Cunha, Euclides (Rodrigues) da 1866-1909

views updated

CUNHA, Euclides (Rodrigues) da 1866-1909


Born January 20, 1866, in Cantagalo, Rio de Janiero, Brazil; died August 15, 1909, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; married Ana Solon, 1889. Education: Graduate of Colégio Aquino (liberal arts); attended a polytechnic school; Escola Militar, degree in mathematics and science, 1891.


Journalist, engineer, surveyor, educator, and author. O Estado de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, journalist; City of São Paulo, superintendent of public works; City of Santos, Brazil, head of sanitation commission, 1904; surveyor for Brazilian-Peruvian boundary expedition, 1904-06; worked at foreign ministry in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1906-09; Colégio Pedro II, Rio de Janeiro, professor of logic, 1909. Military service: Brazilian army, 1890-96; attained rank of second lieutenant; worked as a field engineer..


Elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters and Brazilian Historical and Geographic Institute, both 1903.


Os sertões, 1902, translation with introduction and notes by Samuel Putnam published as Rebellion in the Backlands, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1944.

Contrastes e confrontos (essays; title means "Contrasts and Comparisons"), 1902.

Perú versus Bolivia (history), Livraria F. Alves (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), 1907.

Castro Alves e seu tempo (lecture), Imprensa Nacional (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), 1907.

À margem da história (title means "On the Margin of History"), 1909.

Diário de uma expedição (autobiography), 1939.

Canudos (history), 1939.

Obra completa, second edition (two volumes), J. Aguilar (Rio de Janeiro), Brazil, 1995.


Euclides da Cunha, one of Brazil's greatest writers, produced the masterpiece Os sertões (translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands), a 1902 work through which Brazil began to define itself as a country and a people.

Cunha, who was of Greek, Indian, and Celtic descent, was born in rural Rio de Janeiro to a family of modest means. His mother died when he was three, and he was raised by an aunt, older sister and grandparents. Cunha learned to love books at an early age due to his poet father. He began writing while studying at the Colégio Aquino, where he was influenced by republican factions advocating the abolition of Brazilian aristocracy in favor of a representational government. He continued his studies at a polytechnic school, then began training for an officer's command in the Brazilian army. His training ended prematurely, however, when he was expelled for insubordination: a nonviolent man, he threw down his sword in the presence of a minister of war. Cunha returned to the military academy and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1890, the year he married. He then spent five years with the military, working as a field engineer on a border project.

Five years later, Cunha resigned his commission to become a journalist with O Estado de São Paulo. In 1897 he traveled to Bahia to cover the army's suppression of an uprising being led by Old Testament prophet Antonio Conselheiro (Counselor) in the Village of Canudos. The charismatic, elderly leader had drawn thousands of poor Brazilians, sertanejos of mixed European, African and aboriginal descent, to the commune. They rejected the Brazilian federal republic, refused to pay taxes or accept civil marriages, and believed that the end of the world was near. The sect was seen by the fledgling Brazilian government as a threat, and in February 1897, it sent more than 1,000 troops, armed with field artillery and led by its fiercest commander, to crush the peasants. But after one month, it was the villagers who were victorious, having killed most of the senior officers.

Canudos was finally overcome in a four-month siege that began in October. The government sent 8,000 troops who went house-to-house, killing approximately 15,000 people, mostly civilians, many of whom had their throats cut after they surrendered. Captured men and boys were garroted, decapitated, or disemboweled. Still Canudos never surrendered, even as the army dynamited and burned the compound. Survivors dug a common grave where those who were close to death lay with their fingers on triggers, waiting for one last chance to kill a soldier.

An Economist contributor noted that "though the scale of this conflict was unusual, its nature was not. The details have varied, but from the Anabaptists of Münster in 1534-35 to the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, in 1993, communities of religious dissidents have often suffered violent repression. What further marks out the events at Canudos is that they gave rise to a literary epic which many Brazilians still consider to be their country's greatest single book."

The battle was covered by the press, which received its information via telegraph. The news portrayed the story as a plot by the poor farmers of Canudos to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy. But Cunha had witnessed the slaughter, and although he at first supported the government's efforts to suppress the rebellion, he came to sympathize with the backlanders' cause and admire their heroism. These events provided the basis for his first book, an extraordinary analysis incorporating anthropology, philosophy, ethnology, botany, geology and geography in its account of the conflict.

Cunha wrote his book by night as he built a bridge by day. Rebellion in the Backlands is in three parts: "The Land," "Man," and "The Battle." Nation reviewer Gwyneth Cravens wrote that it "begins quietly, with a panoramic view of a desolate landscape of stark ranges, folds and buckles in the earth, ribs of quartz gleaming in the relentless sun, desiccated plains with flesh-tearing thickets of thorn trees, tortuous, boulder-strewn canyons, and rivers and swamps that vanish during the annual drought." After establishing the nature of the land, Cunha writes of the people, including Conselheiro, then the violence.

Although he had difficulty finding a publisher, Os sertões did prove to be popular, and its author was elected to the Brazilian Historical and Geographic Institute and to the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Cunha worked in a variety of positions over the next several years. He published Contrastes e confrontos, a collection of political and historical essays. He was appointed to the chair of logic of Colégio Pedro II and delivered his first address just weeks before he was shot and killed by an army officer who may have been the lover of his estranged wife. At the time, he was writing another book about the backlands. À margem da história, his second collection of essays, was published posthumously. Except for his first book, none of Cunha's writings, and only a few of the many books and articles that discuss him and his output, are available in English. His complete works were published in Portuguese as Obra completa.



Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998, pp. 336-337.

Magill, Frank N., editor, Cyclopedia of World Authors, Salem Press (Pasadena, CA), 1997, pp. 486-487.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 24, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987, pp. 140-155.


Comparative Literature, summer, 1995, Thomas O. Beebee, review of Os sertões, p. 193.

Economist, March 1, 1997, review of Os sertões, p. 83.

Nation, December 7, 1992, Gwyneth Cravens, review of Rebellion in the Backlands, p. 706.

New York Review of Books, February 28, 1985, Michael Wood, review of Rebellion in the Backlands, pp. 7-8.

PMLA, May, 1993, Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, "Mario Vargas Llosa, Euclides da Cunha, and the Strategy of Intertextuality," pp. 460-469.*

About this article

Cunha, Euclides (Rodrigues) da 1866-1909

Updated About content Print Article