Echoes of Canudos: The Brazilian State Massacre 120 Years Later

This past October marked the 120th anniversary of Brazil’s biggest state-sponsored massacre. The War of Canudos took place between 1896 and 1897 and took the lives of 35,000 people, including men, women, and children. Amidst the civilians killed, at least 500 indigenous Kiriri died. According to the anthropologist Edwin Reesink (with whom I spoke over the phone), they were fighting with bow and arrow.

Like many before and after, the villagers of Canudos decided to defend their way of life to the death, rather than surrender to the new Brazilian Republic. Having been converted to Christendom in the 17th century by the Jesuits, they decided to join the battle thanks in part to the charismatic personality of Antonio Conselheiro (a local missionary that had founded the Canudos village). Social factors also played a role. As Reesink tells us: “The Kiriri were at their lowest point in history, they had trouble with the whites, suffered oppression and discrimination.”

A crucial moment in the Kiriri’s  decision to fight in the war was Conselheiro’s expedition on their territory to gather wood to build his church. Accompanied by numerous men, Conselheiro himself traveled more than 100 kilometers in order to get the wood. The Kiriri considered it “the world’s biggest joy” to have the priest pass through, according to Reesink.

Confirming the prophetic phrase that, “If goods don’t cross borders, troops will,” the War of Canudos started in June of 1896 with a trade dispute. When Conselheiro ordered some wood to build his church from a merchant in the city of Juazeiro, the mayor alerted local republican authorities, fearing that the priest could try to get the wood by force.

This hysteria snowballed into fears that Canudos was resisting the Republic and fomenting a monarchist uprising. This was a mischaracterization of the independence of Canudos, however. Those people were only fighting for their right to sovereignty and self-determination, a battle that many peoples still struggle through these days.

What happened then was Brazil’s biggest slaughter, with more than 35,000 people dead. The Canudos people succumbed and men, women, and children who resisted the Brazilian army were beheaded. The whole village was devastated, no building was left standing. The Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, wrote “They were beheaded. Their bodies burnt. They were then lined up, along the roadside, their heads regularly spaced, facing towards the road’s way.”

Not all of the Kiriri took part in the conflict yet, even for those that survived, the losses they suffered were irreparable. The last shamans that spoke their language were killed in action, weakening their link to the encantados, supernatural entities with whom the Kiriri believe they can speak and who help them through their political, social, and territorial struggles. Besides the religious trouble brought to them by the warfare, survivors often found that their land had been occupied by whites while they were absent, some of which still hasn’t been returned to their hands.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner, named this episode The War of the End of the World, in his famous book that recalls the war. The village was even swallowed by the Cocorobó river as if to suppress any hope that it might someday be recomposed.

Canudos was the victim of total warfare, modernity’s typical kind of war, in which only defeating your enemy isn’t good enough, you need to exterminate him, erase him off the face of the Earth. The concept of total war, originally coined by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz in his famous military treatise On War (Von Kriege), has been replicated in many conflicts throughout the world. It’s frightening, however, that the Brazilian government was one of the few regimes to apply this approach to its own people. We don’t need barbarian invasions, we’re our own Huns.

The history of the War of Canudos became internationally known due to Euclides da Cunha, who wrote Rebellion in the Backlands, describing the conflict. Though originally an engineer, Euclides always fought alongside the oppressed, writing social critiques on the news under the pseudonym “Proudhon.” He was also an abolitionist years before slavery was finally banned. His life and his writing on the War of Canudos reflect the destruction of a total war state.

Rebellion in the Backlands has been compared to Homer’s Iliad: it is the foundation of a culture, the beginning of a literature, and the inventor of a nationality.  Originally a romantic writer influenced by Victor Hugo, Euclides’ prose would be transfigured by what he says in Canudos. After witnessing the disaster in Canudos, his writing style becomes expressionist, denouncing the atrocities perpetrated by the Republic. “Euclides is part of a generation deluded by the Republic,” explains the researcher Francisco Foot Hardman. The writer had been expelled from the Military School of Praia Vermelha after breaking his saber during a military parade, protesting against the monarchy. He once defended the Republic, but he couldn’t defend the undefendable. In Rebellion in the Backlands, Euclides “denounces the crime of nationality,” says Hardman. After the Canudos catastrophe, his belief in order and progress seems to recede: “It isn’t barbarism that threatens us, it’s civilization that terrifies us,” says the book.

Canudos still survives. Not only in the popular imagination, but echoed in our daily lives. Analyzing our contemporary political scene, including the atrocities that take place daily in our favelas, Hardman says that “the backlands are here, the backlands are among us.” Maybe, in some way, we’re all still looking for Antonio Conselheiro. One can only hope, however, not to face the same fate of Canudos last four standing resistants: when faced with rifles, “Canudos didn’t surrender.”

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