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The Bandit King: Lampiao of Brazil

The Bandit King: Lampião Of Brazil
by Billy Jaynes Chandler

"Greatest" is a highly mixed compliment, since many bandits have been violent, even sadistic sociopaths. But most bandits' careers lasted one, two, perhaps three years at most before being snuffed out by the (so-called) forces of law and order. But Lampaio (Virgulino Ferreira) was a highly successful bandit for 16 years, from 1922-38 in Northeast Brazil, a drought-prone region of great poverty and inequality that was long a fertile breeding ground for banditry. By that standard alone, he surely was one of the greatest. He was extremely shrewd and resourceful, and one reason for his longevity was that he avoided clashes with armed opponents whenever possible, though he could fight with the best when he had to.

Chandler has done a superb job in recreating the life and times of Lampiao, and due to the timing of his investigations this effort is unlikely to be surpassed. His 1970s research led him to many people who knew or encountered Lampaio, and the oral data he gathered becomes more valuable with each eyewitnesses' passing. Chandler also makes full use of a wide range of other sources, including police reports and other government archival materials, newspaper articles, photographs, folktales and songs. Lampiao was surely one of the best-documented bandits ever, partly because of the growth of various modern media during his lifetime, but also because he was something of a publicity hound, clearly relishing his notoriety and even negotiating with a film producer to play himself on screen (too bad it never happened!). But make no mistake: as another reviewer aptly notes, he was a very dangerous criminal, and an outlaw's life in the harsh Nordeste backlands was anything but romantic. Brazil's modernizing Vargas regime of the 1930s eventually tired of the disorder and bad press associated with banditry, and directed sufficient resources toward combating the phenomenon. By 1938 when he was betrayed, ambushed and beheaded, Lampiao was a throwback to an earlier era.

One of the major strengths of "The Bandit King" is Chandler's skill in addressing broader issues raised by Lampaio's career. The best-known is the question of "social banditry." The archetypal social bandit for English readers is, of course, Robin Hood, and the myth of social bandits has them "robbing from the rich to give to the poor." This rarely happened in history, and the author's exhaustive research uncovered little reliable evidence that Lampaio ever redistributed wealth---except to himself, his band and supporters. But Chandler partially redefines social banditry by noting that bandits often were admired by the powerless who were at the mercy of corrupt officials and vicious policemen. Violent men who resisted an oppressive state could thus become heroes even to those they declined to help directly, and might even victimize. This book also fully documents a crucial but neglected aspect of successful bandit careers: they received protection from landowners and other powerful patrons, who might employ them to do their own dirty work. Lampaio would not have survived as long as he did without hideouts and material support provided by men whose word was law in their own lands.

Billy Jaynes Chandler has produced a rare work: a thoroughly scholarly book that compels the attention of a popular audience. "The Bandit King" is very well-written and exciting, though some readers will flinch at the accounts of brutality. Barring discovery of new sources, it is likely the best, if not last, word, and compares well with the finest Brazilian scholarship. More information on the Nordeste and its bandits is in R. Chilcote ed., "Protest and Resistance in Angola and Brazil," J. de Castro, "Death in the Northeast," and J. Guimaraes Rosa, "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands," a major Brazilian novel. On social bandits, the classic if controversial study is E. Hobsbawm, "Bandits," which receives an effective critique in an African context in D.Crummey ed., "Banditry, Rebellion and Social Protest in Africa." An insightful Mexican study is P. Vanderwood, "Disorder and Progress." --an Amazon reviewer


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