October 2002

Canudos 100

What a pity Euclides da Cunha is not around to write about
today's Brazil and the presidential campaign because he would find
that much of the same social misunderstanding is still around.

John Fitzpatrick

Jorge Amado and, more recently, Paulo Coelho may be the most widely read Brazilian writers in the world but the most highly regarded book by a Brazilian is, undoubtedly, Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha. This fascinating work, published 100 years ago1, tells the story of how, towards the end of the 19th century, the recently-established Republican government tried to put down a revolt in the arid backlands—sertão—of the northeastern state of Bahia led by a religious mystic known as Antônio Conselheiro.

In 1893, he settled in an abandoned hamlet called Canudos and within a few years had attracted around 20,000 followers. In 1896 a petty incident with merchants in a nearby town over a supply of wood to build a new church led to a row which eventually led to accusations that Canudos was a hotbed of monarchism. Clashes occurred between the local and state militias, in which the backlanders emerged victorious, finally led to the government in Rio de Janeiro mounting expeditions to defeat what they claimed was a bastion of monarchism.

The backlanders proved formidable enemies and defeated every force sent against them and even killed the commander of the first expedition. The "rebels" defied the federal forces until 1897 when a 5,000-strong army blasted Canudos to pieces and killed almost all those inside. The charismatic Antonio Conselheiro, described by Cunha as a madman, died of hunger after being wounded in an artillery attack, before the army took control of the ruined town.

It is not an easy book and I quickly abandoned attempts to read it in the original Portuguese and turned to an English version "Rebellion in the Backlands" 2. Cunha was a military engineer and this shows in his painstaking descriptions of the terrain, which the federal armies marched through and the rebels used to inflict deadly ambushes. The book is full of military terminology, which can be confusing and uninteresting to a non-soldier. The pages are filled with the names of officers, battalions and incidents as though Cunha were writing the official dispatches. Sub-headings like "The Cannonading", "The Enemy Continues to Fight Back" and "In the Field Hospital" are scattered throughout the book. Can you imagine the feelings of relatives of the soldiers on reading a sentence like this: "At one side, stretched out on the bare ground with the sun beating down upon them, were the bodies, rigid in death, of a number of officers—those of Lieutenant Colonel Tupy, Major Queiroz, Sublieutenants Raposo, Neville, Carvalho, and others."

He is methodical in his approach to the whole story, starting with a description of the topography and the prehistoric formation of the land which, millions of years later, was to be the breeding ground of the backlander and the backdrop to the drama of Canudos. He describes the flora and fauna, not in the lyrical terms of a fine writer like H.E. Bates or in the awed way Charles Darwin describes his first encounter with the Brazilian forest, but in the same matter-of-fact style.

The geology and geography fascinate him because he sees that it was this terrain which shaped the rebels. A hard environment created a hardy people. For Cunha, the backlander—or jagunço as he calls him—was a member of a different race from other Brazilians and he devotes great space to describing this human product of centuries of breeding starting with the original mixture of Indian, Portuguese and African. It is no longer fashionable to discuss race in the same way as people did a century ago and, of course, Cunha has been accused of racial stereotyping and racism. It is always easy to criticize the way people behaved in the past according to the standards of today. The reader can make up his own mind from this description of prisoners and their conquerors. "

There were few whites or pure Negroes among them; an unmistakable family likeliness in all these faces pointed to the perfect fusion of three races. The legitimate pardo (mixed-race, my italics) predominated, a mixture of Chaffer, Portuguese and Tape Indian—bronzed faces, stiff and straight or curly hair, unshapely torsos. Here and there would be with perfectly correct lines, pointing to the admixture of a higher racial element. And round about them were the victors, separate and disparate, proteiform types, the white man, the black man, the cafuso (mixture of Indian and black), and the mulatto, with all graduations of coloring. There was a contrast here; the strong and integral race thus reduced, within this square, to the indefinable and pusillanimous mestizos, wholly broken by the struggle."

Personally, I see more irony than "racism" there. Cunha then goes on to describe how the "integral" Brazilians were tortured and murdered by the vengeful troops. For a military man like Cunha the connivance of the officers in this butchery was as bad as the slaughter itself. One of the last sub-headings is a tribute to the backlanders and rebuke to the military _ "Canudos did not Surrender". There can be few sadder scenes in literature than this description. "Canudos did not surrender. The only case of its kind in history, it held out to the last man. Conquered inch by inch in the literal meaning of the words, it fell on October 5, towards dusk—when its last defenders fell, dying every man of them. There were only four of them left: an old man, two other full-grown men, and a child, facing a furiously raging army of 5,000 soldiers."

Although Cunha makes it clear that he is on the side of the government—referring to "our" troops and the "enemy"—his candid description of military blunders and atrocities may have ended up costing him his life. He was shot dead by an army officer in Rio in 1909 at the age of 43.

One of the points he makes in the book is that the Brazilian elite, by which he meant those who lived in the populated coastal regions, had nothing in common with the backlanders. It is in this sense that Cunha was trying to show that these backlanders were a different race from the other Brazilians who knew nothing about them. This ignorance and arrogance led to the eventual destruction of Canudos. The elite saw the proclamation of the Republic in 1889 and the separation of the church and state as progressive steps but to the backlanders they were crimes against religion.

The new state used a steamroller to crack a nut but the steamroller was a slow lumbering inefficient instrument and the nut had a harder shell than expected. The final victory was hollow and even today the wounds have not healed. As a captured Celtic warrior is said to have said of a defeat by the Romans: "They create a wilderness and call it peace."

What a pity Cunha is not around to write about today's Brazil and the presidential campaign because he would find that much of the same social misunderstanding is still around. The current presidential campaign shows the same divide between the "elite" and the "forgotten" Brazilians, the backlanders of the 21st century. The "elite" live around or near the coast in big cities like Rio, São Paulo and Recife, or in rich inland agricultural areas like Minas Gerais, Paraná or Mato Grosso.

The forgotten Brazilians live in backland areas of the Northeast or the vast territories of the Amazon. Look at the itineraries of the presidential candidates and see how often they visit places like Rondônia and Acre. Their stomping grounds are the familiar pattern of the southern states of São Paulo, Rio, Minas Gerais, Paraná, etc. plus some important Northeastern states. Token visits will be made to more isolated spots, but as soon as possible the candidates are back in familiar areas.

At the same time, these "forgotten" Brazilians are not only to be found in isolated areas. Millions of them live in the urban centers, generally in favelas (shantytowns). These favelas are as "free" of officialdom as Canudos was over 100 years ago. Whereas Canudos was in the hands of a religious fanatic, the favelas are governed by criminals who exploit the residents by turning their children into drug addicts, and rob and kill at will.

The criminals are well organized and impossible to eradicate. The gang leaders become role models for the young. Every so often the police or the military carry out highly-publicized large-scale operations to capture leaders. We saw an example recently in Rio's Rocinha favela when around 1,000 members of the security forces tracked down Elias Maluco (Crazy Elias) the leading suspect in the case of a journalist, Tim Lopes, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered while covering a story in the favela.

The PT state government wasted no time in claiming the glory for this arrest but it is difficult to see anything to glory in. The arrest or death of individual gangsters will not end the control the gangs have over millions of people. Not only are local people frightened but also so is society as a whole, including the police. Recently all the shops and banks in a large part of northern Rio obeyed a demand by drug traffickers to close as a sign of respect for a gang leader who had been killed in prison. During the funeral, TV journalists and police cameramen obeyed warnings not to film the event.

No matter who becomes president the gang leaders will continue to thrive. This is because, unlike the rebels at Canudos, they pose no threat to the political structure. In fact the gangs thrive on corruption within the police and among politicians. This means that for the unfortunate favela dwellers, no expeditionary force will march in one day and root the gangsters out. During the two decades (1964 to 1985) in which the military ruled Brazil, the security forces stamped out any armed political resistance yet after almost two decades of democracy they are incapable of stamping out blatant criminal rebellion.

1 The site of the Estado de São Paulo newspaper has a special section _ in Portuguese dealing with the 100th anniversary of the books' publication _

2 Rebellion in the Backlands, University of Chicago Press, 1944

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações -, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2002

This article was originally published in Infobrazil, which can be read at

Send your
comments to