War of Canudos

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War of Canudos
Canudos-map.jpg
Map of northern Bahia, showing the location of Canudos
Date 1896 – October 2, 1897
Location Bahia, Brazil
Result Decisive government victory; settlement destroyed and survivors resettled
Belligerents
Brazil First Brazilian Republic Empire of Brazil Canudos inhabitants
Commanders and leaders
Brazil Gen. Arthur Oscar de Andrade Guimarães
Brazil Col. Antônio Moreira César 
Brazil Mjr. Febrônio de Brito
BrazilCpt. Virgílio Pereira de Almeida
Brazil Lt. Pires Ferreira
Empire of Brazil Antonio Conselheiro 
Empire of Brazil João Abade 
Strength
12,000 soldiers 25,000 militiamen
Casualties and losses
5,000 dead soldiers 20,000 dead

The War of Canudos (Guerra dos Canudos, Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈɡɛʁɐ duʃ kɐ̃ˈnuduʃ], 1896–1897)[1] was a conflict between the state of Brazil and a group of some 30,000 settlers who had founded their own community in the Northeastern state of Bahia, named Canudos. After a number of unsuccessful attempts at military suppression, it came to a brutal end in October 1897, when a large Brazilian army force overran the village and killed nearly all the inhabitants. This was the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history.[1]

The setting[edit]

A view of the village of Canudos. Typical constructions such as that in the foreground were very basic, made of mud and straw

The conflict had its origins in the settlement of Canudos (named by its inhabitants Belo Monte meaning "Beautiful Hill", in the semi-arid backlands ("sertão" or "caatinga", in Portuguese) in the northeast tip of the state (then province) of Bahia. Bahia at this time was a desperately poor zone, with a depressed economy based on subsistence agriculture and cattle raising, no large cities, and a disenfranchised population composed largely of white Brazilian and mestizos. It was a likely background for dissatisfaction with the recently installed Republican regime. (The republic was declared on November 15, 1889 after a military coup against the ruling Emperor, Dom Pedro II, who was still loved by the common people.)

Into this scenario appeared one of the many mystic spiritual preachers of the time, Antônio Conselheiro ("the Counselor"), who went from village to village with his followers, doing small jobs and demanding support from small farmers. He claimed to be a prophet and predicted the return of the legendary Portuguese king Sebastian of Portugal. After wandering through the provinces of Ceará, Pernambuco, Sergipe and Bahia, he decided in 1893 to settle permanently with his followers, of which there were now a great number, in the farm of Canudos, near the city of Monte Santo, Bahia, by the Vaza-Barris River. Soon his preaching and the promises of a better world attracted almost 8,000 new residents. Fearing an invasion of the city of Juazeiro by the "Conselhistas", who had a dispute with a lumber merchant, its mayor appealed hysterically to the provincial government. A visit by two Capuchin friars to Canudos was not enough to calm the population; one of them mistakenly accused Antônio Conselheiro of trying to raise a monarchist sedition.

The 40th Infantry Battalion that came from Pará province to quell the Canudos rebellion, 1897.

Initial military campaigns[edit]

The provincial government dispatched Captain Virgílio Pereira de Almeida to quell the uprising with a column of 30 men, resulting in the soldiers' prompt massacre by a band of “jagunços” (as hired armed hands were called) sympathetic to Antônio Conselheiro. This caused great alarm among the provincial government, which then asked for help from the federal government. The United States of Brazil was only recently founded, and it was felt at the time that the rebels were monarchists and separatists, a bad example and a threat to the new regime. President Prudente de Morais called for a punitive military expedition and the Brazilian Army began preparations in November 1896. With scant information about terrain and the size and defensive resources of Canudo’s population, a small, 104-man force commanded by Lieutenant Pires Ferreira attacked the settlement on November 21, 1896. It was fiercely counter-attacked, however, by a band of 500 armed men, shouting praises to Antonio Conselheiro and the monarchy; the Brazilian force retreated, after incurring severe losses and slaying 150 of the attackers, many of whom were armed only with machetes, primitive lances and axes.

The defeat of the Pires Ferreira campaign and the sensationalist reports about the ferocity and fanaticism of Canudos’ inhabitants provoked a great national outcry, and the Army was urged to rout the village, which was now growing by leaps and bounds (it eventually reached 30,000 residents). A second expeditionary force was mounted under the orders of the Minister of War, General Francisco de Paula Argolo. It consisted of 557 soldiers and officers, under the command of Major Febrônio de Brito, who attacked the now well defended village of Canudos on January 6, 1897. After a successful direct attack of infantry and artillery against the enemy’s trenches, however, the troops were surrounded by waves of more than 4,000 insurrectionists, fighting in the open. Lacking in ammunition, food and water, and unable to resist the attacking waves, which continued despite the rebels' heavy losses, the military force had to retreat, once again conceding the field to the rebels.

The only photograph of Antonio Conselheiro, taken after his death in September 1897

The Army responded with a still larger expeditionary force. The prestige of the armed forces and the new government were now at stake. An experienced colonel, Antônio Moreira César, mounted a powerful force with three infantry battalions, one cavalry and one artillery battalion, all newly armed and trained. Despite the new knowledge gained about the size and resolve of the rebels, it was thought impossible that they could resist such a strong regular army force. However, on March 6, 1897, the insurrectionists defeated Colonel Moreira César’s column after only two days of fighting, resulting in another great loss of life and military material among the Brazilian forces, as well as the death of Colonel Moreira César.

The final destruction of Canudos[edit]

Ruins of Bom Jesus church after the destruction of Canudos, 1897.

Pressured, the Federal government prepared a new expedition. This time, it was more professionally planned, with the aid of a war cabinet. Under the command of General Arthur Oscar de Andrade Guimarães, and with the direct involvement of the Minister of War, who personally visited Monte Santo, a city near Canudos which served as the concentration point for the large army formation being assembled, consisting of three brigades, eight infantry battalions and two artillery battalions. Machine guns and large artillery pieces, such as mortars and howitzers, including a powerful Whitworth 32 (nicknamed “Matadeira”, or Killer, by the population) were added to the 3,000-man force and had to be hauled with enormous effort through the unforgiving landscape, lacking in roads.

Survivors from Canudos, 1897.

This time, the attackers were aided by rampant hunger and malnutrition among the inhabitants of Canudos, the rebels' lack of weapons and ammunition, and the heavy losses they had suffered in the previous attacks. Furthermore, their spiritual leader and towering figure, Antonio Conselheiro, had died on September 22, probably of dysentery and malnutrition provoked by fasting for penance. After Canudos was encircled and unmercifully bombarded day after day the rebels were unable to resist further, the end came on October 2, 1897. Atrocities were carried out against the civilian population, such as slicing the throats of all the men, and the rape of many women, leading to further massacres until peace was restored, with only 150 survivors left. The best-looking surviving women were made captive and sent out to brothels in Salvador. Antônio Conselheiro's body was disinterred, and his head was cut off and taken triumphantly to the province's capital and according to Peter Robb (A Death in Brazil) "was taken to the Medical Faculty of Bahia to be studied for abnormalities (Robb, 2004:208).

Some authors, such as Euclides da Cunha (1902) estimated the number of deaths in the War of Canudos as being of ca. 30,000 (25,000 residents and 5,000 attackers) [1], but the real number was probably lower (around 15,000, according to Levine, 1995). According to Peter Robb: "The foreign correspondents who covered what was soon being called the War of Canudos, as if it were a conflict between nations rather than the extermination of a tiny community within a single country, were nearly all embedded with the army of the Brazilian republic."(Robb, 2004:215). Euclides da Cunha did not see the fighting but did bear witness afterward. Robb says that his "obsession with progress and modernity, the scientific racism that told him the people of the northeastern interior were doomed to backwardness by their mixed race" led him to tell a story filled with preconceptions. However, it is all we have.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Calasans, José. No Tempo de Antônio Conselheiro. Salvador, Livraria Progresso Editora, 1959.
  • ARINOS, Afonso. Os Jagunços.
  • Macedo Soares, Henrique Duque-Estrada de. A Guerra de Canudos.Rio de Janeiro: Typ. Altiva, 1902
  • Benício, Manoel. O Rei dos Jagunços. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Fundação Getúlio Vargas. 2a. edição, 1997
  • Levine, R.M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, 1893–1897. University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0-520-20343-7. Review.
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. The War of the End of the World. Translated from Spanish La Guerra del Fin del Mundo. Penguin, 1997, ISBN 0-14-026260-1.
  • Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion in the Backlands. Translated from Portuguese Os Sertões. University Of Chicago Press, 1957. ISBN 0-226-12444-4.
  • Peter Robb, A Death in Brazil, 2004, Picador, NY, ISBN 978-0-312-42487-9

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