War of Canudos

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War of Canudos
Map of northern Bahia, showing the location of Canudos
Date1896 – October 2, 1897
Result Movement squashed; settlement destroyed and survivors massacred

Brazil First Brazilian Republic

Empire of Brazil Canudos inhabitants

Commanders and leaders
Brazil Arthur Oscar de Andrade Guimarães
Brazil Antônio Moreira César  
Brazil Febrônio de Brito
Brazil Virgílio Pereira de Almeida
Brazil Pires Ferreira
Empire of Brazil Antonio Conselheiro  
Empire of Brazil João Abade 
12,000 military personnel 25,000
Casualties and losses
less than 5,000 dead almost 25,000 dead; only some 150 survivors

The War of Canudos (Guerra de Canudos, Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈɡɛʁɐ duʃ kɐˈnuduʃ], 1895–1898)[1] was a conflict between the state of Brazil and some 30,000 settlers who had founded a community named Canudos in the northeastern state of Bahia.[2] 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 conflict marks 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. At this time, Bahia was a desperately poor zone with a depressed economy based on subsistence agriculture and cattle raising. It was without large cities and the disenfranchised population was composed largely of white Brazilians and mestizos. It was a fertile background for dissatisfaction with the new republic, declared November 15, 1889 after a military coup against the ruling Emperor, Dom Pedro II, who was still beloved by the common people.

This period was characterized by high levels of uncertainty when the military was fighting to put down revolts all over the country.[3] It was, therefore, unpopular and dangerous to be branded anything other than Republican during this time.[3] At the onset of this early Republican era, Antônio Vincente Mendes Macial, also known as Antônio Counselheiro (Antônio, the Counselor) appeared on the scene. He was one of the many religious figures that pilgrimed in the backlands of Brazil.[4] He went from village to village with followers, doing small jobs and demanding support from small farmers. As an increasing number of supporters joined his cause, Counselheiro caused a disturbance in the labor force, which led him to be antagonized by some property owners.[3] He claimed to be a prophet and predicted the return of the legendary Portuguese king Sebastian of Portugal. His writings uncovered that he held the belief that “it was the Monarch’s God-given right to rule,” which is why he was progressively perceived as a Monarchist figure by the unstable Republic at the time.[4] After wandering through the provinces of Ceará, Pernambuco, Sergipe and Bahia, he decided in 1893 to settle permanently with his many followers in the farming community of Canudos, near Monte Santo, Bahia on the Vaza-Barris River. Within two years, Counselheiro managed to convince several thousands of followers to join him in joining his prosperous religious community in the backlands of Bahia[3], thus making it the second-largest urban center in Brazil’s second most populous state of Brazil at the time.[4]

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

Military campaigns[edit]

Initial military campaign[edit]

A specific incident was the catalyst for Canudos’ eventual destruction. Counselheiro had placed his usual order of wood from a neighboring business in Joazeiro to build a new church.[4] However, said order was not delivered as it seemed that the new local judge antagonized Counselheiro and thus prevented the delivery.[4] Some canudenses took it upon themselves to go to Joazeiro to claim the wood.[4] Judge Arlindo Leoni manipulated the situation by requesting police forces from state governor Luis Viana to defend his town against an “invasion” by Counselheiro and his people.[4] Vianna recounts that he had been informed by Leoni “of rumors which were current, and which were more or less well-founded, to the effect that the flourishing city in question [Juazeiro] was to be assaulted within a few days by Antônio Counselheiro’s followers.”[4] While the troops were initially dispatched for the sole purpose of preventing assault, Leoni managed to convince commander Pires Ferreira to march on Canudos.[4] With scant information about terrain and the size and defensive resources of Canudo’s population, a small, 100-man force commanded by Ferreira was deployed on November 4, 1896.[5] However, the canudenses marching from the religious settlement to Joazeiro surprised the local troops at Uauá and a fierce battle ensued.[4] Estimates of the number of conselheiristas that were deployed vary anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 men, and accounts report that were armed with “old muskets, pikes, scythes, long poles, and implements of the land.”[4] Despite some considerable losses (estimated at around 150 men), the canudenses claimed victory over the soldiers and drove them off.[4] The troops thus retreated to Juazeiro and awaited reinforcements from the state of Bahia.[5]

The government and the media quickly picked up on the soldiers’ loss in the backlands of Bahia. The media played an essential role in escalating the conflict; it spread rumors that the “anti-Republican” settlement was allied with other Monarchists to launch a “Restoration” movement.[3] This increasingly unstable political climate, added to the scarcity of military resources in Bahia, led the provincial government to get national forces involved in order to crush the increasingly threatening settlement.[3] As the United States of Brazil had only recently been founded, and it saw the rebel settlers as monarchists, separatists, a bad example and a threat to the new regime.[3]

Second military campaign[edit]

President Prudente de Morais sent a punitive military expedition and the Brazilian Army began to prepare 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.[5] It was fiercely defended, however, by a band of 500 armed men, shouting praises to Antonio Conselheiro and the monarchy. The Brazilian soldiers retreated after incurring severe losses and killing 150 settlers, many armed only with machetes, primitive lances and axes.[5]

The 24th Infantry Battalion in Canudos, 1897.

The defeat of the Pires Ferreira campaign and the sensationalist reports about the ferocity and fanaticism of Canudos’ inhabitants provoked an outcry, and calls for reprisals against the village, which was growing by leaps and bounds and eventually reached 30,000 residents.[2] On January 12, 1987, the federal troops, which comprised 547 men, 14 officers, and 3 surgeons left for Canudos.[5] Their second clash against the conselheiristas occurred on January 18 and led to the death of 115 insurgents with minimal losses on the army’s side.[4] After some initial success with the infantry and artillery against the villagers' trenches, however, the soldiers were surrounded by more than 4,000 insurrectionists.[5] Lacking ammunition, food and water, and unable to resist the rebels, who continued to fight despite heavy losses, the soldiers retreated once again to Monte Santo to await reinforcements.[5][4]

What was particularly striking about this expedition was the way in which the canudenses had claimed victory.[4] The fighters completely destroyed areas within a radius of seven miles of Canudos: they burned ranches and farm buildings, thus leaving a circle of charred ground.[4] Amidst a background of journalistic war cries, the canudenses crushing victory led national military and civilian authorities to label Canudos a considerable threat to national order and the prestige of the armed forces and the new governement.[4]

Third military campaign[edit]

A matadeira (The Killer), a British-manufactured cannon used in the War of Canudos by the Brazilian Army against the rebels.

An experienced colonel, Antônio Moreira César, set out with three infantry battalions, one cavalry and one artillery battalion, all newly armed and trained. On February 20, backed with 1,300 troops, Moreira arrived to Monte Santo.[4] A day later, completely disregarding “the intense heat and parched land,” a little over a thousand men advanced on Canudos.[4] The military forces reportedly carried “seventy rounds of cannon-balls and sixteen million rounds of ammunition.”[4] Although forewarned about the numbers and resolve of the rebels, the military thought it impossible that the rebels would resist such a strong regular army force. However, their equipment quickly turned out be inadequate for the backlands. Wagon trains that carried supplies “sank up to their hubs in sand.”[4] The troops nonetheless continued their forced march to Canudos, which they fired cannon-balls at upon arrival.[4] However, the bombings had turned the settlement of huts into a "maze" that was impossible for the soldiers to navigate.[4] But on March 6, 1897, after only two days of fighting, the surviving officers had no choice but to vote to retreat.[4] Moreira César’s protests were overlooked,[4] and he died before dawn due to a fatal wound.[5]

Fourth expedition and final destruction of Canudos[edit]

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

Pressured, the Federal government sent a new expedition under 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 gathering point for the large army force being assembled.[5] Machine guns and large artillery pieces, such as mortars and howitzers, including a powerful Whitworth 32 (nicknamed Matadeira (Killer)) went with the 3,000-man force, and had to be hauled with enormous effort through the unforgiving roadless landscape.

The troops set off on June 16.[5] 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.[4] The first battalion consisted of 2,350 men, hundreds of whom were trapped by the canudenses and slaughtered.[4] Fearing another failed expedition, the troops retreated to the town of Monte Santo.[4] The second assault began a month later and involved over 8,000 soldiers.[4] The troops encircled and starved the population of Canudos into starvation and submission.[4] The last assault persisted until the beginning of October the military forces set off 90 dynamite bombs in the settlement, thus marking the defeat of the people of Canudos.[5] Reports of the fighting state that hundreds of Canudos defenders and federal soldiers died every day.[4] Throughout this expedition, an undetermined number of canudenses fled the settlement.[4] Those who stayed, however, were fooled into surrendering with the promise of being spared.[4] One of the forces generals, however, had the men “rounded by soldiers, and hacked to death in front of hundreds of witness, including many of their wives and children.”[4] Immediately after the final assault, soldiers “smashed, leveled, and burned all 5,200 in the settlement.”[4]

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

It was eventually determined that Counselheiro had likely died of dysentery on September 22.[4] Before Canudos was burned down and dynamited, Counselheiro’s body was exhumed, the head was removed, and it was “displayed on a pike” to be “held high at the front of a military parade for all to see.”[4] According to Peter Robb, it "was taken to the Medical Faculty of Bahia to be studied for abnormalities."[6] When peace was restored, only 150 survivors remained. The best-looking surviving women were taken captive and sent to brothels in Salvador.

Survivors from Canudos, 1897.

Some authors, such as Euclides da Cunha (1902) estimated the number of deaths in the War of Canudos was ca. 30,000 (25,000 residents and 5,000 attackers)[2] [1], but some argue that the real number may have been lower (around 15,000).[4] According to Peter Robb, "[t]he 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."[6] Euclides da Cunha did not see the fighting but did bear witness afterward, Robb says, and 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, which is however, the only story we have.[6]

Canudos today[edit]

Although the original town of Canudos has been covered by the reservoir of the Cocorobó Dam, built by the military regime in the 1960s, the Canudos State Park, established in 1986, preserves many of the important sites and serves as a monument to the war. The stated purpose of the park is to make it impossible to forget the martyrs led by Antônio Conselheiro.[7]


  • 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


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Especial - NOTÍCIAS - Uma nova agenda militar". revistaepoca.globo.com. ÉPOCA. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Levine, Robert M. (October 1991). "Canudos in the National Context". The Americas. 48 (2): 208. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Madden, Lori (1993). "The Canudos War in History". Luso-Brazilian Review. 30 (2): 5–22. JSTOR 3513950.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al Levine, Robert M. (1992). Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, 1893-1897 (First ed.). University of California Press. pp. 171–177, 184–183, 196, 207.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion in the Backlands. 1957: University of Chicago Press. pp. xxxii–xxxiv. ISBN 978-0143106074.
  6. ^ a b c Robb, Peter (2004). A Death in Brazil (Reprint ed.). Picador. p. 208. ISBN 978-0312424879.
  7. ^ Neto, Ricardo Bonalume (14 June 1997), "Inaugurado parque estadual de Canudos", Folha de S.Paulo (in Portuguese), retrieved 2016-11-04

External links[edit]

Witness History: War of Canudos in Brazil from BBC.co.uk

Heroic rebel town rises from deep from The Guardian