Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, better know as Lampião (meaning “lantern” or “oil lamp”), was the most famous bandit leader of the Cangaço. Cangaço was a form of banditry endemic to the Brazilian Northeast in the 1920s and 1930s.
Until he was 21 years old, he worked hard herding his father’s few cattle, sheep and goats, becoming a skilled rider and ‘cowboy’. He was also an accomplished leathercraft artisan. Though he never attended school he was literate and used reading glasses—both quite unusual features for the rough and poor region where he lived.
When he was 19, his father was killed in a confrontation with the police on May 18, 1921. Virgulino sought vengeance and proved to be extremely violent in doing so. He became an outlaw, a cangaceiro, and was incessantly pursued by the police (whom he called macacos or monkeys).
Virgulino had acquired the nickname ‘Lampião’ as early as 1921, allegedly because he could fire a lever-action rifle so fast, that at night it looked as though he was holding a lamp.
For 19 years, Lampião and his group of cangaceiros traveled through the brazilian northeast coutryside, heavily armed, fighting against the goverment.
Depending on the terrain and other conditions, the bandits operated either on horseback or on foot. They were heavily armed, and wore leather outfits, including hats, jackets, sandals, ammunition belts, and trousers, to protect them from the thorns of the caatinga, the dry shrub and brushwood typical of the dry hinterland of Brazil’s Northeast.
The firearms and amunition of the cangaceiros were mostly stolen, or acquired by bribery, from the police and paramilitary units.
Lampião was capable of acts of mercy and even charity, however, he systematically used terror to achieve his own survival. His enmity, once aroused, was implacable and he killed many people merely because they had an association with someone who had displeased him. He is recorded as having said “If you have to kill, kill quickly. But for me killing a thousand is just like killing one”. For the cangaceiros murder was not only casual, they took pride in their efficiency in killing. They were excellent shots and were skilled in the use of long, narrow knives (nicknamed peixeiras – “fish-filleters”) which could be used to dispatch a man quickly.
Lampião was joined in 1930 by his girlfriend, Maria Déia, nicknamed Maria Bonita (“Pretty Maria”).The women who joined bandit groups, often termed cangaceiras, dressed like their male comrades and participated in many of their actions.
On July 28, 1938, Lampião and his band were betrayed by one of his supporters, Joca Bernardes, and were ambushed in one of his hideouts, the Angicos farm, in the state of Sergipe.
A police troop and armed with machine guns, attacked the encamped bandits at daybreak. In a brief battle, Lampião, Maria Bonita and nine of his troops were killed, some forty other members of the bandit group managed to escape. The heads of the those killed were cut off and sent to Salvador, the capital of Bahia, for examination by specialists at the State Forensic Institute.
Later they were put on public exhibition in the city of Piranhas. Only after 1971 were the families of Lampião and Maria Bonita able to reclaim the preserved heads, from the museum where they had been on display, in order finally to bury them.
*The story of Lampião and Maria Bonita became the subject of innumerable folk stories, books, comics 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 “Wild West” stories.
In 1957 the songs associated with Lampião’s bandits were recorded, as “Cantigas de Lampião”.
**Joan Baez recorded a version of Mulher Rendeira, renamed O Cangaceiro, on her album ‘Joan Baez/5’ – released in October 1964. The lyrics refer directly to Lampião.