From November 1874 to January 1875, there occurred in several parts of the Brazilian Northeast a popular movement that took the form of smashing the weights and measures of the newly adapted metric system. If the movement was in the next hundred years mentioned at all, it was to be dismissed as senseless destruction by a mob of fanatic clowns (to use that word in its primary sense).

Since historical research is largely guided by the impact of fashionable ideas, it was inevitable that, once the seminal studies on “the crowd in history” and “social banditry” by Messrs. Thompson, Rudé, and Hobsbawm became widely read, the Quebra-Quilos would be disinterred for further investigation. Research by several historians, Brazilian and North American, has resulted in at least two articles on the subject. Now, Armando Souto Maior has expanded his article into a book.

Souto Maior’s study draws on very considerable research into a wide range of sources—national and state archives, notarial records, press, and pamphlets. As a result, this book provides fresh insights into several important aspects—for example, the role of recrutamento (“enforced service in the military”)—of the Quebra-Quilos revolt as a social and an economic movement.

The work lacks, however, the strong conceptual framework necessary to integrate the materials used into a systematic analysis of the revolt. The author describes the theories of Hobsbawm and others, but seems curiously unable to utilize them effectively. As a consequence, the book is fragmented—a collection of related and often overlapping essays. In fairness to the author, who makes no great claims for his study (p. 1), his book does succeed in showing that the Quebra-Quilos were not exceptional, but part of a continuum of social protest. Nonetheless, the book does not do justice either to the revolt itself or to the considerable research it embodies.