Home » Brazil » Euclides da Cunha » Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign)

Euclides da Cunha: Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign)

The first point to make about this book is that it is not a novel. However, it is here for two reasons. Firstly, it had considerable influence on Brazilian literature and, indeed, on other literatures. Mario Vargas Llosa‘s La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World) used it as a basis, as did the Georgian writer Guram Dochanashvili in his book სამოსელი პირველი [The First Garment]. The Wikipedia link given has a very detailed summary in English of the book. However, the book has not been published in English but has been published in German as Das erste Gewand.

The second reason why it is here is that many readers have thought it was a novel. In many ways, it reads like a novel. It has an exciting and tense story, with lots of action. It also has colourful characters, who seem more like people from fiction than from history. So here it is.

As noted below it has been translated twice into English. The first time it was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1944 as Rebellion in the Backlands, translated by Samuel Putnam. It is still in print, though very expensive new, though readily available at a lower price second-hand. A newer translation appeared in 2010, published by Penguin and translated by Elizabeth Lowe, with the title Backlands: The Canudos Campaign. (The Portuguese original is Os Sertões, which translates as Backlands.) I did read Rebellion in the Backlands many years ago, though I can barely remember it. For this review I have read the Penguin edition. I cannot comment on the translation, as I have not seen the Portuguese version. However, the introduction to the book by Ilan Stavans does make a brief comparison between the two. (Putnam is more formal in his delivery. He has a tendency to slightly alter, maybe even embellish, da Cunha’s style, as he didn’t quite trust the Brazilian author’s command of the action. Lowe is more direct, less artificial. Her lexicon is decidedly modern.) The Penguin edition certainly has more copious notes.

The book tells the story of one of the key episodes of Brazilian history – the War of Canudos. This was a rebellion by a large group of religious settlers in the backlands of Northern Brazil, led by Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counsellor), born Antônio Maciel. The group, despite only having very basic weaponry, held out for a long time against the Brazilian armed forces.

Euclides da Cunha was a journalist and he did travel to the area but, contrary to what he implies in the book, he was actually there only right at the end. Much of his information came from detailed research after the event, reading all the newspaper reports, official documents and so on. Indeed, a considerable amount of the book is not about the rebellion. The first part, well over a hundred pages, tells of the geology, climate,botany, hydrology, topography, ethnology, early colonisation of the country and other aspects of the country in which the action is located. It is very clear that you have to be strong to survive, as it gets very hot and very dry in the summer. Droughts can last for a very long time. As well as the heat and the lack of water, the land is very inhospitable, as the Brazilian army finds out. It is not forested, but often covered by dense scrub, with sharp thorns that can pierce any standard wear, including shoes. To add to the dangers, the geology is difficult with ravines and rifts. There are also pumas and poisonous snakes and poisonous bats. In short, if you come from elsewhere, you are going to have a very hard time indeed.

Da Cunha is highly critical of the rebellion. Of Antônio Maciel, he says Under normal circumstances this man would have been diagnosed as a neurotic with progressive psychosis. However, in his social context he becomes an alarming anomaly and This man was driven by forces larger than he was, to lead a conflict with an entire civilization and to go down in history when he should have gone to a mental hospital.

His family had been cattle ranchers. They got caught up in a family feud, resulting in many deaths, including Antônio’s grandfather. He behaved well. When his father died, he looked after his three sisters and made sure they were married, before marrying himself. However, his marriage was not a success and when his wife left him for a police officer, he seemed to go to pieces. He drifted around and then seemed to disappear for ten years. Many thought he was dead.

He later reappeared. His squalid and emaciated figure, in a tattered robe, would emerge silently from the barren, haunted landscape, making the people think he was a ghost. Looking like the Prophet Elijah – long hair, long beard, robe, sandals and staff – he slept anywhere and barely ate. A newspaper commented An individual has appeared in the northern sertão who is called Antônio Conselheiro, and who exercises great influence on the lower classes, using his mysterious appearance and ascetic costumes to impress these ignorant and simple people. He was arrested on a false charge but then released.

Gradually, he attracted followers. They would go around, renovating churches and cemeteries. Their basic belief was that one should suffer on earth, in order to gain eternal happiness in the afterlife. He made apocalyptic prophecies and legends grew up around him. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Catholic Church and the Catholic priests did not take kindly to him. Gradually, he and his followers became more critical of authority, opposing taxes, for example. They were confronted by armed police but easily saw them off.

They settled in the town of Canudos. Promiscuity was rife, with lots of illegitimate children but the law was strict, particularly regarding petty offences.

Brazil had been a monarchy till 1889, when it became a republic. However, there were still many monarchists around and it was suspected that Antônio was one. Indeed, other rebellions took place around this time, many of monarchist origin, so his rebellion was ignored for a while. However, one hundred soldiers were sent to nearby Uauá. This was also a stronghold of Antônio, so he soon knew about them. Instead of adopting a guerrilla strategy, as he would later do, his troops openly confronted the soldiers. The soldiers easily won in terms of deaths, but the soldiers were exhausted and low on supplies so they retreated.

The next expedition had larger numbers but now the backlanders tried guerrilla tactics. They hid in the scrubland, firing at the soldiers and picking them off one by one. The soldiers brought artillery, which slowed them down. They gradually ran out of supplies. There was not one able-bodied man left. Even those who carried their wounded comrades limped at every step with bleeding feet that had been slashed by thorns and gashed by the rocks.

The next expedition was led by Antônio Moreira César, an irascible and violent but tough soldier, who had put down other rebellions. He was an epileptic and his decisions were often erratic. The army got to Canudos but no further and Moreira César was killed. The third expedition was finished. It had completely disappeared. Most of the fleeing soldiers got lost in the desert and wandered with no sense of direction. Many were left to die. Da Cunha cynically points out The Moreira César expedition had achieved one thing: It supplied the enemy with all their equipment.

The next expedition was faced with seeing the skulls, skeleton and uniforms of its predecessors hung alongside the road. However, eventually, after a long effort, many deaths and many hardships and with considerable reinforcements, Canudos was finally taken. Canudos did not surrender. The only case of its kind in recorded history, it resisted until the last man was down. It took a long time and the rebels fought to the last man. Those men that were captured were brutally executed. The women and children were in a pitiful state.

There is no doubt that Da Cunha tells an excellent tale, giving us all the gory details and a blow by blow account. He is entirely partial, supporting the army, but clearly has a grudging admiration for the rebels and is critical of the incompetence of the government and army. Superior weaponry, large numbers and gritty determination finally won the day but a huge price was paid in terms of deaths.

The rebellion and the efforts to defeat it had considerable impact in Brazil. You can no longer go to Canudos. What was left of it is now under water, part of a dam project in the area.

Publishing history

First published in 1902 by Laemmert & C. Editores
First English translation in 1944 by The University of Chicago Press
Translated by Samuel Putnam (University of Chicago Press edition); Elizabeth Lowe (Penguin edition)