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The massacre of Canudos
In 1897 is a pivotal episode in Brazilian social history. Looking at the event through the eyes of the inhabitants, Levine challenges traditional interpretations and gives weight to the fact that most of the Canudenses were of mixed-raced descent and were thus perceived as opponents to progress and civilization.
In 1897 Brazilian military forces destroyed the millenarian settlement of Canudos, murdering as many as 35,000 pious rural folk who had taken refuge in the remote northeast backlands of Brazil. Fictionalized in Mario Vargas Llosa's acclaimed novel, War at the End of the World, Canudos is a pivotal episode in Brazilian social history. When looked at through the eyes of the inhabitants of Canudos, however, this historical incident lends itself to a bold new interpretation which challenges the traditional polemics on the subject. While the Canudos movement has been consistently viewed either as a rebellion of crazed fanatics or as a model of proletarian resistance to oppression, Levine deftly demonstrates that it was, in fact, neither.
Vale of Tears probes the reasons for the Brazilian ambivalence toward its social history, giving much weight to the fact that most of the Canudenses were of mixed-race descent. They were perceived as opponents to progress and civilization and, by inference, to Brazil's attempts to "whiten" itself. As a result there are major insights to be found here into Brazilians' self-image over the past century.
Until not long ago, Brazilian histories of the decade following the 1889 collapse of the Brazilian monarchy were dominated by a republican viewpoint hostile to groups and influences considered obstacles to what the elite hoped would lead to a new social order patterned after European accomplishments. When a conflict in the remote backlands of Brazil's Northeast erupted and could not be quelled by conventional means, contemporary observers reacted with alarm, offering memorable and comprehensive impressions of the events in language that reflected their anxiety over what they perceived to be their nation's backwardness.
The most influential of these tormented writers was Euclydes da Cunha. His book Rebellion in the Backlands, published in 1902 in Portuguese as Os sertões, is almost universally considered Brazil's greatest sociohistorical document. It was the first book to convey a detailed sense of the complexity and paradoxical nature of rural Brazilian life. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer who found refuge in Brazil in the early 1940s, called Os sertões "a great national epic" that offered "a complete psychological picture of the Brazilian soil, the people, and the country, such as has never been achieved with equal insight and psychological comprehension." José Maria Bello proclaimed it a "magisterial" work, one that on first reading seems "florid, pompous, [and] obscure," but on closer examination, "great, rare, of extraordinary merit." Da Cunha's contribution to Brazilian self-perception was based on two distinctive circumstances: he was one of the few members of the coastal elite to achieve firsthand knowledge of the land and people of the hinterland, and he filtered his observations through the perspective of European social science, including Lambrosian theory about the size and shape of human skulls, Friedrich Rätzel's racist anthropogeography, Gustave Le Bon's determinism, and especially the racial theories of the Pole Ludwig Gumplowicz. By reporting his findings to an avid Brazilian audience terrified by prospects of backland atavism, da Cunha dispelled some myths about the shadowy, racially mixed men and women of the sertão, but at the same time he created new myths portraying the miscegenated caboclo as the backbone of a new Brazilian race. Da Cunha related the tragic history of Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, known as Antônio Conselheiro (a name derived from the backland way of addressing lay missionaries), a religious mystic and penitent. Conselheiro wandered the rural Brazilian Northeast for twenty years, preaching against ungodly behavior and rebuilding rural churches and cemeteries that had fallen into disrepair in the forbidding, semiarid interior-a landscape later described as "corroded" by its austere climate. In 1893, Conselheiro led a pious group of disciples to Canudos, and in an inaccessible mountain valley in the Bahian sertão, on the site of an abandoned ranch, he founded a community. Although outsiders termed the community "bizarre," thousands came to it, attracted by Conselheiro's charismatic madness. He promised only sacrifice and hard work and asked the residents to live according to God's commandments and await the coming of the millennium, when would come redemption, the Day of Judgment.
Conselheiro's vision inverted the harsh reality of the impoverished backlands: the weak, strengthened by their faith, would inherit the earth. Nature would be transformed: rains would come, bringing forth the earth's bounty. So many men and women streamed out of the settlements of the sertão region and to Conselheiro's community that within two years the settlement, known by residents as Belo Monte or Canudos, had become the second largest city in Bahia, which in the late nineteenth century was Brazil's second most populous state. Indeed, Canudos's size was staggering for a backland religious refuge: at its height the population was more than one-tenth that of the city of São Paulo in the mid-1890s.
In reaction, patriarchal backland property owners, stung by the loss of their usually docile labor force, demanded government intervention. After fighters loyal to Conselheiro defeated two successive columns of soldiers sent to capture Canudos's holy leader and disperse the settlement, the Brazilian army itself was ordered to attack Canudos and destroy it. The military assault lasted nearly two years, for it was met with tenacious defiance. Finally, though, Canudos was circled and, in October 1897, bombarded into submission by heavy artillery. For the first time in Brazilian history, aided by the new telegraph lines that linked the North with the more prosperous South, newspapers sent war correspondents to the front. Their daily dispatches fascinated and alarmed the reading public: it seemed as if the very republic was on the verge of collapse. The inhabitants of Canudos were portrayed as primitive fanatics, "miserable and superstitious," superhuman in their resistance, and dedicated to the destruction of the paternalistic, civilizing arm of government authority. Euclydes da Cunha was a disenchanted military officer who in the early 1890s had resigned his commission to pursue a second career as a civil and geological engineer. He was a positivist, a disciple of the French philosopher Auguste Comte. In Latin America-especially in Mexico and in Argentina-positivism had acquired an immense following among elites seeking to modernize their nations under the leadership of the ablest members of society. Comtean positivists rejected religion as superstitious and advocated universal public education. Their doctrine was related to the Benthamism of the 1820s and to social Darwinism, but it also was distinct, rooted in a vision of civilization evolving through three distinct stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. They rejected the concepts both of aristocracy through birth and of democracy based on equal status, and they believed passionately in reason and in science. Society should, they thought, rely on enlightened leadership by the most capable for the general good. This platonic ideal strongly influenced the creators of the new Brazilian Republic that replaced the monarchy after the 1889 military coup. The Brazilian positivists advocated a moral social policy that would elevate the urban lower classes through social welfare programs-a blueprint for development without social mobilization. Rural problems were another matter, however, and the positivists tended to ignore them. In this sphere, Herbert Spencer's paternalistic social Darwinism more thoroughly influenced da Cunha and the other intellectuals who, as members of a "fragment" society of Europe, chose from among several imported European models those that best fit their needs.
Da Cunha was so much a captive of imported European attitudes that he embraced them even when they ensnared him in contradiction. He accepted European racial doctrines, even though his own observations showed them to be wrong. In Os sertões, he esteems the backland mestizos, lauds them for their adaptability, tenacity, and independence, and designates backland existence as "the vigorous core of our national life." At the same time, however, parroting European theory, he chastises the mestizo's mixed-race origins and considers the mestizo "degenerate... lacking the physical energy of his savage ancestors and without the intellectual elevation of his ancestors on the other side." Yet as E. Bradford Burns reminds us, da Cunha was himself a mestizo. Like Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, Machado de Assis, Lima Barreto, and other mixed-race writers and intellectuals who shaped Brazil's self-image during and after the turn of the century, he refused to acknowledge that his own achievements negated the central argument of his disparaging view of the legacy of miscegenation. Terrified by the specter of rural revolt, da Cunha reported the events of the Canudos conflict as a battle between the forces of civilization and darkness. Canudos tormented him. Although he considered the racially mixed inhabitants of Conselheiro's community to be atavistic and hostile to progress, he also admired their tenacity and bodily strength. This reference to the backlanders' physical prowess touched a nerve, since Brazil's population in 1890 was approximately 15 percent preto (black) and 40 percent mestizo or mulatto. Some observers, including Bahia's Raimundo Nina Rodrigues and such visitors as the American naturalist Louis Agassiz, despaired over the fact that such a high percentage of Brazilians were nonwhite, but Euclydes remained optimistic, believing that immigrants from Europe and modern technologies and ideas would allow Brazil to overcome its predisposition to primitivism.
Da Cunha struggled to rise above his ambivalence. He despised the sertanejos' seeming aversion to civilization, but because of the Canudenses' strength and endurance, he called them "the bedrock of our race." His experiences at the front were so unsettling to him that after the destruction of Canudos he spent the next five years writing a book based on his field notes and observations. When it was published, Os sertões electrified the nation because it shattered the elite's comfortable myth about Brazilian reality.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of da Cunha's ideas was that, in the final analysis, he accepted the prevailing concepts about biological determinism only in part. In this sense he was similar to Mexico's Justo Sierra, who also wrestled with the realization that Mexico's mixed-race heritage was a principal aspect of its "autonomous personality." Sierra, in fact, refuted Le Bon's theories on the debilitating quality of miscegenation, though he did argue that up to 1889 miscegenation had been the "dynamic [political] factor in our history" and pleaded for European immigrants to Mexico "so as to obtain a cross with the indigenous race, for only European blood can keep the level of civilization... from sinking, which would mean regression, not evolution." Readers of Os sertões were shown that the new symbols of Brazilian progress-the burgeoning cities of the coast with their artifacts of material culture imported from abroad-masked the primitive and antisocial impulses still resident in the rural interior. The shock of the Canudos conflict and fears that rebellion would spread to Brazil's cities led politicians to contrive tighter social controls and to reject reforms that might lead the country toward meaningful democracy. Canudos caused those sympathetic to the vision of its leader to fear the ominous combination of church and state working in unison to suppress unorthodox popular expression. Knowingly or not, writers later continued to choose sides, either abiding by da Cunha's negative prescriptions or, more frequently, casting the Canudenses in the role of utopian heroes.
The author of Rebellion in the Backlands never answered questions that seem most central: Why did Conselheiro and his followers seek refuge in a remote sanctuary? What led them to risk such extreme deprivation, or to follow a leader whom many called a madman? For da Cunha, a chronicling of the appalling Canudos affair was sufficient, and subsequent writers on Canudos have elected to preserve his romantic emphasis. One, the Englishman R. B. Cunningham Graham, simply appropriated da Cunha's entire story, though without making a single reference to Os sertões, which had not yet been translated into English (and would not be until 1944). Mario Vargas Llosa's fictionalized account (published in Portuguese in 1982) was far more literary and original, but it, too, tended toward romanticization.
Sources and Definitions
As Eric Van Young has wisely observed, there are almost insuperable obstacles to any meaningful analysis of Latin American rural social conflict and rebellion, especially when the events occurred in earlier times. Much of the problem centers on the sources available to the historian. Moreover, when we generalize about rural folk, we tend to use composite definitions not derived from place-specific data. In my study, I will attempt to avoid this practice as much as possible, drawing instead from available primary and secondary documentation.
Conventional archival materials and other documentation, however, are sparse and in some cases suspect. Surviving records include Conselheiro's two prayer books, written in a flowing, practiced hand and style; about nine-tenths of their texts interpolate prayers and homilies taken directly from the Bible or other liturgical sources. Noemi Soares, Father Alexandre Otten, and others are examining these books in depth to determine exactly what sections were penned by Conselheiro himself (or dictated to his assistant who wrote them out).
A few of the early (pre-Os sertões) chronicles about Conselheiro mention letters sent by him or by other Canudos residents to outsiders, but only one source-Favilla Nunes-reproduces or cites any of them. Unfortunately, his commentaries were published serially in fascículos (short pamphlets), and only one of them, the third, has survived; although he said he was going to publish at least fifty, none has surfaced to date, despite painstaking efforts to locate them. The army's decision to incinerate Canudos ruined any chance of finding artifacts on the site, and the military records for the campaign (made available only recently by the commander of the Sixth Military Region in Salvador and by the director of the state Military Police) are limited largely to technical specifics about troop supply.
The correspondence and other records stored in the archive of the archdiocese of Salvador, located in the Cúria on the Praça da Sé in that capital city, offer invaluable detail. Documents include parish registers of baptisms and weddings for the backland regions from which most of the conselheiristas came, containing data that someday will permit diligent researchers to construct a demographic map of the region: information on family names, legitimacy, skin color, and sometimes places of origin. Other primary materials largely unused by historians heretofore are the letters of the baron of Jeremoabo, which give a comprehensive overview of events, as do the annual reports of Bahia's chief executive and reports of many of the provincial (pre-1889) and state (post-1889) cabinet ministries. Contemporary newspapers offer extensive detail and a sense of the settlement's impact on the region.
A large body of published chronicles, narratives, and studied explanations of Canudos appeared in the first years after the conflagration-capped by Os sertões in 1902-but only a few eyewitnesses who actually heard Conselheiro speak described their reactions. Most were predisposed to see in him what they wanted to see: signs of mental imbalance and fanaticism.
Excerpted from Vale of Tears by Robert M. Levine Copyright © 1992 by Robert M. Levine. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: The Millenarian Tradition||1|
|1||Canudos and the Visao do Litoral: An Overview||11|
|Conclusion: Canudos as a Millenarian Experience||217|