Devon Bennett

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 Brazil , the national leaders of the South had an extremely different perception of progress than did the settlers of Antonio Conselheiro’s northeastern colony. The War of Canudos explains the multi-faceted causes that led to the destruction of a community of over 35,000 men and women. The two-fold reason for the settlers of Canudos growing so close knit as a community, are also the two general factors that led to their subsequent demise: inclusion and exclusion.



            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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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 Brazil and throughout South America . It has become a colloquial fact that if one has no religion, they are referred to (and often refer to themselves) as Catholic. An amazing number of citizens baptize their children more for tradition than for belief. It is this majority that the people of Canudos were pitting themselves against. Hundreds of years of tradition were not to be mocked; tradition, and a religion that, if not official, exists at least as the unspoken and accepted religion of state

            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 Brazil was not that of a longstanding institution versus those in rebellion against it. In this political realm, the Canudenses were the conservatives and the newly founded United States of Brazil was the liberal force pushing for change and improvement throughout the Republic. The Empire had been disbanded only a few years prior, and the fledgling Democracy was struggling for national recognition. However, for every law passed in congress, Antonio Conselheiro and his followers concocted a reasoning as to its injustice to the Brazilian people and their longstanding rights. The change in government had already been drastic enough. So as new bills were passed and new laws were initiated, the people of Canudos felt compelled to illustrate just how far Brazil ’s governing powers had strayed from its origins.

            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 Brazil as a people. National pride was soaring, and this was the only kind of successful government in their eyes.

            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.



            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 Juazeiro , and was subsequently demolished as Canudenses defended their community. In speaking of perception, the nation decidedly had the upper hand in filming the conflict, and allowing the rest of the country to see what it wanted them to. “Canudos was the first campaign by the Brazilian army to receive daily press coverage.”[5] Brazilians saw the Canudenses decimate their army; the same army that won democratic independence not a decade earlier. People across the nation cried for revenge after this defeat. This was repeated twice more before the city was burned to the ground and its inhabitants killed. But it no longer became an effort to squash a rebellion. It became a matter of saving face. The image of the new government’s stability had to be maintained in those early years of establishment.

Public opinion 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.[6]

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 messianic chief.[7]

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.”[8]

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 of Bahia that he feared an attack by Antonio Conselheiro’s men and requested defense from the national level. “The War of Canudos mobilized more than 10,000 soldiers from 17 Brazilian states in four military expeditions.”[9]

            It is valid reasoning, then, to demonstrate the non-communal actions of both Brazil as a republic, and Canudos as part of that national community. Think of Canudos as if it were an individual in a society. The individual must compromise with the whole in order for them to work together. If someone gets something for nothing, than someone, somewhere else, got nothing for something. The continuance of this leads up to and contributes to the falling of community. If one is selfish, it requires another to be selfless in order to maintain balance. When too many citizens become selfish, they cannot function as a working part of the whole community. The isolation of Canudos was the selfish act of Antonio Conselheiro and his followers to get what they thought was best for them at that moment in time. The pride of the national government caused them to attack, and subsequently retaliate multiple times against Canudos. Neither of these two forces was selfless in anyway except internally. They both took what they wanted from the community, and failed to compromise or sacrifice anything to deserve the benefits of the community.

            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. Major land owners were losing their workforce to the village in Canudos as it quickly became the second largest city in Bahia next to the capitol of Salvador . The fall of Canudos is also a social collapse. These citizens simply did not want any affiliation with the rest of the nation. They were very secluded, and as stated before, had a superiority complex about their eternal status. The way of life they chose was in a way nearly socialist, and in that they differed dramatically from the rest of the area. And yet in all of these, it is a paradoxical fall of community as many are. It is a question of 20/20 hindsight where one can analyze what they ‘would have,’ and ‘should have’ done. Why didn’t the government peaceably resolve this contention? Why did the Canudenses feel they had to strike first?

            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 Sao Francisco river, Juazeiro was an excellent port from which to acquire goods. However, Canudos never received the wood, and when they were informed it was due to short staff accommodations, Conselheiro offered to send a team of men retrieve the wood he had already paid for. “Rumor spread that the city would be invaded by the counselor’s men.”[10] The mayor of Juazeiro feared an attack, and inquired into the status of the federal military. They sent an expedition, and the rest is history.

            What leads a community to violence? In many instances it is sheer simplicity. It is easier to destroy than to resolve. Wiping out the village of Canudos , Brazil no longer had the need to deal with this menace at all.

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 interior.[11]

            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 United States is one of the few countries densely populated with ethnic groups from all over the world. Perhaps it would be easier to deal with civil rights issues and minority recognition were this not the case. But one can ask, what makes some countries resort to violence and others not? The fall of community cannot be contributed to any one factor. But every community that has fallen has lost its purpose; that balance between give and take, selfishness and selflessness. The social capital gained by one’s participation in the community becomes a social deficit and whether citizens recognize this or not, they either abandon the community in search of a better solution, or fall with the populous.



            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 Brazil . An entire political movement bases itself on the premise of the wrongful acquisition of lands by the federal government. The Partida Sem Terra (Party Without Land) is an ever-growing population of former plantation and ranch owners who have been denied their lands for various reasons.

            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 Northeastern Brazil , 1893-1897. Berkley : University of California Press , c1992.


            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.


2) Villela Jr., Marcos Evangelista da Costa. Canudos: Memorias de um Combatente. Rio de Janeiro : EdUERJ, 1997.


            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.


3) Dobroruka, Vincente. Antonio Conselheiro, o Beato Endiabrado de Canudos. Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro , RJ: Diadorim, 1997.


            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. Chicago , Ill : University of Chicago Press, 1944.


            This is a translation of Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertoes, published in Rio de Janeiro in 1963. As a war correspondent, Cunha describes the happenings throughout the war and the subsequent massacre of Canudos.


[1] Levine, Robert M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil , 1893-1897. Berkley : University of California Press , c1992. pg. 25


[2] Dobroruka, Vincente. Antonio Conselheiro, o Beato Endiabrado de Canudos. Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Diadorim, 1997. pg. 51

[3] Levine, Robert M. pg. 78.


[4] Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion in the Backlands. Chicago , Ill : University of Chicago Press, 1944. pg. 50.

[5] Cunha, Euclides da. pg. 46.

[6] Cunha, Euclides da. pg. 47.

[7] Levine, Robert M. pg. 78.

[8] Dobroruka, Vincente. pg. 70.


[9] Villela Jr., Marcos Evangelista da Costa. Canudos: Memorias de um Combatente. Rio de Janeiro: EdUERJ, 1997. pg. 193.


[10] Villela Jr., Marcos Evangelista da Costa. pg. 52.

[11] Dobroruka, Vincente. pg. 41.