The War of Canudos was a regional conflict between the Brazilian Armed Forces and a group of "sertanejos" lead by Antonio Conselheiro that took place in the Brazilian Northeastern state of Bahia, during the year of 1897.


In 1897, the recently proclamed Brazilian republic was still struggling to take control of the polical life on Brazil’s vast inner areas, where lived at least 70% of that country’s population. The Brazilian autonomous Empire has endured from 1822 to 1889; by this time, Brazil was the world’s biggest coffee producer and exporter, and the recent waves of migrants from Europe, supplying abundant and inexpensive work force, favored the growth of manufacturing in Southeastern cities like São Paulo. That escalating economic complexity was, of course, incompatible with a centralized monarchy: a Republic, with its parliament, distributed governance, legislative body, etc, was needed to properly reflect the state of things, so, after a relatively long process during which the emperor Dom Pedro II lost administrative and political control of the country, the National Army officially proclaimed the end of Monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of the United States of Brazil on November, 15th, 1889. The abolition of monarchy saw no popular involvement; it was a “horizontal revolution”, to so speak, in which the highly centralized economic configuration of Brazil was not even scratched (evidently, the Republic was meant to preserve the evolving social structure, not otherwise).

Far from the effervescent Rio de Janeiro, then the Republic’s capital, life was getting worst every day for the Bahia’s inner lands inhabitants. Brazil’s Northeast region coast was (and still is) covered with huge farms dedicated mostly to the culture of cacao and sugar cane; the owners of these farms were known as the ‘Barons of Cacao’ and were very influent in the region’s politics. Frequently, they used force to expel the petty farmers off the boundaries of their properties and take possession of them (both the farm and the farmer, the former as a registered belongings and the last as economically reliant servicemen). On the other hand, the more deep into the interior, the smaller were the farms and the harsh was the living: it rains only one or two times in a year, so only the people who have no alternative left used to live there: the Indians, who where expelled from their lands in the coastline on the process of colonization, and those who are of no use as labor force at the rich farms in the rainy lane, such as dispossessed white people and ex-slaves left on their own after the end of slavery, in 1888. Together and mixed, these three groups of people formed what is known as the sertanejo, an untrusting, clever, and extremely religious and illiterate populace.

By the end of the IXX century the new economic order, based on wage labor rather than slavery, was quickly expanding into the country side, outlining big private farms where once there were communal property of land, and forcing the sertanejos either to thrust even more to the interior or set off to the cities looking for work. But many of them would resist to the changing: they used to identify the changes with the newly proclaimed Republic (and indeed, both those changes and the proclamation were faces of the same process). Eventually the sertanejos who choose to resist, either by having no other choices, or because they firmly believed in their way of living, were organized by a man, a messianic figure who was called Antonio “Conselheiro”. Because both were losing authority, neither the government nor the Catholic Church were pleased by the appearance of the new leader. In 1893, Conselheiro’s group established the first confrontation with government’s military forces at the town of Masseté, after Antonio has lead a popular riot which destroyed the wood-graved tables of the republican regulations on taxes, fixed at forefront of the county’s administration building. A small punitive expedition, composed by thirty soldiers and a lieutenant, was sent to enforce a “correction” on the sertanejos, but encountered fierce and unexpected resistance from the "conselheirists" at the nearby town of Tauna. The military expedition was disbanded and fled back to Salvador, Bahia’s capital.

After this incident, and realizing that pressure on his group tended only to increase, Antonio Conselheiro grouped his followers and went off to the interior, searching for their Promised Land, where the sertanejos could hide out from the government’s impositions, Catholic Church’s persecution and landlords’ dominion. They’ve found such a land in the locality of Bello Monte.

Bello Monte

At the heart of Bahia’s backlands, there was an old and decayed township circled by hills at the banks of the Vaza-Barris river. The place’s name was Canudos (Pipes), because there abounded a plant named "smoking-pipes", which the residents used to make their smoking apparatus. In June, 1893, Antonio Conselheiro settled there along with his followers, having renamed the town "Bello Monte", and they begun to build up a community in which there were no private property of land, no police and no taxes. Such characteristics eventually attracted thousands of people from all over the Northeast. It was spoken that in Bello Monte rivers of milk flow and its banks are made out of cuscus. People were pouring in from every directions, the city was growing swiftly, and soon the local church become too tiny to lodge the crowd that every evening gathered to chant and to hear the preaches of Antonio Conselheiro.

The town’s central square was the political and spiritual center of the city, at where the community’s leaders lived in modest houses. The square was circled by slight and chaotically interlaced streets, well fitting for urban warfare (though not intentionally). The community has a school, but taverns and alcoholic beverage were banned.

The political and religious independence of the city was becoming critically inopportune to all of the customary Brazilian authorities. In May, 1895, an expedition of capuchin priests was sent to Canudos by the Archbishop of Salvador, with instructions to persuade Bello Monte’s religious leaders to “dissolve” the community. After eight days of negotiations, the mission was acknowledged as fruitless, and the priests returned to Salvador.

Canudos became a myth to all the Northeastern people. In four years, it became Bahia’s second major city, with more than 30,000 inhabitants, losing to Salvador only, which has about 200,000 by the epoch. Innumerous townships from the backlands were virtually emptied. Workingmen abandoned the big farms, disorganizing production and severely affecting the whole region’s economy. The Northeaster agrarian elite were panicky, and their reaction would not make itself awaited for too long.

And then, war

In November of 1896, Antonio Conselheiro needed wood to build a new church in Bello Monte. He bought the wood from a dealer from Juazeiro, BA. The payment was anticipated but, at the established time frame, the lumber was not handed over. In Juazeiro, the rumors that the conselheirists were coming to invade the city begun to spread. A local judge called off reinforcements from the state police, which are sent by the governor Luís Viana. On November 06, 1896, the first military expedition departs from Salvador towards Canudos. It was composed by 113 troops from the Ninth Infantry Battalion, three officials, a doctor and two guides. After a one-day railway travel, the expedition encountered a frightened Juazeiro, but no signal of the conselheirists, which have not actually any plans of invading the city. The commander of the expedition then decides to head off to Canudos, in the search of Antonio’s band.

The expedition traveled about 150 kilometers from Juazeiro to Uauá on foot and on horseback, through an infernal heat and fearing an enemy they did not knew yet. On November 19th, the expedition enters Uauá, but still no trace of the conselheirists. Two days later the war actually begun, when a group of about 250 sertanejos assault the city which was being guarded by the government soldiers. The battle endured for four or five hours; at first the conselheirists succeed in seizing some houses at the city’s periphery, but the better equipped government forces slowly started to impose its technical superiority. After suffering heavy losses, the conselheirists, lead by João Abade, withdrew from the city.

Albeit the victory on the battle, the expedition was in fact defeated, because it has no longer the forces, or the moral, to attack Canudos as planned. At the end of that very day, the expedition returned to Juazeiro, counting ten dead and seventeen wounded soldiers.

On December, 29, that same year, a second military expedition was formed in Monte Santo, to charge on to Canudos. It was composed of 609 troops from various Infantry Battalions from Salvador, Sergipe and Alagoas, and counted with two German Krupp artillery cannon and three Nordefelt machineguns, also of German fabrication. A mood of euphoria encouraged by the local authorities spread to the military: the confidence was so high in a sharp and quick victory that they decided to left 2/3 of the ammunition back.

On January 18th, 1897, the expedition was traveling through the Cambaio Peaks when it was surprised by an entrapment set by the conselheirists. The complete knowledge of the terrain gave the sertanejos a serious advantage on the skirmishes, and they were able to inflict a great number of losses amongst the soldiers. Again, the battle lasted for more than five hours, but in the end the government forces were able to impose and advance, letting dozens of killed conselheirists behind.

By the morning of the following day, the expedition was camped at the margins of the Cipó Lagoon, when it saw itself again under attack of the sertanejos, who were once more defeated in a battle, but able to force the withdrawal of the expeditionary forces, blemished and exhausted by the constant low intensity charges that followed every regular battle.

On February 7th, 1897, the third military expedition was sent, this time from Salvador. After the breakdown of the two former expeditions, this third has the responsibility of “cleaning the honor of the Army”. It was composed by more than 1,300 soldiers. At the head was the Colonel Moreira César, nicknamed “head-cutter”, due to his “performance” in the repression of a separatist movement in the Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, in 1894. On March 3rd, the expedition went to Canudos, and by the end of the morning the attack begun.

It was ignited by a barrage of artillery fire, followed by a charge of infantry troops that was able to occupy some areas in the suburbs of the city. The reaction came under the form of a storm of bullets from the defenders located at houses and church towers. The army’s cavalry entered the scene, but it was of little help to the government forces because of the region’s irregular terrain. Hour after hour, the confrontation turned more and more favorable to the conselheirists, and the enthusiasm of the attacking troops was decreasing sharply. By the end of the afternoon, the Col. Moreira César was mortally wounded with two bullets in the chest, and got driven out of combat. At 19h, the government forces pulled out.

During the night, Col. Moreira César eventually died, and Col. Tamarindo assumed command. Early in the morning, the expeditionary forces begin the withdrawal to Salvador, under the incessant charges of the sertanejos, which killed the new commander as well. After that, the fled turned into a generalized disbandment, and the outcome of the expedition became tragic to the Army: 116 dead soldiers, including 13 officials, and 120 wounded.

The Fourth Expedition

On April 5th, 1897, was created the IV Military Expedition against Canudos. After the unexpected defeat of the Third Expedition, the public opinion, who was for the most part favorable to the government, demanded a quick and definitive solution for the conflict. It was organized then the biggest of the four expeditions, comprising troops from seventeen Brazilian states and equipped with which was the up-to-the-minute on military hardware. The Expedition was split into two columns, which were to attack Canudos from two opposite directions. The Army’s Gal. Artur Oscar was the central commandant.

The First Column, under the orders of the Gal. Silva Barbosa, was composed by 3,415 men, 180 women, 12 Krupp cannon and a Withworth 32 cannon, towed by 13 pair of bulls. On the backing, protecting 750 tons of food and ammunition followed the Fifth Police Corp, which was formed by some 388 policemen. The Second Column, under the command of the Gal. Cláudio Savaget, left Sergipe in small isolated squads that grouped together in Jeremoabo, BA, from where they went to Canudos. This Column was formed by 2,340 men and 512 women. Besides those two divisions, the first Naval Division docks in Salvador to provide logistic support for the troops in the front.

After two weeks marching, and having faced intermittent skirmishes with the conselheirists, the Second Column of the fourth expedition went to Canudos by the northeastern part of the city, on June, 28, and had already started the bombardment when the Gal. Cláudio Savaget was given orders by the General Commandant Artur Oscar to help the First Column, which was encircled and out of ammunition on the southern side. Gal. Savaget immediately redirected his men to the south, saving the Second Column from complete destruction, and helped them to ascertain their position.

On June, 19, the (in)famous Withworth 32 cannon exploded in an accident, killing two officials and wounding four servicemen. Two days later, eleven conselheirists charged against the First Column’s artillery pieces, in a frustrated attempt to destroy the cannons which were pounding the city. Such kamikaze style attacks become more and more frequent as the war turned to the decisive moments.

On July 14th, the command of the Fourth Expedition hails the 108th anniversary of the French Revolution with a salvo of 21 artillery shots: wasn’t it a fine occasion to celebrate Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité?

On July, 18th, a big assault on Canudos was carried. All the 3,400 men of the expedition forces were mobilized in the attack. During many hours, the battle raged furious and the military, with great difficulty, managed to seize a small portion of the periphery, after crossing the Vaza-Barris River. By the end of the day, the Gal Artur realized that it was impossible to go farther: the Republic’s Army accounted for 947 losses and the assault was set back.

On July 23rd, the General Artur Oscar asks a reinforcement of 5,000 troops. The losses on the Army’s side were passing the 2,000 fold, and the supply and communication lines where intermittently cut off by the sertanejos. Army officials who had taken part on the Paraguay War were astonished, as they were facing dreadfully efficient guerilla warfare, something that they did not know how to deal with.

The government forces hoped that, once they captured or killed Antonio Conselheiro, the resistance would be softened, and they would be able to enter and dominate Canudos. Bahia’s Governor Luis Viana declared to a carioca newspaper: “if we can catch Antonio Conselheiro, it will be all terminated but, if he escapes, it will be necessary to hunt him wherever he goes, to impede him of congregating other bands of fanatics”.

On August 30rd, the Brazilian Minister of War, Marechal Carlos Machado Bittencourt, went to the region of the conflict. The central government was frightened with the possibility of yet another defeat to the conselheirists, as the situation on the military bases around Canudos was getting worst and worst every day. Beside the constant harassment by the sertanejos and the impossibility of controlling the city, the government troops experimented food and water shortage, plus an infernal heat and the suffocating dust of the semi-arid areas.

But suddenly, by the start of September, the situation became more favorable to the Army. The towers of the Church, an important defense point of the Canudos resistance, were toppled down by Krupp cannon shots. After that, the Army occupied a site called Fazenda Velha, considered the best point to carry bombardments from.

And, to complete the sequence of bad news to the sertanejos, Antonio Conselheiro died on September 22nd, 1897. Some say he died because of wounds caused by a grenade, others affirm that he passed as a result of a prosaic diarrhea, but the fact is that his death, as expected by the government, weakened gravely the conselheirists’ strength of will and organization. On September 23rd, the Army seized the Várzea da Ema Road, the only lasting channel of external contact from and to the Canudos city. At last, the encirclement was completed. From then on, no soul could enter or leave the city.

The War of Canudos has lasted from more that a year then. All the main Brazilian newspapers had sent correspondents to the region, but none of them could explicate the delays and difficulty of a well equipped Army to destroy a simple sertanejo haven. The exhaustion and impatience were general. The three commanders, then, decided to try to end it all, and mobilized 5,871 men in a full charge assault on to the central nucleus of Canudos, which was still resisting. The sertanejos demonstrated once more their guerrilla tactics skills: they had built tunnels interlinking the houses around the central square; that permitted them full mobility even at the proximity of the enemy forces. After several hour of heavy fire, the Army managed to seize the ruins of the Church, the main site of defense for the Canudos combatants. The apparent victory was commemorated with the elevation of the Republic’s flag and the execution of the national hymn. Then, unexpectedly, a storm of bullets rained over the square. It came from the ruins, from the smoke, from the rubbles of that which has been already destroyed. In response, the Army threw 90 dynamite bombs and dozens of gasoline pots. Almost the whole town was set on fire.

A group of about 300 people emerged from the rubbles, most of them women, children and wounded combatants, bearing a white flag and asking to surrender. They were imprisoned and, in the other day, had their throats cut.

By October 5th, Canudos was destroyed, and conselheirists’ resistance has ended. It is estimated that more than 25,000 sertanejos and about 3,500 government’s forces died in the conflict. More than 12,000 troops were mobilized (half of the active armed forces). Brazil’s political, academic and military elite was in ecstasy by the complete destruction of Canudos, “the haven of bandits and fanatics”.

They completely destroyed Canudos, stone by stone. In the end of October, there was nothing at the banks of the Vaza-Barris River but ashes; ill-buried human bones could be seen, here and there. Antonio Conselheiro's corpse was decapitated and his head was sent to Salvador to be studied, allegedly because the doctors were trying to determine the “causes” of Antonio’s ‘fanatism’. In 1905, a fire in the building of the Medicine Faculty in Salvador destroyed the head, which had been on public exposition since 1897.

In 1969, a barrage was constructed on the Vaza-Barris River. A few days after the inauguration of the facility, the Canudos’ site submerged forever. Ever since, when a year passes during which rains less than the average, some broken columns of demolished houses and churches can be noticed.

The Baron of Studart, perhaps feeling somewhat culpable, wrote about the conflict: "To this end (deleting Canudos) it was necessary to make use of the more inhumane means, whose registration, on behalf of our condition of civilized and Christian nation, are not convenient.

Sources: Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões.
The chronology of the battles from:

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