Reading Guides

Captains of the Sands
Jorge Amado
Gregory Rabassa
Colm Tóibín
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Captains of the Sands, first published in 1937, was the last of what the author called his “Bahian Novels.” As Jorge Amado explains in the postface to Captains, he “undertook an honest attempt to set down in novels, the life, the picturesque qualities, the strange humanity of Bahia.” Up until his series of fictions, he laments, there was “no greater difference anywhere than between the Bahian figures in novels that have been written about my State and the real humanity of Bahia” (p. 263). His portrait of Bahia, and Brazil generally, has been universally regarded as a triumph in modern literature, and for that reason Amado is often called the “Balzac of Brazil.” Like Balzac’s richly varied and unvarnished depiction of post Napoleonic France, Amado’s own Comédie humaine shows readers the vast panorama of modern Brazilian society in all its beauty, misery, and mystery.

In Captains, a raw and moving tale about a gang of homeless children, Amado speaks directly to the discrepancy between the official picture of Bahia and its true character. The novel begins with a newspaper account of one of the Captains’ heists followed by letters to the editor from concerned citizens. In a style reminiscent of the American novelist John Dos Passos, a contemporary of Amado’s whose U.S.A. trilogy was similarly communist–leaning, these Jornal de Tarde pieces provide a base narrative that is upended by the story that follows. The abandoned children are referred to as “child thieves” or “urchins,” preying on victims like Commander José Ferreira whose opulent palace is described as a “cove of peace and honest toil” (p. 4). According to this report and an op–ed from the Juvenile Judge, it would seem that wealthy government officials like the Commander deserve nothing but our pity, while the “urchins” should be rounded up and consigned to the Bahian Reformatory for Juvenile Delinquents and Abandoned Boys, “a model establishment where peace and work reign” (p. 11), according to its Director.

One of the op–ed pieces cuts through this Orwellian obfuscation of reality. Father José Pedro accuses the Director of running a forced labor camp where children are “treated like animals” (p. 9). The father becomes a central character in the main narrative, holding up one of the poles of hope—Christianity—to these children of the street. By no means a theologian, Father José Pedro is a priest of the down–and–out who believes that God would pardon even these brazen street toughs. However, his experiment of introducing the children to the church biddies fails and he reflects that “it’s impossible to change an abandoned and thieving child into a sexton. But it’s quite possible to change him into a working man” (p. 66). Such opinions soon attract the attention of his canon, who accuses him of being “a communist, an enemy of the Church” (p. 147), and who eventually reassigns him to a backlands parish in order to “make him think about his obligations and give up those Bolshevik innovations.” The priest embraces his new assignment since the “cangacerios [bandits] are like big children” (p. 224). Furthermore, he can leave Bahia with the knowledge that God has touched at least one of the abandoned children, Lollipop, who will study to be a monk.

The novel’s other pole of hope—communism—is held up by another Pedro, Pedro Bala, the fifteen–year–old leader of the Captains. His road to armed revolution is a long and winding one. Despite the promptings of the black stevedore João de Adão, who witnessed the killing of Pedro Bala’s father in a dockworker strike, he remains content with organizing his gang of street thieves. His attitude begins to change when a budding romance with the orphan Dora goes horribly wrong. After his capture and brutal interrogation at the Reformatory, Pedro Bala is left for days in a cramped, dark box with nothing but black beans and water. He begins to think less like a young criminal than a revolutionary: “His father had died for freedom. Freedom is like the sun. It’s the greatest thing in the world” (p. 193). He manages to escape but only to find Dora deathly ill at the orphanage. Her death galvanizes his revolutionary spirit, and when he and Legless, a committed criminal, enter a church to steal a lady’s purse, and they see Lollipop teaching some urchins the catechism, Pedro Bala doesn’t hear Lollipop’s “kind voice” or Legless’s “voice of hate”; he hears “the voice of João de Adão, the dockworker, the voice of his father, dying in the struggle” (p. 226). He has nothing else to do but to retire as leader of the Captains and join the revolution. The novel ends on a triumphant note with the assembled Captains cheering him off as he leaves “to change the destiny of other children” (p. 259).

The novel, like all of his Bahian novels, was written during Amado’s communist phase, and naturally enough its portrait of class conflict easily lends itself to Marxist interpretations. Yet it would be wrong to claim that the novel’s only path or even most compelling path to freedom is armed revolution. Christianity, often viewed as incompatible with communism, made it possible for Lollipop to leave the children’s warehouse, and to assist other more vulnerable children. Furthermore, the case of another Captain, the Professor, presents readers with another means to freedom. With an obvious nod to Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story “The Overcoat,” the Professor proudly displays his sketch of a man in a cafe wearing a new overcoat only to have the man repay him by beating him violently on the sidewalk (p. 89). The Professor exacts his revenge by stealing the man’s overcoat but more importantly he uses this humiliating and painful episode as a source of art. The novel then telegraphs into the future: “When the whole nation admired his murals (the themes were the lives of abandoned children, old beggars, workers and dockhands breaking their chains), they noted that the fat burghers always appeared wearing enormous overcoats, which had more personality than they themselves” (p. 91). Each of these paths—revolution, religion, and art—the novel implies may lead to freedom, provided it is directed toward social justice.


Jorge Amado, one of Brazil’s most beloved novelists, was born in the northern state of Bahia in 1912. The son of a cacao planter, his earliest fiction portrayed the struggles of the cacao plantation workers, beginning with his first novel Cacao (1933), published when he was just nineteen. As many other leftist writers of the 1930s and 40s, he employed a social realist aesthetic in his fiction. His first critical success came with Jubiaba (1935), a novel about racial relations on a tobacco farm. His outspoken communist politics eventually got him imprisoned and exiled. In 1948, he left Brazil for more than a decade, living mostly in Europe.

His novels of the 1950s and 60s took on a new satirical and picaresque style, especially the two comic novels for which he is best known: Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), which was later adapted into a successful film and Broadway musical. In 1961, he was elected to the twenty–third chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a post he occupied until his death in 2001. Despite his international fame, he never abandoned the cause for social justice in Brazil nor did he ever lose his affection for his home state of Bahia. One of his proudest honors was the title of Obá, a civil post in the Afro–Brazilian Candomblé congregation in Bahia. In 1987, he launched the Jorge Amado Foundation whose mission is to “promote cultural activities in Bahia.” His works have been translated into more than forty–five languages.


  1. The Captains are criminals but they obey a set of laws. What are they, as described in the “Night with the ’Captains of the Sands’” chapter and elsewhere? Is their code of ethics any worse or better than those in proper Brazilian society?

  2. The “Lights of the Carousel” chapter is a sweet idyll amid the several painful episodes of the Captains. What does the carousel represent in the novel?

  3. On pages 66 and 147, and elsewhere, the characters debate the role of Christianity and communism in solving the problems of homeless children. Are the two in tension with one another? Are they compatible?

  4. Like most of Amado’s work, the indigenous religion of Candomblé features prominently in Captains, e.g. on pages 86 and 135. It is a religion of the poor but what exactly does it provide to those in need? Is there something critical, even mocking in Amado’s portrait of Candomblé?

  5. From the novel’s opening op-ed pieces to the debate between João de Adão and Father José Pedro (102) and news items following Dry Gulch’s capture and conviction (p. 245), the novel debates the causes for the boys’ delinquency. What are the most compelling theories promoted in the book? Are there any other overlooked factors?

  6. The novel has often been compared to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. What do these depictions of orphan gangs have in common? What is unique about Amado’s portrait?

  7. The novel includes frank descriptions of adolescent sex, from pederasty to rape. Indeed, the rape on page 83 is probably the most disturbing scene in the novel. How does it complicate our impression of Pedro Bala? Is he any less of a predator than the hoodlums he is purportedly protecting his victim from? Are girls afforded any protection under the gang’s code of ethics?

  8. Legless, the most pitiful of the Captains, elicits both our sympathy and scorn. He does manage to achieve a strange intimacy with an old spinster, whom he subsequently robs. Discuss the episode. How has it changed Legless if at all?

  9. The tragic love affair between Pedro Bala and Dora ends with her catasterism, not unlike the famous constellation Coma Berenice. What is the significance of her astral afterlife? Why do they consummate their love when it likely hastens her death?

  10. In a church shop, an effigy of the Christ Child (“poor and thin,” p. 105) seemingly calls to Lollipop, which precipitates a theological debate about stealing the Child (in order to care for it) and breaking his commandment to God not to steal anything that isn’t a necessity. How does he resolve this debate? Does he?

  11. Discuss the role of race in the novel. Note that Pedro Bala is the only fair-haired boy among the Captains. Between him and the dark-skinned João de Adão exists a wide range of mixed-race characters. Does race determine destiny among the characters? Are the Captains color blind? Are the revolutionaries?