This is a guest post by Dr. Colin Snider, who also blogs at Americas South and North.
João Cândido Felisberto remains one of the more overlooked figures in one of the more overlooked periods of Brazilian history. However, his life offers much insight into the transitional nature of race, society, politics, and life during Brazil’s First Republic (1889-1930) and beyond.
João Cândido Felisberto was born in Rio Grande do Sul in 1880 to parents who either were still slaves, or who had been recently manumitted. Either way, João Cândido was raised in a context in which slavery (which was only fully abolished in Brazil in 1888) was a daily part of living memory. At the age of 15, João Cândido attended the School for Naval Apprentices in Rio Grande do Sul. Apprenticeship schools (where orphaned boys were often sent) were one of two ways that most men entered the navy, with forced recruitment being the other typical route into the navy.
João Cândido served in the navy for 15 years, a period that saw substantial transformations in both the navy and in Brazilian politics and society more generally. In 1889, Brazil’s military, with the support of republicans, abolitionists, and others, peacefully overthrew the empire of Dom Pedro II, bringing an end to the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889) and ending the reign of the House of Bragança. The First Republic, an oligarchic federalized regime, struggled to re-define the nation, even while it dealt with internal challenges (including no fewer than two naval revolts in the 1890s). Among its major concerns were how Brazil, a country of racially-mixed history in the midst of the scientific racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, could project an image of modernity and civilization in the world.
By the early 1900s, the Brazilian government determined that military modernization would be one of the mechanisms through which Brazil would join the “civilized” countries of the world. Brazil had long had a strong navy, which played an important role in the eventual Brazilian victory in the War of the Triple Alliance, and the navy had also been key to extending the Brazilian state’s presence into the Amazon. With the Japanese victory over Russia, predicated largely on naval power, in the Japanese-Russo War had demonstrated the value of a modernized, steam-powered navy. With the debut of the Dreadnought in England, the first ship of its firepower, Brazil determined that improving its navy with Dreadnought-class battle-ships would be the way to project its “civilized” status and “modernity” to the world. As a result, it pledged to buy three dreadnoughts (and, in the process, spurred an arms race with Argentina and Chile). By 1910, Brazil had the Minas Geraes, which was up to that point the largest warship in the world – not even Great Britain had an equal to the Minas Geraes. Brazil also commissioned the São Paulo, the second of its warships, while a contract for a third (the Rio de Janeiro) was completed. Each ship cost $10 million dollars (roughly $250,000,000 each in 2015). Beyond the two dreadnoughts, Brazil also purchased some cruisers and refitted older battleships and other ships. To demonstrate its new firepower, the ships went to Portugual in November 1910, arriving just in time to witness the Republican revolution that brought an end to the Bragança Family’s rule in Portugal.
While Brazil’s naval firepower had modernized substantially, the naval use of force had not. While Brazil’s 1891 constitution had outlawed flogging, a loophole meant that the practice remained common on enlisted men in the navy. While (almost universally white) officers defended the practice, going so far as to say it allowed sailors to show their physical strength, the (overwhelmingly Afro-Brazilian) enlisted men bristled at the practice’s ongoing survival. A naval force of men who, like João Cândido, had slavery within their living memory, bristled at the state’s assertion of control over their bodies through whipping, and the associations that the practice carried with slavery. Much of the western world had banned flogging of sailors, either in practice or in legal codes, yet the practice remained in Brazil’s navy into the 2oth century. While legally, officers could not lash sailors more than 25 lashes a day, the naval code allowed for more, based on the “prudent discretion” of the officers. As a result, men like Marcelino Rodrigues de Menezes could be sentenced to 200-250 lashes in November 1910.
It was in this political and military context in which João Cândido entered into the national historical stage. Menezes’ punishment was the spark that lit the simmering resentment of sailors over abuses they suffered. Sailors had quietly been preparing a revolt in protest against the use of flogging and other issues. The revolt was initially planned for November 15 – the anniversary of the founding of the Republic in 1889 – but ultimately postponed. With Menezes’s whipping, however, sailors on the Minas Geraes, São Paulo, and other ships in Guanabara Bay determined the time to act had come. On November 22, 1910, nearly 2400 sailors (out of 5000) rose up, killing the commander of the Minas Geraes and some of his subordinates, proclaiming “Down with the lash” and “Long live liberty!”
Having not taken a part in the initial wave of violence, João Cândido nonetheless emerged as the leader of the revolt on the morning of the 23rd. João Cândido himself had never been flogged (though he had been periodically reprimanded for fights with other sailors), and indeed had recently twice received citations for good conduct. As part of the transitional generation that witnessed the move from Empire to Republic and the technological transformation from sailing to steam-powered ships, João Cândido had the respect of both the older and younger sailors, which aided in his position as leader of the movement.
By the morning of the 23rd, two of the most powerful battleships in the world, whose firepower the Brazilian government had trumpeted as evidence of its development, were now pointing those very guns at the city of Rio de Janeiro, and the people who were once supposed to feel pride at Brazil’s military might now panicked as it was directed toward them. This fear was compounded by the deaths of at least two civilians when the ships fired toward the city in one instance.
The sailors’ demands were not revolutionary. In addition to the abolition of flogging (and of corporal punishment more generally), sailors also demanded the removal of “incompetent and unworthy officers,” an increase in pay, better access to education, and more workers (the naval forces were notoriously understaffed). As the revolt dragged on, sailors also added better food and an amnesty for their actions to their list of demands. Meanwhile, their manifesto insisted they acted as “sailors, citizens, and republicans.” In making such claims, they were not expressing political radicalism, but rather, were asserting their rights as citizens and equals in the new Republic. Indeed, the joining of “down with the lash” and praises for liberty revealed the subtle ways in which the legacies of slavery, and the affiliation of whipping with slavery, resonated among an overwhelmingly Afro-descendent naval force who worked for white officers. Thus began what came to be known as the Revolt of the Whip.
While politicians debated what to do, military leaders expressed begrudging admiration for the sailors’ planning and coordination of the revolt, and their ability to maintain secrecy. In order to prevent reprisals, the ships under João Cândido’s guidance (he’d been a helmsman, among other positions in his 15 years in naval service), regularly moved out beyond the bar at night, so that the military could not launch a counter-attack. After much debate,with opponents saying to capitulate to the (black) sailors would destroy Brazil’s ability to govern itself, the government of President Hermes Rodrigues da Fonseca – himself a soldier and the nephew of Deodoro da Fonseca, who led the coup of 1889 – agreed on November 26 to an amnesty and to consider the sailors’ demands. The navy retook control of the ships shortly afterward.
However, the amnesty did not produce an end to the tensions. Despite agreeing to consider the demands, there was no immediate pay raise, nor was flogging immediately abolished. On the ships themselves, officers remained tense, and their command was in reality tenuous, as sailors only obeyed commands that João Cândido approved. In this context, the sailors themselves divided: some, like João Cândido, sided with the government in the wake of the pledge to address their issues; others demanded more radical action.
In spite of its promise for an amnesty, the government quickly moved to crack down on the sailors who revolted, launching a wave of illegal arrests of sailors. By the first week of December, over 100 sailors were arrested in what amounted to a purge of the already understaffed navy.
In this context, the radicals plotted another revolt for December 9. At the fort in the Ilha das Cobras [one of the islands of Guanabara Bay], marines rose up and took the fort, holding it for 17 hours before the government re-took the fort. This second revolt did not express any specific demands, and caught many of the leaders of the first revolt, including João Cândido, off guard. Indeed, in the brief course of the second revolt, João Cândido expressed support for the government.
With this second revolt, the government and military quickly deployed repressive tactics, removing 1000 sailors from the navy and imprisoning 600 sailors and marines. Among those arrested was João Cândido, who had had no part in the second revolt and remained supportive of the government during the brief rebellion. João Cândido then endured some of the most horrific events of the crackdown. He, along with 28 other men, was imprisoned in the colonial-era maximum security prison in the fort at Ilha das Cobras (where the second revolt had occurred) on Christmas Eve. The prison cell itself lacked fresh water and was stiflingly hot. Making matters worse, soldiers had cleaned it out with quicklime. As the stagnant water on the floor of the prisons evaporated, the lime on the walls entered into the air that the prisoners were breathing. They called for help, but the jailor did not have the keys to the cell – the commander had taken them with him to Rio de Janeiro as he celebrated the holiday. By the time the cell was finally opened on December 25, twenty-five of the twenty-nine prisoners were dead from asphyxiation. João Cândido was one of the four survivors.
While news of the Ilha das Cobras scandal slowly emerged, João Cândido remained a prisoner, finally charged in June 1912 for involvement in the second revolt, in spite of the fact he had sided with the government during the second revolt and had played no part in it. In December 1912, just over two years after the Revolt of the Whip and nearly two years since João Cândido nearly died in prison, a court-martial unanimously found João Cândido not guilty of involvement in the second revolt.
Despite the amnesty of 1910 and the acquittal of 1912, João Cândido would not lead an easy life. He briefly worked for the merchant marine before Navy officials pressured his employers to fire him. He ultimately settled down as a fishmonger and merchant in Rio de Janeiro by the end of the 1910s. Meanwhile, the Revolt of the Whip had tapped into, but certainly not solved, questions of racial difference and inequality during the First Republic, even while highlighting the limits of “modernity” that the government had pursued. As time progressed, João Cândido, and the Revolt of the Whip, came to offer symbolic meaning and hope to other groups. When the Communist Party launched a revolt during the government of Getúlio Vargas, they appealed to sailors to rise up as they had done in 1910. In 1959, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul finally offered him a pension in recognition of his role in demanding an end to corporal punishment and the fight for equality during the Revolt of the Whip. And in March 1964, as marines and sailors went on strike to demand the right to vote and run for office, they invited João Cândido to speak. However, he lacked the exuberance of the young sailors, simply claiming that he “didn’t expect to witness another revolt” and suggesting that the sailors were “tempting fate.” His assessment was remarkably prescient, as just one week later, the military, appalled at the sailors’ insubordination and fed up with what it perceived to be the growing “communism” of president João Goulart, launched a coup that ushered in a 21 year military dictatorship. The new conservative governor of Rio Grande do Sul used the opportunity to strip João Cândido of his pension.
João Cândido Felisberto ultimately lived long enough to see Brazil’s military regime enter its most repressive phase. He died in December 1969, at the age of 89 years old, leaving behind his (third) wife and several children. However, even after his death, his status as a symbol of resisting repression and standing up for Afro-Brazilians and the working classes grew. In 2008, nearly 100 years after the Revolt of the Whip, President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva granted a posthumous amnesty to João Cândido and all the other sailors involved in the Revolt of the Whip.
 Quoted in Joseph Love, Revolt of the Whip, p. 112.
For further reading, recommended works are Joseph Love’s The Revolt of the Whip, and Ann M. Schneider’s
PhD dissertation, “Amnestied in Brazil, 1895-1985,” an excellent study that explores the history of amnesties in Brazil and devotes a full chapter to the 1910 amnesty.
For additional reading on the mythic and social significance of the battleship, see The Battleship Book, which includes a chapter on São Paulo.