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Backlands, by Euclides da Cunha

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The land. The men. The battle. And then there was a sea of blood in the backlands.

Backlands, by Euclides da Cunha (

I’m trying to digest rereading this book after a long time. Even with better knowledge and background these days I still can’t decide what I feel about what happened in my country and what’s been repeating and repeating and repeating. Not the kind of repetition I encouraged this week.

As part of my Brazilian literature project, I read Backlands (“Os Sertões”), by Euclides da Cunha, this week. This book is a beautfyl literary narrative and a history book about a racially diverse land, its people, and their massacre, or one of the deadliest episode of my country’s history.

Euclides da Cunha, the author, was a journalist who worked for one of the most important and traditional newspapers in Brazil, O Estado de São Paulo. He was assigned to the Backlands to cover the conflicts in Canudos.

In 1889, Brazil had become a Republic after 67 years of an independent monarchy. The history books tell us that many people found it hard to accept the new Republic and they gathered against it.

Canudos was a village founded by Antonio Conselheiro (Antonio, the Counselor), portrayed as a messianic preacher, and his loyal followers. Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, a salesman, teacher, and lay counselor from Ceara, marked by a childhood of tragedies, decided one day to gather followers around religion and popular beliefs and wander through the inhabited arid lands of Bahia’s backlands to found a village and claim independence from the devil’s Republic.

At first, the government saw this movement as a mere religious cult, a group of poor fanatic people who, like many harmless opposers didn’t like the way the New Republic was being conducted.

But then those people started to rebel, they burned their documents issued by the government and they refused to pay taxes. In 1893, the government decided that they were a threat to the New Republic, a den of monarchists and dangerous rebels who should be eliminated.

Mario Vargas Llosa called it the War of The End of The World. The War of Canudos was the response of the government against the people who rebelled against it. It was marked by four deadly battles between the Brazilian army and the Sertanejos (backlanders) of Canudos.

It is truly regrettable that in these times we do not have a [Henry] Maudsley, who knew the difference between good sense and insanity, to prevent nations from committing acts of madness and crimes against humanity.

— Euclides da Cunha, in “Backlands”

In the first three battles, the Brazilian army learned that the Canudos Campaign wouldn’t be that easy. They found strong artillery and people willing to die for their beliefs.

In the fourth and last battle, the army brought canons and sieged the village to finish their mission, destroying it at last, yet the war only ended when at the dawn of the last day, a commission assigned to find the remains of Antonio Conselheiro located his corpse lying in a hut under a shallow layer of earth and wrapped in a filthy sheet.

Euclides da Cunha witnessed all that and his epic book is not just a literary masterpiece that represents a keystone of the Brazilian literature and political culture but also a history book you’d want to eagerly read.

Between the lines…

Have you ever read this book or any other book like that? How did you feel or how would you feel about it?

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