The Canudos War: part of the Brazilian national novel or premise for institutional violence?


« let’s eat in Canudos ». It was with this phrase borrowed from the colonel that the Youtube humorist historian Eduardo Bueno introduced, with his characteristic derision, the tragic episode of the War of Canudos. This war, intended as a major element of the national novel, does it not in fact prefigure the anthropological tears of present-day Brazil? It was the war of two Brazils, the war of the cities and the war of the fields, the war of the young « modernist » Republic against the supporters of the monarchy that had disappeared, the war of uncompromising modernity against a world of forgotten history and geography. Perhaps it was above all the rejection by the positivist councillors of Rio of a utopia that some would describe in some ways as libertarian and in others as reactionary. By his resistance against the established order, against the canons of modernity (in the first sense, because the brand new artillery was coming out of the German arms factories), the mystical preacher Antonio « the Counsellor » Maciel seemed to shake the certainties of the Federal Republic, haloed by his positivist banner « Order and Progress ». The intransigent response of the Republic and its army, against the ragged eras, marked the original curse of Brazil, born in the violence of slavery and the massacre of the Indians. The certainty of the superiority of the institution’s values neglected or repressed those of the country’s minorities, negligible entities without rights in the eyes of the powerful. In short, Canudos was a new version of the Valladolid controversy, with, like Bartolomé de La Casas, the positivist journalist and former military officer Euclides Da Cunha who was to rule on the right of the inhabitants of Canudos to live with dignity (despite a certain rejection of interbreeding, which in his view was a « regression »), sending the imperialists and the violence of the Brazilian army and its positivist values and those of the « cangaceiros » of Canudos, back to back. For Josué de Castro, as for Euclides Da Cunha, the Nordeste is a land as sterile for agriculture as it is fertile for tragedies. The War of Canudos is a good illustration of this « curse » that the two great authors have presented as engraved in the marble of the social history of the Nordeste.
Canudos begins as a utopia from the 1890s onwards. In this Bahian sertao regularly struck « Secas » (periods of drought), the collective exploitation of the lands of the fazenda Monte Belo made it possible, in an almost Christlike manner, to bring forth fruit from the bowels of a barren land. This utopia would have been born from the will of an enlightened man, Antonio Maciel, known as the « counsellor », to create a society that would live under the precepts of the Bible, far from the unbelieving values of a Republic that, from its creation in 1889, was going to separate from the Church ». Anthony the Counsellor’s loyalty to the fallen emperor appeared to be a support for a political system that recognised the Roman Catholic Church as the intangible pillar of the Brazilian empire. Maciel’s rejection of the Republic was, however, interpreted by the « colonels » (local politicians in the state of Bahia) as a danger to the young Republic that had to be brought down to prevent any contagion in a Nordeste shaken by revolutionary convulsions motivated by hunger, misery and oppression in the fazendas. In these large latifundiary farms, the local « colonel » landowners and kinglets were important politicians who would quickly appeal to the Brazilian government.



Indeed, Antoine the Councillor pushed the people to refuse to pay unjustified taxes. This mystical cangaceiro, as Eduardo bueno nicknamed him, went to preach in the burnt lands of the Sertao. His growing number of faithful went to rebuild the abandoned steles in the cemeteries, covering the walls of the churches with white lime, following their spiritual master in his life of asceticism and meditation.


In 1890, more than 8,000 people followed this ascetic, who was so meagre that it was believed he was always seen in profile, as Mario Vargas LLosa humorously put it in his novel « The War at the End of the World ». They will settle in this abandoned fazenda in Monte Belo, which will later take the name of the eponymous tragedy: Canudos. Quickly, 5000 houses were going to come out of the ground, gathering more than 20 000 people in this other Brazil in 1895. The agriculture of the first hours, which was based on the cultivation of manioc and black beans and on goat rearing, was going to ensure the community’s self-subsistence.

In 1895, a « war of annihilation » was unleashed by the Republic and its army of positivist ideals against an army of beggars who were going to pay the price in blood for their overreaching, that of opposing a government which had no concern for the people of the forgotten periphery. The community had bought many wooden planks in the commune of Juazeiro, the « capital » of the northern part of Bahia. However, this wood was never delivered to them. The councillor decided to recover his property and went to the small town of Juazeiro, accompanied by 300 worshippers. It was the police who received them, at the request of the mayor of the town, who was frightened by the arrival of these « fanatics ». 150 of Antonio’s companions were killed…compared to 10 in the police ranks. However, this dispute was recorded as an unacceptable « affront » to the opponents of the republic’s army. Antonio the Councillor had also (no pun intended) written anti-Republican and pro-Royalist pamphlets and refused to pay the taxes the administration demanded of him, arguing that the state had never provided any services to Canudos. In response, 586 soldiers were sent to Canudos in January 1896, under the command of Major Febronio. This time, the troops sent from Rio were ambushed and quickly routed by the nerves of Antonius the Councillor. It took four military expeditions to put an end to this « heresy ». The cangaceiros, accustomed to a caatinga, caused terrible losses to this modern army, equipped with brand new Krupp cannons, coming out of the Prussian forges. The third expedition managed to reach Canudos and entered the city, but the urban guerrilla actions of the cangaceiros once again routed an army in a battle that today would be described as « asymmetrical », in the image of the Vietnam War. During the 4th expedition, it took 10,000 men and heavy cannons to overcome the « utopia » of Canudos. A large part of the 25,000 inhabitants were shot.




Sources : Flavio Barros
In modern readings of this tragedy, some will be able to see the current fractures of Brazil. Euclides Da Cunha himself drew some conclusions that today are truths for the construction of a Brazil that would integrate its « inner peripheries » and wring its neck at the contradictions that are tearing it apart, of which the current president is after all only the most visible expression from the outside.
« Instead of massacring the rebels of Canudos, it would therefore have been wiser to instruct them, by degrees, to send schoolmasters to the sertanejos who have been led astray into barbarism, ensuring first of all, as a precondition, the guarantee of social evolution. Da Cunha finally turns back the retrograde mysticism and the brutal modernity imposed without consideration, and postulates that the cultural contradictions between the sertão, which is the bearer of a synthesis of the living forces of history, and the fake « civilisation » of the heir to colonisation, turned towards Europe and the Atlantic, could be resolved in a third way: that of the political integration of these « harsh compatriots » temporarily excluded from « progress » and « more foreign in this country than European immigrants ».


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