From November 1874 to early January 1875 a popular uprising swept across the interior of the Brazilian Northeast. In countless towns and villages, usually on market day, rioters smashed the “quilos,” the weights and measures of the newly established metric system. They stopped the marketgoers from paying taxes and destroyed the records in the tax offices, the town hall, and the notarial registers. During their work of destruction, little or no violence was directed against individuals and when their ends were achieved, the rioters quietly went about their ordinary business.

Faced with the speed and avalanche invincibility of the uprising, the local authorities could only stand aside in real or feigned neutrality. The presidents of the four provinces involved reacted with something approaching panic. The fabric of authority seemed to have vanished with the forces of barbarism poised to sweep down out of the interior into the provincial capitals. The central government, for whom the revolt was never more than a peripheral nuisance, viewed it as the work of a fanatical mob masterminded by political opponents, in particular by the Jesuits.

Before the central government’s fairly prompt and efficient counter measures could be implemented, the uprising of the Quebra-Quilos (Smash-the-Kilos), as the revolt was dubbed by contemporaries, had already subsided of its own accord. Plans for punishment and retribution were overtaken by a national financial crisis and by the fall of the ruling cabinet in June 1875. The new cabinet wanted to bury all memory of the revolt as quickly as possible, and, for the most part, succeeded. The scattered subsequent references to the revolt have usually described it in the terms employed by the head of the government when writing to the Emperor: “The taxes and weights were, in my opinion, skillfully chosen pretexts for the revolt, which was inspired by the priests.”1 Less frequently, the uprising has been viewed as foreshadowing modern conditions in the Northeast. In the words of a journalist writing in 1875 it was “the direct consequence of the suffering and deprivation … [of] the working classes of the interior.”2 Scholarly neglect of the uprising has been unfortunate. Not only does paucity of information on the ordinary rural population of Brazil make any source of evidence consequential, but much more significantly, the dynamics of the Quebra-Quilo revolt do not correspond to the standard conceptions of rural society in nineteenth-century Brazil.

The predominant interpretation can be said to view rural society as being organized around the monocultural fazenda, the possessor of which either owned, as slaves, or controlled, as agregados, the local labor force.3 Where monoculture did not exist, latifundia still predominated and control was exercised by the coronéis whose power rested not only upon their control of labor but upon familial ties, including compadrio, and upon the use of violence, personified by the capanga (armed retainer).4 While writers differ on the extent of reciprocity in these social relationships, all would agree that they were largely one-sided and certainly exploitative and that, with the exception of messianic movements and recurring banditry—neither of which lay within the social mainstream—no organized initiative or influence came from the mass of the rural population.5 Indeed, few writers, and these only recently, accept the presence, much less the importance, of a separately identifiable peasantry as a discrete part of the rural population.6

However, even a preliminary examination of the evidence of the Quebra-Quilo revolt7 makes clear that not only did a peasantry flourish in the interior of the Northeast in the 1870s but that the peasants were an independent, aggressive group possessing a well-established way of life which they were capable of defending with concerted, effective action and without much regard for the wishes of those usually considered to be the dominant elements in rural society. It is the intent of this essay, through an analysis of the background and structure of the revolt, not only to demonstrate the existence of these characteristics but also to suggest that reexamination of this and other rural revolts and riots might lead to a reconsideration of current assumptions about the structure and dynamics of Brazilian rural society in the nineteenth century.

The contemporary portrayal of the participants in the Quebra-Quilo uprising as a fanatic and ignorant rabble and the subsequent silence on the subject have combined to conceal not only the rational, logical nature of the revolt itself but the integral relationship of the uprising to the area in which it took place. The geoeconomic structure of the Northeast, as it existed in 1874 (see the map), was of fairly recent creation and consisted of several distinct areas.8 The humid, forested coastal plains, known as the zona da mata, had been the original area of settlement for the Portuguese with their port towns and large sugar plantations. The rural areas of the zona de mata, however, contained much more than plantation owners and slaves. There existed a substantial number of smallholders, tenant farmers and free laborers, as the words of a Captain General of Pernambuco, writing in 1806, indicate: “Matuto (backwoodsman) is the name given to all those living outside [the towns of] Recife and Olinda; they are what are known in Portugal as peasants.”9

Out from the zona da mata, beginning about the mid-seventeenth century, there advanced into the dry uplands of the interior (sertão) a frontier of conquest that subjugated the Amerindians and established cattle ranching. An area of occupation rather than of settlement, the sertão with its vast sesmarias and its leather-clad vaqueiros was essentially a mobile and scattered society. While the caatinga (dry scrub) covering much of the sertão was fit only for stock raising, there were also extensive areas of brejo (wetlands) and mata seca (dry forest) better suited for agriculture than for cattle. The cattle sesmarias were too vast to prevent squatting, and, in any case, local production of foodstuffs made better sense than importing edibles from the coast.

The advance of the agricultural frontier took place quite rapidly as the areas of brejo and mata seca contiguous to the coastal plains were soon penetrated. Farming leapfrogged into the interior along the cattle trails down which stock was driven each year, in great boiadas (cattle drives), for sale in market towns near the coast. At favorable sites along these trails, supply towns such as Caruaru, Pernambuco, and Campina Grande, Paraíba, emerged by the second half of the eighteenth century. Their demand for foodstuffs and their superior ecological conditions encouraged small farming in their vicinity.

The penetration of agriculture into the sertão was accelerated by three developments—the cultivation of cotton, the work of Catholic evangelism, and the establishment of weekly markets. The demand for cotton by the newly mechanized textile industries of Europe encouraged the production of this crop.10 At the start of the nineteenth century, cotton exports through Recife, the principal port of the Northeast, far outvalued those of sugar. Cotton was essentially “the poor man’s crop” (lavoura do pobre), grown on small plots and farmed by very simple methods. The peasants of the Northeast developed a system that combined the cultivation of cotton with the growing of maize, beans and manioc. The foodstuffs fed the peasant’s family with any surplus being sold at the local market, while cotton provided cash for essential purchases. Cotton growing thus brought economic diversification and a certain prosperity to the areas in which it was grown. For most of the nineteenth century, cotton provided the main economic incentive behind the penetration of the sertão by agriculture.11

The social catalyst for much settlement in the interior was provided by Catholic missionaries, and especially by Capuchin friars from Italy.12 They had already aided in the original occupation of the sertão by “taming” the nomadic Amerindians whom they had settled in mission villages such as that of Baixa Verde, Pernambuco, thus releasing much land for cattle ranching. The missionaries continued their work after the introduction of cattle. Moving from one cattle fazenda to another, the priests organized the construction of chapels and cemeteries. Around such religious centers grew up many of the interior’s towns and villages, in which the missionaries continued to play an important part, not only building larger churches but opening markets, building dams and providing social services.

In the development of a typical settlement, the consecration of a chapel was soon followed, and sometimes preceded, by the opening of a weekly market. The establishment of a network of these weekly markets marked the consolidation of the agricultural advance. Weekly markets were part of the socioeconomic milieu brought by the immigrants from the zona da mata. Differentiation between the weekly market network rapidly developed. While most remained devoted to local trade and commerce, a few became what have been termed “distribution” markets dominating the economy of an entire area.13 The most eminent of these distribution markets was the great Saturday fair at Caruaru, which took its area’s products for export to the coast and abroad, received imports in bulk for redistribution to the local markets, and shared in the emoluments of a considerable transit trade between the interior and the coast.

The emergence of these large distribution markets was the culminating factor which by the middle of the nineteenth century resulted in the formation of a new geoeconomic zone in the Northeast—the agreste, lying between the zona da mata and what contemporaries had by then come to call the alto sertão (far interior). The boundaries of the agreste were fluid and, within these boundaries, a great diversity of land usage existed—peasant farming, large estates, cattle ranching, and uncleared forest and caatinga. While during the rest of the nineteenth century the agreste would continue to develop, its basic socioeconomic structure was already well established.

There was nothing in the institutional structure of the agreste in the second half of the nineteenth century which set it apart from the remainder of Brazil. Political and judicial representatives of what may be termed the official world14 were present throughout the region. Merchants abounded in the towns, with the mercantile community of Caruaru numbering some 350 persons in 1872.15 Foreigners, particularly Portuguese, were to be found throughout the region, not only as merchants but in agriculture as well. While precise statistics are lacking, a class of large landowners clearly existed in the agreste and controlled a considerable supply of both slave and casual labor. As elsewhere in Brazil, the merchants and the large landowners sat on the local town councils, dominated local politics and provided the officers for the National Guard, the paramilitary force on which the government depended to control any local emergency. If the agreste suffered from what the official world considered to be a “lack of individual security,” it did so in common with all other regions of the interior, and there was nothing in particular about the agreste to excite official attention.16

A close examination of the evidence reveals that the apparent structure of power did not, however, correspond with the actual distribution of power in the agreste, a situation that may well have existed elsewhere in Brazil at this period. The statistics of the 1872 census, for example, show that slavery was a peripheral institution in the region. Only in the município of Brejo de Madre de Deus, Pernambuco, did slaves constitute much more than one-tenth of the population, and in most areas the number of slaves was between five and seven percent. While the large landowners held formal title to most of the land through deeds registered in the local notarial archives, the peasants actually occupied the land and tilled the soil. If the words of the peasants who precipitated the uprising reflect a more general opinion, the crops produced were considered to belong to those who grew them, and no title holder or tax collector had the right to appropriate them. “The fruit of the soil (o chão) belongs to the people and tax ought not to be paid on it.”17 The merchants may have supplied the local sources of credit and dominated town affairs but, as events of the revolt were to show, they did not control the conduct of the local peasants. In the units of the National Guard, the officers lacked any real authority over their rank and file which, as one Per-nambucan judge reported during the uprising, “is drawn from the common people and can be easily misled.”18

The central element in the agreste was, in effect, the peasantry. In migrating inland from the zona da mata, the matutos had transplanted a socioeconomic milieu and culture originally derived from peasant society in Portugal. Even the multiplicity of weights and measures employed in the agreste was no more than a continuation of those used in Portugal prior to that country’s adoption of the metric system in 1852.19 At the same time, many of the socioeconomic constraints and controls to which the peasantry were subjected in the zona da mata where plantation agriculture flourished were undermined or abandoned in the more fluid society of the agreste with its cattle ranching and small holders. Whereas “the worker of the sugar area, when addressed, frequently holds his hat in his hand and casts his eyes downward, … the man in the agreste will,” in the words of a modern observer, “leave his hat on and look you directly in the eye.”20

The process of peasant liberation in the agreste was accelerated by the extraordinary boom in cotton production that occurred in the 1860s and by the considerable influence of the Catholic Revival. During the cotton famine precipitated by the blockade of the American South during the Civil War, merchants and manufacturers, both in Brazil and abroad, were willing to accept any supply of cotton, no matter how poor its quality. Between 1861 and 1865, cotton exports through Recife rose from under 2,000 tons a year to over 19,000, while the price paid for cotton quadrupled. No development could have more directly encouraged the replacement of ranching in the agreste by peasant farming. Although the world price for cotton did drop sharply after 1865 and exports through Recife fell back to around 15,000 tons a year, the decline was cushioned for the matutos by a strong recovery in the external value of the Brazilian milreis during the late 1860s. At the start of the 1870s a second boom in cotton exports occurred, with shipments through Recife briefly reaching almost 28,000 tons a year.

In this same period the peasants’ self-confidence in their way of life was given apparent approval and indeed divine sanction by the one institution of the official world that possessed any legitimacy for the peasants, the Church. The Catholic Revival, often known as “Ultramontanism,” was essentially an attempt by the Catholic Church to reaffirm and revitalize throughout the world the social and cultural values of the traditional preindustrial society against the encroachments of “Progress, Liberalism and Modern Civilization,” all of which Pope Pius IX anathematized in his famous Syllabus of Errors in 1864. The Catholic Revival asserted the prerogatives of the Pope over the Church and of the Church over the State. The movement produced a world-wide revival in missionary work and attracted a zealous and substantial following among all sectors of society.

In the Northeast of Brazil, the Catholic Revival was mainly propagated by the Capuchins, already an integral, accepted part of society. For the matutos the appeal of the Catholic Revival with its color, its fervor, and its popular devotions was reinforced by the personal conduct of the Capuchins whose dedication, self-denial and accessibility built up a unique following among both the populace and elements of the official world. Not only did the established national politician, José Antonio de Pereira Ibiapina, give up his career in the official world to become a missionary among the peasantry, but the new bishop of Olinda selected in 1871 was a dedicated supporter of the Catholic Revival.

If the peasants of the agreste were in a self-confident mood at the beginning of the 1870s, so were the members of the official world. The major mobilization of Brazilian manpower and resources required for the successful prosecution of the war against Paraguay (1865-1870) had served to expand and diversify the national economy, to accelerate the development of the country’s infrastructure, and to enlarge the role of the national government. The impact of the war and the suspension for its duration of all reforms and improvements had produced a general willingness at its end to support a program of reforms from above. Closer links with Europe, typified by the opening of the transatlantic cable in 1874, heightened the official world’s appreciation of how far Brazil lagged behind modern Europe and intensified its desire to catch up.

The program of reforms adopted by the cabinet headed by the Visconde do Rio Branco which took office on March 7, 1871, seemed admirably designed to achieve these ends. As the Minister of Justice wrote in his official report to the legislature for 1874, the government was undertaking a “social revolution which, involving the most influential interests, nonetheless was aided and supported by almost all Brazilians.”21 This “social revolution,” carried out from above, was to be a “magnificent crusade for moral and material development,” in the words of the President of Pernambuco province in his proclamation against the uprising in December 1874.22 The agents of this revolution were to be the bacharéis em direito, the law school graduates. In 1874 five out of the six members of the Rio Branco cabinet were bacharéis em direito, as were all four presidents of the Northeast. The only important agents of the central government in the rural areas were the members of the local judiciary and they frequently were not from the area. The judiciary was supported in its work by those local inhabitants who were also bacharéis, by the local schoolmasters, and by anyone else with a formal education.

Although the Visconde do Rio Branco was a bacharel not in law but in mathematics, he more than compensated for the fact by being Grand Master of the Masonic order in Brazil. Masonry, which had provided the institutional organization for those struggling for Brazilian independence, retained a reputability, almost an inevitability, for the official world. Not to be a mason was for an educated man almost to mark himself as an eccentric. While a small minority of masons distinguished themselves by the virulence of their atheism and their anti-Catholicism, masonry demanded little from its members. Despite the Papal denunciation of masonry in 1864, most masons had no difficulty in attending mass at the parish church and a lodge meeting on one and the same day. In the interior, as at Campina Grande, Paraíba, the masonic lodge, Leal e Segredo, served almost as an outpost of civilization where members of the official world, including bacharéis, schoolmasters and educated merchants could meet for an evening of socializing and culture.

The program of the Rio Branco cabinet was designed precisely to advance such civilization. The first national census was held in September 1872 to provide the information essential for rational governance. Separate laws were passed to strengthen the administration of justice and maintenance of order and to replace the existing practice of press-gang recruitment for the armed forces with a system of national service by all eligible men, rich and poor. As a first step in the unification and modernization of the commercial structure of Brazil, a decree of September 1872 ordered the adoption of the metric system throughout the country.

While the President of Pernambuco claimed that “only perverted souls could ascribe cruel and oppressive motives” to the cabinet and its programs, the populace of Brazil could conceive of little benefit coming from the government’s measures.23 For the populace, contact with the government meant only the exaction of taxes and recruitment for the armed forces without any return. The reform program meant simply that this tribute of blood and money would become more common and efficient. With good reason no peasant could believe that the Law of Military Enlistment would, as the President of Pernambuco claimed, really call “to the military service of the country both the son of the worker and of the richest capitalist.”24

This general disbelief was intensified, in the case of the Northeast at least, by the fact that the census of September 1872 coincided with a national registration of all slaves. While the failure to register slaves would give them their freedom, the free populace of the agreste, well over half of which was not white, saw only a threat to their freedom in the linking of the two censuses. If slavery was not to be extended to all men of color, then some type of forced labor was, as the landowners so often advocated, to be imposed on the poor. As the evidence of the Quebra-Quilo revolt reveals, such fears of “enslaving free men” were circulating widely in the Northeast at the time of the uprising.25

Direct and open defiance was not, however, the usual method of expressing opposition. In the Northeast, as in the rest of Brazil, the taking of the census was met with evasion, non-cooperation and delay. What did produce open revolt in the agreste against the Rio Branco reforms were two exogenous factors: a clash between Church and State known as the Religious Question and a conjunction of adverse economic conditions. The Religious Question was important because its events served in the minds of the peasants to undermine the authority of the official world and to legitimize open protest. The refusal of the Bishop of Olinda, a zealous young supporter of the Catholic Revival, to withdraw his interdict of two irmandades (lay brotherhoods) in Recife for their refusal to expel all masons from membership led to his trial and imprisonment in 1873. The bishop’s supporters proceeded to mount a popular campaign to force the government’s release of the bishop and to recognize his authority over the irmandades. While the goals of the campaign were limited, the means employed were revolutionary.

In Campina Grande, which was to be the epicenter of the Quebra-Quilo revolt, the parish priest in July 1873 ordered all members of the Leal e Segredo lodge to be expelled from the church. In November 1873, the same priest brought in the redoubtable Padre Ibiapina, who at a vast open-air meeting preached with all the weight of his personal authority that “sons should not obey their fathers, wives their husbands, nor the ordinary people the government, if the latter be masons.” Padre Ibiapina formed a Sociedade Católica “to which even illiterates and slaves were admitted” and whose members were enjoined to boycott all those identified with masonry.26

Since virtually all members of the official world were masons, such actions could not have been better calculated to undermine the authority of the government and its local representatives. Masons were roughed up on the streets of Campina Grande and attempts were made to prevent the payment of taxes on the grounds that the tax laws were enacted by masons. Popular opposition to a godless national government was expressed in a “hatred of the law graduates” that was to be prominent in the events of the revolt.27

The priests who organized the campaign appear never to have actually sanctioned revolt, and it is doubtful whether this mass mobilization and politicization, probably without precedent in the history of the Northeast, would have been sufficient to start a rising. The immediate cause may be found in a conjuncture of economic and financial factors. As previously explained, the ordinary peasant, especially in the cotton areas, depended for an essential part of his income upon the sale of cash crops, the proceeds of which paid for necessities he could not produce himself. Since the agreste was not an area very favorable for agriculture, the margin of profit for the peasant was never large and by 1874 this margin came under heavy pressure. The price of cotton continued to decline, while the export market for cotton from the Northeast collapsed. Because of deteriorating conditions linked to the World Depression of 1873, prices for foodstuffs also seem to have fallen.28

It was precisely at this point that the demands made by the official world on the peasant’s monetary resources increased dramatically. The new metric system, which should have been instituted on July 1, 1873, but whose adoption in the interior of the Northeast dragged on until the middle of 1874, required the payment of fees (with the threat of imprisonment for non-compliance) for the official alteration and authentication of all weights. The expenditure of precious cash on what the peasants could only see as a useless change was compounded by the merchants’ attempts to charge the same prices under the new system for standard units which were ten percent smaller than under the old, a practice so blatant as to be denounced as “scandalous exploitation” in the national press.29 Such practices not only threatened the peasants with a crucial reduction in income, but indicated that the merchants would, in a crisis, ally themselves with the official world.

To these burdens was added the imposition, in August and September 1874, of heavy new taxes by the provincial assembly of Paraíba do Norte. The early 1870s saw a very large increase in expenditures at all levels of government, an increase which was not matched by a similar growth in revenue. Unlike the national government, which could increase customs duties and borrow on the London market, the provincial and local governments could only cover the deficit by increasing existing taxes within their areas of governance, the province and the municipality. Many of these taxes fell upon the activities of the market place. Higher taxes were imposed on each head of cattle entering the town slaughterhouse and larger fees were demanded for the purchase of peddlers’ licenses. What affected the peasants most directly, however, was the imposition by many town councils throughout the Northeast (with the approval of the provincial assemblies) of the imposto do chão, a tax upon every load of grain and vegetables sold on market day. The practice of the provincial government and of the town councils of farming out the collection of taxes to private individuals made the impact of the new taxes all the more burdensome, since these private tax collectors were not known for their moderation.

It was the refusal of the local peasants to pay the imposto do chão on October 31, 1874 at the weekly market at Fagundes, an economic satellite of the distribution market of Campina Grande, that precipitated the revolt. The inability of the local police to enforce payment and their retreat from the market place in the face of open resistance encouraged bolder peasant action at other markets of the Campina Grande region. During the first three weeks of November the level of resistance gradually escalated, as men grew more defiant and common action crystallized. The first smashing of the metric weights and measures at Campina Grande on November 20 set off the very rapid spread of the revolt throughout the agreste. The events in Campina Grande provided the pattern. Not only was the payment of taxes refused on market day, but the metric weights and measures were broken and the local records destroyed. Open hostility was expressed against government officials, the bacharéis, and the masons, while the Catholic Church received public demonstrations of loyalty.

The pattern of action established at Campina Grande repeated itself, in whole or in part, over one hundred times across an area of 37,000 square miles in the interior of the Northeast before the revolt died out in the first week of January 1875.30 The speed with which the revolt fanned out in all directions across the agreste immediately after the first breaking of the weights and measures at Campina Grande indicates that information about developments there must have spread prior to that date. The means of dissemination appear to have been kinship links between the different villages, the peasant practice of attending markets in several localities, the gossip of itinerant peddlers and other travellers, and newspaper reports communicated by the literate. The rising tended to occur first in satellite markets and then to move, on the following market day, into the distribution market town for the area.

In a typical village or town, the rising consisted of a single riot on market day in which the mass of the marketgoers spontaneously participated, although the catalyst for action may have been provided by the arrival of a determined group from an outlying settlement. While the overtly illegal acts, such as the burning of records, sometimes involved social elements living on the edge of the law, those elements in no way constituted the revolt’s leadership.31 Nor was the role played by the landowners, merchants or clergy (at least one of whom was usually somehow involved in the course of events) a central one, certainly not one of leadership. As the national government discovered to its chagrin, the revolt had an anonymous leadership or, rather, no leadership at all. Each riot was the collective action of the peasant community involved. As one local judge observed during the trial of a peasant accused of sedition, “That seditious movement in many instances occurred as a passing tumult, without instigators, without leaders, without direction, caused by news that misled the minds of the uneducated classes.”32

An official report on the revolt and its goals described the rising as the work of “a wild mob of ruffians, thieves, and murderers drunk with blood, plunder, and destruction” who were manipulated by the cabinet’s opponents,33 particularly the Italian Jesuits who had come to assist the Capuchins in their missionary work. Such a view does less than justice to the conduct of the peasants and to the effectiveness of the revolt as a political movement.

Indiscriminate violence was a rarity during the uprising and the use of violence against individuals (as opposed to property) was an unusual occurrence. The implicit threat to use violence if their demands were not met gave the rioters their great strength, but they could be, and sometimes were, dissuaded by rational argument from enforcing these demands. What must impress any investigator of the revolt is the neatness and economy of effort with which the peasants achieved their limited and eminently sensible goals—the non-payment of taxes, the destruction of the new weights and measures, and the burning of the official records.

The refusal to pay taxes afforded not just present but future advantage as well. A temporary cessation of taxation brought immediate relief to the peasants’ cash position. More importantly, refusal to pay coupled with the burning of the tax records and the intimidation of the private tax collectors made it likely that the actual collection of taxes would in the future be carried out with moderation and discrimination. Similarly, the destruction of the metric weights and measures not only prevented the abolition of a longstanding system that was integrated into the commercial and social structure of the region, but dramatically affirmed the peasants’ opposition to the implementation in the agreste of the government’s reform program. Moreover, the destruction put the merchants on public notice, a warning occasionally backed by physical force, that their future prosperity in the agreste depended upon the goodwill of the peasants and not on that of the official world.

The non-payment of taxes and the breaking of the weights and measures did not, it should be stressed, benefit the peasants alone. As the Visconde do Rio Branco commented on January 14, 1875, “I get the impression that landowners were involved in the disturbances. Would these be small landowners?”34 The non-payment of taxes did improve the financial position of the small landowners and the evidence does show that several landowners took advantage of the disturbances to destroy the records of debts they owed to the town councils. Since the rejection of the new metric system implied a rejection of stronger government control in the agreste, a control that ultimately would have curbed the landowners’ power, the smashing of the weights and measures was an action not totally unpalatable to the landowners as a group.

The possibility that the revolt was manipulated from behind the scenes by the landowners of the agreste must therefore be considered. The central government certainly believed that the landowners of the region, if not accomplices, did display an unnecessarily benevolent neutrality to the revolt. This neutrality was in total contrast to the action of the senhores de engenho (sugar fazenda owners) of the coast who, when the revolt swept out of the agreste into the edges of the zona da mata, were both willing and able to call out their agregados (tenants and sharecroppers) to police the local marketplace on market day. Since the peasants avoided direct violence if possible, the fazendeiros’ actions effectively prevented the penetration of the revolt deep into the zona da mata.

The difference in conduct between the two groups of landowners cannot be explained simply by economic factors, since the senhores de engenho were also, at this time, experiencing an acute financial crisis, producing sugar at no profit or even at a loss. A different set of social conditions at the local level in the zona da mata is a more likely explanation, since the senhores de engenho were not so conscious of a dependence upon the peasantry and therefore had less fear of calling out their agregados, whose loyalty they did not question. Indeed, some fazendeiros reacted to the revolt with incredulity and disdain, dismissing it as the work of a rabble. “Everywhere I march,” reported one zealous fazendeiro on a pacification mission, “where the rebels are, they disperse at my coming and they say, I’m told, that they won’t fight with me.”35

The landowners of the agreste could not afford this type of response, for they could not exact obedience from their agregados and, even if they could have, they would not have risked open hostility to the rising. The landowners were essentially in a symbiotic relationship with the peasants, who had never accepted a condition of dependence and who collectively held ultimate socioeconomic advantage. The landowners appreciated that their continued prosperity depended upon retaining the benevolence of the peasantry. So they aided the uprising by supporting it in minor ways and by condoning its more acceptable goals; and they used the goodwill thus garnered to divert the peasants from the destruction of the cartórios (notarial registers), the one goal of the revolt positively noxious to the landowners. As one local worthy —later to be indicted for complicity in the uprising—wrote a few hours before the attack on Areia, Paraíba:

We did what we could when we were with them so that they would not advance [against Areia], but although the leader agreed the crowd yelled, “We are going right now, and he dies if he doesn’t come!” So the leader told me that he had no choice but to go with them, but promised me as a friend that he would not touch the prison and the records.38

The destruction of the cartórios was significant because it touched the one genuine point of contention between the landowners and peasants as a whole—the question of legal title to land. Title to much of the land in the agreste had been alienated by the Portuguese crown through the grant of sesmarias to private owners. While some of these sesmarias had been broken up into small holdings with legal title, most of the estates remained intact. The peasants who by 1870 had taken physical possession of much of the fertile land were generally without title. Consequently they could be evicted by the legal owners, whose titles were filed in the local notarial registers and who, belonging to the official world, held an immense advantage over the peasants in any judicial proceeding regarding land title.

The burning of the notarial registers was as detrimental to the landowners as it was advantageous to the peasants.37 The destruction reduced all occupiers of land in the agreste to a similar status where they would have to prove afresh their legal title to land. In theory, the landowners could use their contacts with the official world to take advantage of the peasants in any new registration. More likely, however, the burning of the cartórios and the humiliation of the local officials so demonstrated peasant strength that the possession of legal title to land became less important than “the law of effective occupation.” The situation regarding the title issue was not clear cut, as is indicated by the protest of one peasant on being asked to join the revolt: “The cartórios ought not to be burnt, since everyone is interested in them, because their land deeds are held there.”38 However, the frequency with which the notarial registers were burnt and the lack of popular opposition to their destruction suggests that this was the minority view among the peasants.

Since the landowners offered no overt opposition and since the peasants did not look to them for leadership, the landowners as a group did not suffer any immediate damage from the rising, though their long-term position was weakened. The same was not the case for the government officials or for the clergy. The paralysis that typified the reaction of the government officials and the impotence of the small police detachments in the face of the riots made a mockery of the official world’s pretensions to control.

The uprising had even more serious effects on the peasants’ relationship with the Church. Since the Church had never anticipated that its longstanding and close relationship with the populace and its special position in the official world might ever be incompatible, the uprising created an impossible dilemma. To provide the peasants with visible support, much less the leadership they obviously sought, would be to jeopardize the Church’s position in the official world. On the other hand, for the Church to range itself fully on the side of authority would be to forfeit the position of trust and influence so carefully cultivated in the interior.

The Church’s response revealed a lack of internal cohesion. The Italian Jesuits, who held to their position on the Religious Question, provided the president of Pernambuco with a ready culprit on which to blame the revolt and were deported. The Capuchin missionaries, never more than lukewarm supporters of the Bishop’s cause, allied themselves with the established order and proved the government’s most effective agents in containing outbreaks of the revolt. The local priests generally equivocated before their parishioners and desperately attempted to retain credibility on all sides. By the middle of December 1874 it was evident to the peasants that no significant support could be expected from the Church.39

The Church’s lack of support was one of several danger signals warning the peasants that they had overstepped the bounds of prudence. Protest and disorder were becoming indiscriminate and were starting to undermine the basic social order. Not only were marginal elements increasingly taking advantage of the situation for robbery and extortion, but groups of slaves had begun to demand their liberty. At the same time local officials, recovering their nerve, organized armed resistance against local rioters, causing casualties among the peasants in several incidents. In addition, news had come that a military expedition, organized by the national government for the pacification of the interior, had disembarked and was preparing to march inland. The peasants therefore abandoned the revolt and retreated into a total passivity. No opposition of any type was offered to the military forces which entered Campina Grande, the center of the revolt, on December 24, 1874.

The subsequent military occupation, whose brunt fell primarily on the peasants, did nothing to break their spirit or to lessen their strength. Although the new situation offered an excellent opportunity for other elements in the agreste to improve their own position at the peasants’ expense, none of them did so. The experience of the revolt was too recent and everyone was probably too busy, since all elements preferred to frustrate the national government’s attempts to identify and punish those responsible for the revolt. Military occupations and government inquiries might come and go, but the peasants remained. In June 1875, despite the indiscriminate mistreatment, imprisonments and recruitings—“the punishment of crime was the pretext for major violence by the occupying forces”40—the peasants were organizing resistance to the first enrollment of men eligible for the new military draft. Almost in panic, the Barão de Buique, one of the leading landowners of the agreste, wrote to the Minister of the Interior: “You have no idea of the work I am having to quiet the people about the enlistment! You can’t imagine the tension that exists. If a revolt breaks out, don’t be surprised, for their actions promise that.”41 Despite sporadic violence, no new revolt did break out, but nonetheless the first enrollment proved incomplete and abortive. Although not formally repealed, the new law proved unworkable and was never enforced.

The abandonment of the new system of recruitment marked the effective end of the national government’s “magnificent crusade for moral and material development.” The abandonment of the reform program in turn meant the end of the Imperial regime as a strong government in control of events. After 1875 the Imperial government was remarkable only for its conservatism and its ineffectuality. No new census was taken in 1880 as the law required. All attempts to enforce the use of the metric system in the interior were given up. While not the sole reason for this change, the Quebra-Quilo revolt was certainly the immediate cause. The peasants of the agreste, even if not officially part of the political community, had adopted a course of action, remarkable for its effectiveness and its economy of effort, that ultimately forced a substantial change in government policy. The revolt of the Quebra-Quilos is therefore of some importance in the history of the Imperial Regime.

The historiographical significance of the Quebra-Quilo revolt is also considerable, since it illustrates the utility of revolts and other incidents apparently deviant in behavior for the investigation of the structure and functioning of ordinary life, on which direct evidence is not readily available. There is, indeed, nothing like a crisis for exposing the inner dynamics of any situation. The history of nineteenth-century Brazil is rich in popular upsurges, both rural and urban, and it is time to give more attention not only to such well-known, if under-studied, events as the Balaiada (1839-1841) and the Vintem riot (1880), but to such virtually unexamined incidents as the Ronca do Abelho (1851) and the Carne Sem Osso protest (1858).

While the revolt of the Quebra-Quilos reveals the utility of crises for any study of “history from below,” it also suggests the wisdom of reviewing some current conceptions about rural society in nineteenthcentury Brazil. If mass movements among the rural population are no longer ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, they are still essentially treated as being movements “incapable of expressing realistic social goals which had appeal beyond the local group.”42 As this essay has attempted to demonstrate, the peasants in the agreste possessed a well-established independent culture and social system. They were neither on the margin of society, nor were the goals of the revolt unrealistic. The peasants achieved precisely what they intended. Indeed the Quebra-Quilo revolt can be classed as an unusually successful and sophisticated example of a form of action—the riot—commonly employed in preindustrial and premodern societies by groups outside the official world to call attention to their views and needs and to block official activities which they considered detrimental to their interests.43 Since such forms of action did not aim at taking control of or giving positive direction to the body politic, they can be described as pre-political. Whether or not this lack of “political consciousness” is to be deplored, it should not be equated with a lack of comprehension or with an inability to act efficiently, as the Quebra-Quilo revolt demonstrates.

Obviously, the evidence from a single revolt cannot provide the basis for a general theory on the role of the peasants in rural society of nineteenth-century Brazil. That role naturally varied from region to region in direct relation to local socioeconomic conditions. It was no coincidence that the Quebra-Quilo uprising occurred in an area of recent settlement. However, the advance of the agricultural frontier was a general characteristic of rural Brazil in the nineteenth century.44 While conditions for the peasants were certainly less favorable in long-established plantation areas than on the frontier, the influence, indeed the power, exercised by the peasants throughout all of rural society may well have been far more active and decisive than has heretofore been appreciated.45 Until more original research has been undertaken on the dynamics of rural society in nineteenth-century Brazil, writers should at least be cautious of basing their work on the assumption that the landowners were as unconstrained or as omnipotent in local affairs as tradition would assert. It can be further argued that the influence of the fazendeiros in national politics was both less solid and less powerful than is customarily assumed, but that is the subject for another essay.


Visconde do Rio Branco to Pedro II, Rio de Janeiro, Dec. 31, 1874, in “Cartas do Visconde do Rio Branco,” Anuário do Museu Imperial, 12 (1951), 128.


Henrique A. Millet, Os Quebra-Kilos e a crise de lavoura (Recife, 1876), p. vi.


However, such a summary statement can in no way do justice to the richness and diversity of the writing on the subject. See particularly the pioneering work of Gilberto Freyre, Sobrados e mucambos, (2d ed. Rio, 1951); Nordeste, (3d ed. Rio, 1961); and “Social Life in Brazil in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,” HAHR, 5 (Nov. 1922), 597-628. Also significant have been Manuel Correia de Andrade, A terra e o homem no nordeste, (3d ed. São Paulo, 1973); Caio Prado Júnior, História econômica do Brasil (São Paulo, 1957); Manuel Diégues Júnior, O bangüê nas Alagoas (Rio, 1949); Stanley J. Stein, Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County (Cambridge, 1957); and Emília Viotti da Costa, Da senzala à colônia (São Paulo, 1966). See also Maria Thereza Schorer Petrone, A lavoura canaveira em São Paula (São Paulo, 1968); Peter L. Eisenberg, The Sugar Industry in Pernambuco (Berkeley, 1974); Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco, Homens livres na ordem escravocrata (São Paulo, 1969); and Warren Dean, “Latifundia and land policy in nineteenth-century Brazil,” HAHR, 51 (Nov. 1971), 606-626. Richard Graham, “Political Power and Landownership in Nineteenth-Century Latin America,” in Richard Graham and Peter H. Smith, eds., New Approaches to Latin American History (Austin, 1974), pp. 112-136, attempts to apply this view of Brazilian society to all of nineteenth-century Latin America.


See particularly Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz, “Messiahs in Brazil,” Past and Present, 31 (Feb. 1965), 62-86; her O mandonismo local na vida político brasileira (São Paulo, 1969); and Eul-Soo Pang, “Coronelismo in Northeast Brazil,” in Robert Kern and Ronald Dolkart, ed., The Caciques, Oligarchical Politics and the System of Caciquismo in the Luso-Hispanic World (Albuquerque, 1973), pp. 65-88.


Particularly relevant on messianism are Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz, O messianismo no Brasil e no mundo (São Paulo, 1965), and Rene Ribeiro, “Brazilian Messianic Movements,” in Sylvia L. Thrupp, ed., Millenial Dreams in Action (The Hague, 1962), pp. 55-79. On the role of banditry, see especially Rui Faco, Cangaceiros e fanáticos, (3d ed. Rio, 1972), and Amaury Guimarães de Souza, “The Cangaço and the Politics of Violence in Northeast Brazil,” in Ronald H. Chilcote, ed., Protest and Resistance in Angola and Brazil (Berkeley, 1972), pp. 109-131. See also the references to Brazil in E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester, 1959), and his Bandits (London, 1969), esp. pp, 19, 77-78. On the nullity of the mass of the rural population, see Antônio Cândido, Os parceiros do Rio Bonito (2d ed. São Paulo, 1971); Kalervo Oberg, “The Marignal Peasant in Rural Brazil,” American Anthropologist, 67 (1965), 1417-1427; and Carvalho Franco, Homens livres.


See particularly Emilio Willems, “Social Differentiation in Colonial Brazil,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 12 (Jan. 1970), 31-49; Shepard Forman, The Brazilian Peasantry (New York, 1975), esp. chapter 2; Joyce F. Riegelhaupt and Shepard Forman, “Bodo was never Brazilian: Economic Integration and Rural Development among a Contemporary Peasantry,” Journal of Economic History, 30 (Mar. 1970), 110-116; and Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz, “Mouvements messianiques et développement économique au Brésil,” Archives de Sociologie des Religions, 16 (1963), 109-111. See also Stuart B. Schwartz, “Elite Politics and the Growth of a Peasantry in Late Colonial Brazil,” in A. J. R. Russell-Wood, ed., From Colony to Nation: Essays on the Independence of Brazil (Baltimore, 1975), pp. 133-154, and Luís Lisanti, “Quelques aspects des mouvements paysans et des problèms agraires de Brésil du XVIIIe a 1961,” Anais de História, 2 (1970), 109-114.


The historiography of the Quebra-Quilo revolt is fragmentary. No single narration of events exists. The most immediate, and probably most reliable, sources of information are the reports of local officials sent to the provincial president or police chief in the immediate aftermath of an incident. The subsequent reports of the provincial presidents to the Minister of Justice are more subject to bias, particularly as to motivation. However, the speed of events obviously prevented much of the potential manipulation of information, since in many cases all the presidents had time to do was simply to enclose for the Minister copies of the local reports. These reports as well as the general correspondence and the documents from judicial investigations in Paraíba and Alagoas are found in the records of the Ministry of Justice located in the Arquivo Nacional in Rio de Janeiro (IJ1 297, 317-318, 346-348, 369-370). The official reports of the commander of the military forces sent to suppress the rising in Paraíba were printed in “Quebra-Kilos,” Publicações do Arquivo Nacional, 34 (1937), 99-164.

Other relevant contemporary sources include the correspondence of the various authorities, especially that of the Emperor, Pedro II (Arquivo do Museu Imperial, Petrópolis); the President of the Council of Ministers, the Visconde do Rio Branco (Arquivo Histórico do Itamaratí, Rio); the Minister of the Interior, João Alfredo Correia de Oliveira (Biblioteca, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife); and the President of Pernambuco, Henrique Pereira de Lucena (Arquivo Estadual, Recife). Contemporary newspapers, such as the Jomal do Comércio (Rio) and the Correio Noticioso (Paraíba), also contain useful information. In addition, at least two contemporaries attempted to explain the revolt: Henrique A. Millet, Os Quebra-Kilos e a crise de lavoura, and Ireneo Joffily, Notas sobre a Parahyba (Rio, 1892).

No historical studies of the revolt appear to have been written, apart from the short and very traditionalist articles published in the Revista do Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Paraibano. These are Coriolano de Medeiros “Quebra-Kilos,” 4 (1912), 55-60, and—much more useful—Simão Patrício, “A sedição dos Quebra-Kilos: Episódio sobre o levanto envolvendo os municípios de Areia e Alagoa Grande,” 7 (1932), 65-71. The recent article by Geraldo Ireneo Joffily, “O Quebra-Quilo (A revolta dos matutos contra os doutores, 1874),” Revista de História, 54 (Jul.-Set. 1976), 69-145, summarizes and quotes at length from the available printed sources.

Although the sources on the revolt are disparate, the evidence is remarkably consistent. This essay, which is based on a synthesis of the materials, relies most heavily on the contemporary archival sources, almost all of which have not been individually catalogued. Therefore, in the interests of brevity, information in the text is not footnoted apart from direct quotations.


This section draws heavily upon two excellent studies of the geography of the Northeast: Kempton E. Webb, The Changing Face of Northeast Brazil (New York, 1974), and John H. Galloway, “Pernambuco 1770-1920: An Historical Geography” (Ph.D. Diss., University of London, 1965), which is unfortunately not published but is summarized in his chapter on Brazil, in Harold Blakemore and Clifford T. Smith, eds., Latin America: Geographical Perspectives (London, 1971), pp. 335-399. Also useful were Correia de Andrade, A terra; Sebastião de Vasconcellos Galvão, Diccionario chorographico, historico e estatistico de Pernambuco (Rio, 1910); and Coriolano de Medeiros, Dicionário corográfico do estado da Paraíba (2d ed. Rio, 1950).


Letter of Caetano Pinto de Miranda Montenegro to Visconde de Anadia, Jan. 13, 1806, quoted in Freyre, Sobrados, p. 662. The term “matuto” is used frequently in the contemporary material on the Quebra-Quilo uprising to describe the inhabitants of the agreste and, indeed, the revolt was sometimes referred to as a revolução matuta.


On the production of cotton in the Northeast, see Correia de Andrade, A terra, pp. 150-159; Galloway, “Pernambuco, 1770-1920,” esp. pp. 249-256, 285-294, and 312-318; and Stanley J. Stein, The Brazilian Cotton Manufacture (Cambridge, 1957), pp. 44–49.


However, in the 1840s and 1850s cotton was partly replaced as a cash crop for the peasants by the production of coffee and rapadura (crude sugar).


Information on the Church in the Northeast during the Empire is sparse. Most useful were Fidelis M. de Primério, Capuchinhos em terras de Santa Cruz (São Paulo, 1942); Celso Mariz, Ibiapina, um apóstolo do nordeste (João Pessoa, Paraíba, 1942); and Sister Mary C. Thornton, The Church and Freemasonry in Brazil, 1872-1875 (Washington, 1948). The activity of the Capuchins in the Pernambucan agreste is particularly well-documented in Vasconcellos Galvão, Diccionário, which includes particulars on more than thirty separate settlements in whose foundation the Capuchins played a central role.


Shepard Forman and Joyce F. Riegelhaupt, “Market Place and Marketing System: Towards a Theory of Peasant Economic Integration,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 12 (Apr. 1970), 188-212.


For the purposes of this essay, the official world is defined as (a) the formal political structure and the people who both staffed and were considered qualified to staff it and (b) the official culture and the people who possessed the attributes of that culture. The two aspects of the official world, while not identical, are largely coterminous.


Demographic data on the four provinces of the Northeast is drawn from Recenseamento da população do imperio do Brazil a que se procedeu no dia 1° de agosto de 1872 (Rio, 1873-76), I, XI, XIII and XVI.


Brazil, Ministerio da Justiça, Relatorio apresentado á Assemblêd geral legislativa na terceira sessão da decima quinta legislatura (Rio, 1874), p. 5.


Testimony of Inocencio Gomes Faria de Mello, fol. 35v of Processo from Campina Grande (hereafter Processo) enclosed in Silvino Elvídio Cameiro da Cunha, President of Paraíba, to Manuel Antonio Duarte de Azevedo, Minister of Justice, Paraíba, March 8, 1875, Arquivo Nacional (hereafter AN), IJ1 318.


João Alvares Pereira de Lima, Municipal Judge, to Henrique Pereira de Lucena, President of Pernambuco, Brejo, Pernambuco, Dec. 14, 1874, AN, IJ1 346.


Maria Luísa Marcílio and Luís Lisanti, “Problèmes de l’histoire quantitative du Brésil: métrologie et démographie,” in L’histoire quantitative du Brésil de 1800 à 1930 (Paris, 1973), pp. 30-32.


Webb, Changing Face, p. 77.


Brazil, Ministério da Justiça, Relatorio, p. 2.


Printed circular from Pres. Pernambuco to all judicial and police authorities, Dec. 17, 1874, AN, IJ1 346.






Pres. Pernambuco to Min. Just., Recife, Dec. 31, 1874, AN, IJ1 346.


Testimony of Raimundo Teodorico José Domelas, fol. 7v of Processo.


See João Francisco da Silva Braga, District Judge, to Pres. Pernambuco, Itambé, Nov. 30, 1874, AN, IJ1 346; testimony of José Maria dos Santos Lapa, fol. 28v of Processo; and Joffily, Notas, p. 188.


Peter L. Eisenberg, The Sugar Industry, pp. 19-20 and tables 7, 26 and 32 on pp. 20, 154 and 190.


Jornal do Comércio, Dec. 31, 1874. Even where no apparent exploitation took place, the adoption of the metric system created considerable difficulties; see the experience of Sorocaba, São Paulo, in Aluísio de Almeida, “Memória histórica sôbre Sorocaba (VII),” Revista de História, 37 (Jul.-Set. 1968), 143.


In a minority of locations, repeated outbreaks occurred in the same town on successive market days. For the sake of clarity, the map notes only the major geographical locations at which incidents were concentrated.


Since the interior of the Northeast is indelibly linked with banditry and the exploits of Lampião, some mention must be made of the relation of bandits to the revolt. The official habit of stigmatizing any troublemaker as a criminoso, ladrão or facínora complicates the question, but it is clear that while banditry was common in the agreste, few individuals who took part in the revolt were identified even by the official world as having been bandits prior to their involvement in the uprising.


Judgement of Francisco Teixeira de Sá, District Judge of Goiana, Pernambuco, Feb. 4, 1875, quoted in A Provincia (Recife), Feb. 13, 1875.


Colonel Severiano Martins da Fonseca, Commanding Officer in Paraíba, to João José de Oliveira Junqueira, Minister of War, Paraíba, Mar. 15, 1875, in Publicações do Arquivo Nacional, 34 (1937), 118.


Letter to João Alfredo Correia de Oliveira, Minister of Interior, Rio, Jan. 14, 1874 [sic], Biblioteca, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (hereafter UFP).


Luís de Albuquerque Maranhão to Min. Int, Bom Jardim, Pernambuco, Dec. 13, 1874, UFP. The southward advance of the revolt was halted largely by the backward condition of the province of Alagoas, whose lack of a developed network of market towns prevented the revolt’s spread, just as it was to halt the spread of the peasant leagues almost a century later; see Shepard Forman, “Disunity and Discontent: A Study of Peasant Political Movements in Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 3 (May 1971), 5, n. 10.


Cleodon Clementino Pereira to Simão Patrício da Cunha, 1:30 a.m., Nov. 28, 1874, in Simão Patrício, “A sedição,” p. 69.


The destruction of the cartórios would have made sense to the landowners (or a section of them) only if two factions of landowners had been fighting for possession of the same land and neither controlled the judicial process. In that case, as Jorge Amado’s novels on the cacao region of Bahia illustrate, the burning of the cartórios not only established preponderance for one side but secured the submission of the judiciary which, in the reregistration of land titles, would accept the winner’s claims no matter how dubious. No evidence of any such conflicts between competing groups of landowners in the agreste exists for the period of the Quebra-Quilo revolt.


Testimony of Paulo Professor de Maria, fols. 57-57v of the Processo.


The position of the Church during the Quebra-Quilo uprising was very similar to its role in the Métis revolt of 1885 in Western Canada. In the latter case, the refusal of the priests to lead or approve a revolt against oppression led to an outbreak of heresy among the Métis at the time of the rising. After the defeat of the 1885 revolt, the Métis’ distrust of the priests permanently undermined their religious faith. See George Woodcock, Gabriel Dumont, Métis Chief and His Lost World (Edmonton, Alberta, 1975), pp. 148-151 and 164– 166. While no wave of heresy appeared in the Northeast at the time of the Quebra-Quilo revolt, possibly because it was successful, it is clear from the evidence both that the missionary work in the interior virtually collapsed once Padre Ibiapina and the existing generation of Capuchins died during the 1880s and that the Church deliberately concentrated its efforts after 1875 on the official world. In the 1880s two major heretical movements, at Canudos and Joazeiro, did emerge in the Northeast. In the case of Padre Cicero of Joazeiro, it may well be that his heterodoxy and his rejection by the official Church constituted his appeal and gave him credibility to the matutos of the Northeast who flocked to his shrine. The whole role of religion and the Church in the Northeast during the nineteenth century is badly in need of investigation.


Joffily, Notas, p. 181, cf. pp. 189-190.


To Min. Int., Buique, Pernambuco, June 28, 1875, UFP.


Forman, “Disunity,” p. 3.


George Rudé, The Crowd in History (New York, 1964); E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rudé, Captain Swing (London, 1970); E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century,” Past and Present, 50 (Feb. 1971) , 76-136; and Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution (New York, 1972) , especially chapter I.


The extent and vigor of the advance of the frontier in the Northeast during the nineteenth century is sketched in a brief and tantalizing outline in Ernani Silva Bruno, História do Brasil—Geral e regional, vol. 2: Nordeste (São Paulo, 1967). The significance and role of the frontier since independence has only recently been taken up again, a quarter century after Pierre Monbeig’s Pionniers et planteurs de São Paulo (Paris, 1952); see Martin T. Katzman, “The Brazilian Frontier in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 17 (Jul. 1975), 266-285, and Isabel Vieira Keller, “O homem da frente de expansão: Permanência, mudança e conflito,” Revista de História, 51 (Out.-Dez. 1975), 665-709.


One example of peasant influence in an established plantation area is the Guerra dos Marimbondos. Late in 1851, in the zona da mata of Pernambuco, the peasants rose in armed rebellion against the taking of a census and the institution of civil registers of birth and death. A pitched battle with units of the National Guard was only prevented by the intervention of the head of the Capuchin mission. The peasants were placated and the new measures hastily suspended. See Mário Melo, “Guerra dos Maribondos,” Revista do Institute Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico Pemambucano, 22 (1920), 38-47.

Author notes


The author, an Assistant Professor of Hispanic and Italian Studies and of History at the University of British Columbia, wishes to thank the Canada Council for its financial support, Flávio Guerra for permission to use the João Alfredo archive, and the participants, especially Eric Wolf, in the Interdisciplinary Workshop on Peasant Revolt and Revolution held at the University of British Columbia in February 1975 for their comments on an earlier version of the essay. In addition he expresses his appreciation to John H. Galloway of the University of Toronto for generously making his thesis available and to Roberto Flores of the University of British Columbia for kindly drawing the map.