Good Books: Rebellion In The Backlands by Euclides da Cunha (Part One)

In 1896, in newly-republican Brazil, a force of local militia was dispatched to protect a town from being looted by desperadoes from the Backlands. This expedition was not expected to take long nor cost many casualties but it proved to be the opening of a great conflict that lasted a year and took 25000 or more lives.

Euclides da Cunha was working as a journalist and traveled north to be with the troops at the final battle at Candudos. Afterwards, he spent several years reading official reports and interviewing participants. Os Sertões is his account of the Canudos War, as it is generally known, and is reckoned to be Brazil’s greatest literary work, but non-Brazilians from Stefan Zweig to Mario Varga Llosa have appreciated its sweep and power. Robert Lowell said it was better than War and Peace. Other readers have been caught by da Cunha’s description of what is now called “asymmetric warfare”. Still others are put off by the author’s style which is as prickly and convoluted as the landscape it describes. Unless otherwise noted, I am using the Samuel Putnam translation, Rebellion in the Backlands. A new translation by Elizabeth Lowe, Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, is also available.

The Backlands, or sertões, are in the semi-desert of northeast Brazil, in Bahia state mostly. This is poor, rough country subject to periodic droughts. Ranchers raise cattle here, when the weather allows. The local cowboys, the sertanejos, are a mix of European, African, and Native peoples. They are poor people and when there is no rain and cattle die of thirst, they become desperate. In 1837, writes da Cunha, the sertanejos became convinced by a visionary preacher that the “enchanted kingdom of Dom Sebastião” was at hand. The king would emerge from the shattered rock Pedra Bonita, but this rock could not be broken by iron or explosives, but would open once soaked with the blood of infants. Mothers dashed their babies against the huge rock until the ground was covered in blood. Desperate poor people subject to periodic natural disaster may develop apocalyptic views. And they may follow charismatic leaders who promise an end to suffering.

The sertão. [Pensar Films via Flickr]

 Antonio Maciel was an intelligent, educated man who worked as a bookkeeper. His wife ran off with the local sheriff in 1861 and Maciel suffered a mental breakdown. He took up work on a farm and did some teaching, but more and more was taken by mystical ideas. Around 1865 Antonio began wandering around the countryside. He was a tall, lean man, black-bearded and long-haired, who dressed in a dark blue or black robe with a straw hat and sandals and wore a large wooden crucifix around his neck. He seldom spoke during this period, unless he was addressed directly, but as time went on he began expressing his beliefs to those who would listen. By 1873, Antonio had attracted a following who called him Antonio Conselheiro — Antonio the Counsellor.

Antonio and his group would travel to villages and repair local churches. Antonio would preach and then they would move on, the band adding a few new members perhaps. Local authorities and church leaders regarded Antonio with suspicion — what was he up to anyway with his strange talk and weird visions? Was he Catholic; was he even a Christian? And the ever growing group with him, they were probably up to no good. In 1876 Antonio was arrested on spurious charges. He was beaten, his hair and beard cut off, and he was transported to the city. Eventually, the charges were dismissed and Antonio returned to the sertões. He shrugged off his tribulations and proceeded on a new round of building churches, repairing cemetery walls, and so on. The next year, a devastating drought struck the backlands which is believed to have cost 300,000 lives. Antonio and his group tried to alleviate the suffering of the starving sertanejos and picked up even more adherents.

Statue of Antonio the Counselor at the Canudos museum, one of many such statues in Brazil.

Antonio’s sermons became ever more critical of the Church and, in 1882, the Archbishop of Bahia ordered that he not be allowed to address local congregations — the Church shut him out. Now Brazil went through some wrenching political and social changes.

Slavery was a central fact of the Brazilian economy. Although the slave trade was declared illegal in Brazil in 1831, it continued into the 1850s. An estimated 35% of all enslaved Africans in the New World went to Brazil. In addition, there was frequent enslavement of native peoples. These slaves often escaped to quilombos, communities in the forest or jungle, where they lived free. Slave-catchers led expeditions against these quilombos and there was much bloodshed. Meanwhile, slaves enlisted in Brazil’s wars to earn their freedom. In 1871, just after the Paraguayan War, Brazil declared the children of slaves to be free. During the drought of 1877, cotton farmers in the northeast of Brazil were unable to make their crops and began selling their slaves to the south. This caused further escape attempts and many escapees made their way into the sertões. Finally, after some more piecemeal emancipation, slavery was completely abolished in 1888. At that time slaves comprised about 5% of Brazil’s population. Many of these newly-free people were unable to find employment, especially in the northeast, and some drifted into Antonio’s orbit.

Brazil is unique in its revolutionary history. When Napoleon invaded Portugal, the King fled to his New World property, Brazil, which became, for a time, the administrative center for all Portugese holdings. Brazil’s monarch was deemed an emperor (Take that, Bonaparte!) but the King regarded all this as a temporary measure. When Napoleon was defeated and the Portugese throne was restored, the King returned, leaving his son in charge as Emperor of Brazil. When Portugal attempted to devolve Brazil back to colonial status, the country revolted and declared its independence. The King  lost the resulting war and the Emperor left for Europe, leaving his five-year-old son as occupant of the throne, the new Emperor of independent Brazil. This was an unstable situation and a variety of insurrections and rebellions followed. Eventually things settled down and Emperor Dom Pedro II ruled over a half-century of growth and progress in Brazil. Democratization of the political system slowly proceeded and there was, generally, freedom of the press and speech. By 1889, though, republican sentiment was strong throughout the country. Although Dom Pedro saw the revolution forming, he did nothing to stop it — perhaps he felt that the monarchy should end with him. Nevertheless, some military factions resisted a change from monarchy and civil war resulted. Eventually, the republicans triumphed but the new regime was fragile and very wary of monarchist plotting. Antonio Counselheiro made some pronouncements in his sermons that favored monarchy and the new government took notice.

By 1893, Antonio’s group had grown so large that it needed its own place. They took over an abandoned farm at Belo Monte and built a town known by the local name Canudos, “Straws”, after the small reeds that grow there. Within two years it was the second largest town in Bahia.

Canudos under siege in 1897.

Canudos was an agglomeration of “mud huts”, as da Cunha has it, barely distinguishable from the earth itself:

Canudos was a hamlet situated in a hole-in-the-ground. The square where the churches stood, on a level with the river, marked the lowest area of all. From here… the village gradually spread upward along a slight incline which formed the sloping wall of a long trench. In behind were the huts, entirely filling the hollow and scattering out over the eastern hillsides, a few of them …sprinkled over the top of the hills, which were mined with trenches.

Da Cunha notes that the place looks an easy target for artillery but, with the benefit of hindsight, he can see that it is effectively a fortification, a series of obstacles surrounded by a waterless moat. He says a few more things about the town: that it is an objectification of  “a tremendous  insanity”; that, in its unplanned structure, it reflects the moral state of the inhabitants or the mental state of Antonio; that it is an expression of the primitive nature of those who built it,  a parody of civilized architecture… These assessments show some of da Cunha’s essential confusion over the events of the Canudos War.

Euclides da Cunha, circa 1890.

Da Cunha is a scientific man, or so he thinks. He is a positivist from the school of Auguste Comte and operates from first principles. The first principle of Brazil is the land itself. Da Cunha describes the sertão in geological terms, but it is geology tinged with poetry — the landscape is one of “tumultuous” rocks; the rocks themselves are “rent” by the violence of geologic process. This dry desolate land receives its annual rainfall and suddenly the dry river beds turn into raging torrents, ripping through the soil. Da Cunha calls this the “martyrdom of earth”. Since human beings are shaped by their environment, these terms also apply to the sertanejos.

So, working from first principles, da Cunha’s first chapter is titled “The Land” and his second, “Man”. The sertanejo is shaped by his land. The cowboys dress in leather — da Cunha repeatedly calls it armor — and their horses also wear leather shields against the thorns of the back country. On horseback the sertanejo appears a centaur, afoot, he is ugly and stooped. And he has the traits of the various races that have gone into his being.

It is difficult today to read da Cunha’s descriptions of race. It is not simply that he derogates non-Europeans, but that it is hard to decipher what race means in his vocabulary. Certainly da Cunha knows nothing of genetics. “Race”, to him, seems an amalgam of ethnicity and social circumstance. This use of the term was fairly common in the 19th Century where we run into the “Irish race”, for instance, or the American notion that white Southerners are a different race from white Northerners. It becomes important to da Cunha to describe the sertanejos’ race. There is a word, mestizo, for a person of mixed European and Native ancestry. And there is the African/European mulatto and the African/Native cafuso. This nomenclature breaks down when we look at tri-racial groups, like the sertanejo, though some terms, like pardo, exist.

Most of the slurs applied to Native and African peoples are referenced by da Cunha — they are lazy and shiftless, savage and passionate, and so on and so forth. But da Cunha has some trouble with this, as he does with many of the received ideas he tries to apply to the events around him. By the end of the book he is torn between describing the sertanejos as miserable wretches or as noble warriors. It may be relevant that da Cunha himself was mestizo.

Leather cowboy hat — the sertanejo’s helmet. []

The essential conflict in da Cunha’s thinking is between the theories of the thinkers that he admires and the reality that da Cunha witnesses. He frames his thoughts along European lines but these do not square with his New World experience. There are contradictory statements all through the book as da Cunha tries to find a way out of cognitive dissonance. The most glaring contradiction occurs when da Cunha declares the lowly sertanejo to be the “bedrock of our [Brazilian] race”. Taken to task over this and other contradictions, da Cunha appended various explanatory notes to his book which, in fact, explain very little. More than one sympathetic critic has quoted Walt Whitman in da Cunha’s defense: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself/ (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”. But unlike Whitman, da Cunha is uncomfortable with the notion of “containing multitudes”; he desires a single truth and his inability to discover it leaves him dissatisfied.

Nowhere is da Cunha’s difficulty more obvious than in his descriptions of Antonio Conselheiro. He is a madman subject to “atavistic” beliefs, but he is also a man trying to do good who organizes a large community and inspires it to heroic feats. When he speaks of Antonio in isolation, da Cunha emphasizes his insanity, but when he speaks of Antonio in conflict with the army or the government, it is these institutions that da Cunha paints as silly and wrong-headed.

Canudos was an alcohol-free zone — when a couple of entrepeneurs brought some liquor into the town, it was seized and poured out on the village square — but the area around the town was wide open and elements of Antonio’s band drifted back and forth between banditry and piety. One group briefly took over the town of Bom Conselho forcing the local authorities to flee. One of these became magistrate of the town of Joazeiro. Antonio Conselheiro bought lumber there for the new church he was building in Canudos and was cheated, the lumber was never delivered. Da Cunha implies that the ex-magistrate of Bom Conselho was involved and meant to provoke Antonio into an attack. Joazeiro begged the government for assistance.

Statue of Antonio overlooking Canudos. [ Maria Hsu via Flickr]

Antonio was already a matter of concern to Brazilian authorities. In 1893 his followers had engaged and defeated a group of thirty police set to arrest him after he preached against the taxes of the new republic. Other clashes followed. These attracted a certain amount of attention but Bahia was swarming with outlaw bands and the Republic was threatened with serious insurrection and disorder. Canudos was far away. It was decided that a hundred soldiers was sufficient to meet this threat and, in October of 1896, they left Joazeiro on the Sao Francisco river, the railroad’s terminal point, and set out south to cover the one hundred and twenty-five miles to Canudos.

The soldiers were force-marched and they had few provisions as they trekked across the desert. Exhausted, they stopped in the town of Uauá. Meanwhile word was spreading throughout the Backlands of the coming conflict.

Antonio Conselheiro was famous throughout the northern backlands and even in the cities along the coast… This was due to his fabulous wanderings for a quarter of a century through every remote corner of the region, where he had left behind him as he went enoromous monuments to mark his passage. There were the towers of dozens of churches he had built; he …had founded the settlement of Bom Jesus, now almost a city; …there was not a single town or obscure village in which he did not have his fervent disciples, and which did not owe to him the rebuilding of a cemetery, the possession of a place of worship, or the providential gift of a water dam.

The locals understood that there was going to be a fight and evacuated the area. The troops marched into Uruá and the population left. Many went to Canudos, another twenty or so miles, to tell Antonio about the soldiers.

At dawn on the 21st, soldiers were awakened by the sound of hymns. A mass of sertanejos — da Cunha says a thousand, other estimates are higher — were marching on the town. They held aloft a sacred banner and they carried ancient single shot muskets. The sentries outside Uruá fired a quick volley, then ran back into town. The mass of people followed. Shooting became general. The regulars had Comblain repeating rifles, the sertanejos had trabucos, blunderbuss muskets that could be loaded with a handfull of nails. But the trabucos were no match for the Comblains and the sertanejos threw them down and charged in with long knives and cattle spears. They were answered with bayonets. There was savage hand to hand fighting. After four hours, the sertanejos left and returned to Canudos. The troops collected what water and provisions they could and skedaddled back to Joazeiro.

Uauá by artist Marcos Quinan

For all the fury of the battle there were relatively few casualties. The troops had twenty-six, including ten dead. A hundred and fifty of Antonio’s forces, dead or wounded, were left in the streets of Uruá. Throughout this war, Comblains will defeat cattle spears, at least from a body count perspective.

There were calls for reprisal and a second expedition was formed. This one was based at Monte Santo, south of Canudos, and comprised more than five hundred troops. In January, 1897, the column moved out. They brought with them machine guns and two Krupp cannon.  It was decided that the expedition would move north along the Cambaio mountain range. The generals thought that there was a road — the area was little known and there were few maps of any part of it — but that road climbed along the side of the mountain range which was a huge jumble of stone blocks, “a mountain in ruins”, broken by the martyrdom of the earth. Toward the end of the road, the mountains closed into a narrow pass, then opened up past the range.

Map of the area around Canudos. Named places marked in red. Uauá is at top left; the railway terminus is off the map, a hundred miles or so west. Monte Santo is the base for the next expeditions. The second expedition goes straight up the valley. The third marches southeast to Cumbe, then north. [map adapted from Rebellion in the Backlands, U. of Chicago Press]

The sertanejos took cover among the rocks and waited for a time as the troops worked their way onto the mountain, then they began sniping at the column. The sudden burst of gunfire almost panicked the column into flight but they rallied and the Krupp cannon began firing. Now it was the sertanejos who panicked and they withdrew — for a time.

The sertanejo leader was João Grande, one of a number of gifted guerrilla fighters who captained Antonio’s troops. He had teams of snipers harassing the column while groups of fighters waited in the rocks to suddenly rise and attack soldiers who advanced up the mountain. The government troops tried to advance in order but could not form a line in the broken country. Meanwhile, terrified mules stampeded off, dragging their limbers and spilling supplies amongst the rocks. Terrified mule-drivers followed them, driving their teams pell mell down the narrow mountain road, some plunging over. A sertanejo unit attacked the Krupp guns but received cannister shot at close range and fell back. Suddenly all was quiet. Government forces held Mount Cambaio. The government lost four dead, twenty wounded. A hundred and fifteen sertanejos were killed. At one point during the battle a number of sertanejos, who were firing from under a huge block of stone, were killed when an explosion brought the rock down on them.

The government forces continued on and camped for the night within shouting distance of Canudos. The troops had not eaten for twenty-four hours and they had little water, but they were still confident of victory. The next morning, one of the Krupp guns had a live shell that could not be removed from the chamber, so the gun was pointed at Canudos and fired. Immediately the hills around the enacampment exploded in gunfire as sertanejos hidden in the rocks opened up, then charged the camp. Another fierce battle ensued. At one point a group of sertanejos overran a Krupp gun and one of their number, a huge man, wrapped his arms around it and began to drag it away. The gun crew charged after him and the two groups fought, weaponless, beating or strangling each other with their bare hands until the government troops prevailed. The sertanejos fell back but continued to snipe at the soldiers below. The officer in charge considered an assault directly on Canudos, a little over a mile away, but so much ammunition had been expended or lost that he thought that would be a disaster. Preparations were made to retreat.

Da Cunha spends a wistful moment thinking about a successful attack that would have avoided the serious conflict to come, but he knows the story: the government troops have had no rations in two days, they are short on ammunition, sertanejo reserves were called up from Canudos — a retreat seems the best answer. Of course, that retreat will be harried by the sertanejos, led in this venture by Pajehú:

A full-blooded [sic] cafuso, he was endowed with an impulsive temperament which combined the tendencies of the lower races from which he sprang. He was the full-blown type of primitive fighter, fierce, fearless, and näive, at once simple-minded and evil, brutal and infantile, valiant by instinct, a hero without being aware of the fact — in brief, a fine example of recessive atavism, with the retrograde form of a grim troglodyte, stalking upright here with the same intrepidity with which, ages ago, he had brandished a stone hatchet at the entrance to his cave.

Oh my! Here are some of da Cunha’s internal contradictions on show. It is easy to pick apart the silly racism but more instructive to consider the underlying admiration. Witting or not, this man is a hero. Pajehú arrays his men along the high ground under which the government troops must pass. They shoot at the retreating forces and the retreat turns into a rout with the soldiers running hard as they can. Pajehú then has his men tumble rocks down on the troops as they scramble through the narrow pass. The disorganized force rush back down the road along the Cambaio Range until they reach a defensible area. There, after three hours of running, they turn and fight off the last sertanejo attempt to seize the cannon. The sertanejos go back to Canudos, the government troops spend their last energy running down a herd of wild goats that provide their first meal in days.

A day later the tattered remnants of the government expedition limp into Monte Santo. The populace receives them in silence. Meanwhile teams have gone out from Canudos to retrieve the corpses from the rocks where they have fallen. The government forces have lost a further four dead, thirty wounded. The sertanejos, possibly 300 dead.

The authorities at Bahia decided that a new attempt would be made to take Canudos. Thirteen hundred soldiers are assembled under the command of Moreira Cesar, a man with a reputation for ferocity. Moreira Cesar had been involved in putting down several of the uprisings against the republican government. In 1894, during the Federalist Rebellion, he was sent to Santa Caterina to pacify the area. There he proceeded to execute everyone he could find that seemed sympathetic to the Federalist cause. Da Cunha mentions this event and says that when Moreira Cesar was asked to provide an explanation, he replied with the single word, “No.” When the defenders of Canudos heard who was to command the next expedition against them, they became very afraid.

Moreira Cesar

The population of Canudos had swelled after the defeat of the expeditions against it. People drifted in from all over the country including a number of hardcase bandits who submitted to the discipline of sertanejo João Abbade, the “Commander of the Streets”. The city was well-supplied with food sent from well-wishers throughout the backlands. The defenders were making their own gunpowder. Trenches were dug around the city, firing platforms and sniper holes were constructed. Canudos was prepared to defend itself.

Moreira Cesar arrived in Monte Santo in late February and decided to take his force to the east of the Cambaio range, rather than going up the narrow path chosen by the previous expedition. He marched back to Cumbe, then north along what was supposed to be a road. Instead it was a series of rough paths through open sandy desert spotted with thickets of thornbushes and cactus. This was summer and the heat was dreadful. Rather than carrying stocks of water, the expedition took along drills meant to reach artesian wells. Predictably, the drills failed and the troops were diverted to a ranch where it was thought they might find water. Unpredictably, a sudden downpour caught them at the ranch, turning the ground into a sea of mud. While the soldiers were trying to sort themselves out, Colonel Moreira Cesar suddenly galloped furiously into the rain firing at what he thought was the enemy, but who turned out to be cowboys sent by the ranchowner to act as scouts.

Moreira Cesar was given to attacks of epilepsy that seem to have exacerbated his tendency toward reckless behavior. Several times on the expedition he made erratic changes to plans at the last minute. Having arrived at the place where he had planned to bivouac for the night, Moreira Cesar suddenly changed his mind and announced that the entire force would march on Canudos at once. Around noon on March 4th the force passed Monte Favella and saw before them the rebel town. The artillery opened up and soon Canudos was covered in smoke. Throughout the cannonading, the bell in the new church kept ringing.

Canudos in 1897 after being battered by war.

Finally, Moreira Cesar ordered his troops to advance on the town. He said that they could take the city “at the point of the bayonet” without firing another shot. The soldiers advanced and were met by a volley of trabuco fire from the church. They kept going. Canudos had no regular streets, just a web of interconnected alleys. The soldiers could not advance through them in any sort of order; units kept breaking up into isolated bunches. Meanwhile, the huts of Canudos, smashed by artillery fire, provided cover for the sertanejos. Samuel Putnam, whose translation of da Cunha’s work was first published in 1944, compared the house-to-house fighting to Stalingrad. The attackers found themselves trying to move through rubble that was cover for the defenders.

A blow from a rifle butt would effect an entrance through doors or walls, shattering them to bits and opening a free passage from any side. Many of the houses were empty. In others, the intruders would unexpectedly find a musket barrel against their chests, or else they would drop, riddled with bullets at close range fired from chinks in the wall. Their nearest comrades would then run to their assistance, and there would be a brutal hand-to-hand struggle, until the soldiers who outnumbered the inmates had forced their way through the narrow doorway of the hut. On the inside, crouching in a dark corner, a lone remaining inmate would fire his last shot at them and flee.

Meanwhile, Moreira Cesar watched and tried to make sense of what he was seeing: his men had vanished into “the thousand and one holes and hiding-places of Canudos” which was convulsed in a “great uproar”. He could not tell whether his troops were making headway or not. In the middle of the confusion, the church bell began ringing again. Part of the city was untouched. It lay on a rising slope and, if the troops took the rest of the town, they would have to turn and assault the area uphill. Moreira Cesar ordered his rear guard, who were meant to protect a retreat, should that prove necessary, to attack this part of the city. And he ordered his cavalry to charge the middle ground between the other two attacking units.

A cavalry charge against a town is unorthodox, if not eccentric, and the cavalry itself was not up to much of any task. The horses were winded and needed rest and were difficult to manage. At any rate the cavalry advanced until they discovered that a great slippery ditch stood between them and their objective. Seeing that the charge had halted, Moreira Cesar said, “I am going to put a little mettle into those fellows,” and galloped toward the stalled cavalry. About halfway there, he was shot and mortally wounded.

The assault on Canudos descended into confusion and the troops lost discipline and became “a crazed, shouting, terror-stricken, staggering, fleeing mob.” The soldiers ran out of Canudos, accompanied by the ringing of the churchbell and hymns sung by the defenders. The remnants of the expedition came together in a “hodgepodge of men, animals, uniforms, and rifles”. The camp was in complete disorder. Wounded men writhed on the ground in danger of being trampled by frightened horses. No one risked lighting a match or starting a fire. The soldiers huddled together in the darkness while their commander lay dying.

Colonel Tamarindo, the second-in-command, fell apart and was unable to organize the force. The other officers debated what to do and finally decided to retreat. When they presented this plan to the dying Moreira Cesar, he upbraided them ferociously but they would not budge. Finally, the commander had them sign a declaration that they were going against his express orders. He died before the retreat began the next morning.

Krupp field gun, 77mm from 1893. This one is on display in Morocco.

The mass of government troops began moving south. The sertanejos in Canudos jeered them as they left. Meanwhile, sharpshooters lined up along the retreat route and began picking off soldiers. Sometimes a group would charge the straggling column but the Krupp guns were usually sufficient to turn back these attacks. Soldiers began grouping around the artillery. Colonel Tamarindo had recovered himself and tried to keep the troops together. Tamarindo was killed. The Krupp cannon were captured by sertanejos. The retreat became a desperate flight as men threw off weapons, equipment, even uniforms, and ran south, sertanejos firing on them all the way. The disaster seemed more deadly than it was; total government deaths were around two hundred.

The sertanejos picked up all the weapons and ammunition they could find. The Moreira Cesar expedition had served to arm the enemy. The cannon were dragged up to Canudos where one was turned into a blacksmith’s anvil. The uniforms were of no use to the sertanejos. They stripped and decapitated the corpses, burning the headless bodies, and fixed the heads onto stakes along the road, facing it. Then they hung the tattered uniforms from this stakes. The uniformed body of Colonel Tamarindo was impaled on a stake and left to the elements. The weathered corpses of the Moreira Cesar expedition would greet the next force to attack Canudos, three months later.

[Part Two]

 Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha, translated by Samuel Putnam
Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, translated by Elizabeth Lowe

Elizabeth Lowe, translator, and Ilan Stavans, who wrote the introduction to the new translation, talk about da Cunha, his work, and the Canudos War.


One comment on “Good Books: Rebellion In The Backlands by Euclides da Cunha (Part One)

  1. […] Recap of Part One:  In 1876 the new republic of Brazil is faced with a problem in the remote northeast. A mystic […]

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