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When São Paulo became a battlefield

The Tenentes rebellion of 1924

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The election campaign for São Paulo’s Mayor is now underway, but 100 years ago a different kind of battle shook the city. Then junior military officers attempted to change the government of Brazil, and ended up fighting a 23 day battle, the most destructive urban combat in Brazil’s history. Now largely forgotten, Malcolm Boorer looks back at what happened, and its legacy.

In the early morning of 5 July 1924 a conspiracy of army deserters and serving officers started a revolt. They were part of a wider movement of mostly junior army officers, later known as tenentes, opposed to what they saw as a corrupt government. After a failure two years earlier, they spent months planning for this rebellion, in which they intended to quickly take control of São Paulo city, march on the capital Rio and depose the government they despised.

Film about the Revolt, by Malcolm Boorer.

By that time the city had grown to around 700,000 inhabitants, attracting industry and migrants. For those planning rebellion it experienced less surveillance and repression than the capital Rio, and it had a well armed state-controlled Public Force, which might join the conspiracy.

Rua Vautier: No 27 was a place when the insurrection was planned. Two army deserters left there on the morning of 5 July to win over military garrisons.

The rebels soon had several thousand troops under their control, but their plans were rapidly disrupted. Quick thinking by army officers loyal to the federal government and a few mistakes, like failing to cut telegraph links, meant they were soon bogged down in urban combat. For the first few days of the uprising both sides fought for control of buildings and streets in the city centre, at times using artillery, and with hotels used as observation points.

Finding that they could make little progress and failing to take a key objective, the São Paulo State Governor’s Palace, the rebels decided to negotiate a surrender, only to find that the Governor had fled. The thousands-strong rebel army was now left in control of much of the city centre, but they were surrounded and outnumbered by troops loyal to the national government.

Government troops defending the Governors Palace. The building now houses the Museum of Favales 2024. Photo: Archive of the Energy and Sanitation Institute

Confined to the city centre, the rebels were faced with controlling streets where some looting had already occurred. Rebel leaders started working with the City Mayor and some representatives of the business community, who had not fled. They would set up a Municipal Guard and a Supply Commission, and establish a list of official prices.

Looting of a warehouse, something the rebels did not expect to have to deal with. Photo: Archive of the Energy and Sanitation Institute

In an attempt to win hearts and minds, the rebels published their first manifesto, declaring that a key objective of their revolution was ‘the replacement of the current government of the Republic, as its leaders and advisors understand that this government is not capable of fulfilling the country’s destiny’. It also reminded the population of the Army’s commitment to enforce the Constitution and said that this justified this ‘gesture’ of the military class. Over the next 18 days the gesture would be severely tested.

Federal government troops occupied strategic points around the city, using artillery indiscriminately, with little effort to target military objectives. Casualties, mostly civilian, mounted and hospitals were soon overwhelmed. Totals of 500 killed, 4,800 injured and 20,000 homeless were reported, most likely an under-estimate. The Mayor later reported that around 42,000 people were given temporary shelter.

Government artillery based at Ipiranga, on the outskirts of the city centre (part of an exhibition at a local metro station)

Though primarily a military conspiracy, the rebels had established some links with political groups such as the anarchists, and they would receive requests to arm civilians as ‘popular battalions’. Some rebels were in favour of this, but their commander would not agree. This suggests a concern for military hierarchy rather than revolutionary change. Eventually around 700 civilians, mostly veterans of the first world war, were brought under rebel command, organised as German, Italian and Hungarian battalions.

Some newspapers continued to record daily life in the city, including the high number of civilian casualties. Left-wing organizations managed to distribute publications, one of which claimed that the working class of the city fully supported the revolt. Some civilians, like railway workers, provided practical support, but most of the population were concerned about survival, with around 250,000 people abandoning the city for the interior.

O Estado de S.Paulo, 16 July 2024

The first rebel manifesto suggested that the movement had a national character but the simultaneous action it expected in other states did not materialize. Some weeks later in Aracaju and even later in Manaus rebel officers took control of these cities, only to be isolated and eventually defeated by loyal federal government forces.

Isolated in São Paulo, the rebels were gradually forced back, amidst widespread destruction of the central city and industrial areas by government artillery. Trenches and barricades appeared as defences all over the city, around 300 according to later reports.

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The revolt was extensively photographed and some photos were made into postcards (from a book about Conflict in Brazil produced by the Moreira Salles Institute)

In this heavily populated urban area both sides tried military innovation. The rebels built armoured vehicles and trains, and at the end of July the government deployed tanks in the eastern part of the city. Both sides used planes, the government to bomb the city, the rebels for reconnaissance and an unsuccessful attempt to bomb and leaflet Rio.

While the fighting continued the rebels issued two more manifestos. On 17 July the second stated that it was the time for the army to ‘perform a high and sacred duty: the duty to sponsor the rights of the people, taking up arms to restore the rule of law, limiting the authority of the Executive’. Progressing from the purely military objectives of two years earlier the tenentes were now developing policies about the separation of powers. A final manifesto went further, proposing a secret ballot, free justice system and public education.

The government had no interest in discussing political change. Despite attempts to mediate, and pleas to limit the destruction, it remained intransigent. One reply pointed out that ‘The material damage from a bombing can be easily repaired, especially when it affects a city served by the fruitful activity of an industrious people. But moral damages are not susceptible to repair.’

Destruction at the Crespi Cotton Factory, a major employer before and after the revolt. Photo: Archive of the Energy and Sanitation Institute

Eventually the rebels decided to leave the city while an escape route remained open. On the morning of 28 July the government discovered that rebel army and its equipment had left the city,

The rebels failed in their aim of deposing the government, or forcing it to meet their demands. The State Governor returned to his Palace and to a devastated city. After 23 days of fighting one newspaper reported hundreds of dead bodies left in the streets.

After re-gaining control of the city the government sought retribution, arresting thousands of suspected collaborators, mostly civilians. Hundreds were accused of trying to change the Constitution by violence, and eventually 176 were convicted. The City Mayor was put on trial but successfully defended himself, and served out his term of office.

Across Brazil, and especially in the capital Rio, repression increased dramatically, with hundreds of political prisoners sent to a camps and prison ships. By the end of 1924 DOPS (the Department of Political and Social Order) was established in São Paulo, to be used by repressive governments until the 1980s.

The well armed rebel army escaped intact and was able to avoid defeat by government forces as they retreated through São Paulo state. Later they joined up with other rebels from the south to form the Prestes Column, which after more than two years marching around Brazil also avoided military defeat but failed to depose the government, though it did help to keep opposition alive.

Change would come later with the 1930 revolution. This included another military uprising, with key roles played by São Paulo rebels, joined this time by some of the loyal officers who had earlier fought against them. This time the military high command sided with the rebels, ending the old order and bringing Getulio Vargas to power.

Though willing to take action against governments in the 1920s, the tenentes lacked an organized political base. By 1930 many were exiles, fugitives or prisoners, but this ended as Vargas came to power. Many supported Vargas, and tenente groups developed political proposals in the early 1930s, only to loose influence as Vargas consolidated power. Key support for an increasingly dictatorial Vargas came from formerly loyal officers, plus one São Paulo rebel who had a feared role in his repressive secret police.

The take over of São Paulo’s Public Force started here. Now used by the Military Police, the Luz barracks became the Headquarters of the Rebel Army

Many tenentes were brought back into the military, often with promotions, where they would work with previously loyal officers in creating an army that would continue to see itself as a guardian of the republic, and of law and order. It would also avoid further revolts from within its ranks. The well armed Public Forces, under State not Federal control in the 1920s, and which played a crucial part in the São Paulo revolt, have evolved into today’s Military Police, very much under Federal and Army control. Most of the military buildings that featured in the 1924 revolt are still used by the army or police.

São Paulo rebels would occupy a variety of military and political positions in the 1930s and beyond. In the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolt (of São Paulo against the Federal Government,) two senior ex-rebels would fight on different sides. Other rebels from 1924 would later become Minister of Defence and Senate President respectively. Two would go on to be Ministers in the 1960s dictatorship.

Rebel leader Miguel Costa is remembered at the Cavalry Regiment today. With key roles in the Prestes Column and the 1930 revolution he was later arrested when Vargas acted against opposition.

Though the 1924 revolt was the most violent conflict in any Brazilian city, there are very few reminders today. It is much less remembered than the later 1932 revolt, which is now recognised with a State holiday. 100 years later I could find no public monument to the 1924 revolt, though it is mentioned in exhibitions at several museums.

In 1924 the São Paulo City Mayor tried to maintain public order and limit the violence. One hundred years later the battle is for the Mayoral election due in October. According to polls, the front runners are Ricardo Nunes and Guillermo Boulos. Current Mayor Nunes, focussing on infrastructure and continuity, is supported by former President Bolsonaro, sympathetic to the military tradition. Boulos, keen on social reforms, has a very different background. He has worked with the MTST, or homeless workers movement, This movement has organized protests and occupations in many cities in Brazil, including São Paulo, seeking more fundamental changes than those attempted by the tenentes 100 years before.

MTST protest in Avenida Paulista. In July 1924 rebel barricades were constructed in this part of the city.