João Cândido and the Revolt of the Whip

(Pharoux Pier and D. Pedro II Square, current XV de Novembro Square, 1890, Photography by Marc Ferrez/Gilberto Ferrez Collection, IMS Collection). [i]


In the current context, in which there is so much discussion about State reparations for the black population, the name of João Cândido cannot be forgotten

Rio de Janeiro, night of November 22, 1910. When the recently inaugurated President of Brazil Hermes da Fonseca was calmly watching a Wagner opera at the sumptuous Clube da Tijuca, around two thousand sailors mutinied in Guanabara Bay and seized four warships (the Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Bahia and Deodoro).

Under the command of the black sailor João Cândido Felisberto, the mutineers aimed the ships' cannons at strategic points in the then Federal Capital, shouting “long live freedom” and demanding, in a statement sent to the President of the Republic, the reform of the Disciplinary Code, the abolition the whip (an object that was used to punish enslaved black people), the spanking and other corporal punishments; the replacement of authoritarian superiors, the increase in wages and better working conditions (hours, food, etc.), qualification and education of sailors.

Without the strength to control what became known as the Whip Revolt, Marshal Hermes da Fonseca and the Brazilian Parliament gave in to demands regarding physical punishment. They quickly approved a project decreeing an end to floggings and granting amnesty to the mutineers. Four days later, they laid down their arms. A rare fact in the history of Brazil, a popular revolt had emerged victorious. Not for long.

As the Government did not swallow the audacity of those sailors – coming from the small stingray, mostly black, brown, poor, northeastern and northern –, it deliberately provoked, on December 9, an uprising in the Naval Battalion, on Cobras Island. Once again, the cries of “long live freedom” were heard, but were soon silenced by draconian repression. Many were killed, many others arrested, persecuted or extradited.

On Christmas night, 97 prisoners were boarded on the ship Satélite, bound for the Amazon, where they would be subjected to forced labor in the extraction of rubber. In the middle of the journey, seven of them were shot, while two threw themselves into the sea, drowning. João Cândido – the “black man who violated the History of Brazil”, as Sergipe writer Gilberto Amado declared at the time – was imprisoned, along with 17 other sailors, in a dungeon on Ilha das Cobras.

In degrading conditions, 15 died of asphyxiation there, a few days later. João Cândido, one of the survivors, was admitted to an asylum, where doctors denied that he was crazy. Tried by a military court in November 1912, he was acquitted, but did not escape expulsion from the Navy.

For those who want to know more about this important episode of the young Brazilian Republic, it is worth reading the book by journalist Edmar Morel, The Whip Revolt, from 1959. Although somewhat schematic, the work gives the revolt its name (because, until then, it was not called that) and presents a good informative repertoire. For those who want to know updated interpretations about the episode and its consequences, we recommend reading the books by Álvaro Pereira do Nascimento, Citizenship, color and discipline in the sailors' revolt of 1910, published in 2008; and Silvia Capanema, João Cândido and the black sailors: the revolt of the whip and the second abolition, published in 2022.

More than triggering the end of the whips, the sailors' movement would have catalyzed, for Álvaro Nascimento, the sedimentation of a new political culture or, according to Silvia Capanema, it would have boosted the agenda of a second Abolition.

After being banned from the Navy, João Cândido was ostracized. Living in precarious conditions in São João de Meriti, in Baixada Fluminense, and earning a living as a modest fish seller in the Praça XV market, he was “rediscovered” in the late 1950s by Edmar Morel, who sought to give him a “place in history". In the following decade, in the midst of the “leader years”, the “hero of the rabble”, as Edmar Morel defined him, gave a statement to the Museum of Image and Sound.

It was in this testimony – published in book form, João Cândido: the black admiral, from 1999 – which he revealed: the sailor revolt “was born by the sailors themselves to combat mistreatment and poor nutrition and definitively put an end to lashes in the Navy. We who came from Europe, in contact with other navies, could not admit that in the Brazilian Navy a man still took off his shirt to be whipped by another man”.

In 1969, a year after giving this testimony, João Cândido died, aged 89. From the period of his “rediscovery” to the present day, he was elevated from a sailor to the position of “Black Admiral” and became a symbol of resistance and the fight for democracy, social justice and racial equality, having been appropriated by left-wing parties, unions, student organizations, black entities and popular movements, as well as being (re)signified in various artistic-cultural productions.

In 1973, Aldir Blanc and João Bosco composed a song in honor of João Cândido. The original title was “Almirante Negro”, but, due to censorship by the dictatorship, it had to be changed to “O Mestre Sala dos Mares”. It didn't help. Recorded by Elis Regina in 1974, the song was a huge success and popularized the nickname of the original title. In 2000, writer Moacir Costa Lopes published the novel The Black Admiral: Revolt of the Whip, revenge. Two years later, it was the turn of the Popular Theater group União and Olho Vivo to take the show to the stage at the Centro Cultural São Paulo (CCSP). João Cândido do Brasil – the Revolt of the Whip.

In 2004, the Roberto Marinho Foundation debuted the project “A Cor da Cultura”, which produced the audiovisual series Heroes from Around the World, portraying Afro-Brazilian personalities who stood out in the history of Brazil. One of the “heroes” honored was João Cândido. In 2005, the award-winning short film was released Memories of the Whip, directed by filmmaker Marcos Manhães Marins and based on the story and memory of “Almirante Negro”.

One semester shy of completing 114 years, the sailors' uprising – which could be remembered as a chapter in the protagonism of subalterns in the post-abolition period, but also as a collective action sui generis, which revealed a black and popular icon –, returned to the news, due to the letter that Admiral Marcos Sampaio Olsen sent to the Culture Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, asking Brazilian parliamentarians not to approve Bill No. 4046/2021, which inscribes the name of João Cândido in the Book of Heroes and Heroines of the Fatherland. The Navy commander calls the sailors “abject sailors”, who broke the hierarchy in the Navy to demand “corporate and illegitimate advantages”.

The letter provoked reactions from politicians, intellectuals, journalists and representatives of social movements, especially the black movement. After all, when the sailors rose up, only 22 years had passed since the end of captivity. What the movement denounced in several aspects was related to the oppression and violence imposed on Africans and their descendants during more than three centuries of slavery.

The sailors – mostly black and brown, many children and descendants of enslaved people, like João Cândido – evoked freedom, putting an end to abuse and the whip (symbol of captivity) in the Navy. Instead of serving officers, they demanded to be treated like sailors and Brazilian and republican citizens.

Ultimately, the sailors' insurgency of 1910 was a mobilization for human rights, citizenship and anti-racism. If Brazil was the last country in the West to suppress slavery, the Brazilian Navy was the last Navy to abolish corporal punishment from the disciplinary code. And this only happened because of the sailors' revolt. Therefore, it was not a question of demanding “corporate and illegitimate advantages”. Rather, it consisted of a fight for rights, equality and dignity. The whip was abject, just as it seems to us that the Navy was abject, as it practiced the legacy of slavery.

João Cândido – who led the sailors' insurgency, which is why he was arrested, tortured and persecuted by that military corporation during his life and even after his death – is one of the greatest injustices of the Brazilian Republic. In the current context, in which there is so much discussion about State reparations for the black population, João Cândido's name cannot be forgotten.

More than becoming recognized as a hero of the Fatherland, he needs to receive a new political amnesty, be reincorporated into the Navy (even if post-mortem) and his family receive financial and symbolic compensation for the damages and losses – related to class authoritarianism, slave inheritance and the violation of human rights – that devastated the life of the “Black Admiral”.

*Petrônio Domingues He is a professor of history at the Federal University of Sergipe (UFS). Author, among other books, of Black protagonism in São Paulo (Sesc Editions). []

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