Rebellion in the Backlands

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Rebellion in the Backlands

by Euclides da Cunha


A narrative that fuses elements of history, biography, fiction, travel literature, geography, and anthropology; set in northeastern Brazil from 1893 to 1897; published in Portuguese (as Os Sertões) in 1902, in English in 1944.


After years of wandering the backlands of Brazil, the mystic pilgrim Conselheiro founds the town of Canudos. Perceiving Conselheiro’s theocracy as a threat to the Republic of Brazil, the federal government sends four expeditions against it, the last of which massacres its population and razes the town.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Narrative in Focus

For More Information

Euclides da Cunha was born in 1866 in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. Having lost his mother when he was three, he was raised by relatives and in boarding schools. He completed high school at the Colégio Aquino in Rio de Janeiro and entered the Polytechnic School and later the Military School, where he was trained as a military engineer. From 1893 on da Cunha was engaged in building trenches, sanitary works, bridges, and barracks. In fact, he wrote Rebellion in the Backlands while directing work on a bridge in the state of São Paulo. Simultaneously, he worked as a reporter, which led to his visiting the Canudos front in this capacity. The success of Os Sertões in 1902 caused da Cunha’s election to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and he followed it with other publications on regions of Brazil and on Latin American questions. As a result of a domestic triangle, da Cunha was shot and killed by another army officer in 1909.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The siege of Canudos

By the time Euclides da Cunha reached the front lines in mid-September 1897, government troops had encircled Canudos, a remote town in the interior of Bahia, Brazil, cutting off supply lines and the escape routes of its defenders, followers of the mystic Antonio Maciel (called Conselheiro, the Counselor). The rebels of Canudos were called jagunços after an old term for the hired gunmen who constituted the private armies of ranchers. The jagunços, in turn, had nicknames for their enemy, the government soldiers: weakness of the government; Republicans; Masons; Protestants; and Dogs, little dogs working for the big Dog; the Beast 666; or the Antichrist, which had come to destroy their New Jerusalem.

Every so often the enemy captured a jagunço. After interrogation, which inevitably invoked the answer não sei (1 don’t know), the prisoners were asked to shout Viva a República (Long live the Republic). They responded with Viva o Bom Jesus! (Long live the Good Jesus), then were given the “red necktie.” That is, they were decapitated by having a scythe-like knife drawn rapidly across their throats.

The jagunços had previously repelled three government-sponsored military expeditions.

Attacking a town like Canudos was difficult for a conventional army. First of all, it lay in a remote, desert-like area of the interior of the state of Bahia, called the sertão. Water and provisions were at a premium, and none of the four expeditions made adequate logistical plans. As a result, Canudos is one of the rare instances in which those inside a besieged town were better supplied than the besiegers. Once they arrived at the front, the army faced all the classical difficulties inherent in fighting a guerrilla force. The jagunços fortified and dug trenches within their mud huts, which meant that every one of the 2,000 or more houses in Canudos was a site of potential ambush.


1893:Town of Canudos is founded by religious leader Antonio Conselheiro and his followers.
1895:Two Capuchin friars urge people to leave Canudos and return to orthodox Catholicism; the friars’ mission fails.
1896(October): Officials of the city of Juazeiro send an urgent telegram to the Bahian capital, asking for protection against an expected invasion from Canudos.
1896(November): The first expedition (116 soldiers) sent by the governor to defend Juazeiro is defeated at Uauá,
1897(January): The second expedition (550 soldiers) sent to pacify Canudos must retreat because of lack of provisions and ammunition, as well as fierce resistance from the town’s defenders.
1897(March): The third expedition (1,200 soldiers), led by Moreira César, becomes the first to actually attack Canudos. Moreira César and the second-in-command are both killed, and the expedition is routed. Canudos is the subject of intense national concern.
1897(June): The fourth expedition (4,283 soldiers), under Arthur Oscar, begins the siege of Canudos.
1897(September): Euclides da Cunha stays a little over two weeks in Canudos as a newspaper reporter. Antonio Conselheiro, the leader of Canudos, dies.
1897(October 5): The last defenders of Canudos are killed; the town is demolished; Conselheiro’s body is exhumed and his head sent to Salvador.

By the time da Cunha arrived in September 1897, the conflict between the Brazilian government and the millenarian religious movement in the northeastern backlands had passed its climax. Federal troops had been besieging the backland community for almost 90 days when the defenders lost their leader, António Conselheiro, to dysentery on September 22. Canudos was run as a religious dictatorship, and the loss of its spiritual leader was a crushing blow. Shortly afterwards, a contingent of Canudos’s minor leaders fled the town, giving up on the cause of constructing a just society free from the interference of powerful elites. Nonetheless, a formidable fighting force remained, popularizing a saying that allegedly began with their new military commander, Marciano de Sergipe: “If our Counselor has died, then I want to die too.” Some days later, on October 1, a large group of prisoners, mostly women, old men, and children, surrendered to the federal troops. Basing his description on others’ accounts, da Cunha gives the impression that he witnessed the horrific spectacle of haggard, wounded women and children limping into camp in the first voluntary surrender:

Our men viewed them with a mournful eye. They were at once surprised and deeply moved. In the course of this fleeting armistice the settlement in extremis was here confronting them with a legion of disarmed, crippled and mutilated, famished beings in an assault that was harder to withstand than any they had known in the trenches under enemy fire. It was painful for them to admit that all these weak and helpless ones—so many of them!—should have come out of those huts which had been bombarded for three whole months. As they contemplated those swarthy faces, those filthy and emaciated bodies whose gashes, wounds, and scars were not concealed by the tattered garments they wore—as they viewed all this, the longed-for victory suddenly lost its appeal, became repugnant to them,

(da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands, p. 471)

Da Cunha had been sent to Canudos by a newspaper, the Estado de São Paulo. Compared to other reporters, such as Manoel Benício, who stayed for most of the campaign from June to October, da Cunha hardly cut an imposing figure there. He spent much of his time behind the lines dining with the commander of the expedition, Arthur Oscar, and rarely visited the front. His dispatches to the newspaper were sporadic. Due to ill health, he left Canudos no later than October 1, and did not witness the fall of the town four days later. If the Estado had invested travel expenses in hopes of obtaining a “scoop” in the Canudos affair, it must have been disappointed with the meager results. Five years later, however, da Cunha wrote Os Sertões, which for decades would remain the final word on what happened at Canudos, and which would transform the incident into a premier example of millenarianism.

On October 5 the last defenders of Canudos were eliminated. The army gathered in front of the town’s “new church,” a fortress-like building with crude Gothic towers, which had been constructed by the followers of the Conselheiro and leveled by army cannonballs. Immediately opposite it was the site of the old church. Miraculously, a large cross in front of this church had not been hit and is still preserved today in a small chapel. A band played Brazil’s national anthem, after which the army applied kerosene everywhere, to corpses and houses, and burned the town of Canudos to the ground. The army was fulfilling a directive: stone should not remain on stone. Obediently it reduced the town, estimated by some to be the second-largest in the state of Bahia, into wasteland.

“The Counselor.”

Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel (or Marciel), “the Counselor,” was born in the state of Ceará in 1830. After failing at a number of endeavors, including schoolteaching and marriage, he disappeared from public view for three years, from 1871 to 1874. This disappearance took the form of a hermitage, a solitude in the desert like Christ’s or St. Anthony’s. By 1874 Maciel had remade himself into a peregrino, or religious pilgrim, discarding normal clothing for a simple blue tunic, letting his hair grow, and adopting the nomadic existence of a mendicant or beggar. The English word pilgrim and its Portuguese cognate both derive from the Latin peragro, which means “to wander.” And indeed, Ma-ciel’s only job now was to cross and recross the sertão of Bahia and nearby Sergipe, finding water and food in the roots of the umbuzeiro tree, taking his rest in the shade of the juazeiro tree, stopping at the towns of the region to preach, to act as godfather for infants and marriages, and to encourage the inhabitants to practice personal, Catholic decency and to build churches or little chapels of the via sacra (“sacred path,” alluding to the route taken by Jesus from Jerusalem to Golgotha, where he was crucified).

Maciel was known by several nicknames and titles, among them conselheiro, or counselor. This title meant that Maciel was the lay equivalent of a padre, or priest, performing all of the priest’s functions except for the ministration of the sacraments. With the usual Brazilian preference for nicknames over given names, Maciel has entered the annals of history under the alias “Antonio Conselheiro.”

Such counselors were not unusual in the Brazilian sertão. They fulfilled an important function in a region where only one in three dioceses enjoyed the direction of a parish priest. Given the absence of a well-defined Church infrastructure, the Catholicism of the backlander was mediated not through a priest, but through sacred images and actions—such as fasting, pilgrimage, flagellation, and reciting prayers to achieve specifc


Millenarian movements are based on the Christian belief that Jesus Christ will return to earth and reign for 1,000 years. Broadly, they concern themselves with a vision of the near future and are associated with expectations of apocalyptic destruction and Utopian renewal. Because they envision a Utopian society, such movements tend to draw a hostile reaction from governments. Brazil has hosted several millenarian movements over time. Even as events were unfolding at Canudos, another religious movement was gathering strength in the nearby state of Ceará (birthplace of the Conselheiro himself). Cicero Romão Batista, a Catholic priest who allegedly performed miracles, drew a large number of backlands peasants to himself in a hamlet called Joaseiro. His following grew in the 1890s, as did Joaseiro, which people believed to be the holy location chosen for the second coming of Jesus Christ. On a pretext of rooting out bandits, government forces attacked Joaseiro in 1913, whereupon its defenders retaliated and brought down the state government at the capital, Fortaleza. The United States had a similar movement around the time of the Canudos rebellion—the Ghost Dance religion of the American Indian tribes. Inspired by the prophet Wovoka in Nevada, the religious movement involved a dance and divine songs that would allegedly lead to the disappearance of the white man, the restoration of Indian hunting grounds and a reunion with the dead. The religion spread from one tribe to the next. At Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, white troops, perceiving the movement as a threat, confronted some Ghost Dance followers. The result was the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, which killed nearly 300 Indians, many of whom were women and children.

results. Holy texts in the sertão derived primarily from the Missão Abreviada (Abbreviated Missal)—a compilation of digests of the four gospels, lives of the saints, prayers, meditations, and instructions. Conselheiro, who was himself a kind of wandering image for the people of the interior to invoke and adore, preferred a particular missal, authored by José Gonçalves Couto, a missionary to the Portuguese areas of India, in 1873. The missal, which the Counselor chose above milder versions, such as the “Hours of Mary,” emphasizes the apocalyptic elements of Christianity and portrays Christ’s agony and death as in keeping with divine retribution for human depravity.

In retrospect, it is easy to trace the growing conflict between Conselheiro and the authorities that would lead both to the founding of Canudos and to its destruction. Conselheiro’s following grew quite large, and began to be perceived as a threat. Its initial mobility and lack of fixed abode disturbed the authorities. Also, the retinue was racially heterogeneous. The Conselheiro himself was opposed to slavery, and freedmen flocked to him after abolition in 1888. Lacking faith in the labor potential of their own local population, landowners had joined with government leaders to promote immigration from Europe and shut the freedmen out of the labor market. These freedmen formed only one part of a huge underclass with no land and little or no employment. The economy of the Brazilian northeast, including the sertão, was latifundarian, which means that a few individuals from the higher social echelons owned and controlled everything, and a combination of free artisans, peasants, and slaves or former slaves worked for them. An independent, landed peasantry did not exist in the backlands; instead, huge cattle ranches with absentee landlords were the rule. Individuals who wished to improve their way of life were forced either to become bandits, or to migrate to the coffee industry of São Paulo and other southern states. In a society in which less than 5 percent of the population owned the land on which they lived, António Conselheiro represented a kind of freedom from economic constraints.

Conselheiro’s group also disturbed the authorities because it defied basic structures of sertão life: the economy, by which hired laborers toiled for absentee landowners; the clan or extended family, which required loyalty and obedience; and the Catholic Church, whose leaders asked increasingly for members to practice religious orthodoxy and submit all questions about the faith to the nearest priest—however distant he might be from his flock. Recognizing the threat, a group of landowners and churchmen concentrated, from the outset, on squashing the Counselor’s campaign.

In June 1876 the Counselor was arrested on the charge that he had murdered his mother and his ex-wife. The authorities had him taken to Salvador, where he was beaten, shorn of his long hair, led through the jeering crowds, and put on a boat for Ceará. In his hometown no one spoke against him, and it became public knowledge that his mother had died when he was three and that his wife was living as a prostitute. The Conselheiro was freed, and he returned to his followers.

António Conselheiro continued his nomadic existence for another 17 years, during which Brazil became (in 1889) a republic ruled by a military dictatorship instead of an empire ruled by a monarch. Conselheiro, like many citizens of Brazil at the time, preferred the monarchy to the Republic, which he considered the more corrupt system of the two. The official shift gave the authorities new grounds for moving against the Counselor—now they could brand him as an enemy of the Republic. The truest element of this accusation was Conselheiro’s opposition to civilian marriage, which was republican law. For him, as for most backlanders, marriage could only be a Church sacrament. The authorities also accused him of encouraging people not to pay taxes to the Republic; this, in all probability, was a distortion of his real stance, that taxes of any kind were a way of robbing the poor to pay the rich. In da Cunha’s work Conselheiro is characterized as “combative” in relationship to the Republic:

[H]e looked upon the Republic with an evil eye and consistently preached rebellion against the new laws… . [T]he chambers of the various localities in the interior of Baía had posted up on the traditional bulletin boards … the regulations governing the collection of taxes and the like. [Conselheiro] did not like the new taxes and planned an immediate retaliation… . He gathered the people and … had them make a bonfire of the bulletin boards in the public square… . [H]e began openly preaching insurrection against the laws of the country.

(Rebellion, p. 141)

The founding of Canudos

The police clashed with the Conselheiristas on several occasions, the last time in 1893 in Masseté, where deaths occurred. Conselheiro and his followers realized that they would have greater security from government harrassment if they could found a permanent community in a defensible position. Some assert that the idea of founding the town of Canudos occurred much earlier than 1893. In the first work of fiction about the Conselheirista movement, Os jagunços, novelist Afonso Arinos portrayed the decision as messianic; years before founding Canudos, the Counselor has a vision:

That piece of land was nothing if not the New Canaan. That people had been called upon to realize God’s work. And he would call them together, would reveal to them the high destiny which God had in store for them. He would take them to the construction of the holy city. The missionary’s face was transfigured. Grandiose and sublime ideas bubbled in the brain illuminated by the divine ray. The vision of future days passed in front of his fiery eyes.

(Arinos, p. 50; trans. T. Beebee)

Da Cunha accepted Arinos’s interpretation, and, with the help of contemporary psychological theories on the delusion of crowds, depicted the Counselor and his followers as religious fanatics suffering from collective psychosis. Others, however, have argued that the decision to found Canudos was more pragmatic, due to the Counselor’s advancing age—in 1893 he was 63—and the need for a permanent defensive position against attack.


Was the Counselor insane? He was portrayed as such at the time of the conflict, and in almost all the literature on Canudos for decades after the war. Da Cunha accepts these judgments without question, adopting their vocabulary of “madman” and “fanatic.” Nevertheless, unlike lesser authors on the conflict he is aware of the need to explain the fact that thousands of followers did not consider their leader insane and shared his goals and ideals. How would he account for this? Da Cunha goes beyond the facile, ill-defined, and unsatisfying notion of “collective insanity” to the thesis that António Conselheiro was a product of his social environment, and that he stood out against that backdrop only in the vehemence of his vision. The sertão, da Cunha argues, was a society that was still living by the medieval standards according to which it was founded. Behavior that had seemed normal in the middle ages looked like insanity in the nineteenth century.

In any case, Canudos grew quickly, not only because of the Counselor’s fame and the attractive (to his followers) prospect of building a mud-hut Jerusalem, but also because of the town’s favorable location near a relatively constant source of water (the river Vasa-Barris), the relative ease with which the jagunços could construct their simple houses from the vegetation of the region, and, above all, the availability of free land and freedom from elite authority. According to official army records, when Canudos was destroyed, it consisted of 5,200 huts, which would make it the second-largest city in Bahia. Eyewitnesses, however, reported 2,000 huts, for a total population of around 10,000. Indians who had lost their traditional homelands as well as ex-slaves and former bandits joined the population at Canudos, refuge of the dispossessed and poorest of the poor. Interestingly, the accounts of Canudos are full of names of ex-bandits of the region, men with fearsome reputations who apparently were willing to “go straight” under the leadership of the Counselor. Canudos acquired its own police force or civic guard, paid no taxes, and, of course, conducted no civil marriages. Prostitution and alcohol, both endemic to the ordinary life of the backlander, were forbidden there. The town was free of the colonels, large landowners who, directly or indirectly, ruled every other town in the region. But in the end, the erection of Canudos would intensify rather than diminish conflict with the authorities. A pocket of freedom in a freedomless desert, the town had to be annihilated at all costs.

Canudos and the Republic

Abolition in 1888 marked the end of the northeastern sugar oligarchies, the economic backbone of Brazil’s monarchy. The Brazilian army, meanwhile, which traditionally played no role in politics, had gained prestige and influence in a protracted war fought against Paraguay (1865-69). During this war members of the middle and lower classes who composed the army ranks came into contact with republics such as Argentina, and subsequently had less sympathy for the old Empire than did other segments of the population. Even though it lacked popular civilian support, the armed forces fomented a coup on September 7, 1889, which sent the Emperor Dom Pedro II into exile and created the Republic of Brazil.

The most contested issue in the new Republic was local versus centralized government. Strong local political bosses in various regions of Brazil demanded a weak federal government, and went into revolt at various times to defend their interests. The longest and bloodiest of these conflicts was the so-called “Federalist Revolt,” in which the three southernmost states, Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul, were forcibly repatriated by federal troops (1893-95). Colonel Moreira César, who would lead the ill-fated third expedition against Canudos, gained fame through his ruthless repression of the rebels in this war. His attitude towards Canudos seemed to be the same as that towards the southern rebels, even though the two situations were completely different, since Canudos never claimed independence nor formulated its own constitution.

The fragility of the new government led to a climate of suspicion, fear, and repression that made Canudos, a relatively insignificant town in the wasteland of a long-ignored region, appear to threaten the stability of the whole Republic. Wild rumors circulated to explain the defeats of the military expeditions sent to subdue the town. According to one of these rumors, Canudos was receiving financial aid and arms from European monarchies in order to overthrow the Republic and restore the Emperor in Brazil. Whatever their personal convictions, politicians were forced to support the campaign against Canudos at the risk of being labeled crypto-monarchists.

Canudos housed a remarkable cross-section of the common people of rural Brazil—peasants, petty merchants, and religious fanatics, as well as ex-bandits, freedmen, and at least one Indian tribe. Opposing this cross-section was an alliance of Brazilian elites: the Catholic Church, which wanted to see the heretical views of the Counselor stamped out; the local landowners, who felt their monopoly on land and labor being threatened by Canudos; the army, which saw itself as the defender of the Republic wherever challenged; and the politicians, who drew support from the first three groups and had nothing to gain from taking sides with a peasant rebellion.

The conflict erupts

The only attempt at negotiating peace with Canudos came in the form of a mission of two priests, who arrived in May 1895 to preach to its people. The townspeople, the priests said, must leave Canudos; they must abandon their adoration of the Counselor as a miracle-worker and an incarnation of Jesus; and they must renounce the medieval customs they had adopted—prolonged fasting, flagellation, and other extreme forms of penance—along with the idolatry, fetishism, and other practices absorbed from indigenous and African religions. The mission failed, and the priests’ published report, ghost-written by another priest who had not been with them, took on an aggressive tone, fanning the flames of hatred against Canudos. The report described a “deplorable situation of fanaticism and anarchy [that] must cease for the honor of the Brazilian people” (Marciano, p. 19; trans. T. Beebee). Perhaps this explains why in October 1897 not a single protest emerged from the Catholic Church against the decapitations, rapes, and kidnappings that were perpetrated on the population of Canudos.

In 1896 the Conselheiristas bought wood in the city of Juazeiro. A local deputy there, an old enemy of the Conselheiro, pressured the seller not to deliver the product. The deputy then sent telegrams to the governor of Bahia predicting that Juazeiro would soon be invaded by the angry Conselheiristas. In order to avoid the reputation of being a crypto-monarchist, the governor acceded to the demand for support, and in November 1896 sent 116 men to protect Juazeiro. When the attack did not materialize, the company proceeded to the town of Uauá, where they met a force of Conselheiristas. A battle ensued, in which eight soldiers died, as did 150 jagunços, who fought with scythes, clubs, and blunderbusses. Despite their superior resuits,


In the late nineteenth century there was an ‘orthodox, Rome-based Brazilian Catholic practice, administered by priests for the minority living on the coast, and there was another, syri-cretic “folk* Catholicism practiced by the majority in the interior and administered mostly by men like the Counselor. Three reasons contributed to this: Rome, the source of official Catholic doctrine, was very far away; there were insufficient priests for the population (the ratio was estimated at one priest for every 20,000 people); and the racial mixing of the population brought indigenous and African practices and beliefs into contact with those derived from Europe. The isolation of the sertão also allowed the survival of medieval religious practices and beliefs, such as flagellation and Sebastianism (thé belief that the Portuguese emperor Dom Sebastião, missing and presumably killed in action against the Moors in the fifteenth century, would return as the messiah of his people). Folk Catholicism in the sertão was characterized by penitence, self-castigation, the presence of the unquiet souls of the dead, fear of hell and damnation, and an emphasis on ritual, image, fetish, and prayers for the achievement of specific effects. Nothing is more expressive of the differences between the practices of the official Church and that of the backlanders than the failed mission of two Church emissaries to Canudos. When one of them told the residents of Canudos that it was Church doctrine that they should not take their fasting to the point of physical pain, and that the drinking of coffee was allowed during a fast, he was greeted with the derisive comment: “That is not fasting; that is feasting” (Marciano, trans. T. Beebee, p. 15).

the soldiers retreated to Juazeiro. The battle hardened positions on both sides. The soldiers’retreat meant that the backlanders had won their first real victory. New inhabitants streamed into Canudos.

A second expedition of 550 soldiers, and a third of 1,200 were defeated in January and March of 1897, respectively. The death of the commander and vice-commander of the third expedition made Canudos a national concern, a threat to the fledgling Republic. The town was rumored to have extraordinary armaments, the only explanation for its amazing resistance in the minds of those unfamiliar with the local conditions;the arms, they said, were supplied by foreign powers interested in restoring the monarchy. Monarchist newspapers were destroyed, and monarchist sympathizers were lynched by angry mobs as far away as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.


An eyewitness to part of the fourth expedition, Euclicfes da Cunha had conceived a profound respect for the people of the bactclancb, and also wished to counter the simplistic ideas of the war that the public had been fed. He furthermore viewed Canudos on a grander scale than had any previous author, Canudos was, for him, symptomatic of the problems of Brazil and of Latin America In general: the imposition of European models and ideas on an American reality that failed to fit those models, Da Cunha’s text thus enlarges Canudos to the scale of apocalypse* Canudo$ was, argyes Rebellion in the Backlands, a war tetween two stages of civilization for which no one could be blamed, but in whiich the Republic betrayed its own ideals In destroying genuine Brazilian culture that had developed from the land and had not been imported from Europe* To place theCanudos conflict within this framework meant drawing a mental map of Brazil, on the grandest of scales* Such a map would correlate the physical placement and movement of people with their cultural and social development* It would, according to da Cunha, associate coastal Brazil, which in the late nineteenth century contained all of the country’s major population centers, with a Europeanizing influence and concomitantty with an inauthentic or incomplete Brazil* ianness* The vast, nearly empty backlands, on the other hand, were the scene of a mixing of the races that produced a truly unique Brazilian culture.

The fourth expedition, which eventually involved half of the Brazilian army, could and would not fail. Having learned from the rout of the third expedition the foolhardiness of a direct assault on Canudos, the fourth expedition carefully established its preliminary siege line on June 27, but succeeded in totally encircling the town only on September 23. Repeated assaults by government forces, combined with bombardment, gradually drew the net tighter, until Canudos fell to the government forces on October 5, 1897.

The Narrative in Focus

Contents summary

Rebellion in the Backlands is divided into three parts: “The Land” (ca. 50 pp.);“Man” (ca. 120 pp.); and “The Conflict” (ca. 300 pp.). In the narrative da Cunha follows a line of Darwinist reasoning that the Canudos war was a

case in which advanced forces of civilization inevitably crushed a retrograde form of life. This reasoning is in keeping with the notions of scientist Charles Darwin about the survival of the fittest. The three divisions of the narrative may reflect the author’s Darwinist philosophy: first, geography and climate influence the mode of life of the backlands inhabitants; second, that way of life gives rise to the forms of social organization and religious messianism characteristic of Canudos; third, both the land and the people who live there determine the conditions of the conflict described in the balance of the book’s pages.

Da Cunha’s text delays its narration of the war in order to show that the residents of Canudos were the people of the earth, thus allowing the space of Brazil to generate the tragic narrative. In “The Land,” the text gives an extensive description of the geology, climatology, flora, and fauna of the sertao. The first sentence of Rebellion in the Backlands constructs topographically the continuity and completeness that da Cunha and his fellow Republicans so ardently sought in Brazil’s political life:

The central plateau of Brazil descends, along the southern coast, in unbroken slopes, high and steep, overlooking the sea; it takes the form of hilly uplands level with the peaks of the coastal mountain ranges that extend from the Rio Grande to Minas. To the north, however, it gradually diminishes in altitude, dropping eastward to the shore in a series of natural terraces which deprive it of its primitive magnitude, throwing it back for a considerable distance in the direction of the interior. (Rebellion, p. 3)

“Completeness” is demonstrated by the physical integrity shown in this sweeping, bird’s-eye description of the national territory. Everything is accounted for in this largest of overviews: starting with the whole of the coast, then traveling from south to north, Rio Grande to Minas Gerais. Once the physical description moves to the sertao, or backlands, it beginsto fail: “Our best maps, conveying but scant information, show here an expressive blank, a hiatus, labeled Terra Ignota, a mere scrawl indicating a problematic river or an idealized mountain range” (Rebellion, p. 9). The sertao, excluded from Brazilian cultural memory, nevertheless expresses itself in Brazilian life– the result is a tragedy that could have been avoided if Brazilians had paid attention to the needs of the backlanders. The subtext is that regional rebellions must be suppressed but also that all Brazilians must be identified with the nation–da Cunha repeats several times that the Republic had a duty to bombard the people of Canudos with education rather than cannonballs.

Later chapters return to the theme of land scape, and it plays an important role in the description of the struggle between backlanders and government forces: “The caatingas [scrub forests] are an incorruptible ally of the sertanejo [backwoodsman] in revolt, and they do in a certain way enter into the conflict. They arm themselves for the combat, take the offensive. For the invader they are an impenetrable wilderness; but they have numerous paths by which they are accessible to the backwoodsman, who was born and grew up there” (Rebellion, p. 191). The activity and aggression of the caatinga in this brief description typify the way da Cunha uses land scape in his text.

The economy, customs, and appearance of the sertanejo are the subject of the second part of the book, which treats the mixed racial origins and retrograde civilization of the people of the interior. In the wildness of the sertao Africans, Europeans, and Indians interbred without the inhibitions against racial mixing found in the more “civilized” areas of Brazil. The three best-known “types” to emerge from this miscegenation were the mulatto (white and black); the mestizo (white and Indian); and the cafuso (black and Indian), but these are only the simplest of the various racial mixtures to be found in the backlands.

In the late nineteenth century Darwinism had been pressed into the service of Eurocentrism in the view that the white races were more highly evolved than others. Da Cunha shared the abhorrence of miscegenation that this view supported– despite the fact that his personal background was not entirely European. He posits in Rebellion in the Backlands that the apparently indiscriminate racial mixing of the sertão has caused the region’s backwardness. At the same time, he recognizes that miscegenation has produced the true Brazilian: “the bedrock of our race,” as he calls the sertanejos (Rebellion, p. 464). Da Cunha’s text suggests that he is torn between the racialist notions of European theorists, which associated miscegenation with inferiority, and his own admiration for the sertanejos, who are able to survive under the most adverse conditions in an inhospitable environment. Notable passages of this section describe the terrible effects of drought, and the sertanejo as a “Hercules-Quasimodo” (Rebellion, p. 89). Da Cunha’s striking oxymoron points to the back-lander as the union of opposites: the Greek hero Hercules, an image of strength, power, and masculine beauty, with the antihero of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an image of deformity and weakness. Da Cunha characterizes Conselheiro as a product of his environment: “when all is said, [the Counselor] was doing no more than to condense the obscurantism of three separate races. And he grew in stature until he was projected into history” (Rebellion, p. 129). The Counselor and his followers are described in vivid terms that testify to equal measures of fascination and repugnance in the author.


The final image in Rebellion in the Backlands, of the so-called civilized victors in joyous frenzy over the sight of the Counselor’s head, probably says more about the dialectic of barbarism and civilization than would a hundred other details that could be drawn from history. In real life, after the fall of Canudos, a host of travesties were visited upon the defeated: the burning of the corpses of jagunços with wood from the very homes they had defended; alleged rapes carried out on female prisoners; and perhaps most poignant of all, the separation of children from their surviving parents and their subsequent “donation” to soldiers, “good” families of Salvador, and bordellos of the region. As in the narrative, the Counselor’s head was severed from his exhumed body. Dr. Nina Rodriguez and other members of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Bahia examined his brain for evidence of propensity to crime and madness, in keeping with the philosophy of physiological psychology at the time. They claimed to have found it.

The last section, “The Rebellion,” tells the story of the armed conflict from the sending of troops to Juazeiro to the examination of the deceased Counselor’s brain by the doctors of Salvador. In this section, fictionalized scenes from the lives of the Canudos residents give way to portrayals of the soldiers sent against them. The Counselor virtually disappears from the story in this last section; the text assumes the viewpoint of the federalists almost exclusively. Da Cunha narrates the wearisome march to Canudos and the retreat of the wounded from the battle site by following an imaginary band along the route. His account uses this typical band to convey the feelings and experiences of the government soldiers: “In these brief periods of repose, an obsessing idea would lay hold of them, shattering their peace of mind—supposing the jagunços should attack them! Here they were, helpless, impoverished, ragged, repulsive-looking … livid with hunger, being swept across the desert like so many useless dead weights” (Rebellion, p. 377). In contrast, the text tells in more neutral terms of the repeated assaults on Canudos and of the jagunços’ counter-attacks. Readers are likelier to gain a lasting impression from the section’s descriptions of the dead and wounded, of the soldiers’ hunger and suffering, and of the treatment of prisoners, than from its descriptions of combat. Several times the text describes the corpses of fallen soldiers, speculating on exactly how they died without reconstructing the actual scene of combat. The section also includes descriptions of the third expedition’s attack on Canudos, the guerrilla tactics of the jagunços, and the fearful losses of the fourth expedition shortly after arriving on Favela Hill, where the soldiers are in an exposed position. There are some vivid, agonizing passages describing the fate of the rebel prisoners: the “red necktie”—decapitation with a knife especially shaped to the purpose. In the book’s concluding incident, the victors carried the Counselor’s head to Salvador, “where it was greeted by delirious multitudes with carnival joy” (Rebellion, p. 476).

Sources and literary context

Da Cunha apparently used, but did not cite, several published accounts of the war at Canudos. Most of these, such as Dantas Barreto’s Last Expedition to Canudos (1898), were written by soldiers and included eyewitness information. The first account to be published, that of Afonso Arinos, depended, in fact, on second-hand information. Afonso Arinos was an author with monarchist sentiments and a profound interest in the culture and geography of the sertão. His novel, Os Jagunços (1898), invents a fictitious jagunço, Luís Pachola, whom it follows through the course of the war. Arinos made the landscape responsible for the difficulties encountered by the army in fighting against the jagunços, and hinted that an ecological determinism shaped the society engaged in the conflict, which was the approach da Cunha took in Rebellion in the Backlands. However, Arinos’s fiction does not agree with da Cunha’s text on how absolute the destruction was. Arinos’s character Pachola and a few others manage to escape through underground tunnels to the river. In contrast, da Cunha’s version says that Canudos fought until the last male survivor: “Canudos did not surrender. The only case of its kind in history, it held out to the last man” (Rebellion, p. 475). Not only was Canudos not the only case of defenders holding out to the last man—the Roman siege of the Jews at Masada is but one example—but Rebellion in the Backlands also chooses not to mention that there was a large exodus from Canudos following the death of the Conselheiro on September 22, and not to relate the aftermath of the final clash. Real-life survivors suggest that this version of the tragedy is misleading.

Another important source for Rebellion in the Backlands was Manoel Benício’s 1899 O Rei dos Jagunços (King of the Jagunços). Benício was not a monarchist but an army colonel who accompanied the fourth expedition as a journalist and was nearly executed for his severe criticisms of the army’s actions. Rather than focus on the individual psychology of an idealized jagunço, Benício inserts the story of Canudos into the history of interpersonal relationships in the sertão. He begins with a detailed recounting of a family feud between the Araújos, a prominent family of the Ceará sertão, and the Maciels generations before the Counselor’s birth. Da Cunha weaves many of these same details into the second section of Rebellion in the Backlands.

Benício’s book portrays the end of Canudos as the surrender of Beatinho (the religious leader who succeeded the Counselor upon his death) and the immediate decapitation of the prisoners. It takes every opportunity to counter the official view of Canudos as a redoubt of banditry and mysticism. The book concludes that if the Counselor was a bad Catholic, he was also a true martyr who died, like Jesus, for his faith. Thus, while da Cunha presented his text as a “book of revenge” for the atrocities committed by the military at Canudos, his critical attitude was preceded by that of Benício. Arinos, Benício, and da Cunha all intended their texts to have a particular impact. Arinos’s account attempted to create an emotional empathy with the jagunço; Benício’s text blamed both sides for inflexibility and barbarism; and da Cunha’s used the tragedy to promote Brazilian nationhood.


Canudos has served as the source for more literary works than any other single incident of Brazilian history. These works embrace a variety of genres, from ballad to epic to novel. The embers of Canudos were still aglow after the town’s destruction by government forces in 1897, when Brazilian authors began setting pen to paper in an effort to recount and explain the most significant mülenarian event in Brazil, and possibly in the Americas. The significance of Canudos was in large part shaped by its reception and transformation in the Brazilian imagination. During the war itself, Canudos was interpreted—contradictorily—as a redoubt of religious fanatics and bandits, and as a counter-revolutionary state-within-a-state, financed by the substantial number of monarchists remaining in Brazil. Almost immediately after the war, a counter-memory of Canudos began to be constructed by such authors as Afonso Arinos, Manoel Benfcio, and Euclides da Cunha. The war of bullets has produced a war of words, in which basic concepts of Brazilianness, modernity, and social justice have been debated under the pretext of getting the Canudos story “right” Lori Madden expresses the trajectory of Canudos his-toriography when she writes that the conflict “has stimulated the imagination of diverse writers of alternative points of view since it affords evidence to be viewed as a political rebellion, a civil war, a problem of ethnicity, a messianic movement, a social movement, and other phenomena. It has become a mirror to the manipulations of its interpreters to such a degree that Canudos historiography, studied over time, tells a story of the evolution of ideas” (Madden, p. 6). Fiction, along with other genres, has played an important role in that evolution.

The preoccupation of Rebellion in the Backlands with the backlands of Brazil undoubtedly has something to do with the prevalence of that region in subsequent Brazilian literature, a prevalance which is disproportionate to the region’s population or economic importance. Rachel Quiroz’s O quinze (1930), Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas secas (1938; Barren Lives [also covered in Latin American Liter ature ana Its Times]); and Bernardo Guimarães Rosa’s Grande sertão: veredas (1956; The Devil to Pay in the Backlands ) are all Brazilian novels set in more or less the same region as Rebellion in the Backlands, and they deal with many of the same issues. The most obvious and famous reworking of Rebellion in the Backlands, however, is La guerra del fin del mundo (1981;The War of the End of the World) by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (see The Storytelle r). This long fiction, which tells the Canudos story from a variety of points of view, quickly outsold Rebellion in the Backlands, and became the single most important medium by which people all over the world came in contact with the Canudos story. Vargas Llosa has paid a fitting tribute to Euclides da Cunha in this novel by making him into a major character—the nearsighted journalist—in this retelling.

The genres of Rebellion in the Backlands

From its first appearance, the generic status of Rebellion in the Backlands has been hotly disputed. An entire critical tradition, from José Veríssimo to Afrânio Coutinho, has defined it as a work of fiction, in categories varying from novel to tragedy to epic. For example, that all the feared capangas (gunslingers) of Canudos would have gathered for the Counselor’s sermons, and simultaneously succumbed to religious ecstasy, as depicted in Rebellion in the Backlands, is highly unlikely. Certainly da Cunha himself never witnessed such an episode. He not only fictionalizes events, but also admits that he is doing so, and implies that the participants themselves fictionalized their own situation, as if they were actors in a tragic drama. At a crucial moment in the fighting, says the narrative,

all the huts adjacent to the engineering commission constituted an enormous theater pit from which to view the drama that was taking place. Focusing their binoculars through all the crevices in the walls, the audience stamped, applauded, shouted bravos, and hissed. In their eyes the scene before them—real, concrete, inescapable—was a stupendous bit of fiction which was being acted out on that rude stage.

(Rebellion, p. 432)

This element of the writing has been ascribed (by Luiz Costa Lima) to the incompatability between literary models such as tragedy, and da Cunha’s belief in positivism. Positivism, the conviction that using the scientific method would create social progress, became a leading ideology in Brazilian universities and military academies such as the ones da Cunha attended in his formative years. This philosophy of science and progress might allow for realistic genres, such as the modern novel or “problem play,” whose purpose was to critique social vices, but had little sympathy for forms like myth and tragedy, which presupposed a universe ruled by fate rather than by scientific principles. Da Cunha very carefully describes the landscape of the sertão so that it may carry the weight of explanation, meanwhile eliminating the notions of fate and destiny that are typical ingredients in tragic fiction.

Da Cunha seems to feel that history, as a genre, was reserved for the great events of Europe, and could not possibly be used to describe the slaughter of peasants in a remote part of Latin America. He even explains the morally repugnant behavior of the Federalists in executing their prisoners as a consequence of this absence of history. Did they not fear the judgment of posterity? No, responds da Cunha: “History would not go as far as that. Concerned with the fearful physiognomy of peoples amid the majestic ruins of vast cities, against the supremely imposing background of cyclopic coliseums, with the glorious butchery of classic battles and the epic savagery of great invasions, History would have no time for the crude slaughter pen” (Rebellion, p. 443). In other words, history takes as its objects grand battles affecting the course of civilizations. Its wars are fought in the classical mode, with two armies confronting each other in vast arrays that decide the fate of nations in a single day. Therefore, argues da Cunha, Canudos could not become the subject of history. Another genre, still unnamed, had to be found to narrate the Canudos story. The confused generic status of Rebellion in the Backlands brings to mind da Cunha’s central thesis about the inability of Latin American reality to correspond to preconceived European models. In literature, as in other endeavors, new models would have to emerge from the reality of Latin America.


The day after its publication in 1902, Os Sertões was reviewed by José Veríssimo, one of the most noted Brazilian critics of the period. Veríssimo seemed most impressed by the book’s all-embracing, interdisciplinary nature. For Veríssimo Os Sertões was at once the work “of a man of science, a geographer, a geologist, an ethnographer; of a man of thought, a philosopher, a sociologist, a historian; and of a man of feeling, a poet, a novelist, an artist, who knows how to see and to describe, who thrills and feels just as much in the face of nature as he does from contact with people” (Veríssimo, p. 45). Veris-simo’s opinion has been restated and confirmed by most of the Brazilian literati ever since. Enthusiastic praise for the book caused the original 1,000 copies to sell out quickly. On the basis of this one book alone, da Cunha was elected several years later to the prestigious Brazilian Academy of Letters. Sometime after the author’s death in 1909 the work was canonized as “Brazil’s greatest book,” as Samuel Putnam called it in the preface to his 1944 English translation.

—Thomas O. Beebee

For More Information

Arinos, Afonso. Os Jagunços.1898. 3rd ed. Rio de Janeiro: Philobiblion, 1985.

Beebee, Thomas O.“Os Sertões Illustrated.” TAXI 4 (July 1997). Available <>.

Benício, Manoel. O rei dos jagunços. Rio de Janeiro:Jornal do Comércio, 1899.

Costa Lima, Luiz. Control of the Imaginary. Trans. Ronald W. Sousa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion in the Backlands. Trans. Samuel Putnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.

Hilton, Ronald. “Positivism in Latin America.” In Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Vol. 3. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.

Levine, Robert M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, 1893-1897. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Madden, Lori. “The Canudos War in History.” Luso-Brazilian Review 30, no. 2 (Winter 1993): 5-22.

Marciano, João Evangelista de Monte. Relatório apresentado ao Arcebispado da Bahia sobre António Conselherio no seu séquito no Arraial de Canudos. 1895. Rpt. Salvador: Centro de Estudos Baianos da Universidade Federal da Bahia, 1987.

Torres, Victor F. The Canudos War Collection. Albuquerque: Latin American Institute of the University of New Mexico, 1990.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. The War of the End of the World. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1984.

Veríssimo, José. “A Campanha de Canudos. Pelo Sr.>Euclides da Cunha.” In Estudos de Literatura Brasilaeira.5a série. Belo Horizonte: Itataia, 1977.