The War of Canudos – From Defamation to Destruction

Analysing Brazilian history we find, as if buried under the veils of time, the destruction of a city which bears some analogy to the unjust and criminal hatred of the world towards Christ’s elect.

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn 15:19). How harsh these words of the Divine Master seem! Those who choose the path of justice, of living as God wills, must bear the terrible weight of being surrounded by hatred.

And this is not something new; it goes back to ancient times. As is well described in one of St. John’s epistles, this hatred spans the centuries, from the righteous Abel down to our own day. Indeed, Cain committed the first fratricide “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn 3:12).

Examining Brazilian history we find, as if buried under the veils of time, the destruction of a city which bears some analogy to this same unjust and criminal hatred of the world.

A natural leader

Owing to his ability and the sincerity of his conduct, Antonio Counsellor was a natural leader
Sketch of Antonio Counsellor published in the “O Frivolino” Newspaper, in February of 1897

When Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, nicknamed the “Counsellor” – a tall, thin and elderly man of light complexion, with respectable hair and beard, clad in a coarse tunic and carrying a thick staff – beheld the flourishing of his masterpiece, the city of Canudos, he saw in it, in some way, the corollary of his life’s trajectory.

Born in 1828, in what was then the Province of Ceará, he lost his parents at a young age. As an adult, some years after being abandoned by his wife, he started building churches and cemeteries to earn a living. His ability and the sincerity of his conduct in his dealings with the people of the region led him to be regarded as a natural leader and confidant. According to the famous historian of Canudos, Euclides da Cunha,1 the Counsellor dominated among those people without even trying.

This general feeling only increased over the more than thirty years that he roamed over the Northeast until finally settling in Canudos in 1893.

The backcountry in the time of the Counsellor

The Counsellor’s times were not good ones, and the people needed help. After the proclamation of the republic, the state of Bahia was embroiled in numerous partisan disputes, whether over political matters, or the personal interests of the authorities. It is said that the corruption reached such a point that the inhabitants feared the police more than the bandits…2

Unfortunately, the clergy also left much to be desired. Sad is the lot of the sheep whose shepherds are far from identifying with Jesus Christ and, in the places where Antonio Maciel passed, there was no lack of priests who meddled in worldly matters to the point of placing their sheep in peril – even physically. To cite one example, a certain parish priest, Olympio Campos, up to his neck in political quarrels, actually commanded a group of criminals in 1895… The wrongdoing of the authorities contributed to undermining the people’s confidence in them.

The town of Canudos

At this juncture, the Counsellor was working in an opposite direction. Disillusioned with life and well aware of the reality that surrounded him, he began to protect the needy and promote a righteous life. By force of his influence, he began to attract a numerous retinue behind him. In search of peace, he decided to retire to an abandoned farm in Bahia, on the banks of the Vaza-Barris River. Thus began the town of Belo Monte, better known as the village of Canudos, which quickly became one of the largest settlements in the state at the time, with almost twenty-five thousand inhabitants.

In the village’s last years, visitors arriving there would find a single street leading to the square, where there were two churches, one of them still under construction. The houses followed one after the other, forming veritable labyrinths, due to the organicity with which they were built. Among its inhabitants, there was no room for idleness: there was work in the fields, craftsmanship, studies in the schools… It was a true oasis of prosperity in the midst of the arid backcountry.

Canudos was an oasis of prosperity within the arid expanses of the backcountry
Illustration representing the village of Canudos around 1875; inset, photograph from that time. Previous page, military operation plan for the war in the State of Bahia in 1897

At the end of the day, to the sound of the bells in honour of the Mother of God, Antonio exhorted the people of Canudos for one, two or even three hours. It depended on the importance of the subject. The preaching could deal with the Ten Commandments, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or even the importance and benefits of attending Holy Mass and patience in suffering, among other topics. By means of his apostolate, he created in the city a sort of rule, a modus vivendi based on the Decalogue and Church doctrine, values that the laxity of the time had led many to forget.

Antipathies emerge

Evidently, such an unusual way of life would not fail to attract antipathy. Well before he settled on the banks of the Vaza-Barris River, Antonio had already been the target of serious calumnies. He was once arrested, taken to the Bahian capital and then to Ceará, for an alleged atrocity: the murder of both his mother and his wife! Until it was discovered that he had been motherless since the age of six and that his wife was still alive…

Again, he was defamed before the Primate of Bahia, who issued a circular to the clergy, with orders to oppose his preaching.3 However, it does not seem that the people listened to such recommendations, since, a year later, we see the same Archbishop resorting to the civil power to achieve his aims. The governor of the province, although he did not see anything incriminating in the case, eventually gave in and requested that Antonio be committed to a mental hospital in Rio de Janeiro, which nearly happened…

Finally, in 1895, Joaquim Manuel Rodrigues Lima, governor of Bahia, in partnership with the Metropolitan Archbishop, sent an Italian Capuchin called John Evangelist to Canudos, with the task of bringing the rebels back into ecclesiastical and civil communion, from which they had supposedly strayed.

The mission lasted a week: from May 13 to 21. John Evangelist, who from the outset did not show the most affable dispositions towards Canudos and its leader, began his task.4 Throughout the sermons, attended by some 6,000 people, uncomfortable interventions were made. Antonio Counsellor, as much as he tried to facilitate the missionary’s discourses, could not hold back a certain polemic spirit that arose among the people.

Such was the climate created that John Evangelist could not bear it and ended his work ex abrupto, justifying it later in a rather biased report. From then on, a series of suspicious coincidences would lead to the city’s complete obliteration. To gain some background in the events immediately leading up to the infamous War of Canudos, let us take a look at the statement made by a Bahian federal deputy in 1899.

The war: “the epitome of perversity”

“The Canudos War was the epitome of human perversity… The state justice system was not concerned with the inhabitants of that village. No case had been brought against them. Not one of them was listed in the state registry office as an offender.

“There was nothing extraordinary afoot with Antonio Counsellor and those who accompanied him.

“No one denies what kind of life the inhabitants of Canudos led: they planted, harvested, raised livestock, built and prayed.

“They were rough, unlettered, and perhaps fanatical about their leader, whom they considered a Saint, and not at all concerned with politics.

“However, Antonio Counsellor professed to be a monarchist. It was his right, a sacred right, which no one could dispute in a democratic republican regime. There is no act on his part or on that of his followers that could lead to the assumption that he intended to oppose the government of the republic.”5

The massacre unfolds

Well, this is how the tragedy began: as the new church in Canudos was about to be roofed, some men went to buy wood in Juazeiro, which was not an unprecedented occurrence. A local judge was informed – it is not clear by whom – that Antonio Counsellor on his way with the heinous intention of invading and plundering the city. Valid proof? None. The result was that a detachment of the army left, not for Juazeiro, where the hypothetical danger was, but to fall upon the population of Canudos. After a cruel confrontation, about one hundred and fifty of the Counsellor’s followers lay dead. The members of the army, not content, looted and set fire to the site where the offensive had taken place.

The calumnies would soon take on new dimensions: the media – if the reader will permit the anachronism – was up to the task. It spread word around the country that Canudos, an “immense legion”, with state-of-the-art weapons, financial backing and officers, was fiercely attacking the government. For Brazilians of various latitudes who had never heard of the settlement of Belo Monte, the normal reaction was to look askance at the Bahian town. The way was now clear for the State to act with an iron fist.

The resistance of the Counsellor’s cohorts in defence of their lives and ideals was impressive: to overthrow the inhabitants of Canudos, four army campaigns were necessary
The War of Canudos, by Angelo Agostini

The epic feats undertaken by the Counsellor’s cohorts in defence of their lives and ideals are truly impressive. Suffice it to say that to destroy Canudos required four army expeditions – the last of which included no less than three generals – with all that this entails. Such was the hatred of the troops that not even the elderly, women and children were spared. After a few months, everything had been reduced to ashes…

The distortion of the image of Canudos

But that was not enough. It was also necessary to destroy the memory of that city. The distortions of the image of Canudos continued to proliferate after its devastation. It would be labelled by historians as a group of fanatics, guided by a man obsessed with religion, for some, or by politics, for others. However, as noted by Ataliba Nogueira,6 one of the pioneers in the historical reconstruction of Canudos, the analysis of the Counsellor’s speeches, written by his own hand, sheds such light on his personality that it makes imperative a re-examination all that has been said about the town and its founder, in order to separate the false from the truthful accounts.

Since at least 1947, as a result of interviews with survivors of the War of Canudos and research in the field of Social Sciences, it was found that much of the information available up to that time not only lacked objective facts, but also basic elements in the interpretation of the subject. It was necessary, therefore, to retrace the story.

In spite of this, the topic continues to spark controversy, while certain aspects of the affair remain in darkness and mystery. Obviously, the complex disagreements of the inhabitants of Canudos with clerical figures – in which, it must be said, the latter were not exempt from blame – should in no way lead us to forget the sacred principle of authority in the Church. Nevertheless, the truth is that Canudos ended up becoming the symbol of a people who were unjustly calumniated and decimated.

Slander: the beginning of a process

If we focus solely on the spurious process that led to the destruction of Canudos, we will see that it is not altogether unknown, for many Christians have already experienced it first-hand. It was by this process that many members of the faithful suffered martyrdom at the beginning of the Church; by it, pious congregations were persecuted; by it, the light of shining stars was extinguished before the eyes of men. What can we say of a St. Joan of Arc, burned at the stake as a heretic? What of a St. Thomas More, beheaded as a criminal for not yielding to a proud king and a prevaricating prelate? How sad to see the perverse tactic of the sons of darkness… defame to destroy.

The tactic that led to Canudos’ destruction was the same that has historically led countless Christians to martyrdom
At left, a resistance fighter is taken prisoner by republican troops; at centre, survivors of the massacre; at right, ruins of Good Jesus Church in the town square

The same played out at the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ! He, the salvation not only of the Jewish people, but of all humanity, was denigrated, persecuted and finally crucified by the chief priests. After this, what else is there to say?

However, if it is true that time buries many things, it cannot hide the truth. Sooner or later, the truth always comes to light. Divine justice constitutes the supreme court of appeal for all causes. Woe to those whom it condemns, for its sentence is eternal. 

 

Notes


1 Cf. CUNHA, Euclides da. Os sertões. Campanha de Canudos. São Paulo: Ateliê Editorial, Imprensa Oficial do Estado, Arquivo do Estado, 2001, p.267.

2 Cf. NOGUEIRA, Ataliba. Antônio Conselheiro e Canudos. Revisão histórica. São Paulo: Editora Nacional, 1974, p.12.

3 Among other things, the Archbishop said that it had come to his attention that Antonio Counsellor preached “superstitious doctrines” and an “excessively rigid morality”. Leaving aside the vague character of the accusations, we merely point out that His Excellency overstepped his purview, for his central argument in taking this measure was that a layman, for the simple fact of not belonging to the Hierarchy, could not teach Catholic doctrine, however learned and virtuous he might be (cf. VASCONCELLOS, Pedro Lima. Arqueologia de um monumento. Os apontamentos de Antônio Conselheiro. São Paulo: É Realização, 2017, p.150). Although a bit shocking, this same objection will resurface later, on the lips of Friar John Evangelist.

4 Although the Capuchin friar did not find in Counsellor’s preaching any deviation in matters of religious zeal, discipline or Catholic orthodoxy, he deemed him a heretic for lecturing and gathering the people without the authorization of the clergy (cf. Idem, p.160-161).

5 ZAMA, César, apud NOGUEIRA, op. cit., p.10-11.

6 NOGUEIRA, op. cit., p.41.

 

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