The Vaccine Revolt

Hamilton Grimaldi's photo


Once as tragedy, once as farce.

“Cursed week, disappear, dive into the great unfathomable abyss of time, where everything is forgotten” (Olavo Bilac).

The purpose of this text is to establish a parallel between the Vaccine Revolt, in its historical and tragic version, which took place in November 1904, during the government of President Rodrigues Alves, and the “vaccine revolt”, in its farcical variant, which has been happening nowadays, in several capitals of the country, enlisted by Bolsonarism, in these dark times of the presidency of Jair M. Bolsonaro.

When making a comparison between the past and the present, involving demonstrations against mandatory vaccination, I came to mind, to contrast the two events, the famous passage by Karl Marx, which can be found in his prestigious work The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“In some passage of his works, Hegel comments that all the great facts and all the great characters in world history are enacted, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.” [1]

The event that went down in history under the name “Vaccine Revolt” was an insurrection that took place between November 10 and 16, 1904, against the compulsory vaccination program, promoted by the government of President Rodrigues Alves, with the aim of in front of the aforementioned program was the General Director of Public Health, the then young public health doctor Oswaldo Cruz.

The Vaccine Revolt must be understood in a broader context, related to a series of “reforms” that were being implemented in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, in those early years of the nascent Republic. Among the aforementioned reforms, two stood out: the urban reform, under the responsibility of Mayor Francisco Pereira Passos and the health reform, under the command of physician Oswaldo Cruz.

Rodrigues Alves had ambitious plans for the country, which would be launched from its Capital, which at the time was not yet a “Wonderful City”. Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the 700th century was a city whose population was between 900 and XNUMX thousand inhabitants and was plagued by serious urban problems, among which the following can be listed: insufficient water and sewage system, tons of garbage in the streets, overcrowded tenements, serious housing problems. Adversities with which we continue to live, more than a century later, in all major Brazilian cities.

However, the way the public administration chose to face these problems, which are actually real and serious, was arbitrary, authoritarian and violent. The reforms were carried out without any consultation or participation of the main stakeholders, who in their overwhelming majority were made up of the most impoverished layers of Rio society. They were undertaken from the top down, aiming at economic interests, which would revert to benefits for the “businesses” of the Carioca elite and would aim to attract foreign capital to the Brazilian capital.

As Oswaldo Porto Rocha says:

“The great urban reform undertaken in Rio de Janeiro reflects the interests and needs of a rising bourgeoisie. The urban layout, the location of factories, the delimitation of spaces, the demolition of collective housing in the name of health and hygiene, and the consequent displacement of the popular layers to the periphery, meet these interests and needs. Intellectual elites, engineers, doctors and sanitarians give scientific support to these actions and the press supports them, in favor of the “modernization and civilization of the city”.[2]

As a result of administrative truculence and repeated arbitrations carried out by the public authorities, the climate became conducive to movements that began to express their displeasure with the measures that were being implemented, among which mandatory vaccination and the demolition of housing. popular, without the government providing for the settlement of its residents in other places.

Unfortunately, after the passage of more than a century, Brazil still remains wallowing in the midst of marked social exclusion and inequality, present in several Brazilian cities, as a result of the neglect of the rulers and Brazilian elites with the fate of its people. And the housing problem in Brazil has changed little after more than a hundred years. Even today, we witness the expulsion of people who occupy idle areas or areas abandoned by their alleged owners in urban spaces. The actions of public power, in this sense, continue to follow the well-known script of arbitrariness and violence. The Judiciary, insensitive to the constitutional command, according to which the property must fulfill its social function, gives them the stamp of legality.

The situation that existed in Rio at the beginning of the XNUMXth century was probably even worse in other regions of the country. Negligence with the health and hygiene problem, due to the appalling conditions of the existing housing, in poor and degraded areas of the city, undoubtedly favored the spread of various diseases, such as tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria , whooping cough, yellow fever, bubonic plague and smallpox, the last three of which were already epidemic in the city. Rio, therefore, was an infected city and enjoyed a considerable bad reputation, including in the international sphere, receiving the epithet of “tomb of foreigners”.

Thus, the Vaccine Revolt, of 1904, is the culmination or apex of a process of dispossession and violence against the poorest sections of the population of Rio de Janeiro and carried out, as we have already said, on two fronts: the urbanistic, guided by real estate greed, with the expulsion of a substantial number of people from the central regions of the city and the sanitary, which provided the perfect pretext for the former to promote the so-called “throw-outs”, inaugurating or giving way to an “era of demolitions” in the city.

As Sérgio Lamarão will say, in the preface to the excellent work of Oswaldo Porto Rocha:

“Industrialization, by requiring the concentration of labor and infrastructure services, increases the housing demand in a city where the housing deficit was already considerable. Main victims of the transformations underway, low-income populations were the target of systematic campaigns by the nascent real estate capital and the public power which, based on the sanitary discourse, aimed to remove the poor from the more central areas that were then experiencing intense appreciation”. [3]

It is also Sérgio Lamarão who warns:

“In fact, the supposed solution to the old problem of unhealthy conditions, aggravated since the 1850s by virulent epidemics, would increase another, equally serious problem: the lack of housing for poor populations. The eradication of these constructions, opening the way for real estate speculation in the central area of ​​Rio, would leave thousands of workers who find a precarious livelihood in the heart of the city to their fate”. [4]

It must be said that speculative real estate capital found a partner and ally in public power, which, in the municipal sphere, was personified in Mayor Pereira Passos.

Nicolau Sevcenko tells us that:

“… Pereira Passos, nominated by Rodrigues Alves to take over as mayor of the Federal District. Knowing the massive extent of the demolitions and the works that he would have to carry out, the unbridled pace at which he would have to implement them, and prefiguring the inevitable popular resistance and reactions, Passos demanded full freedom of action to accept the position, without being subject to legal embarrassment, budgets or materials. Rodrigues Alves then granted him carte blanche through the law of December 29, 1902, which created a new municipal organization statute for the Federal District. The law was equivocal, arbitrary and visibly unconstitutional, attributing tyrannical powers to the mayor and removing any right of defense to the community”. [5]

The Vaccine Revolt, in its tragic manifestation, was the apex of a process of popular discontent, woven with a certain degree of spontaneity, from various authoritarian, violent and exclusionary acts, practiced by the public power of the time, personified in figures such as the president Rodrigues Alves, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Pereira Passos and by the sanitarian Oswaldo Cruz, in the name and benefit of the elites of that time. It was our little Paris Commune or, who knows, Canudos in Rio de Janeiro.

Nicolau Sevcenko undertook an instigating historical and sociological analysis of the 1904 uprising, in a text full of indignation and touching social sensitivity:

“The dead of the Vaccine Revolt were never counted. Nor would it be possible, since many, as we shall see, went to die far from the scene of events. There would be countless, hundreds, thousands, but it is impossible to estimate how many. The police authority, as expected, presented sober and precise numbers, in an attempt to reduce an authentic social rebellion to the caricature of an urban riot: futile, messy, inconsequential. The massacres, however, do not manifest rigor with precision. Do you know how many died in Canudos, in the Contestado or in the Federalist Revolution – only to leave us with the great massacres of the First Republic? Collective killing is directed, as a rule, against an object unified by some abstract pattern that strips the victims of their humanity: a sect, a peculiar community, a political faction, a culture, an ethnic group. Personifying in this circumscribed group all evil and all threats to the order of things, the executioners represent themselves as redemptive heroes, whose relentless energy wards off the threat that weighs on the world. The price to be paid for your bravery is the weight of your dominance. The color of the heroes' flags is the most varied, only the tone of the blood of their victims remains the same throughout history”. [6]

Another important bibliographical reference for understanding the Vaccine Revolt at the beginning of the 1904th century is the book by Sidney Chalhoub “A Cidade Febril – Tenements and epidemics in the imperial court”. In this work, Chalhoub, through research he carried out in documentary sources, in archives and libraries in Brazil and abroad, brings us valuable subsidies for understanding the historical and social context surrounding the XNUMX uprising.

Sidney Chalhoub provides us with historical data from a past scenario of the Vaccine Revolt of 1904, but which is umbilically linked to it. The 1904 Revolt constituted the culmination of a process in which the repressed energies, such as anger, the feeling of injustice, frustration and hatred, abruptly flowed out. Let’s continue with the narrative of what Chalhoub calls “a war operation”:

“It was January 26, 1893, around six o'clock in the afternoon, when a lot of people began to gather in front of the inn at Rua Barão de São Félix, nº 154. It was the entrance to Cabeça de Porco, the most famous tenement in Rio de Janeiro at the time: a large arched doorway, decorated with the figure of a pig's head, behind it was a central corridor and two long wings with more than one hundreds of houses. In addition to this main street, there were some branches with more houses and several stables. There is controversy regarding the number of inhabitants of the inn: it was said that, in golden times, the complex had been occupied by about 4 thousand people; On that January night, with an entire wing of the tenement closed off for nearly a year by the General Hygiene Inspectorate, Gazeta de Notícias estimated the number of residents at four hundred. Other newspapers at the time, however, claimed that 2 people still lived there. In any case, what was announced was a real fight. Three days earlier, the tenement owners had received a subpoena from the Municipal Intendancy to arrange for the eviction of the residents, followed by the immediate demolition of all the houses. The subpoena had not been obeyed, and Mayor Barata Ribeiro promised to destroy the tenement by force. At seven thirty minutes at night, a troop from the XNUMXst Infantry Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Santiago, invaded the inn, prohibiting anyone from entering or leaving. Police cavalry pickets were positioned in the cross streets of Barão de São Félix, and another group of policemen climbed the hill at the back of the inn, closing the circle from the rear. The next day's newspapers were delighted to publish the impressive list of authorities present at the “disappointment” of Cabeça de Porco – as Jornal do Brazil put it. Mayor Barata Ribeiro and the Chief of Police of the Federal Capital personally took charge of the operations; and a large team was present to help them: Dr. Emídio Ribeiro, municipal engineer, Dr. Artur Pacheco, municipal doctor, Dr. Frederico Froes, secretary of the General Hygiene Inspectorate, who appeared accompanied by the inspectorate from the district, plus the parish inspector, public guards, army, navy, police brigade officers, and some intendants (equivalent to current councillors) . Once the police siege of the inn was completed, and the technicians and authorities were positioned, more than one hundred workers from the Municipal Intendency appeared, suitably armed with pickaxes and axes. Entrepreneurs Carlos Sampaio and Vieria Souto, also present at the event, arranged for the attendance of another forty workers from the Empresa de Melhoramentos do Brasil, to help with the destruction work. Finally, a group of firefighters, with their competent hoses, appeared to irrigate the land and houses, thus appeasing the dense clouds of dust that began to rise. Cabeça de Porco – as well as the tenements in downtown Rio in general – was considered by the authorities at the time to be a “valhacouto” of rioters”. Faced with such a repressive apparatus, however, there does not seem to have been any more serious resistance on the part of residents to the occupation of the inn. Anyway, according to the Gazeta de Notícias report, there were some surprises. Efforts were first concentrated on the left wing of the inn, which was supposedly uninhabited for about a year. The workers were starting to roof the houses when children and women came out of some of them carrying furniture, mattresses and everything else they managed to remove in time. Once the demolition of the left wing was completed, the workers began to work on the right wing, in whose small houses there were known to still be residents. Several families refused to leave, retreating when rubble began to rain down on their heads. Women and men who left those “narrow and filthy” rooms went to the authorities to beg them to “let them remain there for 24 hours”. The appeals were useless, and the residents then committed themselves to saving their beds, chairs and other objects of use. According to the Gazeta, however, “many pieces of furniture were not removed in time and were left under rubble”. The demolition work continued into the early morning, always accompanied by Mayor Barata. The next morning, the famous Cabeça de Porco inn no longer existed. The fate of the evicted residents is ignored, but Lilian Fessler Vaz, author of the best and most complete study on the history of tenements in Rio, recently raised a very plausible hypothesis. Mayor Barata, in a magnanimous burst of generosity, ordered “to provide the poor people who inhabited that enclosure with the removal of wood that could be used” in other constructions. Possessing the material to build at least precarious houses, some residents must have climbed the hill that existed right behind the inn. A stretch of said hill already seemed to be occupied by hovels, and at least one of the owners of Cabeça de Porco owned lots on those slopes, thus being able to even keep some of her tenants. A few years later, in 1897, it was precisely in this place that, with the due authorization of the military leaders, the soldiers from the Canudos campaign settled down. The place then came to be called “Morro da Favela”. The destruction of Cabeça de Porco marked the beginning of the end of an era, as it dramatized, like no other event, the ongoing process of eradicating Rio's tenements. In the days that followed, the mayor of the Federal Capital was warmly acclaimed by the press – by sweeping that “dirt” off the map, he had rendered “unforgettable services” to the city. In effect, this is something unforgettable: the end of the tenement era was not even announced, and the city of Rio was already entering the century of the favelas. The repercussions of the destruction of the famous tenement in the mainstream press of the period were a spectacle in their own right. [7]

This long quote, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary for us to have an idea of ​​the degree of violence, insensitivity and disgusting selfishness that permeated the entire elite of Rio de Janeiro at the time, represented by the abject presence of the “authorities”, duly named, in the moving narrative of Chalhoub, which fills us with an exasperating feeling that we are witnessing, in historical retrospect, a great and unforgettable iniquity. A whole heinous staff at the service of capital was present in this act of contemptible memory: the entire public administration, our “prestigious” army, which never lacks in the fight against its own people, businessmen, famous representatives of “progress” and the press , which, in the words of Isaias Caminha, character of the great Lima Barreto, is a gang at the service of the powerful of the moment: “The Press, what a gang”!

Among the powers of repression against the revolting population, the ignoble role played by the Brazilian army deserves to be highlighted, responsible, sometimes for the massacre that followed the Revolt, sometimes in the form of ostentatious intimidation of the rebels.

“Rio de Janeiro was surrounded at dawn on November 15, 1904. Ships of the Brazilian Navy were spread out along the coast, with their artillery turned towards the city. Three torpedo boats took over the Botafogo bay to ensure order in the immediate area. In Flamengo is the battleship Deodoro, which the day before hit Urca stone with two cannon shots to show its firepower. Close to the port, in the Saúde region, the tug Dezenove de Fevereiro was maneuvering, accompanied by two speedboats full of weapons. The entire coastline was guarded by military vessels filled with sailors with carbines and machine guns. On land, soldiers from the Navy corps were sent with heavy weapons to take over posts close to the coast, such as Gamboa and Cais Pharoux. On the day when the fifth anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic was celebrated, the military forces turned against the country's capital, by direct order of the President of the Republic and his ministers”.

As I have already said, the Brazilian army has an ancestral reputation for attacks against its own people, in complete abandonment of its institutional mission. Today, under Bolsonaro's misrule, there is talk of more than 10 military personnel usurping positions, functions and posts intended for civilians. Generals, retired or not, bask, intoxicated, in power and for power. Can we sleep in peace!!!???

The tenements, and the people who inhabited them since the second half of the XNUMXth century, were seen in a derogatory way and provoked fear and disgust to the ruling classes since the Imperial River, as Chalhoub tells us:

“The slums supposedly generated and nourished “the poison” that caused black vomit. It was necessary, it was said, to intervene radically in the city to eliminate such collective housing and remove the “dangerous classes” that resided in them from the center of the capital. Doubly dangerous classes, because they propagated the disease and challenged the policies of social control in the urban environment”. [8]

Eleven years after the events narrated by Chalhoub, which resulted in the barbaric and tyrannical demolition of the Cabeça de Porco tenement, Rio will again witness, in 1904, scenes very similar to that disastrous episode, in which the deepest disrespect for housing rights is renewed. , to the dignity and life of the poor population, which, however, will generate an unexpected popular reaction.

The trigger that triggered the popular revolt was the result of a “scoop”, published in the newspaper “A Notícia”, on November 9, 1904. of the Mandatory Smallpox Vaccine Law, published without the express consent of the authorities, having been prepared and written by Oswaldo Cruz. The law, not regulated, was approved on October 31.

As Nicolau Sevcenko describes: “The terms were extremely rigid, ranging from newborns to the elderly, imposing vaccinations, exams and reexaminations on them, threatening them with heavy fines and summary dismissals, limiting opportunities for appeals, defenses and omissions. The aim was a massive, swift, hassle-free, lightning-fast campaign: the widest success, in the shortest possible time. The psychological preparation of the population was not considered, from which only unconditional submission was required. This political and technocratic insensitivity was fatal for the mandatory vaccine law”. [9]

Thus, contrary to the passivity that occurred in the demolition of Cabeça de Porco, confused and revolted, the population took to the streets, transforming the city center into a veritable war square, where prisoners, dead and wounded numbered in the hundreds. or by the thousands, it is not possible to know for sure, as Sevcenko claims. The clashes between the police and the rebels occupied the pages of the main newspapers of the time, which were divided between favorable and contrary to the bill, bringing the opinions of intellectuals, politicians and, a tradition at the time, numerous cartoons about the events.

“The people, enraged, take to the streets and, for a week, face the police, the Army, the Navy and the Fire Department. The unrest began on November 10, with large gatherings in the center of the city. The police reacted to gunfire and cavalry action. Barricades and fighting turned the neighborhoods of Gamboa and Saúde into a war zone. The cadets at Praia Vermelha rose up, the unions marched alongside the people. Balance: according to some, 30 dead, more than a hundred wounded, almost a thousand arrested – half of them deported to Acre, and seven foreigners banished from the country; according to others, hundreds and perhaps thousands of dead.

Despite statistical differences, it is known that the Vaccine Revolt was the biggest riot in the history of Rio de Janeiro. Due to the violence it involved, some historians consider it to be of the same importance in urban space as the war in Canudos and the Contestado revolt in rural areas. It can be considered “one of the most important popular protest movements” during the first republican phase or “the popular uprising, the most indomitable that the capital of the Republic had ever staged”. [10]

A sociological abyss stands between the rebels of 1904 and the insurgent stults of these disastrous Bolsonarist times. The vaccine revolt, in its historical and tragic aspect, had strong roots in the social injustice then in force and still existing today, expressed in the retail of popular discontent, the result of innumerable acts of authoritarianism, social exclusion, prejudices and state violence, in the legislative fields , administrative and police. It was the expression, amalgamated and condensed, of the Brazilian social microcosm, of secular social exclusion, forming a sad synthesis of centuries of exploitation, structural inequality, ancestral slavery, elitism, selfishness and complete disdain and contempt for the fate of the popular layers of Brazilian society. .

The vaccine revolt, born in the heart of the Bolsonarist ranks, is, given its historical background, a burlesque, crude and snorting farce, commanded by stooges and fascists, fed by dense layers of lies, distortions and hoaxes.

Bolsonarism is farcical and grotesque, banal and reactionary, stupid and foolish. It was constituted in the midst of lies, hoaxes, misrepresentations and deceit, contrary to Brazilian factual and social reality.

Therefore, the protagonists of the unhappy revolt of the beginning of the XNUMXth century and our contemporaries who defile the green and yellow, nowadays, differ in an abyssal and antagonistic way. In the first case, there are the popular classes, the disinherited of life, the dispossessed and the victims of an exclusionary and elitist system. The second group is formed, fundamentally, by a stupidized middle class, endowed with a slave-owning mentality, linked to a bunch of privileges, which they fear to see contested and threatened by inclusive public policies, towards social equality. They are the maneuvering mass of the interests of the dominant elites. It is formed, structurally, based on prejudices, ignorance and reactionaryism. It has an authoritarian and proto-fascist bias in its petty bourgeois essence.

*Carlos Eduardo Araujo Master in Theory of Law from PUC-MG.


[1] Karl Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Boitime, 2011.

[2] Oswaldo Porto Rocha. The Era of Demolitions – The City of Rio de Janeiro – 1870-1920. Rio de Janeiro's city hall. Carioca Library Collection, 2nd edition, 1995.

[3] Oswaldo Porto Rocha. The Era of Demolitions – The City of Rio de Janeiro – 1870-1920. Rio de Janeiro's city hall. Carioca Library Collection, 2nd edition, 1995.

[4] Oswaldo Porto Rocha. The Era of Demolitions – The City of Rio de Janeiro – 1870-1920. Rio de Janeiro's city hall. Carioca Library Collection, 2nd edition, 1995.

[5] Nicholas Sevcenko. The Vaccine Revolt. Cosac Naify, 2010.

[6] Nicholas Sevcenko. The Vaccine Revolt. Cosac Naify, 2010.

[7] Sidney Chalhoub. Febrile City – Tenements and epidemics in the imperial court. Company of Letters, 1996.

[8] Sidney Chalhoub. Febrile City – Tenements and epidemics in the imperial court. Company of Letters, 1996.

[9] Nicholas Sevcenko. The Vaccine Revolt. Cosac Naify, 2010.

[10] 1904 – Vaccine Revolt. Rio's Greatest Battle. City Hall of Rio de Janeiro. The Secretariat, 2006. (C

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