The end of 1897 saw what is now regarded as the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history and yet it is still largely unknown.
The War of Canudos, a small settlement in an area known as the Sertão, the semi-arid backlands of the north-eastern Brazilian state of Bahia - a harsh environment long viewed by southerners as one of the most backward and hostile areas in the country, sometimes associated with violence and religious fanaticism - should have been a local dispute, a skirmish at most, but it escalated to a full-blown massacre and a conflict that defined a nascent country.
The causes were manifold. After a military coup against the ruling emperor, Dom Pedro, in 1889, the republican United States of Brazil was instituted in Rio de Janeiro and a period of political instability followed, where different political sectors struggled to dictate directions for the new nation. The situation in Bahia was as volatile as in the south. Aside from the fact that this coup was met with some dissatisfaction given that Dom Pedro was still very much liked by the common people, this was a desperately poor zone, with a depressed economy based on subsistence agriculture and cattle farming, no large cities and a disenfranchised population composed largely of white Brazilian and mestizos. Added to this, slavery was abolished the previous year, in 1888, which left thousands of former slaves and indentured servants as freemen, with no land, no possessions and no purpose of any kind but to survive.
This kind of physical and political environment was fertile ground for a new kind of wandering spiritual preachers to proliferate. They would go from community to community doing small jobs and demanding support from local farmers, whilst gathering followers with promises of a better life. One of these wandering preachers was a charismatic, if rather fanatical, man known as Antonio Conselheiro – the Counsellor – who, in 1863, had become rather popular and decided to settle with his, by then, large group of followers in the settlement of Canudos.
Antonio and his followers established a successful community, with strict religious practices and a meticulous economy, where all worked for the common good, although private property was very well maintained. The counsellor offered order, stability and a modest prosperity that attracted more followers until the community reached around 30,000 inhabitants and became well known in the surrounding area. This success, however, together with the fact that they were staunch royalists, rubbed the officialdom up the wrong way. The Counsellor proclaimed himself a prophet and predicted the return of a legendary Portuguese king. He also refused to pay a new tax established by the republican government which he considered to be the antichrist. In this way someone who would have been primarily regarded as an inoffensive oddity who was basically benign ended up being seen as a threat, bearing little resemblance to the imagined prototype citizen of a not fully consolidated Republic.
The hostilities began at the end of 1896, when a band of local brigands sympathetic to Antonio massacred a force sent by the provincial government to crush the settlement. Thus the federal government was called for help and the conflict gathered momentum. It became a matter of national pride, more so because it took three further attempts to finally destroy Canudos. As the prestige of the armed forces and the new government were at stake the Republic sent three brigades, eight infantry battalions and two artillery battalions; machine guns and large artillery pieces plus a force of 3,000 men. On 02 October 1897, weak from malnutrition and hunger, with no weapons and able fighters after the previous attacks, plus with Antonio having died of dysentery back in September, the community fell. Atrocities were committed on a grand scale by the victors; survivors beheaded, women raped and the best looking of them sent to the brothels in Salvador. Antonio’s body was disinterred and his head cut off to be sent victoriously to the province’s capital.
Looking at these events from a purely factual point of view, rather than a war, it was the extermination of a tiny community within a single country. But history is not and can never be purely factual; when national instability is tangible, questions arise; was the Counsellor a tyrant in disguise whose charisma could extend beyond Bahia? Was the new government capable of ruling its unruly population? And was Canudos proof that Brazil was too large a land to be coalesced under a single centralized power? It was a question of pride, and pride won, the new government was here to stay.
Today the area is submerged by water from a dam project in the 1970s, but sometimes it is still possible to see the ruins of the church that was once the village’s centrepiece at low water. A mass is held in October every year to commemorate those lost in what is known today as the War of Canudos. The municipality of Nova Canudos was built nearby and currently has around 13,000 inhabitants.
You can visit Salvador and glimpse the Bahian backlands with our Value Brazil: Salvador and Bahia itinerary.
The story of Canudos was told by war correspondent Euclides da Cunha in the book Os Sertões (1901; translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944) and also, in fictional form, in the novel The War of the End of the World by Nobel Prize Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa (1981) and described at length by Peter Robb in "A Death in Brazil" (2004).