On the banks of the Cocorobó Dam in Bahia, north eastern Brazil a solemn mass is said every year on the 5 October. It is said to commemorate those who died in the old town of Canudos, which now lies under the dam waters, in the days leading up to that date in 1897.
In the Beginning
In the 1870s Antônio Maciel began to wander the back lands of Bahia state, gathering a small following as he travelled from village to village, rebuilding churches and preaching to the inhabitants. Soon he became known as Conselheiro (the Counselor) and then later, Bom Jesus Conselheiro (Blessed Jesus the Counselor). Initially he preached with the permission of the local parish priests, but as time went on various misunderstandings led to the Archbishop forbidding him from preaching. The ruling was that his speeches were politically subversive. This did not stop him, however.
In 1893, Antônio Conselheiro staged a protest against payment of tax. He and his followers burned a tax notice and were then chased by 30 policemen, who they quickly defeated in a small skirmish. Conselheiro's followers then settled on an abandoned farm called Canudos.
Due to an ongoing drought, there was a large number of displaced people in Bahia at the time and they began to gather at Canudos as they believed that the Counselor was a messenger from God. By 1897 it is estimated that up to 30,000 people lived at Canudos in a clean, well ordered settlement.
The Government Becomes Scared
Towards the end of 1896, the jagunços (landless peasants) of Canudos ordered and paid for some wood to build a new church. This wood was never delivered. Some theories believe that this was a deliberate move by the authorities to try to bring the situation to a head, but this is not certain. The peasants of Canudos offered to come to collect the wood. Believing that this constituted a possible attack, the local government sent a hundred soldiers to defend the town where the wood was kept. This was easily defeated by the men of Canudos, and the force became known as the First Expedition.
Deciding that this was now a direct challenge to the government of Brazil, a Second Expedition of over 500 men and two cannons was sent. They marched on Canudos in January 1897, but were forced to retreat after two encounters with the men of Canudos. Thus a Third Expedition was sent. This force, led by a great Brazilian War hero, Colonel Antônio Moreira César, was made up of 1,300 men carrying 1,500,000 rounds of ammunition and 70 cannon shells. They attacked Canudos from an overlooking hill on 2nd March 1897, but were forced to retreat the following day, with both Colonel César and his replacement Colonel Tamarindo having died of their wounds during the battle. The army retreated to the sound of the Canudos peasants hissing, to further add to their humiliation. This defeat was viewed as a national disaster by the powers in Rio.
Hence a Fourth Expedition was formed of over 8,000 men which set out on 5 April, 1897, and proceeded to lay siege to Canudos. This siege lasted until 5 October, 1897, when Canudos was razed to the ground by the Government troops. All captured prisoners were then beheaded for treason by the Army. The true number of those who died can never be known but a count of the number of buildings and survivors of the peasants gives an estimated death toll of 25,000 peasants, and 5,000 government troops. Antônio Conselheiro himself had died of natural causes in August 1897, but that did not stop his followers fighting to the death.
The official line has always been that these were dangerous rebels and savages and the government had to do what it did. However, even from the earliest reports people believed that the government had been heavy handed, but it is only recently that the rebels have been re-examined as displaced, hungry peasants looking for salvation.
In an attempt to erase the memories, the site of Canudos was flooded for a dam in the 1960s but locals still hold a mass in memory every year.
For further reading try The War at the End of the World by Mario Vargas Losa, a fictionalised account examining the causes in detail.