Castelhano, Mario, 1896-1940

Dictator: Salazar
Dictator: Salazar

A short biography of Portuguese rail worker and anarchist Mario Castelhano, who died in a fascist concentration camp.

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2003

Mario Castelhano, the Portuguese anarcho-syndicalist militant who had been director of the CGT newspaper A Batalha when its presses were destroyed by the fascists and its publication suspended, died in the Tarrafal concentration camp on 12 October 1940, as a result of a stomach complaint.

As well as being a precious militant of the CGT union confederation, he stood out also as a figure of great moral stature among the deportees in the camp, by virtue of his courage, high mindedness and the example he set of comradeship, earning universal respect.

Castelhano was born in Lisbon on 31 May 1896, the third child of a couple of modest business people. At the age of 14 he entered the post office as a telegraph clerk; but through hard work and perseverance, and above all on the basis of merit, he went on to become a qualified book-keeper.

He became involved in trade union activity very early on and faced with a choice between reformism and libertarian activism he opted for the revolutionary syndicalist opposition and took part in the rail strike in 1911 following the introduction of the Republic and the disappointment of the hopes that the working classes had vested in it. But it was in the 1914 strike that he took part with his doctrine fully formed.

The Republic busied itself with a crackdown on the labour movement which had already come out against Portuguese participation in the Great War and the government made an especial target of the strike which was lost.

Castelhano’s actions ensured that the working class remained united and clung on to its trade union vigour - crucial at a time when the economic crisis provoked by the war was so serious, with wages lagging behind the cost of living.

In 1918 the railway workers struck and waged a vigorous fight, bringing further government repression, even to the extent of open wagons filled with strikers captured by the police being hooked up to the locomotives of trains manned by soldiers dispatched against the railwaymen.

Whilst the strike was not a full success, some demands were met and there was a revival of trade union activity, with the union retaining its fighting strength. In 1920, a rail strike was declared on all networks and two men, Mario Castelhano and Miguel Correia were extraordinarily busy in the coordination of the strike. Yet again the railwaymen were targeted by government repression and the strike was a partial success, even though Mario Castelhano and other activists were sacked.

Mario carried on with his militant activities in the sector which continued to look upon him as a railwayman and he took over as director of the union paper O Ferroviario (The Railwayman), investing it with a distinct revolutionary syndicalist flavour.

The Russian Revolution led some syndicalist militants over to the Communist camp but Castelhano, like virtually all of the membership, stuck with the CGT, although the experience of the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat pushed him into the anarcho-syndicalist camp.

In this regard Mario set about building up trade union cadres and helped organise the Railway Workers’ Inter-Union Conference in Oporto in 1921, at which he was appointed to the organising commission of the First Union Congress of Railway Workers held in June 1922 and at which the Rail Federation was launched. Mario became its secretary in charge of international relations.

At the congress, Miguel Correia, a leading militant with the State-owned Southern/Southwestern rail network, proposed that the Federation affiliate to the reformist-minded International Trade Union Federation. Castelhano pointed out the drawbacks to such affiliation and the congress sided with him.

He was later elected editor-in-chief of the Rail Federation’s paper Federacao Ferroviario and in 1926 joined the CGT’s Confederal Council as the Federation’s representative. Within a short time he had taken over from Santos Arranha as director of the CGT mouthpiece A Batalha.

In a fraught period of political upheavals, Castelhano with his lofty values as a revolutionary militant plus his moral and ideological standing stamped a clear policy upon A Batalha’s response to events and there was no flinching in this after the revolt of 28 May 1926 hoisted a reactionary government into power.

The following year, on 7 February 1927, a revolt broke out in Lisbon in the wake of one in Oporto. Although the revolt emanated from the republican camp, it enjoyed more support from the workers. On the morning of 7 February 1927 A Batalha was run off on the presses of the Diario de Noticias and spelled out the CGT stance and policy.

When the revolt was crushed, A Batalha was suspended, the CGT outlawed and driven underground and a short time later A Batalha’s presses were smashed by the police.

Castelhano went to ground, taking up a place on the CGT Confederal Council and liaising with the unions that were still operating, albeit closely monitored by the secret police out of which the PIDE would emanate.

In June that year, Castelhano, Rijo, Alvaro Ramos, Quintal, Ferreira da Silva and many another were captured and on 15 November they were deported aboard the sinister prison hulk the ‘Pedro Gomes’.

Castelhano and Rijo wound up in Novo Redondo in Angola, where they found clerical work on a plantation. They were made very welcome on account of their exemplary and decent treatment of the black population.

Both men’s health led to their being transferred to the Azores. Mario wound up on the island of Pico.

In 1931, when a popular uprising erupted in Madeira with the support of the political deportees, Castelhano, Rijo, Goncalves Bibi, Fernando Barros and other libertarian militants came together in Funchal where they engaged in trade union work alongside the locals. Castelhano, Rijo and Bibi, with help from the determined actions of comrade Margarida Barros, hid out in an attic in Funchal and were smuggled out to Lisbon, hidden among coal, by a stoker on board the ‘Lima’.

Mario resumed his CGT activities and in early 1933, when Salazar imposed his fascistic legislation upon the country with regard to the unions and working conditions, anarcho-syndicalist militants - albeit decimated by the unrelenting repression over seven years of non-stop struggle, set about preparing the ground for the general strike of 18 January 1934, in which Castelhano was very much to the fore before being arrested after two days.

Like all of the comrades rounded up in the ensuing crackdown, he was deported to Angra do Heroismo and thence to Tarrafal.

In Tarrafal, Castelhano stood out among the deportees by virtue of a moral stature founded upon energy and integrity. This was particularly demonstrated during the so-called "acute danger" when the camp was stricken by an epidemic. Most of the inmates were bed-ridden and without medicines. Bringing all his moral authority to bear and abetted by his companions, Mario organised medical assistance as best their meagre resources would allow. Tables, chairs, anything that would burn was used in the boiling of the questionable water supply that was used to eke out what little medicines they had in order to save many precious lives. And once this crisis had passed, Mario Castelhano succumbed to a stomach complaint that killed him within days.

Even those who did not share his libertarian ideas did not deny him their tribute and respect.

Adapted from A Batalha (Lisbon) of 16 November 1974
From the Kate Sharpley Library