The War of Canudos
Communities deteriorate when the benefit they contribute to their members
ceases to be attainable, or when it costs the individual more to sustain the
community than he receives through his affiliation with it. The fall of
community cannot be traced to an individual factor that destroys the bonds of
society. No community is that simple. They are not based on one single ideal;
the effects have to reach every aspect of life in order to eradicate the
civilization. Politics, economics, religion, and of course basic survival needs
are critical to the continuance of order in the community. In Canudos, as with
many others cultures, each and every one of these categories were attacked until
the community collapsed into extinction. In several aspects dealing with the
social capital of
Through rigorous inclusion anyone
could be a part of the community. There were no social or monetary
prerequisites. In fact a majority of the inhabitants of Antonio Conselheiro’s
compound were backlanders with no land or inheritance of any kind. “Many of
his followers were victims of rapid economic change.”
In 1888, Princess Isabella, the daughter of the last Brazilian Emperor, signed a
decree abolishing slavery throughout the soon-to-be republic. This left
thousands of former slaves and indentured servants as freemen, with no land, no
possessions, and no purpose of any kind but to survive. The settlement at
Canudos did not just attract former slaves, but rather the poor and destitute of
all backgrounds. The Northeast had been a region where the poor worked for and
helped the rich, not in exchange for money (because that was scarce even for the
‘wealthy’) but for favors, protection, and food instead.
As Conselheiro drew more settlers to his seemingly utopian society, the land owners and others who relied on these peasant workers produced less profit, and blamed their failure on Canudos. Though the poor had subsisted through the rich, they lived in fear and doubt as to their survival. Canudos offered stability and equality to all who would enter its throngs and adhere to its code of conduct. “The ‘colonels’ could no longer afford to keep many sertanejos; and the sertanejos, in turn, migrated from the area and joined the bands of Canudos.” Their material emptiness was filled through a religious abundance. What is interesting is that neither their form of work nor their reward changed dramatically. It was only their perception and reasoning that changed. No longer were they looking for personal benefit and social capital. Instead they desired the progress of their neighbors and the success of the community as a whole. “Each family contributed half its possessions to the community as a whole.” They had invested themselves in something greater, and cared about those around them because of their religious connections and similarities.
This religion of theirs, a variation of Catholicism, also created an
animosity like unto that perceived by the land owners who lost their workforce.
What defined the citizens of Canudos was their meticulous detail to rite and
ritual. “He imposed rigid rules on his followers, forcing them to recite the
three parts of the Rosary every night.”
It is this excess in devotion that excluded the Canudenses from the rest of the region. Rules were invented far stricter than those of the Catholic Church, from which many settlers had come, and upon which their leader originated his religious teaching. Vigilance was expected and supreme punishment was exacted in the name of Deity for those found lacking in any area of their spiritual progression.
Their religion, while based on the Christian faith, was so much more than
the Catholic dogma that it stemmed from. It was not more in numbers, but in
creed and in the execution thereof. Catholicism was then, as it is today, the
largest religion in both
The arch-bishop requested that Antonio Conselheiro be banned from preaching throughout the region, and that his followers be expelled from the Church. Their isolation as a people was not an active attempt to cut themselves off completely from everyone else. They were not exclusionists. However it was their actions that moved the surrounding religious powers to stop considering them as neighbors, and cease to include them as members of the community. The citizens of Canudos had nothing and wanted nothing to do with the Catholic Church by that time. Their community had nothing against, nor anything for the Catholic community around them. They had inadvertently excluded themselves as a demonstration of superiority. They acted more righteous, and held themselves to a higher, almost fanatic standard.
Paradoxically, the conflict between Canudos and the federal government of
The most famous act of protest came in a rally against proposed taxation.
Conselheiro publicly burned notices of additional taxes, and his compatriots
refused to pay any tax further than those already collected under imperial rule.
This could have been construed in any number of non-offensive, non-violent ways.
But the country was new. The Brazilians as a whole were tasting a freedom not
felt under the rule of the Emperor, and any force contrary to the Republic or
the ideal of democracy was seen as a threat to
When it came to accusing Canudenses of treason, some used Communism to describe their transgressions. Antonio Conselheiro required equal labor from all of his disciples. He also mandated a 5% charity to be collected from each man’s yearly income, whatever that may be. Why they would pay a form of tithing not demanded by the Catholic Church, while refusing to pay taxes to the new national government is simply a matter of end results. They saw exactly where their money was going, and received specific relevant benefits for having contributed. Tax money on the other hand, could go to the capitol, or the other side of the country, and they would never know what good it had produced. The citizens of Canudos pooled the resources of their meager farms and livestock, and no one went without. Others used an analogy that hit closer to home. Conselheiro was often accused of reinstating the recently abandoned monarchy, and was compared to the Emperors who had oppressed the nation for so long.
PRIDE AND PERCEPTION
Both religiously and politically, Canudos was a community facing more
prosperity than any other in the region, and perhaps even the entire country.
They were successful, and published their success as a means of differentiation
and condescendence over the rest of the country. It was the pride of the
majority that led to the first acts of violence. Just as their exclusion led to
religious severance, Canudos now faced a type of extreme political—and
mortal—severance as a result of their actions. The country could not accept
the fact that Canudos was growing tremendously, and sustaining its inhabitants
in a better way of life than the government could provide. Pride led to envy,
and the disparity between Canudos and the rest of the world had to disappear for
the animosity to subside. Instead of accepting their inferiority and learning
from the organizational skills of the settlement in Canudos, the Republic
destroyed the city in hopes that its system would be forgotten and no one would
again oppose the national union.
It was this pride that drove the national forces to more and more
violence. The first military expedition was deployed to prevent a possible
attack on the neighboring city of
mistakenly saw in the cowherds and subsistence farmers of Canudos a threatening
plot to restore the recent toppled monarchy and demanded revenge for the
humiliations of the republican army.
To prove that the Republic was a lasting solution, it could not allow a backwater group of isolationists to contradict its every action. And the solution was interpreted throughout the country as being clear and simple.
It is obvious that both the Brazilian military and the community of
Canudos committed grave ethical errors in their quest for existence. It must be
said, however, that both parties did all in their power to protect their
definition, or perception, of community.
From one side, the
militaries whose positivist formation called for the preservation of the regime
against any monarchical threat, from the other side, the ‘conselheiristas’
affected by the theological character of the movement under the leadership of a
The Canudenses were not wrong that
their community was providing a better way of life than they were capable of
achieving on their own. Nor were the Brazilian politicians erring in their
desire to quash a rebellion that could have potentially caused the populous to
question the competence of their new system of government. “A movement enacted
under the banner of religion, it acquired political undertones, came to be
considered subversive by the government, and spread amongst socially deprived
and poor areas.”
Conselheiro and his followers defended a local community in which they believed, and defended it to the death. The government was no less determined, and many would also die in defense of that national institution. Not only in Canudos, but across the globe, citizens are sacrificing their lives to uphold the system of balance they enjoy at home.
The questions of right and wrong were once solved with power. He who had
the power made the rules, and whether that was right or wrong morally was not
relevant. This was the case in Canudos. Both could be right, both could be
wrong, and the only difference (or the deciding factor) was one’s point of
view. It is perception that determines the guilty party. And oddly enough, it is
perception that gives power. In our current model, perception can be the key to
anyone’s involvement with the war.
Those from Canudos perceived their community as the top priority. Antonio
Conselheiro had power, because his followers gave it to him. They obeyed his
commands and teachings, and he had power over them. This perceived power came
from a perceived mandate from on High. Antonio Conselheiro was a prophet to
those people, and any man of God should by right outweigh any earthly
government. Conversely, the Brazilian government had power because a majority of
its citizens upheld it and its statutes. They supported its rulings and depended
on its support. The mayor of Juazeiro communicated to the Governor of the state
It is valid reasoning, then, to demonstrate the non-communal actions of
The pieces to the puzzle of Canudos’ demise being both religious and
political, the citizens excluded themselves from these two mother powers both
geographically and doctrinally. They created a schism that neither force was
willing to put forth the effort to bridge. It was also somewhat economic.
But it was neither religious, nor political reasons alone that resulted directly in armed resolution. Although these
were contributing factors, it was in fact economics that sparked the first armed
combat. This economic model also roots itself in pride, stubbornness, and
selfish tendencies. When Conselheiro was constructing a new church for the
ever-growing population in Canudos, he placed and paid for an order for wood
planks to be delivered from Juazeiro. Probably the closest town, and on the
What leads a community to violence? In many instances it is sheer
simplicity. It is easier to destroy than to resolve. Wiping out the
The civilian, military
and ecclesiastic local authorities had not had the necessary skill to solve a
regional movement, giving priority to the political repression rather than
considering the religious freedom recommended by the newly installed Republic,
and the fairness of many of the claims made by the poor people from the
It was easier for the Nazis to kill people of Jewish descent than to
learn about them and coexist alongside them. It was easier for the Hutus to hate
the Tutsis and seek their destruction rather than integrate them into the
government as equals. The
Just as the fall of a community is not only
religious or political; not only
local or national, likewise the ideal that the contributions of a community are
lasting beyond this mortal life is not entirely religious, nor does it require
pure faith to see its effects. The entire population of Canudos was exterminated
and the city flooded over to forget the atrocities that took place there.
However there is still evidence of Conselheiro’s dogma throughout modern-day
In studying the outcome of the conflict between federal troops and
Canudense citizens, it stands to reason that the ideal
of their community did not actually fall apart. In many ways, Canudos, or the
theory thereof continued, even though the last inhabitants of the city were
massacred. If community is the force that brings individuals together for a
common objective, then Antonio Conselheiro achieved his every responsibility as
a leader. Not one of these men women and children gave up on the community. They
did not waver in the sight of the Brazilian military. They held to the
conviction that what they were doing was correct. Maybe it was not correct to
the world, but they perceived it as right, and perception is everything.
1) Levine, Robert M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in
A description of the War of Canudos through the standpoint of a native
citizen and member of Antonio Conselheiro’s Millennialist movement. This is
one of the few publications not portraying this people as rebels, and provides a
balance to the often one-sided commentary on this subject.
Villela Jr., Marcos Evangelista da Costa. Canudos:
Memorias de um Combatente.
An account of the War as experienced by a Brazilian Brigadier. This story opposes almost directly the views of Levine’s work, giving a view of the political and militant standpoint towards the group.
Dobroruka, Vincente. Antonio Conselheiro, o Beato Endiabrado de Canudos. Copacabana,
A rough biography of the life and times of Antonio Conselheiro gives
insight as to how he became the way he was, and why he led the people to such
extremes, even extermination.
4) Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion
in the Backlands.
This is a translation of Euclides da Cunha’s Os
Sertoes, published in
Levine, Robert M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in
Dobroruka, Vincente. Antonio
Conselheiro, o Beato Endiabrado de Canudos. Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro,
RJ: Diadorim, 1997. pg. 51
Levine, Robert M. pg. 78.
Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion in the
Cunha, Euclides da. pg. 46.
Cunha, Euclides da. pg. 47.
Levine, Robert M. pg. 78.
Dobroruka, Vincente. pg. 70.
Villela Jr., Marcos Evangelista da Costa. Canudos:
Memorias de um Combatente. Rio de Janeiro: EdUERJ, 1997. pg. 193.
Villela Jr., Marcos Evangelista da Costa. pg. 52.
Dobroruka, Vincente. pg. 41.