer), calls it: “cycle of social banditry”, occurred in the state Bahia and continued to Ceará state, in the vast northeastern hinterland and affected all rural populations. This phenomenon lasted for about seven decades (1870-1940).

In 1938, two years after the death of Lampião (Virgolino Ferreira da Silva), it reached its height and continued until 1940 when Lampião’s successor and deputy, Corisco (Christino Gomes da Silva), died. Other cangaceiros—who were just as famous—that preceded them included Jesuino Brilhante, Adolfo Meia-Noite, Antônio Silvino, Sinhô Pereira e Luiz Padre. There are also precursors to cangaço or “acting-cangaceiros” (prior to 1870), such as Cabeleira and Lucas da Feira, in addition to others less researched and for whom little historical documentation is available.

Antônio Silvino

Historian Vassalo Filho describes cangaço as the life or criminal activity of groups of nomadic bandits in northeastern sertões of Brazil. Cangaço is derived from the word yoke (canga), a wooden piece linking oxen to a carriage or a plough. Cangaceiros wore equipment across their chests, which resembles the yoke of an ox, and, therefore, represented submission to a head, chief, leader or lord.

Daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo says that the word cangaceiro has origins in the time of Brazilian slavery when fugitive blacks were captured and tortured in an instrument known as a yoke. From that point on, mainly in northern Brazil, people who were displaced from society and rebelled were called a cangaceiro.

Cangaceiro typical of northeastern Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century

On the other hand, real cangaceiros were isolated nomadic groups that acted independently and practiced assaults and thievery on roads and trails, extortion, servitude (empreitadas de morte), property invasion in villages and cities pillaging, destroying, and kidnapping people to collect ransom, “selling” protection against attacks of other groups and collecting “commissions” for business transactions made on behalf of the people. These activities sustained their lifestyle.

According to Vera Ferreira and Antonio Amaury, “there were at least two types of cangaceiros. The well known nomadic cangaceiros traveled in groups of generally permanent members and those referred to as tame cangaceiros were people who lived on farms and were protected by land owners. The tame cangaceiros were used to meet the group’s defense objectives and to attack the enemies. They performed the dirty work in exchange for a lair.” (1999: 24)

The cangaceiros operated in the sertões of seven northeastern states: Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará. They generated fear because of their actions and groups—varying in size from five to 100 members—when they congregated to carry out a plan. The provincial region of these states almost stopped functioning because of unreliable commercial transactions, and excessive reduction in interstate trade of merchandise, jobs and other activity between the diverse locations.

Cangaceiros’ operational tactics were characterized by the following: ambushes, the element of surprise, cutting communication lines and simulating animals of the region. The gang originally acted in an unmeasured and impious savagery. With the ingression of woman in 1930, the group became more tolerant and less nomadic, adopting a more hygienic and more harmonious behavior by avoiding sanguinary combat and adopting new means to obtain resources such as letters and tickets and directed intimidation. In this respect, Sila states that “Cangaço women did not shoot in or engage in guerilla warfare. We received a Mauser [shot gun] and a dagger, because when they were attacked we had to defend them. For precaution, we learned to shoot.” (1995: 33).

Picky Lampião

The cangaceirismo was consolidated as a bigger power in the sertões under the legendary figure of Lampião, who began to appreciate sophisticated goods such as good Scottish whisky, French perfume, jewels, armaments, binoculars, etc. In 1936, the Arab peddler Benjamin Abrahão documented the day-to-day activity of cangaço and “the cangaço aristocracy,” becoming a marketing tool for Lampião and his friends. Abrahão used photographic and film machines to record moments of leisure, dance, combat tactics, affection and tenderness, photos for the family, and created a customized card with the photo of the head cangaço used to ensure safe conduits and make “friendly” requests for pecuniary resources.

The chief bandit Lampião and his wife Maria Bonita

Lampião, between shoot outs, promoted parties. which were animated by a concertina of eight basses (sanfona de oito-baixos) and clog-dancing called xaxado and at times he was filmed in his feudal lands —under apparent impunity—guaranteed by the lack of enforcement by police, and the policy of “peaceful coexistence” when dealing with the agricultural elites.

Such elites were represented by the icon, the colonel, a typical figurehead in recalcitrant anachronism of the agricultural sector at the time. The term originates in the Imperial National Guard, instituted in 1831, that recruited among the “elites of the local power” who were later ranked as colonel, major or captain, depending on prestige or politicians that sponsored them. This process of initiation was dissolved soon after the promulgation of the Brazilian Republic in 1889. The term “coronelism,” meaning “despotism or tyranny”, stems from this process.

Lieutenant João Bezerra

However, national recognition of the state of things became detrimental to central power, the presidency of the Republic, forcing it to take similar attitudes with all affected states to create a more favorable environment to police force (volantes) activity. Better trained and equipped volantes (some even carried machine guns) brought the cangaço to an end under the command of Lieutenant João Bezerra, who was a meticulously prepared agent who undertook the raid in Angico, state of Sergipe, on July 28, 1938.

The Volantes

Volantes (police forces), commonly referred to as “Volantes Forces”, “Volantes Squadrons” or “Volantes Lines,” appeared in 1920. They served society as military police and rapid response forces. Until 1940, as part of the Public Forces (currently known as Military Police), they were used in the rural, feudal regions in northeastern Brazil—a perfect theater of operations for hordes of bandits called cangaceiros.

Cangaceiro prisoner being shown between police officers

Lima observed “the Northeast was, and continues to be, a difficult region, that did and does not receive engineering, medical, and the law efforts… (…) The climate of the bandits’ empire is rough, which is exactly why it continues to defy the system and inertia of our government.” (1965: 3)

To distinguish them from the paramilitary forces, which erroneously had the same denomination in some regions, is due justice. However, in developing historical accounts of the forces we find only a partial and not very enlightening clarification.

Group of police officers who fought the cangaceiros. Those in the photo became famous for its ability to fight, being known as “Nazarenos”.

Knowingly, Carmen Ferraz notes, “there are authors that, motivated by their own political and ideological convictions, try to deny merit to any of the volantes forces or its activities and consider them unjustifiable when they are not frivolously accused or transformed into scapegoats in the events.” (1990: 43)

Throughout history, it was the volantes that were presented poorly in caricatures, which many times confused them with “private” military services, without considering the supposed subordinate actions they were assigned. Optato Gueiros wrote, “In the days of the ancient politics, cangaceiros were confused with policemen. The head politicians were more powerful than medieval barons… “(1953: 167)

Cangaceiro dead in northeastern Brazil, even with their costumes, especially his long dagger.

According to Euclides da Cunha, “the farmer of the sertões lived on the coast, far from his plentiful land that sometimes he never saw. Like the opulent, large-estate owners of the colony, parasitically, they used the income from the lands without fixed limits. The cattle ranchers submissively served them. There they stayed (…) anonymous—being born, living and dying on the same plot of land—lost in the fields and mocambos (shacks); faithfully taking care of the flocks that did not belong to them their entire life (…) They are self-sacrificing people giving themselves to the servitude without question.” The questions remain: Is this a propitious environment to proliferate cangaceirismo? Is this the heart of social banditry?

Cangaço continues to awake wild passions. Popular songbooks and literature are uninhibited from creating stories about cangaço. Carlézio Medeiros tells us in his fictional work that in spite of being an old and dying cangaceiro under imminent attack, “many cried and asked friends and leaders to stay until the last moment when they died. The destiny of a cangaceiro was to die fighting in a hail of bullets or daggers of the macacos (monkeys) of the government and not to run away as a caga nas calças qualquer (some pantshitter) because of danger.” (1971: 262)

According to Paulo Britto (Lieutenant Bezerra’s son), a closer look at the subject allows a “glimpse at northeastern Brazilian history. It is necessary to clarify the different roles focusing on the aspects of a multi-faceted phenomenon: cangaceirismo. (…) The complexity of its characteristics: originality, values, codes, behaviors, attitudes, strategies, plans, the economic situation and social politics of the time. It was also a phenomenon that frightened the cities of the region, marked by fear, panic, terror and violence.” (2000: 11)

A typical city in northeastern Brazil, in the first half of the twentieth century. This city is called Sumé and is in the state of Paraíba.

On the other hand, Manoel Bezerra e Silva said that the sertanejo (inhabitant of the sertão) living in the sub-Saharan-like northeastern region “are thought of as bad because they are from an area where the climate causes people to impulsively lose good judgment. However, they are good, hospitable and endowed with sincerity. Those who do not know the sertão would think that the word is already synonymous with harshness of spirit, although in the middle of all that backwardness and obscurantism is the impersonated goodness characterized by a sertanejo’s ways. The man of the hinterland, in addition to being naïve, is pleasant. It would be impossible to describe the anxiety these people felt when they became cowardly overwhelmed as victims of the cangaço. They suffered because of the outlaws in the region and the pressure of the police that referred to them as coiteiro [people who give refuge, shelter or asylum to the outlaws].” (1978: 9).

After the death of the bandit Lampião, his wife Maria Bonita and seven other companions in the Grota Angico in 1938, their equipment and their severed heads were displayed in the town of Piranhas in the state of Alagoas.

References (Sources and Recommended Reading)

Chandler, Billy J. Lampião: O Rei dos Cangaceiros.(The bandit king, Lampião of Brazil. Texas A&M Univ. Press. trad. Sarita Linhares Barsted) Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1981.

Vassalo Filho, Miguel. Lampião—o grande cangaceiro.

Folha de São Paulo. Folha Ilustrada. Bandos adotavam táticas de guerrilha no Nordeste. São Paulo: FSP, 18 de março de 1997.

Ferreira, Vera & Amaury, Antonio. De Virgolino a Lampião. São Paulo: Idéia Visual, 1999.

Sila (Ilda Ribeiro de Souza). Sila: Memórias de Guerra e Paz. Recife: UFRPE, 1995.

Ferraz, Carmen. Considerações [sobre as Volantes]. in Ferraz, Marilourdes. Cadernos Sertanejos: Subsídios para a História do Vale do Pajeú. Recife: Liceu, 1995.

Gueiros, Optato. Lampeão: Memórias de um Oficial ex-comandante de Forças Volantes. Recife: do Autor, 1953.

Cunha, Euclides da. Os Sertões. Rio de janeiro: s/e, 1933. apud Moura, Clóvis. Introdução ao pensamento de Euclides da Cunha. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1964. p. 139

Medeiros, Carlézio. Terra, Pão e Cangaço. Recife: Codevap, 1971.

Britto, Paulo. O Cangaço e as Volantes: Lampião e Tenente Bezerra. Recife: Do Autor, 2000.

Bezerra e Silva, Manoel. Lampião e suas façanhas. Maceió: Sergasa, 1978.

 – Carlos Jatobá is a Brazilian freelance writer and Web designer/Web master. He lives in Recife, state of Pernambuco. You can access  to learn more about this topic. You can also reach him at

 – This piece was edited and translated by Jamie Sundquist, a freelance writer, proofreader and translator living in Chicago. In addition to writing forBrazzil, the author has published articles in BrazilianistWine & Spirit and maintains a website about the wine, beer and spirit industry in South America at

Warning – The photographs contained in this text are not part of the original and are merely illustrative.

About the Blog author Tokdehistória

Rostand Medeiros was born in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. He is a 45 years old writer, researcher and expert in producing biographical works. Also does researches in history of aviation, participation of Brazil in World War II and in regionalist aspects of Northeast Brazil.
His member of Genealogy Institute of Rio Grande do Norte – IGRN and SBEC – Brazilian Society for the Study of Cangaço.
In 2009, he was co-author of “Os Cavaleiros dos Céus – A Saga do Voo de Ferrarin e Del Prete” (in free translation, “The Knights of the Sky: The Saga of Ferrarin and Del Prete Flight”), a book that tells a story from 1928, of the first nonstop flight between Europe and Latin America. This book was supported by the Italian Embassy in Brazil, Brazilian Air Force (FAB) and Potiguar University (UNP).
In 2010, Rostand was a consultant of SEBRAE – Brazil’s Micro and Small Business Support Service, participating of the project “Território do Apodi – nas pegadas de Lampião” (in free translation, “Apodi Territory – In the footsteps of Lampião”), which deals with historical and cultural aspects of rural areas in Northeast Brazil.
In 2011, Rostand Medeiros launched the book “João Rufino – Um Visionário de Fé” (“João Rufino – A visionary of Faith”), a biography of the founder of industrial group Santa Clara / 3 Corações, a large coffee roasting company in Latin America. The book shows how a simple man, with a lot of hard work, was able to develop, in Rio Grande do Norte state, a large industry that currently has seven units and 6,000 employees in Brazil.
Also in 2011, he wrote, with other authors, a book of short stories entitled “Travessa da Alfândega” (in free translation, “Customs Cross Street”).
In 2012, Medeiros produced the following books: “Fernando Leitão de Moraes – Da Serra dos Canaviais à Cidade do Sol” (“Fernando Leitão de Moraes – From Sugarcane Mountains to Sun City”) and “Eu Não Sou Herói – A História de Emil Petr” (“I’m not a hero – The Story of Emil Petr”). This latest book is a biography of Emil Anthony Petr, a farmer who was born in Nebraska, United States. During World War II, he was an aviator in a B-24 bombing and became a prisoner of the Germans. This work shows the relationship of Emil with Brazilian people, whose with he decided to live from 1963, when he started to work for Catholic Church.
He also published articles in “Tribuna do Norte”, newspaper of the city of Natal, and in “Preá”, cultural magazine published by Rio Grande do Norte State Government.
He founded SEPARN – Society for Research and Environmental, Historical and Cultural Development of Rio Grande do Norte.
Currently, is working as a Parliamentary Assistant in Rio Grande do Norte Legislative Assembly and develops other books.
Rostand Medeiros is married, has a nine years old daughter and lives in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil.

Phones: 0051 84 9904-3153 (TIM) / 0051 84 9140-6202 (CLARO) / 0051 84 8724-9692 (Oi)


2 comentários em “CRIME AND CHARM”

  1. Grande Rostand, agradeço a você e ao Carlos Jatobá, por dispensarem-se ao difícil trabalho de produzir material sobre o canço em língua inglesa. Tenho amigos estrangeiros que há muito buscam literatura sobnre o tema, mas diante da peculiar dificuldade de estrangeiros em aprender português, desistiram. Agora eles podem ler sossegados.


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