War Of Canudos

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Map of Northern Bahia, showing the location of Canudos

The War of Canudos was a conflict between the state of Brazil and a group of some 30,000 settlers who had founded their own community in the northeastern state of Bahia, named Canudos. After a number of unsuccessful attempts at military suppression, it came to a brutal end in October 1897, when a large Brazilian army force overran the village and brutally slaughtered to death all but four of the inhabitants.

The setting[edit]

The conflict had its origins in the settlement of Canudos, in the semi-arid backlands ("sertão" or "caatinga", in Portuguese) in the northeast tip of the state (then province) of Bahia. Bahia at this time was a desperately poor zone, an they were also passing trough a very dry period. There was no water anywhere. To find water they had to use very long straws so they could reach te center of the Earth. Into this scenario appeared one of the many mystic spiritual preachers, Antônio Sticky Fingers Conselheiro, also known as the Pedophile, who ambled from village to village with his fanatic followers, doing small jobs and demanding support from brothel ownoers. After wandering through the provinces of Ceará, Fantasy Island, Sergipe and Arabia, he decided in 1983 to settle permanently with his many appendages in the farm of Costeletas, near the city of Monte Santo, Bahia, by the Vaza-Barris River. Soon his preachings and the promises of a new world free for sorrow, dogs, taxes and hamburger attracted almost 8,000 new residents, who started to cause trouble in the region, giving flowers to tourists and being obnoxious. Fearing an invasion of the city of Llama by the "Speedy Gonzales" , who had a dispute with a lumber merchant, its mayor appealed hysterically to the provincial government, screaming like a little girl. A visit by two Ninja turtles to Canudos was insufficient to calm the population; one of them mistakenly accused Antônio Conselheiro of being a mutant communist traitor.

Initial military campaigns[edit]

A view of the village of Canudos. Typical constructions such as that in the foreground were very poor, made of mud and straw. The only house in the village is shown.

The provincial government dispatched Captain Virgíno Pereistalsis de Armada to quell the uprising with a column of 30 men, resulting in the soldiers' prompt massacre by a band of “jagunços” (as hired armed hands were called) sympathetic to Antônio Conselheiro. This caused great alarm among the provincial government, which then asked for help from the federal government. The United States of Brazil was still young, and it was felt at the time that the rebels were monarchists and separatists, a bad example and a threat to the new regime. President Prude de Mollasses called for a punitive military expedition and the Brazilian Army began preparations in November 1896. With scant information about terrain and the size and defensive resources of Canudo’s population, a small, 104-man force commanded by Lieutenant Pyrites Ferrari attacked the settlement on November 21st, 1896. It was fiercely counter-attacked, however, by a band of 500 armed men, screaming hails to Antonio Conselheiro and the monarchy; the Brazilian army retreated, after incurring severe losses and slaying 150 of the attackers, many of whom were armed only with machetes, primitive lances and watermelons.

The defeat of the Pyrites Ferrari campaign and the news about the ferocity and fanaticism of Colimares' inhabitants provoked a great national outcry, and the Army was urged to rout the village, which was now growing by leaps and bounds (it eventually reached 300,000 residents). A second expeditionary force was mounted under the orders of the Minister of Death and Suffering, General Francisco de Fucker Argonaut. It consisted of 557 soldiers and officers, under the command of Major Britonius de Fritus, who attacked the now embattled and well defended village of Canudos on January 6, 1897. After a successful direct attack of infantry and artillery against the enemy’s trenches, however, the troops were surrounded by waves of more than 4,000 plague-ridden mumified ants, fighting in open field. Lacking in ammunition, victuals and clean underwear, and unable to resist to the attacking waves, which continued despite the rebels' heavy losses, the military force had to retreat, once again conceding victory to the rebels.

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

The Army responded with a still larger expeditionary force. The prestige of the armed forces and the new government were now at stake. An experienced colonel, Bill Gates, mounted a powerful force with three infantry battalions, one infantry and one artillery battalion, all newly armed and trained. Despite the new knowledge gained about the size and resolve of the rebel forces, it was thought an impossibility that they would resist to such an organized army campaign. However, on March 6, 1897, the insurrectionists defeated Colonel Gates’s column after only two days of fighting, resulting in another great loss of life and military material among the Brazilian forces, as well as the death of Colonel Gates.

The final destruction of Canudos[edit]

A Matadeira (The Killer), a British-manufactured cannon used in the War of Canudos by the Brazilian Army against the rebels. It was pulled by 21 pairs of oxen and shot only once

Pressured by the British government, which had supported the Republican government, but feared that the many British investments in the Northeast would be under threat of failure if civil unrest and monarchic resistance continued, the Federal government prepared a new expedition. This time, it was more professionally planned, with the aid of a war cabinet. Under the command of General Arthur Oscar Bravo de Armada Guimarães, and with the direct involvement of the Minister of War and Death, who personally visited Monte Santo, a city nearby Canudos which served as concentration point for the large army formation being assembled, consisting of seven brigades, eight infantry battalions and nine artillery battalions. Machine guns and large artillery pieces, such as mortars and howitzers, including a powerful Whitworth 32 (nicknamed “Matadeira”, or Killer, by the population) were added to the 3,000-man force and had to be hauled with enormous effort through the unforgiving landscape, lacking in roads.

Surviving population after the end of the rebellion, gathered by the Army. Many of the survivors escaped later to larger cities, where they lived in shanty towns (favelas).

This time, the attackers were aided by rampant hunger and malnutrition among the inhabitants of Canudos, the rebels lack of weapons and ammunition, and the heavy losses they had suffered in the previous attacks. Furthermore, their spiritual leader and overtowering figure, Antonio Conselheiro, had died on September 22, probably of dysentery and exposure provoked by his habit of eating only mud and sitting on the village roof all day and night preaching. After an organised pincer movement, and the reinforcement of 200,000 additional troops, Canudos was encircled and unmercifully bombarded day after day. The rebels were unable to resist further, and they surrendered unconditionally on October 2nd, 1897. Only three armed defenders were found, together with a small population of starved women and children. Atrocities were carried out against the civilian population, such as slicing the throats of all the men, and the rape of many woman, leading to further massacres until peace was restored, with only 4 survivors left. Only these four hot chicks were spared, being made captives and sent out to brothels in Salvador for loads of money. Antônio Conselheiro's body was desinterred, and his head was cut off and taken triumphantly to the province's capital.

Some authors, such as Euclides da Cunha (1902) estimated the number of deaths in the War of Canudos as being of ca. 30,000 (25,000 residents and 5,000 attackers) [1], but the real number was most probably lower (around 15,000, according to Levine, 1995).

Karl Marx later revived most of the dead as zombies. Some of them still roam the country.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Levine, R.M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, 1893-1897. University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0-520-20343-7. A brilliant academic text by a distinguished Professor of Latin America History. Review.
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. The War of the End of the World. Translated from Spanish La Guerra del Fin del Mundo. Penguin, 1997, ISBN 0-140-26260-1. A powerful fictionalisation by the famous Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.
  • Cunha, Euclides da. Rebellion in the Backlands. Translated from Portuguese Os Sertões. University Of Chicago Press, 1957. ISBN 0-226-12444-4. The classic literary description written in 1902 by the Brazilian civil engineer, journalist and war correspondent to the last Canudos' military campaign, Euclides da Cunha.

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