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Regional rebellions

The mutineers of the Empire

Popular participation in nineteenth century uprisings was greater than is thought

Catarina BessellEven though it is difficult to sustain to any great extent, one of the myths of traditional Brazilian historiography, which is still repeated in schools and the press, is the orderly image of the Second Empire. At the same time it is no secret that the nineteenth century was underscored by numerous regional rebellions, including famous conflicts, such as the Guerra dos Farrapos [War of Ragamuffins] and the Confederação do Equador [Confederation of the Equator]. Some of these movements lasted several years and their complexity has still not been studied very much. Professor Monica Duarte Dantas, who teaches Brazilian history at the Institute of Brazilian Studies and is a member of the social history program at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, both at the University of São Paulo, noticed this first hand for the first time in the 1990s, while undertaking graduate studies funded by FAPESP; she studied the population that migrated to the village of Canudos, under the leadership of Antonio Conselheiro. Monica observed that this base “of insurrection was organized against taxes (the motive for various other revolts throughout the country) long before adhering to the messianic leader’s movement. In other words, part of the support for Conselheiro came, in fact, from a mobilization that was both articulate and eminently political, from beginnings totally foreign to any religious aspect of Canudos – so much so that subsequently the Courts would exempt the leader from the proceedings that judged the rebels.

Later, when organizing a course on uprisings in the nineteenth century, Monica came across a scant bibliography full of gaps concerning the various movements, particularly those that were not captained by the elite. Even when there was an abundance of texts, they focused above all on political disputes and internal conflicts within the power groups. She also found that there were unpublished studies on popular participation in these movements, such as an article written by the Mexican historian Guillermo Palacios on the little known Revolta do Ronco da Abelha [Rebellion of the Drone of the Bee], which occurred between 1851 and 1854 in the backlands of five states in Brazil’s northeast against the census and civil register.

This led her to wonder about bringing together articles on the seditions of the nineteenth century, this time emphasizing the participation of “free, poor and emancipated men.” The project, on-going since 2007, with unpublished texts and others that have been rewritten, has now been completed, with publication of the book Revoltas, motins, revoluções [Rebellions, mutinies, revolutions] by Alameda Casa Editorial.

“Until the 1960s, historical production favored the so-called Sebastianist messianic movements. A lot was said about the cultural-religious aspect, but not much about the socio-political elements,” says Monica. “This led to creating a generic view of charismatic leaders followed by a poor and ignorant population and so the dimension of protest ended up being lost.” What the book’s articles reveal, however, is a significant but slow learning of citizenship on the part of the anonymous participants of the mutinies of the nineteenth century – and the demands of many were met. “We see the constitution of the national state running parallel to institutional history,” says Monica.

“An important idea I worked on was to consider that the elite, whether conservative or breaking with the order of the day, needed troops for the decisive battles they fought. These were formed by people from the lower classes. It’s essential not to forget this,” says Denis Antônio de Mendonça Bernardes, a professor in the Department of Social Sciences of the Federal University of Pernambuco, author of two chapters in the book, one on the republican revolution of Pernambuco, in 1817, and the other on the Confederation of the Equator in 1824. “There was a diversified social and racial formation in the various camps in the struggle,” continues Bernardes. “For example, Indians from the backlands of Pernambuco fought for the Portuguese crown and against the patriots of 1817. Priests, soldiers and mill-owners, to name just three categories which participated extensisvely in 1817, sometimes paid very dearly for their rebellion against the Portuguese monarchical state.”

The participation of freed slaves among the troops who fought under the command of Rio Grande do Sul in the War of the Ragamuffins attracted the attention of Cesar Augusto Barcellos Guazzelli, a professor in the History Department and on the post-graduate programs in history and international relations at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. In his article, he focuses on the figure of the “warrior slave” – armed and on horseback – who, although practically unknown, played a key role in the conflict; and it is not for want of studies on the War of the Ragamuffins, an episode very dear to the heart of Rio Grande do Sul. According to Guazzelli, traditional historiography (i.e. that which predominated until the middle of the last century) always minimized the presence of slave labor in the state, restricting its presence to the regions where jerked beef was produced. However, at the beginning of the nineteenth century,  the state ranked third in those that imported the largest number of slaves from Africa. A local peculiarity was that many small children came, at an age when they were not very productive but were well suited to start learning how to ride horses. When the war began, the president of the province published a summons to citizens requiring that out of every three slaves owned, one should be released to fight.

Catarina BessellFarms
This gave armed slaves some power over their commanders, just as in their work on the farms there had been relationships of favoritism and lending and the possibility of becoming part of the family, which partly explains why there were only rare escapes over the border, even though animal transport made this relatively easy. At the end of the war, the former slaves became a problem for the ragamuffins and for the governor of the Empire. There were too many of them to remain free without this causing a rebellion among those who were still in slavery; it was feared they would form criminal bands. If they had gone to Uruguay, they would have probably been paid to fight and would have caused a diplomatic problem. The “solution” was to provoke a massacre in the last battle of the war, the Battle of Porongos.

For Guazzelli’s research , as well as for the other research that gave rise to the articles in Revoltas, motins, revoluções, sources such as civil registers, official and private correspondence, criminal proceedings and police documents were important. In the case of the War of the Ragamuffins, there was a unique contribution from the archives of Argentina, in particular, and also of Paraguay and Uruguay, showing that serious negotiations were carried out over slaves.

Africans are also in the center of the episodes analyzed in the article by João José Reis, a professor at the History Department of the Federal University of Bahia: a strike by loaders, slaves and emancipated men in 1857 in Salvador, and in the following year a demonstration against famine, which was “repressed under the hooves of horses,” and known as Meat without Bones and Flour without Lumps. Reis points out that the movement of 1857 was the first general strike in an urban working class sector in Brazil. “Both represent episodes of struggle for citizenship, even though the slaves involved in them were not legally citizens,” says Reis. “One of the movements demands that the government take measures to ensure cheap food and another is a protest against the imposition of a new tax and other rules for regulating informal street work.”

Despite the diversity of players and interests involved in the various insurrections covered by the book, in the words of Bernardes, at play in all of them  was “the confrontation between various possible nation projects.” From the point of view of the poor and free population, it was a question always of demanding rights, participation and citizenship. “There are indications from other movements showing that the population organized itself on a daily basis in favor of their claims, since the period of Dom João,” says Monica. In many cases, as with the Motim do Vintém [Penny Mutiny] (in 1880 in Rio de Janeiro, against a tax on urban transport) and the aforementioned Ronco da Abelha, among others, the demands were met, even though prior to this protests had been violently repressed.

“From various different angles these episodes show that the state is not established apart from society and that its construction is not limited to the elite,” says Monica. She points out an interesting aspect in the variety of facts covered in the book: there were mobilizations for and against the authorities, as is the case with the solidarity of the population for the town councilors in Salvador during the Carne sem Osso and Farinha sem Caroço movement. The city council had approved a measure for controlling the price of food and the imperial government had threatened to remove the elected councilors from office.

The construction of the State seen in the book comes, to some extent, from absorbing the words of order and the values of the elite, such as freedom, equality and citizenship. However, as Monica observes, “what the mill-owner understands as freedom is not the same as the person who has been allowed to live on his land understands.” There is a “reinterpretation of the enlightened, liberal vocabulary” when contributing to the construction of institutions like the Judiciary and the electoral system. An example of this dynamic is that of the cowboys of Balaiada, insurgents against the imperial government (between 1838 and 1841 in Maranhão, Piauí and Ceará), who took over the discourse of the Bemtevi newspaper, the mouthpiece of liberalism, whose headquarters were in São Luís and whose only writer was Estêvão Rafael de Carvalho, a professor at the School of Commerce, a graduate of the University of Coimbra ad a former deputy at the Court. The relationship between these two points of society, an “enlightened” elite and workers from the interior of the state who were generally illiterate, is the theme of the chapter written by Matthias Röhrig Assunção, a professor from the University of Essex, in England, and a specialist in the history of Maranhão.

Proof that there is still a lot to be written and considered regarding the organization of people during the Second Empire, the introduction of the book, written by the editor, has a survey (considered pioneering by historian, Maria Odila Leite da Silva Dias in her presentation to the volume) of the history of the legal and political measures for controlling the uprisings imported from the south of the United States and incorporated into the Empire’s Criminal Code.