Thursday, February 26, 2009


By Billy Jaynes Chandler

The Old West of gunslingers, outlaws, scheming politicos, and ruthless land barons was not confined to the 19th century, nor was it confined to the West or even the USA. One of the most fearsome backwoods outlaws of the Western Hemisphere flourished in 20th century Brazil.

Chandler recounts the life and times of Virgulino Ferreira (1897-1938), better known as Lampião. Ferreira was an ordinary young man, a cowboy on his father’s ranch in Alagoas, Brazil. This was the sertão, the arid backlands of Northeast Brazil. If you didn’t want to join the impoverished masses you guarded your rights zealously. Moreover society was formed into webs of alliance and hostility between political rivals and their clients. The Ferreiras got mixed up in a feud with a neighboring clan. While the elder Ferreira tried to make peace, his sons were more mettlesome. They joined the cangaçeiros, freebooting outlaw gangs that acted as enforcers for politicians who weren’t successful enough to get their gunmen appointed to the police. Virgulino, now known as Lampião, “the lamp”, became the most feared of these outlaws. His father was unceremoniously gunned down by the police.

For over a decade Lampião rampaged across the backlands. He became powerful enough to make the politicians dance to his tune. At one point Lampião’s men were deputized to battle marauding communist rebels. At other times he held cites and even whole states to ransom. Eventually a new regime seized power in Brazil. The dictator Getulio Vargas gave special impetus to the hunt for the outlaw. Lampião came to a grisly end in an ambush at Angicos, an end not only for Lampião, but for the free-wheeling days of the cangaçeiro lifestyle.

Bandit King is an absolutely fascinating account of a savage frontier in its last days and the outlaw of epic proportions who dominated it.

-Dave Hardy

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