Conselheiro, Antônio (1830–1897)

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Conselheiro, Antônio (1830–1897)

Antônio Conselheiro (b. 13 March 1830; d. October 1897), a late-nineteenth-century Brazilian Catholic mystic and lay missionary. His career is immortalized in Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões (1902; Rebellion in the Backlands).

António Vicente Mendes Maciel was born in Santo Antônio de Quixeramobim, deep in the Ceará backlands. His grandparents were vaqueiros (cowboys). His father, Vicente's, first marriage ended disastrously; he deserted his wife after cudgeling her so savagely that she nearly died. Vicente's common-law second wife, Maria Maciel, was the boy's stepmother during his formative years. Known in the village as Maria Chana, she compensated by imposing strict religious discipline within her household and meting out frequent punishments to her children and slaves. Gradually, Vicente's fortunes as a merchant and property owner began to slip away. He grew morose and sullen, and was frequently inebriated.

As a child, Antônio was unobtrusive and studious. The boy's complexion was tawny (moreno), later attributed to partial Calabaça Indian ancestry. His birth certificate listed him as pardo (dark), but chroniclers who saw him generally referred to him as white. His first formal instruction came from his father, who wanted him to become a priest. He was then enrolled in a school taught by Professor Manuel Antônio Ferreira Nobre, where he studied arithmetic, geography, Portuguese, French, and Latin. Some of his schoolmates later took their places in the regional elite as police chiefs, newspapermen, and lawyers.

The Mendes Maciel clan was a "good family" in the eyes of local inhabitants and, in the language of the day, part of the "conservative classes" although not particularly wealthy. At the age of twenty-five Antônio found himself responsible for four unmarried younger girls (two of them half sisters). He took over his father's business and filed papers to back the outstanding loans with a mortgage. In 1857, when he was twenty-seven, he married his fifteen-year-old cousin, Brasilina Laurentina de Lima, the daughter of Francisca Maciel, his father's sister. When she ran away with a soldier, Maciel sold his house and struck off to wander the backlands. He dressed austerely, fasted, and spent weeks and even months in small backlands towns, rebuilding dilapidated churches and cemetery walls. By the 1880s he began to acquire a reputation as a conselheiro, or religious counselor.

His wanderings took him through the back-lands of Ceará, Pernambuco, Sergipe, and Bahia, in the heart of Brazil's Northeastern drought region. In 1887 he reached the seacoast, at Vila do Conde; he then turned back toward the semiarid interior. He wore a blue tunic tied with a sash, a turned-down hat to protect him from the sun, and sandals. He carried a leather bag with pen and ink, paper, and two prayer books.

Antônio lived on alms and slept in the back rooms of houses and in barns, always on the floor. His nightly orations from makeshift podiums in public squares entranced listeners, although he was not a particularly forceful speaker. The sophisticated called him a buffoon, laughing at his mixture of dogmatic counsels, vulgarized precepts from Christian morality, Latinate phrases, and prophecies. But he exerted a charismatic hold on the humble, many of whom began to follow him as he walked from place to place. In 1893, after a skirmish between his disciples and troops sent from the coast to arrest him, he set out for a remote abandoned cattle ranch on the banks of the Vasa-Barris River in the state of Bahia, a hamlet of 500 or so mud-thatched wooden shanties. Here, protected by a ring of mountains surrounding the valley (and by friendly landowners in the region as well as some local priests), he established a religious community called Canudos, or Belo Monte. As many as 25,000 pilgrims of all racial and economic groups (most of them impoverished backlands caboclos of mixed origin) took up residence there, making it Bahia's second most populous urban center by 1895.

Conselheiro's theological vision inverted the harsh and austere reality of the impoverished back-lands: the weak, strengthened by their faith, would inherit the earth. Nature would be transformed: rains would come to the arid sertão, bringing forth the earth's bounty. Canudos would be a "New Jerusalem." As community leader, he retained his personal asceticism and humility. He dissuaded others from calling him a saint, and he never assumed the powers of the clergy. Although he borrowed from a Catholic apocalyptic missal used widely during the late nineteenth century (A missão abreviada), his teachings never strayed from traditional church doctrine. Conselheiro admonished his disciples to live austerely, to renounce luxury, and to await the imminent coming of the Day of Judgment at the millennium. He was a misogynist, and avoided eye contact with women. But he was no religious fanatic. His preachments fell squarely within the tradition of backlands popular Catholicism, which, cut off from church influence by the paucity of available clergy, always had emphasized the presence of sin, the need for penitence, and the personal role of saints and other intermediaries.

Politically, he opposed the (1889) Republic because he revered the exiled Emperor Pedro II and because Brazil's Constitution of 1891, influenced by positivist ideas, ceded jurisdiction over the registry of births, marriages, and deaths to the state. His enemies accused him of sedition and of advocating the violent restoration of the monarchy, presumably with aid from monarchists elsewhere in Brazil as well as from monarchies in Europe. Opposition to Conselheiro and his community was led by backlands landowners threatened by the loss of their traditionally docile labor force as thousands abandoned their residences and streamed to Canudos.

Conselheiro's community at Canudos was destroyed by a massive and bloody assault by the Brazilian army in October 1897, following four attacks over the space of more than a year. He had died, probably of dysentery, some days before, and had been buried by pious villagers. His body was disinterred, the head severed and mounted on a pike, and displayed at the head of military parades in Salvador and in other cities on the coast.

See alsoCanudos Campaign .


Ronald H. Chilcote, Power and the Ruling Classes in Northeast Brazil (1990); Luso-Brazilian Review, special issue on messianism and millenarianism (Summer 1991).

Robert M. Levine, Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Conselheiro, Antônio, Walnice Nogueira Galvão, and Fernando da Rocha Peres. Breviário de Antonio Conselheiro. Salvador: Universidade Federal da Bahia, Centro de Estudos Baianos: EDUFBA, 2002.

Galvão, Walnice Nogueira. O império do Belo Monte: Vida e morte de Canudos. São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2001.

                                      Robert M. Levine

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Conselheiro, Antônio (1830–1897)

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