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Sebastianism, one aspect of the sleeping king Sebastião Serra folk-motif, is part of the Portuguese and Brazilian mythology and culture. It means waiting for a hero that will save Portugal and lead it to the Fifth Empire, and known as Eu nacional (national Self). In Brazil the most important presence of Sebastianism happened in context of Proclamation of Republic, to lead movements such as the War of Canudos that defended the divine rights of D. Pedro II to rule Brazilian Empire.
Fernando Pessoa also wrote about this hero-to-come in his epic Mensagem (The Message) supporting his ideas on predictions and myths.
Sebastian, the Child King
The name 'Sebastianism' derives from King Sebastian of Portugal (January 20, 1554 - August 4, 1578), grandson of John III, who became heir to the throne due to the death of his father, João, Crown Prince of Portugal in 1554 two weeks before his birth, and who succeeded to the throne three years later. This period saw continued Portuguese colonial expansion in Africa, Asia and Brazil. Luís de Camões wrote the Lusiads in his honour. The young King grew up under the guidance of the Jesuits. He also convinced himself that he was to be Christ's captain in a crusade against Muslims in Africa.
The birth of a hero and a myth
Almost immediately upon coming of age, Sebastian began plans for a great crusade against the Moroccans of Fez. The Portuguese crusaders crossed into Morocco in 1578 and, against the advice of his commanders, Sebastian marched deep inland. At Ksar El Kebir (Field of the Three Kings) the Portuguese were routed by Ahmed Mohammed of Fez, and Sebastian was almost certainly killed in battle or subsequently executed. But for the Portuguese people, he had just disappeared and would return home one day, to such an extent that, in 1640, King John IV of Portugal had to swear to yield his throne to Sebastian, in case Sebastian (who would have been 86 years old) were to return.
After his death (or disappearance), Portuguese nobility saw its independence gone (1580). In the time of Habsburg rule (1580-1640), impostors claimed to be King Sebastian in 1584, 1585, 1595 and 1598. Because of these events, Sebastian passed into legend as a great Portuguese patriot and hero - the "sleeping King" who would return to help Portugal in its darkest hour, on a misty morning.
In 1752, a Sebastianist predicted that a terrible earthquake would destroy Lisbon on All Saints' Day. After the Lisbon earthquake struck on All Saints' Day three years later (Nov 1, 1755), there was a surge of converts to Sebastianism.
Late Sebastianism in Brazil
With the proclamation of Brazil as a Republic in 1889 the Brazilian state became a secular state, in contrast to the former Brazilian Empire, where Catholicism had been the official religion. In imperial administration, the church had very important roles: functioning as registrar for births, deaths, weddings, and even for the recording of property (the control of this in the Portuguese Empire, which was based in a donation system, became, until recently, a huge problem in the Brazilian economy and Brazilian politics).
The coup d'état against the régime of Emperor Pedro II and the republican reforms brought few changes in most people's lifestyle - for example, universal enfranchisement was not enacted -, the greatest change for Brazilians really was the "godless" government. Catholicism and the monarchy had been closely tied and strongly affected Brazilian people. Most of the opposition movements to the republic in the 1890s, 1900s and early 1910s had religious motivations. The character of D. Sebastião returned to people's imagination: he would come back to defend the divine right of the Brazilian Monarchy, who were directly descended from the Portuguese monarchs, to rule in Brazil and to defend Catholicism, which had been removed from government by the Republic.
The most famous instance of Sebastianism appeared in the War of Canudos (1896-1897). This revolt, led by Antonio Conselheiro, took place in the Brazilian Northeast. This region had suffered economic depression since the discovery of large gold mines in Minas Gerais, formerly part of Capitania de São Paulo, that dislocated the economic center to southeastern Portuguese America in the 18th century. Moreover, the abolition of slavery (1888) produced a huge mass of unemployed persons. An increase in religiosity followed. Antonio Conselheiro preached against the Antichrist republic and attracted many followers, founding a city named Canudos, where he oversaw a cooperative economic system. At its height in 1897, the city of Canudos had a population of almost 25,000.
Another great movement involving Sebastianism was the Contestado War (1912-1916) in Santa Catarina and Paraná states. The building of São Paulo-Rio Grande do Sul Railway by Percival Farqhuar needed the dispossess people of several small properties that the government of the republic regarded as "terra devolutas" (useless lands); in this way, there were not any ressarchiments or payments for the railway building. Then the population of the area rose against the Hermes da Fonseca presidency, and, for some of the same reasons that obtained in Canudos, the war became a "guerra santa" (religious war) associated with messianic symbols, like the flag of the movement, inspired by Knights Templar, or the miracles performed by José Maria de Santo Agostinho, and also the presence of D. Sebastião.
- deBoer, Jelle and Sanders, Donald, Earthquakes in Human History, Princeton University Press, 2005, page 100