“Anything can happen on Rio’s beaches.” So say the tourist guides. This is the story of two dozen men who walked down Copacabana beach to fight two thousand. But first we need a Topology of the Battlefield. You sit near the southern end of Copacabana beach facing landward, with the Atlantic Ocean at your back.
In front of you is Avenida Atlântica; about three blocks farther in front, the 200-meter hill of Cantagalo. A few blocks to your left the beach ends where the Point of Copacabana stretches out into the ocean, blocking your view of Ipanema beach on the other side. On this Point sits the present Fort of Copacabana – a two broad, low white buildings with red tile roofs.
The green and yellow Brazilian flag is usually flying in the space between the buildings, although a gigantic two-story Coca Cola bottle once sat here for some time, despite many complaints. Everyone asked who got a bribe to allow Coke to use this dignified space.
Near the fort, the beach runs north-south but it bends to the right like a bow, until, more than three kilometers away, it is running almost east-west where it ends in the Point of Leme. You can see here the 130 meter hill of Leme, dark green forested on top, white as sand near where the surf beats against it, except one side is slate gray rock. About a kilometer to the right, near the entrance to Guanabara Bay, is the Island of Contunduba, of a similar appearance but with a much smaller hill.
The neighborhood of Copacabana is platted in accordance with the whims of nature, not the logic of man. Hills, too steep to build on, extend almost to the ocean. At one point there are only two streets, Atlântica and Copacabana avenues, between the ocean and the hills. At other places the hills retreat a couple of kilometers, and here tunnels have been hewn.
Two tunnels have long connected Copacabana to downtown Rio, known as Centro, about seven kilometers north. The New Tunnel is at the northern edge of Copacabana, near Leme. The Old Tunnel, to the south, is about two kilometers from the Fort of Copacabana. Siqueira Campos Street begins at the beach and ends at the Old Tunnel.
About two dozen men wearing uniforms of the Brazilian Army and carrying rifles stand near the Fort of Copacabana talking to a group of civilians. One of the civilians, a tall cadaverous man in coat and tie, steps forward. “I am with you, come what may,” he says. A soldier armed with pistol and rifle hands his rifle to the civilian. A young first lieutenant removes a green and yellow piece of cloth from his breast pocket and gives it to the volunteer, who places it in the pocket over his heart.
Then, led by the lieutenant, whose name is Siqueira Campos, the men begin to march up Avenida Atlântica. Opposing them are ships at sea, seaplanes, battalions of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, on the hills, in the Old Tunnel, at the Fort of Leme, and ranged around Barroso St. (now known as Siqueira Campos St.) – in sum about 2000 men. Death is sweeping up Copacabana beach.
The doomed march took place in 1922, in an uprising that became know as the Fifth of July Revolt. These young soldiers were in rebellion against the government of Brazil, where a new President had just been elected but not yet taken power. Why would 25 men hurl themselves against 2000 loyalists?
A Mysterious Letter
The soldiers were rebelling because Epitácio Pessoa, the President of Brazil, had publicly humiliated and imprisoned Marshal Hermes da Fonseca, Head of the Army. They were determined that the President-Elect, Artur Bernardes, should not assume the presidency. The rebel officers were members of the Military Club, an influential association of mostly young men virulently anti-Bernardes. Hermes, himself a former President of Brazil, was the honored head of the Military Club.
What provoked this hostility between civilian authorities and the military? It started with a strange letter that came to light some nine months before the Revolt.
On October 9, 1921, the letter mysteriously surfaced in O Correio da Manhã, the major newspaper of Rio. It was supposedly written by Bernardes, then Governor of Minas Gerais and a leading contender in the 1922 elections for President of the Republic. The letter, addressed to a political ally of Bernardes, complained of a banquet given by the Military Club. We have translated it below, but could not reproduce the malapropisms and errors of grammar and spelling:
I am informed of the ridiculous and offensive banquet given by Hermes, this disrespectful Big Sergeant, to his underlings, and everything that went on at this orgy. I hope that you act with all energy, in accordance with my last instructions, given that this rabble needs to be reprimanded in order to learn discipline. See that Epitácio shows now his vaunted energy, punishing severely those insolent men, arresting all who break discipline, banishing to distant parts these anarchic generals. If through fear Epitácio does not attend to this matter, use diplomacy and we will adjust scores … . This situation does not admit delay; those that be corrupt, almost the totality, bribe them all … .
The Military was not pleased with this letter.
The public was also thrown into commotion by its publication. Though Governor Bernardes vehemently denied writing it, the Military Club issued a manifesto to the Nation:
… either Your Excellency [Bernardes] had good reason to label us ‘corrupt rabble,’ or you have needlessly affronted the Army. Assuming the former, the Army ought to be dissolved … in the second case, the Army cannot accept that Your Excellency become President of the Republic.
The day after the manifesto, Correio da Manhã published another letter ascribed to Bernardes, this time adding photographs of the documents, indicating the signature of Bernardes and the seal of his office. The dossier was born and would grow.
The Military Club appointed a special Commission to investigate. With the Club hinting mutiny, one would expect the Republic to open its own investigation of the letters. But only the Military Club Commission made an official inquiry. The Commission designated several lawyers, jurists, and government bureaucrats to oversee the probe. Governor Bernardes was allowed to appoint representatives.
The newspaper in which the letters appeared was also allowed a spokesman to the Commission. Correio da Manhã was one of the great newspapers of twentieth century Brazil. Founded in 1901 by Edmundo Bittencourt, “The Tiger,” it was as combative as its founder, and became famous for opposing almost all the Brazilian Presidents until its demise in 1974. We note that The Tiger and Bernardes had quarreled. It was an old feud between politically powerful men, a matter of Bittencourt wanting Bernardes to support his candidate for some office, and Bernardes neglecting to do so.
The Commission asked Edmundo Bittencourt to turn over all evidence relating to the dossier. But after affirming his total confidence in the Commission, he begged off providing the evidence.
Naturally Bernardes’ allies on the Commission wished to find the dossier a fraud and everybody else wanted to come to the opposite conclusion. The factions inevitably quarreled. Bittencourt’s representative, General Villeroy, presented a report:
[It is] clear and beyond sophistical arguments [that the letters were written by] Bernardes, that shameless squanderer of public coffers … Republicans! How long will we suffer such ignominy and abjection! Unite, the hour has arrived when we will make justice implacable!
But on the 13th of December the Bernardes bloc declared the letters to be fake, the work of a skillful copyist. Opposing Commission members threatened to resign. On the 15th the Commission ruled that the Bernardes representatives could not actively participate, but must limit themselves to observation. Dismayed by this flagrant and arbitrary change of the rules, even some the appointees of the Military Club resigned.
Bernardes’ allies continued to besiege the Commission, protesting the confused nature of the investigation and lack of impartiality. But it didn’t matter. On December 28, at an extraordinary meeting of the Military Club, with 690 members in attendance, Admiral Silvado, the head of the Commission, took the floor to thunderous applause. According to the minutes of this meeting, he
… produced a vibrant discourse in which he pointed out the nobility of the sentiments of the military class, which ought to be more than ever united in the community of ideas, in defense of honor, of brio, of dignity, always untouchable in the life of the nation.
The Admiral gave place to a functionary who read a report on the formation and activities of the Commission. Then taking the floor once more, Silvado read the entire report of the Commission,
… that was heard in complete and solemn silence, until abruptly broken by a grand ovation, hands, and acclamations when the Admiral concluded by attesting to the authenticity of the letters so offensive to the brio of the armed classes.
The meeting terminated with a motion stating that, though the Commission had found the letters authentic, the Club did not have the legal authority to revenge insults to the Army. Therefore, “We resolve to deliver the case to the judgment of the Nation.” Bernardes would be on the ballot for President of the Republic in two months. Those who signed the motion must have hoped the dossier scandal would lead to his defeat. Thus ended all official investigation.
On the same day, however, Edmundo Bittencourt embarked for Europe, seeking more illustrious handwriting experts. Soon Correio da Manhã published a telegram from Bittencourt in Paris: according to the world famous French handwriting expert, Locard, “In all evidence and all certitude, the two letters are authentic.”
The Bernardes men sent an agent to Europe who learned that Locard had given his opinion for a consideration of 30,000 francs. Soon Bernardes partisans announced that the world-famed Italian expert Ottolenghi had produced a minute and detailed study showing the dossier a fraud. Before long the world-famed Bischoff of Switzerland also arrived at this conclusion.
Public opinion polls did not exist in those days, but the people were surely confused. “Won’t we all end up in a lunatic asylum still discussing this shabbiness!” a Bernardes confederate moaned.
It dawned on some that the technical judgments of handwriting experts would not settle the question. People began to ask how the letters turned up at Correio da Manhã in the first place.
It was revealed that a certain Oldemar had tried to deliver them to the newspaper’s editor. But since Edmund Bittencourt was on vacation at the time, he had to leave them with the acting editor. Oldemar himself decamped for Europe on the same day he turned over the letters. The acting editor later said he wanted the letters to be checked for authenticity before being published. But he left for vacation the next day, and the first letter was immediately published.
But now the elections were at hand. On 1 March 1922, Bernardes won, with 60% of the votes. Indications that the letters were fraudulent were appearing right and left. (We have omitted many to avoid wearying the reader.) But so great was the animus of the Army against Bernardes that some dreaded his assumption of power, scheduled for November 15.
On 1 May, at a meeting in the President’s Palace, in the neighborhood of Catete, President Epitácio Pessoa predicted that if Bernardes took power “he will not last twenty-four hours in Catete,” because he would be deposed by the Army, whose officer corps was 90% anti-Bernardes. Pessoa suggested Bernardes renounce the Presidency. Bernardes refused.
On May 24, 1922 what should have been the final act of the whole dossier comedy was staged. Oldemar, the man who provided the letters to Correio da Manhã, together with an accomplice named Jacinto, met in the presence of qualified witnesses – a notary public, a jurist, and other persons of standing in the community. Oldemar and Jacinto delivered various documents that proved the falsity of the letters. Jacinto showed his “singular capacities” by forging the signature of every member of the Military Club Commission.
It was revealed that Oldemar had visited the official press of Minas Gerais, and there pilfered stationary embossed with the Governor’s seal. He had laid hands on the signature of Bernardes from an order signed by him. Oldemar had tried to sell the letters to both Hermes supporters and Bernardes supporters, finally turning them over to Bittencourt. The notary executed a document attesting to the facts demonstrated, and everyone in attendance signed it. Soon after Oldemar fled to Europe.
So the dodgy dossier was dead, but one dying spasm remained. Jacinto had been imprisoned in 1919 partly through the authority of Bernardes, and had evidently hated him ever since. On 2 July 1922 he came forward to recant the deposition he had just made, in a long and detailed article published in Correio da Manhã. Nobody paid much attention, because events were moving to a denouement. The Fifth of July Revolt was only three days away. But now we must go back to relate some things that happened while we were following the dossier debacle.
The Arrest of Marshal Hermes da Fonseca
The stance the Military Club took with respect to the dossier caused friction between the armed forces and President Epitácio Pessoa, a political ally of Bernardes. We have seen that Epitácio tried to placate the military by asking Bernardes to step down. When he refused the President began to move officers he feared far from Rio and appoint only officers he trusted to influential positions. These actions further alienated the martial establishment.
But the fatal shock to his relations with the military came as the result of an old political feud. Epitácio and his family had for a long time been struggling for power in Pernambuco with the political boss of that Brazilian state. The President evidently was not above using soldiers of the Republic against his rival. Federal troops were implicated in the death of an innocent civilian, a dentist, who was gunned down in his automobile in a case of mistake identity.
The military was aghast at this use of their colleagues. Marshall Hermes, at the urgings of the Military Club, sent the commander of the federal troops in Pernambuco a telegram that read in part:
The Military Club is saddened with the anguished situation encountered in the State of Pernambuco that relegates our glorious Army to the odious role of executioner of the citizens of that State. I fraternally remind you to maintain Article 14 of the Constitution. [Note: Article 14 stated that the Army need not obey an illegal order of the President.] Trusting in your patriotism and zeal for perpetuating the love of the Army for the people of our land, I speak to you in this great moment. Remember that political situations pass and the Army remains.
This telegram, sent 29 June 1922, was immediately published in the press. On the first of July, Epitácio, speaking through the Minister of War, severely and publicly rebuked Hermes. The Marshal shot back the next day: “…as chief of the National Army … I declare to Your Excellency that I cannot accept the unjust and illegal punishment you have imposed on me.” This truculent reply Hermes had written in the name of the Military Club. A law in force stated, “It is permitted to close societies of anarchists, pimps, and exploiters of armed robbery.”
On the basis of this law, on July 3rd, Epitácio closed the Military Club. On the same day, at his orders, the military arrested Marshall Hermes da Fonseca and confined him to quarters in a Rio garrison. Captain Euclides Hermes da Fonseca, son of the Marshal, could not accept the imprisonment of his father. He proceeded to plan, together with other officers, a rebellion of units of the Army, principally the garrison he commanded: the Fort of Copacabana.
The author cautions that the reader should not assume everything in the article is historically accurate, though most things are. He welcomes any factual corrections, additional facts, or alternative interpretations of events.
The main source for this article was 1922 – Sangue na Areia de Copacabana (1922 – Blood on the Sands of Copacabana), by Hélio Silva, published by Editora Civilização Brasileira S.A., Rio de Janeiro, 1971.
Dr. Addison Jump is a retired mathematician living in Rio. Of Native American descent, he worked at a college for American Indians and later for the U.S. Department of Defense. Email: email@example.com.
This is the first of five articles on the Fifth of July Revolt.