19th Century

Disorder and Progress: Antonio O Conselheiro’s Rebellion in the Sertão and the Holy City of Canudos | Stephen Basdeo


In his epic novel 93 (1874), Victor Hugo contrasted the supposed progressive ideals of the French Revolution (1789–99) with those of the Vendéan peasant rebel army who were fighting to restore the monarchy:

‘Opposite the French Revolution, which represents an immense inroad of all the benefits—civilization in a fit of rage—an excess of maddened progress—improvements exceeding measure and comprehension—you must place these strange, grave savages, with clear eyes and flowing hair, living on milk and chestnuts, their ideas bounded by their thatched roofs, their hedges and their ditches … speaking a dead language, which was like forcing their thoughts to dwell in a tomb; driving their bullocks, sharpening their scythes, winnowing their black grain, kneading their buckwheat dough, venerating their plough first and then their grandmothers; believing in the Blessed Virgin and the White Lady … loving their king, their lord, their priest, their very lice; pensive without thought.’[1]

Hugo’s sneering tone speaks for itself; those who sought a restoration of the French monarchy after the revolution had erupted to enlighten the world were backward, wedded to their priests and their superstitions. They had not yet embraced the new world of order and progress. Hugo’s words on the Vendéan peasants, written in the late nineteenth century, might easily have been adapted by some educated writer at the same time in Brazil to describe certain of its inhabitants who, to outsiders, seemed just as steeped in superstition and ‘backward’ devotion to a monarchy as those in the Vendée.

Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, overthrown in a coup d’état (personal collection)

Order and Progress

Order and progress. Those three words, emblazoned on the current flag of Brazil, symbolize the ideology of the military men who ousted Emperor Dom Pedro II in a military coup on 15 November 1889. The military coup, which some people at the time styled a ‘revolution’, was hardly an expression of the popular will.[2] Instead, it was the pet project of the country’s military elites who, disdainful of monarchy as ‘backward’, looked to the United States as a model of good government and wanted the same for Brazil.

The Proclamation of the Republic of Brazil (Wikimedia Commons)

Since the Brazilian monarchy’s establishment in 1822, there had always been people who were quietly republican. At some times their voices got louder, such as during the Praieira Rebellion of 1848–49, which advocated the establishment of an independent Brazilian republic in the north. But 1848 was not their time, and it was not until 1889 that the republicans won the day. The United States of Brazil was established and a republican form of government was instituted.

Flag of the United States of Brazil (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet in the north a prophet arose. A fervent Catholic with a healthy dose of mysticism, he drew many followers who were enthralled with his good works. More importantly, he denounced the ‘Godless Republic’ with a zeal which angered the ruling elites of the new state. The man’s name was Antonio or, as the people called him, ‘The Counsellor’ (O Conselheiro).

Os Sertões (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The Sertões

Just as the great historian, Euclides da Cunha, did in his magisterial history of the rebellion in Os Sertões, so too will we set the scene of our excursion into Brazilian history.

Ever since Pedro Cabral’s arrival in Brazil in the 1500s, the nation’s borders had, with some exceptions, remained largely stable. The nation’s southern border runs along Uruguay and Argentina. To the east: Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. In the north: Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname. This continent-sized country’s western border is of course the sea—the vast Atlantic ocean.

Euclides da Cunha (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The government of the Brazilian nation—styled the Empire of Brazil (Império do Brasil) was consolidated during the reign of Emperors Dom Pedro I and Dom Pedro II. The old colonial captaincy systems had been abolished and redesignated as provinces, each ruled by a president appointed by the emperor. After the coup d’état, the 26 provinces of the Empire of Brazil were re-designated as ‘states’ (estados) and, in emulation of the USA, these states became largely self-governing.

Bahian backlands (Wikimedia Commons)

It is in the northern states where our story lies—particularly Bahia, Pernambuco, Ceará, Paraíba, and the northernmost part of Minas Geraes, for overlapping parts of each of these states is a region known as the sertões (roughly translated as ‘the backlands’ or ‘badlands’). Despite the explorations made of the Amazon in the nineteenth century, the Badlands remained a true terra incognita. Dusty. Dry. Arid. The sand was singed red. Devoid of any vegetation that might make life bearable—‘none settled here’, as da Cunha said, and indeed ‘none could settle here.’[3]

A vaqueiro in the Bahian backlands in the early 20th century (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sertanejos

Da Cunha’s quite dramatic words about the region’s lack of inhabitants obscures the fact that some did indeed settle in the desert-like sertões and were denominated sertanejos. If we must have an equivalent in English, it could probably be translated as ‘backwoodsman’, ‘countryman’, though it does not carry so negative a connotation as ‘redneck’. Perhaps it is best left untranslated, however; an English-language historian of the rebellion in the Badlands said that the region produced a ‘special type of man’ for it is

‘A land where man has got to fight for his existence against drought, storms, heat, cold, hunger, and thirst, and thus becomes toughened and hardened, bodily and mentally thrown back upon himself, fanatical in his religion, introspective, visionary, brave, hospitable, suspicious, cruel and generous, made up of contradictions, fitted to struggle with the daily trials of life’.[4]

Wedded to these characteristics, in that historian’s words, were ‘endurance and a superhuman patience in adversity’ and ‘intelligence’ with a love of individual freedom. And he is vengeful.[5] A suspicion of all things ‘new’ and progressive was characteristic of the population, who in 1874 rioted against the imposition of the metric weights and measures system.[6]

The chief occupation of a male sertanejo was that of a vaqueiro who drive cattle from one town to another. The North Americans would call their equivalent of this figure a cowboy, while a British reader might imagine a hardy highlander such as Rob Roy, who was also conjured up in Walter Scott’s famous novel of the same name. The vaqueiros had to be tough to be on his guard against Brazilian Rob Roys, or cangaceiros (bandits);[7] these bandits—which were overly romanticised by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘social bandits’—were hardly liked by the population at large and they were often the terror of the rural population and the lone vaqueiro traveller.[8] That being said, at times the distinction between vaqueiro and cangaceiro was notably blurred. At night would the sertanejo rest with cattle himself, sleeping under the stars.

The famous Lampion, a cangaceiro (Wikimedia Commons)

The vaqueiro led the life of a semi-nomad; when he was finished trekking with the cattle, he might retire to one of the many little settlements dotted around the inhospitable sertões. The principal ones in the state of Bahia were Jacobina, Quiemadas, and Joãozeiro—though many more of the hamlets to which he went were makeshift and ramshackle and often became ghost towns after but a few years.[9]

The End of the World and the Return of a King

The sertanejo’s religion—and he never missed a church service—was a kind of ‘hell-fire’ Catholicism. The priest he looked up to with complete reverence; someone almost superhuman and in direct contact with Christ himself. The priest’s sermons usually revolved around the pains and penalties to be suffered by the sinner.[10] And of these sermons they would take note; they truly believed that God directly intervened in their affairs. Visions and omens regularly appeared to these people.

Their pastimes were few. The main attractions which caused sensation in these tiny villages were the arrival of some lay preacher or the occasional encamisada—an event in which young men, mounted on horseback and dressed as medieval Portuguese warriors and Moorish soldiers, held mock battles.[11] Similar events are still held in some small Brazilian towns to this day.[12]

But the principal attractions were the Holy Days during which, and in scenes reminiscent of the European Middle Ages,[13] the sertanejos would repair to their local village fair. For the few that were literate, their books comprised various cheaply printed lives of the saints (stories of which were read aloud in groups). At social gatherings a feijoada (a traditional dish of rice, beans, and some meat) might be shared over cachaça.

Of lay preachers there were plenty; one message—a constant refrain—from all of these was that the world was coming to an end and only the righteous would be saved. These prophets’ trademark is the same the world over. Such preachers had a long history in the north of Brazil. In 1837, at Pedra Bonita, one man kept prophesying that Dom Sebastian, who died over 300 years before, would soon come again to rule over Portugal and Brazil and reward the faithful.[14]

Such priestly messianic movements usually burned themselves out after a few years and were never much of a worry to the imperial authorities. The priests of the north, in fact, were usually fervent monarchists and sought to inculcate in the sertanejo population a complete reverence for the person of the monarch. The priests proclaimed themselves as the emperor’s viceroys and, in the north, they took this role seriously. Leopoldo Frances Pinheiro, a priest from Ceará—to take just one example—denounced ‘republicanism’ as

‘a satanic form of government’.[15]

To the illiterate sertanejos, Dom Pedro II was the fount of all authority. God’s highest representative on earth. The republicans who ousted their emperor in 1889 were atheistic and, so the sertanejos feared, would soon destroy their beloved religion. Republicanism was an attack on their very way of life. The stage was therefore set for the rise of the Conselheiro.

The Early Life of Antonio o Conselheiro

Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel was born at some point in the year 1842 in the town of Quixeramobim, Ceará. He was taught to read and write by the local priests, who imbued him early on with a hatred for republican ideas and a reverence for the monarchy, the Church, and traditional ways of life. His reading was probably, like many sertanejos, confined solely to poorly-printed ‘Lives of the Saints’ and passages from the Bible—perhaps a breviary accompanied his youthful days as well.

The town hall of Quixeramobim in the 19th century (Wikimedia)

Antonio was good with numbers and as a result was employed as a clerk in the small village store which his family owned. By 1858 he was married. One historian remarked that she was altogether unsuited for the quiet and reserved man that he was; allegedly she had gained reputation in and about Quixeramobim for sleeping around. To try and ensure his wife stopped cheating on him, he moved to another (then little) town named Sobral, and then another place called Campo Grande, before finally settling as a lawyer’s clerk at Ipú. It was here that his wife finally upped sticks and ran off with a policeman.

His wife’s final infidelity enraged the hitherto quiet and pious Antonio. The region of the northeast was an honour-based culture. It was not unusual for wronged men to seek redress from those who had slighted or humiliated them.[16] Wherever the state is unable or unwilling to enforce the law in full, community self-policing takes hold, and the late imperial region of the northeast was indeed such a place where policing was virtually absent.[17] Unable to track down either his wife or the policeman, Antonio decided to attack one of the policeman’s family members.

For this assault on an innocent man Antonio was rightly incarcerated. Yet such prisons as existed in the north of Brazil in the nineteenth century were generally small structures—akin to the ‘lock ups’ and roundhouses of eighteenth-century Britain—and, owing to their construction out of sun-baked bricks, had walls which were easily penetrated. Thus Antonio escaped and disappeared into the wilderness, seemingly to be forgotten.

The Wandering of a Pilgrim

The year is 1874. The place is a small town named Itabaiana (formerly Itabariana) in the state of Sergipe. Like many quiet towns in Brazil’s northeast, the inhabitants numbered probably less than a few thousand. Everybody would have known everyone else. It may have caused some stir, then, when a wandering pilgrim appeared in the town’s central square. To look at this man was a curious thing. He was sunburnt. His body was emaciated through excessive fasting. His long hair was topped by broad-brimmed hat. A beard grew down to the chest. In a bag which dangled by his side he carried paper, ink, some pens, and a Missal. All he wore was long blue linen shirt and every so often he leaned upon his pilgrim’s staff to take a rest from his walking.

‘He was not mad, and yet not altogether sane’[18]

—such were the words with which R. B. Cunninghame Graham described this curious creature. He never spoke a word unless spoken to and lived entirely upon charity, often sleeping in the open air of the town square. This man must be holy, no doubt many of the residents thought. Indeed, it was at Itabaiana that Antonio first gained the name of Conselheiro (‘the counsellor’).

Miracles began to be attributed to him. People were impressed with his holiness. Soon, some very impressionable folk began to think that they too should share, with their new-found Christ-like prophet, a life of holiness and poverty. Herdsmen, fishermen, and slaves flocked to their messiah-of-few words. And with him they began roaming the country from town to town, singing hymns as they went. Eventually, the Conselheiro picked up an armed escort in the form of a number of vaqueiros who threw in their lot with the holy man.

To join the Conslheiro’s followers one had to undergo a great theatrical ritual:

[Would-be followers] threw themselves upon the ground, beat on their breasts, confessed their sins in public; then [they became] pure and relieved of the black burden which the accumulated evil deeds of years had made intolerable.[19]

Arresting Antonio O Conselheiro

The movement was largely harmless during the 1870s. What did the central imperial authorities care for a dirty, dusty holy man who wandered about the towns repairing old churches, mending roads, living piously through fasting and prayer, and who kept the unruly sertanejo population in check?

So many prophets had wandered through the north that the Conselheiro’s actions were hardly new. This was indeed largely their attitude, although the provincial government of Bahia did not see it that way—the Conselheiro, by drawing in what were multitudes of people, was challenging their Bahian government’s authority.

Salvador, Bahia, in the late 19th century (Wikimedia)

Thus the Bahaian government decided, in 1876, to order the militia to arrest the Conselheiro at the town of Itapicuru. He was beaten by the soldiers and taken all the way to Salvador for trial on the trumped-up charge of the murder of his ex-wife, not before being incarcerated for nearly a year before his case was heard. The charge was so easily disproven, and the Conselheiro’s conduct at his trial was so saintly, that he emerged from the ordeal in 1878 with the status of a martyr.

The pilgrim works miracles

For the next ten years the Conselheiro returned to his old ways, wandering about from place to place, constructing chapels, repairing churches, collecting alms and giving them to the poor, sleeping under the stars, and amassing followers. Sometimes the local village clergy simply allowed him to get on with things, say his peace, and then leave. At other places, however, his reception was lukewarm, for in 1882 the Bishop of Bahia forbade all true Catholics from listening to this man whom he deemed a madman.[20] It was in 1887 that the first mention of him appeared in the newspaper press. The Folhina Laemmert remarked that

‘There has appeared in the sertões of the north a man known as Antonio Conselheiro who exercises a great influence upon the people of those parts … he preaches and gives advice to the crowds that follow him, where the parish priests allow him to hold forth.’[21]

During this time many more miracles began were attributed to him. For example, when he was at the town of Bom Jesus, ten workmen were trying to lift a heavy wooden beam. The Conselheiro ordered them to stop and then, pointing at the two weakest-looking members of the workforce, commanded them to lift it. This they apparently managed to do and it was taken as proof that the dear Conselheiro was indeed imbued with supernatural powers.

The Conselheiro’s doctrines

It was in the 1880s also that his message became coherent. Women must never attempt to make themselves look beautiful with makeup, for this was a sin (the Conselheiro obviously still traumatised by his wife’s conduct). Chastity was enjoined on all. Civil marriage ceremonies were said to be the work of the devil, helped along by a Church that was sick and sinful; religious marriage ceremonies were all that his followers needed. 7 Somewhat paradoxically, a cult of ‘free love’ reigned among the Conselheiro’s disciples; he seemingly had no issue with extramarital sex and the commandment of ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was largely ignored.

Finally, the Antichrist would soon come to reign over the world and would create havoc and disorder. The faithful were therefore urged to relinquish their wealth and riches (what little the sertanejos had in this world, at any rate) and be saved.

The political prophet

Besides, the Conselheiro now had bigger things to focus upon: The impending destruction of the world. With the Emperor overthrown on 15 December 1889, one of the traditional foundations of Brazilian society—the monarchy—had disappeared. What made him began preaching against the republican government in earnest was a relatively small legislative act: The granting, by the republican central body, of tax-levying powers to the municipalities. To men wedded to traditional forms of semi-feudal government, this minor act represented the final nail in the coffin of the empire, in which all former provinces were subordinate to the central government.

The Conselheiro viewed it essentially as an overreach of central government power, even if the act itself granted more autonomy to the new states. When the Conselheiro saw a notice about the new taxation regime on the walls of the town of Bom Conselho he launched into a frenzy, tearing down the posters, and burning them. He then gathered his by now many thousands of followers and proclaimed that, in addition to being a movement of the faithful, they were now an insurrection against the republic, or, as he put it:

‘The spawn of Satan’.[22]

The First Battle of Canudos

The government got angry. They could not have an upstart leading a rebellion. Leaders of peasants are usually ineffective, but that was not always the case; nineteenth-century governments often underestimated these groups. After all, in the late nineteenth century the demented Mahdi and his fanatical peasants had given the British Empire a slap in the face and executed one of that empire’s most famous soldiers, General Gordon.

It was decided that a force of 200 badly-armed and poorly-led soldiers should be sent to capture the Conselheiro. It should have been easy; capture the leader, arrest some of the principal followers, and disperse the rest of them. This was not so—at Massete the Conslheiro’s quite well-armed vaqueiros opened fire on the soldiers. The majority of the government force was killed and their commander abandoned the field. In honour of their victory the Conselheiro’s people took the name of jagunços (‘bravos’ or ‘brave ones’).

Sebastião de Portugal, c. 1571-1574 by Cristóvão de Morais (Google Art Project): The king who was prophesied to come again and rule Brazil

The End of the World

With pro-monarchist rebellions in the south and north of Brazil having been brutally suppressed by the new atheistic republic, and with the government sure to send more soldiers after them, the Conselheiro could only interpret these events in one way only: The End of the World was approaching and, acting as a prophet, the beginning of the end would start in 1896:

‘A multitude shall come up from the shore to the Sertão. The Sertão shall become a seabeach and the shore become Sertão. In 1898 there shall be many hats and a great scarcity of heads. In 1899 the waters shall be changed to blood and a planet shall appear in the east … a great fall of stars shall bring about the destruction of the world. In 1900 all lights will be extinguished. God says in his gospel ‘I will have but one flock and one shepherd … for I have but a single flock’.[23]

Another of his speeches ran in a similar vein:

‘The reign of God was nigh. He will descend in majesty and might, confound His enemies, and destroy the impious republic; cast down the mighty from their seats; exalt the sufferers, the poor—His poor—and burn up those who had refused to come and listen to His Counsellor. When the demoniac republic had disappeared, the King, Dom Sebastian, shall reign again for a brief period in glory, before the destruction of the world.’[24]

Such speeches had an electrifying effect upon his followers, although the sermons were very formulaic and usually followed this set pattern:

‘Little by little the speaker warmed up to his work, lifted his head, and broke out into invective against the republic and its work. God had forsaken all its agents. The impious ministers wishes to destroy religion, and to turn everyone into mere atheists, only fit for hell. If it prevailed the reign of Antichrist was assured.’[25]

They truly believed that the Antichrist was governing Brazil. The newspapers back in Rio de Janeiro—largely friendly to the republic—began speaking of this movement as a second Vendée and rumours spread in the capital that European money was funding the movement and attempting to restore the monarchy.[26]

The search for a promised land

Now, in Matthew 24: 36 Jesus famously said of the end of the world that ‘of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only’. But these words of Jesus did not seem to bother the Conselheiro and mark how he implies that only his flock, in north-eastern Brazil, would be saved. What this meant, exactly, for others living far away from Brazil in Europe and elsewhere was never quite clear.

Such prophecies clearly represented an evolution in his theological thought, which previously was centred upon the doing of good works. With the end of the world coming, and with his followers constantly exposed to the evil ways of the materialistic and atheistic world, the Conselheiro decided that there was no other option but to take his followers out of the world as much as possible. Just like the Mormons under Brigham Young during the 1840s, the Conselheiro decided that in the midst of the arid and dry wilderness a new city would be founded: Canudos. In 1893, they arrived at the place which would become their stronghold.

Map showing the principal locations of the war in Canudos (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rise of Canudos

Canudos, 200 miles from Bahia, was originally a dilapidated farmhouse situated along the Vasa-Barris river. The population of about 20 souls was mostly idle and their chief occupation

‘lay in drinking rum and smoking home-grown tobacco’.[27]

This small population had a priest to care for their spiritual needs whose home was in the church—the only relatively well-kept building in the vicinity. Perhaps only God can know the priest’s thoughts on the day that he saw thousands upon thousands of people, led by a bearded and sandaled prophet, descending on to this village. At any rate, the Conselheiro expelled the priest from the village soon after the jagunços’ arrival.

Idealised image of the Conselheiro (Museum of the Republic)

This place did not at first sight appear the wisest choice for the prophet. There was no vegetation. The land was arid. There were no transport links. The only productive soil was a narrow strip along the riverbank and some cattle could graze on the mountains which flanked the settlement. Neighbouring towns were virtually deserted (though many of their inhabitants had joined the Conselheiro along the way, and, like all of his followers, had to donate 90 per cent of their wealth to the cause).

Nevertheless, a city was built. It is said that an average of twelve huts per day were constructed—zeal for a cause larger than one’s self often spurring people on to impressive feats. Indeed, they would work hard, for while they were building the Conselheiro stood preaching to them all day long about the coming end of the world. Nor were these simple one-room huts—each ‘hut’, or wooden house, had three rooms: a living room, a bedroom, and an atrium.

Uma casa em Canudos. Fotografia de Flávio de Barros. 1897. Arquivo Histórico Museu da República.

The construction of the temple at Canudos

Just like the Mormons in Salt Lake City, this town of Canudos would also have a temple on the site of the old church, the construction of which began in earnest. This was to be a fortified town as well; while the huts were being erected, trenches surrounding the settlement were dug and at night the community would come together, eat, and sing psalms and pray—and engage in several orgies because chastity was pointless in a world coming to an end.

That being said, total hedonism did not reign supreme. Followers had to work of course and they also had to fast regularly (but this rule did not apply to drinking, and the fact that many drank alcohol on an empty stomach probably accounts for some of the orgies people engaged in, their inhibitions being lowered).

Rather grimly, intercourse between adults and children was tolerated and condoned by the Conselheiro, who was never without armed jagunços to do his bidding and keep people in check. The Conselheiro also employed spies to simply walk about the streets of Canudos and listen out for any dissension in the ranks and report this back so that ‘apostates’ could be dealt with.

Now that the Jagunços were no longer nomads, in fact, a number of degenerates and criminally depraved people flocked to him from far afield; thieves, murderers, horse and cattle stealers all found a home at Canudos (thieves, just like Robin Hood was, are often very religious—presumably, men who sin a lot must have need of absolution on tap).[28] Many of the worst people imaginable serving in the Conselheiro’s personal guard or in the rudimentary secret police force which was springing up (and who always stood guard over the flock when he was preaching).

The Priests Arrive

The government was militarily overstretched. It was dealing with revolts in Rio Grande do Sul in the far south of Brazil and even the Brazilian navy had seemingly declared in favour of a monarchical restoration when Rear-Admiral Luiz Felipe Saldanha da Gama issued a proclamation against the coup against the emperor which was described as

‘A national moment of stupefaction’.[29]

Saldanha didn’t mince his words. The republic was

‘the abominable yoke of slavery’ which ‘degrades [Brazil], both in her own eyes and in those of the civilized world’.[30]

Saldaha’s went beyond mere wordsmithery when he, seeking to restore ‘the government of Brazil where it was on the 15th of November 1889’, and other commanders in the navy blockaded Rio de Janeiro in an attempt to unseat the republicans.

The government, therefore, could not afford a military expedition to put down what had become a religious revolt. In 1895, the Catholic Church decided to intervene—after all, perhaps what was needed was a religious solution rather than a military one.

Fr. Monte Marciano and an associate were despatched to the visit the city, the former writing an account of his experiences in Relatorio apresentado, em 1895, pelo Reverendo Frei Joáo Evangelista de Monte Marciano, ao Arcebispado da Bahia, sobre Antonio «Conselheiro» e seu séquito no arraial dos Canudos (1895). The Conslheiro received both men with kindness, although they were met with hisses and jeers from his followers when they first arrived. Marciano was invited to deliver a sermon, during which he urged all present to disperse and go back to their homes. Additionally, the priests urged those present to accept the legitimacy of the republic.

Hisses and jeers followed along with occasional shouts of ‘Death to the Friar!’ The crowd became enraged. Luckily for the priests, the Conselheiro calmed the multitude. Turning to the priests, Antonio said:

‘These people that you see in my arms have all assembled only to guard me from my foes. You may remember a little time ago at Masseté the impious republic wished to slay me, and there was fighting and deaths on both sides. In the time of the monarchy I allowed myself to be apprehended quietly, because I recognised the government. Today I defend myself, for I refuse to recognise the republic, or any of its works’.[31]

The priest reminded Antonio that the Church had always recognised the authority of temporal princes and, just as Saint Paul had never questioned the authority of Nero, so too did the Church recognise the republic. It was no use, however, for the missionaries to remain much longer in Canudos. They heard a few confessions, married a few of the unwed, and went on their way.

The Second Battle of Canudos

The Conselheiro dreamed of creating a godly city in the middle of the desert, shut out from the world and in which he and his followers might await the end. This did not mean that he did not, from time to time, have to rely on the outside world for resource. Wood was scarce around Canudos, and the jagunços needed wood. While new followers brought provisions and resources with them (required to give 90 per cent of what they owned to the Conselheiro’s coffers), at times they had to purchase materials from neighbouring towns.

The town of Juaozeiro was ready to supply the jagunços with wood and the Conselheiro ordered a great quantity of it from the town’s magistrate. Money was sent, and Canudos awaited the delivery.

A satirical print mocking the republic’s inability to control the Conselheiro (Wikimedia)

However, in 1896, the magistrates at Juaozeiro decided to renege on the deal once they received the money. After several protestations the Conselheiro warned that he was coming to besiege the town. The magistrates at Juaozeiro urgently wrote to the governor of Bahia requesting military aid. The town’s poorly paid, part time militia was no match for what was now the Conselheiro’s army.

The governor responded by sending just 100 men to Juaozeiro. A pathetic force of fresh recruits unused to fighting in the desert-like conditions and marching against a city numbering almost 30,000 souls.[32] From Juaozeiro the troops began the march to Canudos, hoping to meet the Conselheiro’s army on the way. Some soldiers died from heat exhaustion on the way; others simply deserted. On the 19 November, the force decided to camp at the abandoned town of Uauá. On the morning of 20 November, they were surprised by a force of 3,000 well-armed jagunços. A fight ensued and considering the numbers involved the soldiers fought a brave fight. Over 200 of the jagunços were killed and 1,000 more wounded. Yet only 60 government soldiers remained. This was no victory; those remaining had to flee back to Juaozeiro.

Who could doubt the power of the prophet now?

Canudos before the siege begins (Wikimedia)

The Third Battle of Canudos

The government immediately began building a second force. Rio de Janeiro sent a force of 600 men, who travelled to Quiemadas by railway first, along with two Krupp field guns and four Nordenfeldts. Both of these were huge and not easily transportable but they would among to a terrifying spectacle when presented to Canudos. The new force then marched to the town of Monte Santos, where they arrived on 27 December 1896 and some of Monte Santos’s police joined them. All in all, the new force, headed by Pedro Nunes Tamarindo (a large and imposing man), had 543 soldiers, 14 officers, three doctors, 2 artillery divisions, 200 policemen, and of course the large cannon. Every member of this force was a confirmed supporter of the new republic and committed to purging

‘the barbarity which has been the scourge of our native land’.[33]

Monte Santos was a good place to make camp as it gave a panoramic view of the countryside and it was a great base of operations from which the government could avenge its humiliation.

The view from Monte Santo (Museum of the Republic)

Given the speed at which the force reached Monte Santos from Rio de Janeiro, one would have thought that Tamarindo wanted to lose no time in marching on Canudos. Yet for reasons only known to himself, his forces tarried at Monte Santos for over 2 weeks where, so reports suggested, they all thoroughly enjoyed themselves. This left ample time for some of the town’s inhabitants, who were friendly to the Conselheiro, to send word and warn him about the large new force.

It was not until 13 January that the march on Canudos began.

The area surrounding Canudos (Wikimedia)

The march was slow and gruelling. The guns slowed them down. The army was forced to stop at several points along the way to rest, including Lagem de Dentro and Penedo—these Rio soldiers were not used to fighting and marching in the desert heat of the Northeast and the roads between these places were little more than dirt tracks. Soon, hunger and thirst set; there was no water for miles with which they could replenish their store and by the time they reached Malunga a few days later they had to kill some of their animals so that the soldiers could eat some meat. They then rested for a night at Rancho das Pedras before marching on along the bottom of Mount Cambaio.

At Cambaio a crowd of the Conselheiro’s forces fell upon them screaming ‘Death to the Government’ and opened fire. Above the soldiers’ heads, rocks rained down. This was an ambush. Luckily the government forces managed to get the upper hand owing to the brave leadership of Major Febronio de Brito. The Conselheiro’s ragtag force of armed vaqueiros and brigands were not a match for the superior weapons of the Brazilian army. Yet though the small force of the Conselheiro dispersed, many men had been killed—300 corpses covered the mountain pass. One of the Krupps, which had been used in the attack, had jammed and was completely useless; the other was left on the mountain. Tamarindo had no other choice but to retreat.

Febronio de Brito

The Fourth Battle of Canudos

The government had been humiliated. The elites back in Rio de Janeiro were enraged. How could a priest and his ill-disciplined army of thieves and degenerates have conquered the army? The government was beleaguered. Several revolts had already taken place throughout the country and been put down successfully. So why did this not happen at Canudos? What was needed was a fierce soldier who would show no mercy. The government thought it had this in Colonel Antonio Moreira César—a man of

‘cold reserve and demoniac fury—who had brutally suppressed other uprisings.[34]

Col. Moreira (Wikimedia Commons)

The government gave César carte blanche to destroy the rebels by any means necessary. The forces of Order and Progress must win against those of barbarism and superstition. To this end, he was given 1,300 men, who had 250 cartridges each, and supplied with cannon. It would be impossible for the cultists to resist such a force—or so the government thought… In the meantime, the Conselheiro’s victories meant that ever more followers flowed into Canudos, bringing with them fresh supplies and swelling the ranks of combatants.

On 22 February César’s force marched on to Canudos by a different route from Monte Santo. The road ran through the caatingas (woods) which kept the troops shielded but meant considerable time was lost in clearing the way for the cannon. Just like last time, water was scarce, as was food, but the soldiers marched on, and to anticipate their needs they had also brought along a portable water well digger.

The Conselheiro prepares for war…

Back at Canudos, the Conselheiro knew that the government had sent a larger force thanks to the information gained by his informants throughout the entire state. The Church of Bom Jesus was still being built; the men were ordered to prepare for battle and the women and children were commanded to continue working on the Church.

The inhabitants of Canudos were quite ingenious in other respects; they managed to create their own makeshift gunpowder from the sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal that could be had in the surrounding country. All of this activity was of course accompanied with sermons from Antonio, who heavily implied that César was the Antichrist. [35]

The army was approaching. It reached Cumbé on 25 February and on 3 March they reached Pitombas which was very close to Canudos and in front of a wood. On 4 March, just as the army was about to set out to Angico, they were fired on from the woods. The small force hidden in the woods was easily dealt with and César decided to waste no time in marching on Canudos. After six hours of non-stop marching the army reached, and made camp on, a hill named Mount Favella.

The assault on the city

The guns from last time were still there and one of them was working. César sent to warning shots into the city and several houses were set on fire. Yet there was no reaction from the city. No one screaming. No scurrying masses of people trying to escape from the fire. This was most strange. Yet César, dedicated to his mission, ordered a large part of the infantry to make an assault on the city. The men marched in unopposed. There was no one to be seen. The place was empty. It seemed like the place had been abandoned…

Suddenly a scream here—a soldier had been shot. A deathly groan there—a soldier had been stabbed. The soldiers were being felled by what seemed like a superior force. The town was not abandoned at all. Instead, the population had merely been hiding—underground. They emerged from little camouflaged hiding holes in the floor to wreak havoc on the soldiers. There was panic in the ranks. Everywhere in the winding streets of Canudos did danger await the soldiers. Death appeared from all sides and above and below. Deathly screams and groans could be heard from Mount Favella.

Yet the artillery could only stand and watch and see their comrades slaughtered. If they fired on the city, they risked killing their own men. In the mêlée César was killed and command of the army fell to Tamarindo, who had accompanied the force, eager to destroy those who had humiliated him last time. Tamarindo sounded the retreat. Night fell as the soldiers’ broken ranks retreated to Mount Favella,[36] and then up to a higher hill named Alto do Mario. From the bottom of the hills in Canudos they heard the singing of psalms and a fiery sermon being preached. It must have been a superstitiously terrifying scene. By morning, as the forces began to retreat, they were harassed by bullets and Tamarindo was also killed. Many of the soldiers who survived the battle died of thirst and hunger on the march back to Monte Santo. Back in Canudos, the heads of Tamarindo and César were placed on spikes in prominent places for all to see, serving as an example to those who would dare defy the counsellor.

César’s death was lamented, not only by the embarrassed republic, but also by the people. The man was a war hero, as were the others. A cordel (a little chapbook of eight pages telling a story in verse) published after his death mourned his passing.[37]

The Final Battle

At its heart, the battle between the republican government and the Conselheiro was one between the forces of order and progress on the one hand, and barbarism and superstition on the other. Only one could win. Much more than just a theoretical difference about the nature of governance—monarchical and theocratic versus republican—was at stake. At least that was the view of the da Cunha who, with the benefit of hindsight, argued that though the government might lose some battles, all men must eventually succumb to civilization.[38]

Rui Facó’s book

Da Cunha’s position was certainly a different view to that of the twentieth-century neo-Marxist historian, Ruí Facó, who viewed Canudos as a misguided expression of peasant rebellion against land expropriation; in Facó’s estimation the people of Canudos’s grievances were only secondarily motivated by religion; political and economic questions were their main concerns.[39]

It is doubtful that the Conselheiro and his followers ever thought of themselves as Facó viewed of them. If their goals were primarily political, then one would have expected a well-thought out plan from the Conselheiro to replace the republican government beyond hoping for a monarchical restoration and the Second Coming of Christ. That being said, Conselheiro whether he realised it himself or not, what was emerging in the northeast of Brazil was a parallel state. Canudos threatened the integrity of the state itself. There could be no compromise between the two parties.

The arrival of Guimarães forces at Bahia (Wikimedia)

Artur Oscar de Andrade Guimarães takes control

A formidable new government force was created and placed under the command of General Artur Oscar de Andrade Guimarães: 5,000 men with field and siege artillery. Yet, just as the Conselheiro had his spies, so too would the government now resort to subterfuge; scouts were dressed as common jagunços who would report on the Conselheiro’s comings and goings.

Friendly vaqueiros were also employed to keep the army well-stocked with food once they reached Canudos, and they would be travelling back and forth between the army encampment outside the city and Queimadas. Nothing was left to chance. The whole army would be split into three columns: two to flank on either side the city. The other column, marching via a different route, would attack the rear of the city. The force departed from Quiemadas at the end of June 1897.

Artur Guimarães (Wikimedia)

One thing was clear: the prophet was also making his own preparations for war and fortifying the town. He even commandeered one of the Krupp guns that had been left by the previous forces. And the preaching increased—Dom Sebastian would soon be coming to exterminate republicanism before the Final Judgement.

The field equipment made for a slow march. There was a minor skirmish between the Conselheiro’s forces and the rear column commanded by General Savaget on 25 June at Corocobó and later at Lagoa da Lage, although the quick-firing artillery which the column were in possession of meant that the jagunços were repelled with ease. The heads of soldiers from former expeditions dotting the road to Canudos at periodic points must have made for grim viewing.

Then the beginning of the final confrontation began 28 June when the forces arrived at Mount Favella and set up camp. The army were expecting the rear column to arrive the same day but the skirmish at Corocobó prevented it. A small contingent of the Conselheiro’s men attempted an attack when the soldiers had set up camp, but just as the skirmishes on the road, they were beaten back. The large guns were aimed straight at the Church. Although Guimarães, in command of the two flanking columns, should have waited for the arrival of the rear column, he decided it was best to order a general assault on the city.

The arrest of a cultist. 1897. Fotografia de Flávio de Barros. Arquivo Histórico Museu da República.

A siege begins

The town remained well-fortified with hidden trenches on the city’s borders, so a general assault was deemed unwise. A siege would be necessary and the periodic bombardment of the town commenced on 2 July by which time the rear column had arrived.  One plan might have been to simply starve the cultists out and this is certainly the plan which seems to have been adopted while the army was waiting for vaqueiros, travelling from Queimadas to Mount Favella, to bring provisions.

But finally the signal for a general attack was given on 18 July. The town initially proved hard to take due to Canudos’ winding streets and the fact that, as before, soldiers were fired upon from camouflaged pits in the streets. There was no way that Guimarães was going to make the same mistake as the last army that attempted to capture the city street-by-street. Thus a retreat was ordered, and it was an orderly one. The army did not suffer many losses. Yet this was a town of upwards of 30,000 people. Could a force of what was now less than 5,000 take the city? Guimarães would not take the chance. Thus, word was sent back to Rio de Janeiro for reinforcements.

Corpses in the houses at Canudos 1897. Arquivo Histórico Museu da República.

Losing faith

Meantime in Canudos, it seemed that some of the Conselheiro’s followers were losing faith. Women and children were the first to desert the city and ask for asylum from Guimarães, which was duly granted after seeing how emaciated and withered they had become with all the fasting which their dear Conselheiro had enjoined upon them.

There would be no amnesty for those who remained in the city when the final assault began however—Order and Progress needed revenge upon those who would dare defy it. There were indeed many who never lost faith and remained in the city.

As Antonio preached from the church about the coming end of the world and the godless republic and singing litanies and chanting prayers, many of his followers became hedonistic; unbridled alcohol-infused sex was the order of the day. Strange actions for a besieged people, but perhaps they knew that the game was up.

Marshall de Bittencourt, Secretary of State for War, gets involved

The Secretary of State for War, Marshall de Bittencourt, received Guimarães’ request for reinforcements a few days after it was sent. With a zeal for the idea of Order, Progress, and republicanism, and believing that all backwardness needed to be rooted out and destroyed, Bittencourt arranged a formidable force of over 10,000 men who would be under his personal command. Bittencourt’s forces, well-trained and well-armed, poured into Mount Favella from every part of Brazil. These were not the raw and poorly-trained recruits that previous expeditions had sent. These were instead tough men who had the combined experience of fighting in a variety of environments and against different foes. The full force was ready to attack Canudos in early September.

Survivors from Canudos (Wikimedia Commons)

The attack begins

The attack began. The artillery began shelling the near-to-completed Church of Bom Jesus. The destruction of symbols is important—the cultists needed to be destroyed, not only physically but mentally. They needed to see that their monument to their false prophet, just like he himself, would be picked off by the forces civilization. The practical use of shelling the church was that it deprived the Conselheiro of his only lookout post. It was during the bombardment of the Church that Pajehú, one of Antonio’s most tyrannical right-hand men and military leaders, died.

Soldiers advanced and picked off the Conslheiro’s guards in the trenches and columns entered the city from the sides and at the rear. There would be no escape. All who now remained in the city would die. The street fighting was fierce and the town had to be taken one street at a time. Blood stained the dry mud streets; as cartridges ran low the soldiers got out their knives and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. There was no quarter—the soldiers ripped open the stomachs of the cultists with their knives.

Ruins of Bom Jesus church after the destruction of Canudos, 1897 (Wikimedia Commons)

By mid-September Bittencourt and Guimarães had occupied every entrance into Canudos. A chance was given for some of the inhabitants to desert, and many did so. Bittencourt also sent word to the Conselheiro asking him to surrender, but no reply was forthcoming. Thus, Antonio would indeed die. The soldiers commenced another brutal street-by-street fight and the government’s forces encircled the remains of Bom Jesus church at the centre.

Canudos after the attack (Wikimedia)

The death of the Conselheiro

The church’s walls were still standing when, finally, on 22 September, they were battered down. The Conselheiro saw this happen. It broke him. The symbol of everything he had tried to build had come crashing down. He fell into a deep despondency and wandered around in a trance. This same day he died. It was not a bullet which killed him. Instead he was simply found dead that day by an associate. His dead body was photographed and remains to this day the only real likeness of him.

The only picture of the Conselheiro (Wikimedia Commons)

Remember, remember, the 5th of November

All that remained for the republic’s army was to mop up those of his followers who still persisted in fighting. The death of their prophet did not mean the end of their cause—would he not simply rise again like Jesus did on the third day, accompanied with Dom Sebastian, to bring about the end of the world? This is what they believed would happen. Yet this was not to be.

The savagery of the attacking soldiers increased. The remaining followers were massacred. Their bodies thrown into the Conselheiro’s trenches that he had dug around the city and which now served as mass graves and their Conselheiro joined them. The last sound of gun fire in Canudos was heard on 5 November. Order and Progress had carried the day. Any who did manage to escape the army’s tight control of the city simply ran off into the sertão and became outlaws.


News of the fall of Canudos rapidly spread throughout the country. The street poets honoured the fallen soldiers in the cordels. The following is typical of the general mood accompanying the news (translation my own):

Esta horda de bandidos [This horde of bandits]

Fanáticos e traiçoeiros, [Fanatics and traitors]

Afinal foram batidos [In the end they were beaten]

Pelos soldados brasileiros [By the Brazilian soldiers]

Glória àqueles que morreram [Glory to those who died]

Com a fé republican [With republican faith]

Defendendo a sua patria [Defending their fatherland]

Longe, na terra baiana. [Far away in land of Bahia]

Viva o povo brasileiro [Long live the Brazilian people]

E também seu president [And also its president]

Glória aos mortos de Canudos [Glory to the dead of Canudos]

Chorados por toda a gente! [Lamented by everyone][40]

(See the anthology of Canudos poetry that has been compiled by José Calasans for a greater overview on the flourishing of such poetry once the government had won).

Whether the Conselheiro ever truly wanted a restoration of the monarchy, or whether it was the most convenient crux on to which might hang his own strange mystical beliefs, is hard to say. Dom Pedro II, the Enlightened Emperor, certainly would not have wanted a restoration brought about by the likes of the Conselheiro. It was sometimes said that he was the ‘republican emperor’ and, ideologically, he had more in common with the government than with those who wished for his restoration.

The rebellion at Canudos was not the final religio-monarchical rebellion seen in Brazilian history. Between 1911 and 1915, the Contestado movement, led by another deeply Catholic visionary named José Maria, flourished in Paraná and Santa Catarina. The message was the same: the republic was godless, the monarchy needed restoring, and the end of the world was coming. This too was put down by the government.[41]

Deus e o diabo na terra do sul [Black God, White Devil]

The subject of a monarchico-religious rebellion was also the subject of one of the greatest masterpieces of Brazilian cinema history: Deus e o diabo na terra do sul (1964) [English title: Black God, White Devil]. In the 1940s, a preacher named Sebastião wanders the Bahian sertão preaching against the republic. Although not explicitly based upon the life of the Conselheiro, the movie uses many settings familiar in our story such as Monte Santos. Just as in real life, so too in the film, the rebellion is brutally suppressed by the government. Order and Progress wins.

Deus e o diabo na terra do sul (1964)


[1] Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three (London: Richard Edward King, 1890), 246.

[2] George Ermakiff, Rio de Janeiro: 1840–1900—Uma crônica fotográfica (Rio de Janeiro: Casa Editorial, 2006), 189.

[3] Euclides da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands: Os Sertões, Trans. Samuel Putnam (University of Chicago Press, 1944), 9.

[4] R.B. Cunninghame Graham, A Brazilian Mystic being the Life and Miracles of Antonio Conslheiro (London: William Heinemann, 1920), 16.

[5] Graham, 17.

[6] John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 4th edn (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 211.

[7] Gerald M. Greenfield, ‘Drought and the Image of the Northeast’, in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 100–103.

[8] Linda Lewin, ‘The Oligarchical Limitations of Social Banditry in Brazil: The Case of the “Good” Thief Antonio Silvino’, Past and Present, 82 (1979), 116–46 (118).

[9] da Cunha, 41.

[10] Graham, 23.

[11] Graham, 63.

[12] Carina Alves [online], ‘O inverno mágico da Terra Fria’, Jornal Nordeste, 23 December 2019, accessed 27 May 2023

[13] Graham, 45.

[14] Graham, 42.

[15] Gilberto Freyre, Order and Progress: Brazil from Monarchy to Republic, Trans. Rod W. Horton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 98.

[16] See César Braga-Pinto, ‘Journalists, Capoeiras, and the Duel in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 94: 4 (2014), 581–614.

[17] Gilberto Freyre, ‘Social Life in Brazil in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 5: 4 (1922), 597-630 (603).

[18] Graham, 68.

[19] Graham, 74.

[20] Graham, 88.

[21] Graham, 76.

[22] Graham, 97.

[23] Graham, 86.

[24] Graham, 120.

[25] Graham, 119.

[26] Graham, 124.

[27] Graham, 100.

[28] See the Sicilian mafia’s veneration of the Virgin Mary as just one example of this.

[29] Luiz Felipe Saldanha da Gama, ‘A Naval Proclamation Favoring the Monarchy’, in A Documentary History of Brazil, ed. by E. Bradford Burns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 302.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Graham, 128.

[32] Edwin Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America, 2nd edn (London: Penguin, 2009), 412.

[33] Graham, 157.

[34] Graham, 167.

[35] Graham, 173.

[36] It is said by some that that the name of this mountain was exported outside of the north of Brazil and thereafter applied to the burgeoning slums which began appearing in Brazil around the end of the nineteenth century. I can see no other evidence for this beyond a few blog posts. However, it appears unlikely in my opinion.

[37] José Calasens [online], ‘Canudos na literatura cordel’, accessed 3 June 2023

[38] Da Cunha, 55.

[39] See Rui Facó, Cangaceiros e Fanaticos, 4th edn (Rio de Janeiro:  Editôra Civilização Brasileira, 1976).

[40] See Basílio de Magalhães, O folk-lore no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Quaresma, 1928)

[41] Williamson, 412.