To see the Cabanagem
Magda Ricci


In this day and age, what is necessary in order to visualize the Cabanagem, the wide reaching and devastating social revolution that exploded in the Brazilian Amazon and along its borders between 1835 and 1840? Why do we need to understand and imagine the diversity of people, most of them illiterate, who lived in the old Grão-Pará in the remote nineteenth century? For many, this past seems lost, undocumented, and even pointless. However, this war has meanings, both old and contemporary, which are still alive and important.

The cabanos were so named because they were, for the most part, poor people living in shacks (cabanas) and/or because they wore wide-brimmed hats called cabanas. However, not all of those taking part in the movement were poor and uneducated: initially, it began with political intrigue in the heart of the local and mainly white elite, with a wider goal of freeing Félix Clemente Malcher, a farmer from the Acará region and liberal political leader, imprisoned in 1834. On January 7th 1835, armed groups led by those close to Malcher along with his political allies took the government of Belém do Pará, at the time the largest city in the complex formed by the Amazon River and its tributaries.

In that year of 1834, the Pará newspapers were battling Bernardo Lobo de Souza, who at the time was president of the Pará province. The dispute centered around a document released by the bishop of Pará, D. Romualdo Coelho, which, in alignment with the new regulations of the Roman Catholic Church, publicly condemned the Freemasons, accusing them of inciting liberal revolutions and carrying out diabolical practices. As Lobo de Souza was a mason, he didn’t publish the bishop’s proclamation in the government newspaper, giving rise to suspicions about his religious and political stances. Also gaining momentum in the newspapers was the debate around the new national law number 16, dated August 12th 1834, which created the Provincial Assembly and gave the provinces greater political autonomy. Within this context it was clear to the opposition – led among others by canon João Batista Campos and his ally Felix Malcher – that Lobo de Souza was centralist and authoritarian.

Seeking to control the debate and contain the attacks, the president of the province ordered opposition newspapers shut down. He also publicly proclaimed he would arrest canon Batista Campos, who escaped to a farm on the Acará River belonging to Malcher. The property was invaded during the pursuit and a government official died in the fight. Accused of political intrigue and of ordering this death, Malcher was arrested. However, the invasion of his property was carried out without a warrant, which went against the 1824 Brazilian Constitution. Also, Batista Campos escaped but ended up dying in the attempt. His death, the disrespect for the laws, and Malcher’s imprisonment, perceived as arbitrary, were the immediate causes for the cabano uprising of Belém in January 1835.

During the first occupation of the capital of Pará, the armed groups led by brothers Antônio and Francisco Vinagre and by other leaders from Acará and Belém killed Lobo de Souza, his military commander Joaquim José da Silva Santiago, and several other white Portuguese and masonic leaders. All these deaths were linked to a chain of successive governments which, since Brazil’s independence, had taken turns in power without ceding space to those born in the country and in Pará, even those of white European origin such as Malcher, who when freed ended up being declared the first cabano president.

At first, the cabano movement was associated with political dispute for power in the heart of the white elite, and appeared to further the badly resolved disputes that had been taking place since Independence. At the time, despite separation from Portugal, many Portuguese continued to occupy privileged political and economic positions. Likewise, many Portuguese officers and soldiers kept their posts, with higher salaries than those of officers and soldiers of Brazilian origin. The majority of priests were also foreign. The dissatisfaction of those born in Pará and Brazil was well known, however, the Cabanagem was more than a dispute to bring down the white Portuguese residents of Belém and set in power national or Pará-born whites and mestiços, people of blended ethnicity. This political struggle, elitist and locally confined, led in February 1835 to the murder of its leader Felix Clemente Malcher, due to internal conflicts.

Disputes between the cabano leaders – especially on the topic of which direction to take and the decision of what to do with the Portuguese – gave the movement a radical slant and involved a wider range of people. With Malcher’s death, Francisco Vinagre, his commander of armed forces, took over the government. After a lot of going back and forth politically, and the arrival in Belém of imperial troops, the cabanos left the capital of Pará in June 1835. However, the struggle didn’t end with this first retreat, especially since neither side surrendered their weapons.

Also in June 1835, Francisco Vinagre was arrested along with other cabano leaders. In response, his brother Antônio led the fight to retake Belém and ended up being killed. Even so, the cabanos took control of the city. At this moment the last and biggest of the cabano leaders rose to power, Eduardo Nogueira Angelim. A young man from Ceará and one of Malcher’s farm workers, Angelim lived through the most radical phase of the movement in Belém, when he lost control of groups of cabanos and, in the conflict with official troops, the city was bombed and set under siege at the same time that it was beset by a smallpox epidemic.

After ample negotiation between Angelim and the leader of the official troops – Marshall d'Andréa – involving the bishop, priests and the Portuguese, English and French merchants established in the city, an agreed retreat from Belém took place in May 1836. Afterwards Angelim was pursued, arrested and, at the end of 1836, deported to Rio de Janeiro. These events, however, did not extinguish the cabano campaign, which moved inland, marking the start of the most radical phase of the fight.

After surrendering Belém, the movement turned its focus to the backcountry and became a wider struggle, where the majority of revolutionaries fought for land and for social and political rights. However, each local group perceived their fight differently. In its most radical version, the Cabanagem was a shout for help from many of the inland inhabitants who wished for a different life. Many left their shacks with only their work tools and managed to take over the main towns and villages of the Amazon.

Since Brazil’s independence and the 1824 Constitution, many of the dwellers of the Amazon backcountry - soldiers forcefully drafted into wars and policing, indigenous peoples forced into labor and slaves originating from Africa – believed that their lives had to improve. The cabanos, labeled “evil” by the opposition, proposed many times an inversion of the social order and a disregard for old government rules and authority. But the older inhabitants, who represented the white elite, were frightened by the cabanos, with their slicing of ears, drownings and invasions of churches, as well as their chants, prayers and festivities.

There were many differences between the cabano leaders who took Belém in January 1835 and the radical backcountry grassroots movement that fought on after 1836, even on a linguistic level. Portuguese only became the universally spoken tongue in the Amazon region after 1850. Many members of the cabano group at the time didn’t even speak the Portuguese used by the highest leaders, and they had very diverse habits, cultures, wishes and dreams.

Although the Catholic Church was the official religion of the Imperial State in Brazil, and Pará was governed by the diocese of Belém, made up of white clerics or those of European descent, in the backcountry of what was at the time a province everything was different. There, Catholicism took on other shades and forms. The backcountry dwellers had their own myths and popular sayings that, with colonization, blended to a folksy Catholicism intertwined with incantations, spells and magic. During the cabano struggle this diversity emerged.

The cabanos entered villages, taking over the churches and either appropriating or destroying the local saints. They invaded more than towns; they took over the trappings and public roles of the former white authorities in a clear challenge not only to legal and state order, but also to the religious order of the Catholic leaders. Despite this “challenge”, the cabanos – in their vast majority – continued to call themselves Catholics. The Bishop of Pará and the Archbishop of Brazil were forced to formally and publically request a stop to the burning of villages and towns by the cabanos and an end to the killing of those within churches and convents. Even so, many cabanos from the backcountry were harshly punished or killed. This process came with a high price for the main cabano leaders, especially Eduardo Angelim, who was obliged to put on trial and condemn to death over a dozen of his most radical companions.

The data is not precise, but approximately 30 thousand people are thought to have died in the violent clashes between 1835 and 1840. These numbers indicate the lack of stability in the lives of those who had lived in the Amazon region since colonial times – an Amazon that had been undergoing a colonization process since 1616 but that, in the years during which the Cabanagem took place, still remained opaque to the majority of white European-origin settlers.

Formation of the Amazon’s Population

The Amazon carries the stereotype of a land almost without men, a place ruled by green woods and vast waters, almost Eden-like in its scenery – when preserved. Here, in midst of the forest and rivers, there is no place for human history, for the cities of the Amazon with their homes, their public figures and daily struggles. This is how many see this part of the globe. The several different groups of indigenous peoples and the multiple caboclo communities – who traditionally inhabit the forest and river banks – are often confused with the jungle and water, as though they were scenery and not people – or, at other moments, they are transformed into miners, lumberjacks and farmers and seen only as invaders and villains. Few realize that they are two sides of the same coin. Not much space is left for actual people.

Those who live in the region or research it find it hard to make themselves heard and tell a different story of the Amazon. The forest was not untouched, virginal; instead it was full of plants and animals put to use by the local indigenous population, which was far from sedentary. The history of the Amazon’s colonial presence is made up of multiple attempts at contact and resistance fighting. On their way from the coast to the inland rivers, the Portuguese came up with many projects for the exploitation of the local natural resources, but these plans were not always easy to implement due to the many routine difficulties. The biggest of these was probably the lack of a suitable workforce. Despite the many indigenous peoples in the area, it was not always easy turning them into regular laborers who could be set to all the tasks considered necessary for the Portuguese colonial enterprises, or to the Portuguese rhythm. There were escapes of all shapes and sizes, daily resistance, wars both declared and undeclared and diseases, such as cholera and smallpox epidemics, which attacked the lives and well being of a large part of the indigenous workforce. Also, there were serious conflicts between the local population and the religious factions, especially the Jesuits, over control of the indigenous laborers. All this created a complex set of standards for use of this local workforce, full of obstacles, which often made them hard to put to use.

The Portuguese also transported another important workforce to the Amazon: the Africans brought over in the late 17th and early 18th century to work as slaves and help the colonials settle the land. However, these Africans and their descendants did more than work by force and help the economy. This population of African origin – although small in comparison to that in other parts of colonial and imperial Brazil – became concentrated in certain parts of the Amazon and in key sectors of the local economy. In towns and villages, the Afro-Brazilians worked as trade or domestic slaves. In rural communities, they worked both in the great-houses of the farms as well as in the fields and plantations, farming cattle, cacao and sugar cane. Working alongside their white owners, many slaves established families, legalized or not. Besides these ties formed within their own group, these men of African origin also mingled with indigenous women and developed bonds with the whites, helping to form a local populace which was widely mixed from an ethnic point of view and culturally rich.

The study of colonial and imperial documents, and the coming and going of European settlers and of laborers – especially those of indigenous origin – is impressive. It is easy to observe how difficult it was within this vast territory to get such a free population to settle down on the land. Another factor that contributed towards this was that, in the Amazon, most of the riches are in the jungle and rivers. So the settlers of Portuguese origin had to respect nature, planting what they needed but at the same time maintaining the native green in order to extract its greatest treasure: the so-called “backcountry drugs”. From the forest the settlers took different types of wood, nuts, cinnamon, cacao, and oils and extracts from a diversity of plants, fish and turtle eggs. Zones with the highest amounts of these “drugs” were mapped out at the same time as those unwholesome areas home to vegetation or animals held to be “poisonous” and which could get in the way of extracting the “drugs”. Sometimes the settlers attempted to control these insalubrious locations, but often they simply avoided them. The backcountry was still a distant land, hard to access, with much of it inhabited by unfriendly indigenous populations. Other locations had natural obstacles, such as waterfalls or mountain ranges. Many areas were made up of lakes, seasonal flood plains, swamps or jungle with an abundant amount of unknown fevers and diseases, which often resulted in the death of the white settlers and which in general were associated to taboos, immaterial beings or fears stemming from different beliefs and myths. These distant (or fearsome) locations were the destination of those who fled colonial or imperial order, or who clashed with it, such as the cabanos in 1835.

Throughout all the Amazonian backcountry there were mocambos - settlements of runaway slaves - as well as mocambos of other types: there were people of African origin fleeing slavery, indigenous peoples and mestiços on the run from forced labor and soldiers hiding in the woods and up rivers from forced recruitment for militias and a variety of wars, such as the French Revolution in 1789 or the Pará conquest of French Guiana in 1809. Most fugitives were seeking an imagined protection in face of an oppressive colonization. The formal settlers (and their opposites, the “protected-escapees”) were never still, and ended up giving a false idea of a lack of population, an image highlighted by the constant rhetoric of the authorities on labor shortages.

With so much legal and illegal mobility, statistical data is precarious. As there were no censuses, numbers came from traders, who sought to control production and exports, and the military, who recruited soldiers and counted the troops, the officers and their families. The former would boost the numbers, and the latter could never get the correct number of inhabitants due to the eternal retreat of the population when faced with army recruiters.

According to population estimates made by the biggest English merchants, in 1835, in all of the Brazilian Empire there were around 4 million inhabitants. The population deemed “civilized” in Pará, formed by free white men or mestiço merchants, represented little more than four percent of this total: some 176 thousand people. However, Pará and Maranhão together – long-time commercial export partners – had an export revenue close to that of Pernambuco, at the time the second largest exporter in Imperial Brazil. Besides, due to the cabano conflict, Pará’s revenue was underestimated and didn’t correspond to a real number. Even so, it was more than double the revenue of Rio de Janeiro, the Empire’s capital. How was this possible? This was due to the indigenous and African workforce, a population that wasn’t even counted in these statistics.

In the entry “Pará” of the Geographic, Historical and Descriptive Dictionary of the Empire of Brazil, the director of the tome, J. P. Aillaud, called attention to the population of the Province of Pará in the year 1840 in the following manner:

“The province [of Pará] counted in 1840 ninety four parishes ten of which had no vicar, both for the lack of ecclesiastics, and for not having money to repair the churches (...) In the same year, proceeding from a recruitment, it was found that the number of civilized inhabitants was some 139 thousand, and of wild Indians it was calculated that they be at least 100 thousand”. (AILLAUD, J. P.. (dir.) Dicionário geográfico, histórico e descritivo do Império do Brasil, tomo 2º, Paris: Casa Publicadora de J. P. Aillaud editora, 1845, p. 108).

If we consider the data used in this dictionary and compare it to the estimated number in the previously mentioned statistical book of the British merchants, the so-called “civilized” population of Pará would have dropped between 1835 and 1840 by roughly 37 thousand inhabitants, indicating that almost 12% of the population must have died or left Pará on account of the Cabanagem conflicts. However, this number is misleading, as it doesn’t account for the African slaves and the fugitives in the mocambos. The information taken from Aillaud’s Dictionary also infers that in Pará, besides the 139 thousand civilized men, there were another 100 thousand indigenous Brazilians referred to as “wild”, or non-catechized. From all this data it is possible to perceive that in Pará of 1840 there were more “uncivilized” people – enslaved, fugitive or “wild” – than “civilized”. Certainly the death rate during the Cabanagem must have had a large impact upon the people not counted in the statistics.

Years later, in 1849, the first official data after the Cabanagem showed new numbers. The president of the Pará province, Jerônimo Coelho, affirmed in his yearly report that, according to statistics ordered by him, Pará had around 186 thousand inhabitants, between free men and slaves. Here, the number is larger due to the inclusion of the slave population (around 34 thousand inhabitants, or 18.5%), but the indigenous peoples entitled “wild” and the fugitives in the mocambos are still left out of the count.

To conclude this brief overview of numbers and population, the Cabanagem was an enormous demographic tragedy for the region, whatever the figures.

Beyond numbers: consequences and effects of the Cabanagem

The end of the 1835 revolution was tragic for all those in the Amazon, and especially for the backcountry dwellers. Most women were left widowed or had to carry on their lives with husbands far away. The free, poor men who survived the 1835 revolution without being jailed or exiled were recruited and sent as militiamen or forced laborers to distant lands in or outside the Amazon. Others returned to captivity and slavery. The old order – of white colonial origin – grew stronger and the already immense inequality grew deeper. In this manner, the banners of citizenship, rights and improved access to land were set aside for another moment in history, but the memory of the cabano struggle persisted and still exists in our day and time.

To find the cabano people and traditions – with all their colors, languages and cultures – is not simply a task of locating them within the historical written, pictorial or archeological documents that range from pre-colonial to imperial times. To really picture them it is necessary to perceive they exist beyond this, and are present in the marks that are more visible and more easily sensed by our contemporary hands and eyes.

The cities of the Amazon are a persistent portrait of the unfinished, both past and present. In Belém, it is hard not to notice that the majority of human construction is precarious, both in building material (often straw or wood) and in a lack of routine upkeep. Everything seems ready to be taken back by nature. The recurring local colors are the yellow of metal corrosion and the green-black of mold and mud. Everything feels off-kilter: even poured concrete. Something that would be a monumental concrete structure, to last for human eternity, often becomes routine desolation in the ruins commonly present in Amazon cities such as Belém. Visitors need only see the pompous old Cabanagem Memorial constructed out of concrete in Belém, in 1985, for the 150-year anniversary of the cabano conflict. Today it is a ruin in the midst of a flyover, a meeting place for drug addicts among the fast-moving cars and buses.

Nature appears to "invade" human achievements in this Amazon of cabano tradition. It is as though the local cities are always attempting to recover that which is taken from them at a speed alien to the eyes of those from other parts of Brazil. For example: the potholes on the streets that emerge suddenly and seem to want to drag civilization deep into the water, to live alongside the region’s enchanted and mythical creatures. A wet and temporary world is born, a mingled past and present formed in the Brazilian equatorial Amazon.

Despite this temporary nature, even in those places where the jungle, the seasonal floods and the rains periodically remove traces, washing everything and covering it with mildew, all it takes is an attentive gaze to spot cemeteries, bone deposits, old foundations, pieces of domestic utensils, and other vestiges of the cabano past which still persist. For each written document or image there are hundreds of other marks, with both material and immaterial remains of the past. A Cabanagem that can still be touched and felt.

In a world where all is transformed it would be too much to ask that our memory be preserved intact. But even though “imperfect” for analyzing what took place in the cabano past, this reconstructed memory still shapes fascinating ideas about this chapter in history. And this memory helps to build new stories of the Amazon. There are countless tales of the past still alive in the present. These are stories that supposedly took place between 1835 and 1840, but have been relived and reinterpreted in other times and by other people. Although deemed “fake” reports by some, they form essential narratives of a historical past that is remade by each generation.

These tales translate into memories of a time where countless people were repressed, many of them fearful fugitives from the cabanos themselves. There were people of means who, facing death by the revolutionary cabanos, hid their riches on their lands, especially gold and silver. This led to prolific stories about apparitions who emerge to tell those alive today where their treasure might be buried. But they could also haunt people with their tales of death, collective drowning and poisoning. Even now people tell of hearing the screams of the cabanos and their suffering, brought by water and wind. There are also tales of cabanos who became Amazon legends and ghost stories, such as Matinta Pereira, who appears to the region’s inhabitants asking for tobacco. People turn to the Catholic saints, but even those were destroyed and mutilated by time in the cabano past and nowadays.

Beyond the traditional fantastical narratives, there are other equally fascinating cases, tales which identify certain cultural characteristics present today among the Amazon communities with the struggles experienced by the cabanos. It is not uncommon to hear on the streets of Belém or Manaus that the Pará or Amazon people are warriors and fighters, resistant and combative due to their cabano heritage; that the women are strong fighters, true widows of a daily cabanagem. It is also common for politicians to call upon the cabano past as their government platform. In 1985, Jader Barbalho, at the time governor of Pará, named himself governor of the cabano people at the very moment in which the Cabanagem celebrated 150 years and Brazil was emerging from military dictatorship. The previously cited Cabanagem Memorial was built right on the Belém-Brasília highway. Years later, when the mayor of Belém Edmilson Rodrigues won his first term in 1996, once again the Cabanagem made the pages of the local papers, which cited the cabano government and the cabano school. A samba stadium named Cabana Village was built to host, among other activities, town budgeting meetings. The fight for land and for wider social and political rights of the past were once again brought out and reinterpreted in the present.

Thus, places of the past gained new meaning and the cabano goals were reedited to contemporary versions of social and political struggles. However, after the end of Rodrigues’ second term in government, in midst of the political disputes and social issues growing on the local and national levels, the town budgeting, the monuments and the institutions named for the cabanos of 1835 were renamed and many forgotten in the Amazon and in Belém.

These reinterpretations and their counterpoints demonstrate that the violent and grandiose exploitation of the Amazon population also persisted. The cabanos of the present also learned that mobility and volatility could be weapons against insistent exploitation. This, however, is a double-edged sword. Once again the present-day laborer has difficulty in settling: a constant migrant. In this process, the rivers and woods tend to make their presence known and even “preserve” themselves, but the daily toil to maintain plantations, city infrastructure and constructions hardly seems to last. The region’s impermanence would appear to be permanent. Until when?