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Authors: Euclides da Cunha

Backlands

Table of Contents
 
 
 
BACKLANDS
EUCLIDES RODRIGUES PIMENTA DACUNHA was born in Santa Rita do Rio Negro, then in the province of Rio de Janeiro, on January 20, 1866, into a family of Portuguese and Bahian extraction. He attended the Colégio Aquino in Rio, where one of his teachers was the republican ideologist Benjamin Constant Botelho de Magalhães, a follower of Auguste Comte and one of the leaders of the movement to depose the emperor and install the First Republic in 1889. It was at the school that da Cunha started his political writing, in a youth publication titled the
Democrat
. His virulent republicanism provoked him to insult the imperial minister of war by throwing down his sword in front of him during a formal ceremony at the military school in Praia Vermelha, where he had been enrolled since 1886. He was expelled from the school and after a stint in São Paolo as a journalist, he returned to Rio in 1889 to resume studies at the Escola Politécnico. He finished his education at the War College in 1892, with a university degree in mathematics, physical and natural sciences, and engineering and the rank of first lieutenant. In 1890 he married Ana Sólon Ribeiro (later Ana de Assis), the daughter of General Frederico Sólon Ribeiro, one of the founders of the Brazilian Republic, who in 1889 was assigned the task of issuing Pedro II his exile orders. He left the military in 1896 and worked as a civil engineer for the state of São Paulo. When the death of Antônio Moreira César became national news in 1897, da Cunha accepted the invitation of
O Estado de São Paulo
to accompany the fourth expedition of the Canudos campaign as a war journalist embedded with the São Paulo Battalion. He left for Bahia on August 4, 1897, and his field notes, published posthumously as
Diary of an Expedition
, became the basis for his great work
, Os sertões
(
Backlands
)
.
His other works include
The Amazon: Land without History
(1906),
Contrastes e confrontos
(1907), and
Peru versus Bolivia
. Da Cunha died in 1909 from a gunshot wound delivered by his wife’s lover.
 
ELIZABETH LOWE is director of the Center for Translation Studies in the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She received her doctorate in comparative literature with a concentration in translation from the City University of New York under Gregory Rabassa. Lowe is the author of the groundbreaking
The City in Brazilian Literature
(1982) and coauthor, with Earl E. Fitz, of
Translation and the Rise of Inter-American Literature
(2007). Among the authors she has translated into English are Clarice Lispector, Rubem Fonseca, Nélida Piñon, Darcy Ribeiro, Victor Giudice, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
 
ILAN STAVANS is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books include
The Hispanic Condition
(1995),
On Borrowed Words
(2001),
Spanglish
(2003),
Love and Language
(2007),
A Critic’s Journey
(2009), and
Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years
(2010). Stavans edited
The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays
(1997),
The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
(2003), Cesar Chavez’s
An Organizer’s Tale
(2008), and
Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing
(2009). He is also general editor of
The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature
(2010). From 2001 to 2006 he was the host of the PBS show
Conversations with Ilan Stavans
. He has received numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award, an Emmy nomination, the Latino Book Award, Chile’s Presidential Medal, the Rubén Darío Distinction, and the Cátedra Roberto Bolaño. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and adapted to the stage and screen. Stavans writes a syndicated Spanish-language newspaper column called “Lengua Fresca.”
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This translation first published in Penguin Books 2010
 
 
Translation copyright © Elizabeth Lowe, 2010 Introduction copyright © Ilan Stavans, 2010
All rights reserved
 
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Cunha, Euclides da, 1866-1909.
[Sertões. English]
Backlands : the Canudos Campaign / Euclides da Cunha ; translated by Elizabeth Lowe ; introduction by
Ilan Stavans.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN : 978-1-101-46085-6
1. Brazil—History—Canudos Campaign, 1893-1897. I. Title.
F2537.C97513 2010
981’.05—dc22 2009051135
 
 
 
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Introduction
War is a continuation of politics by other means.
—CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ
 
Euclides da Cunha’s
Os sertões
, described by some as a national epic that is also “the bible of the Brazilian nation,” concludes with a minuscule—at least in contrast with most other sections in the book—chapter called “Two Lines,” although it really contains only one, a compound clause: “It is truly regrettable that in these times we do not have a Maudsley, who knew the difference between good sense and insanity, to prevent nations from committing acts of madness and crimes against humanity.”
Much has been read—and
un
read—into this enigmatic sentence and into the entire narrative. What was da Cunha’s ultimate message in his reportorial description of a popular upheaval at the end of the nineteenth century in the distant, unsophisticated northeastern region of Canudos, far away from the nation’s urbane metropolitan centers at the time? Do these lines blame Brazil, a country with a difficult path to independence, for its destructive response to a social upheaval that was portrayed as an internal threat to national stability? Are the indigents known as
cangaceiros
who engaged in the revolt, following their charismatic leader, Antônio Conselheiro (Portuguese for “the counselor”), solely to be blamed for the tragic outcome?
Before the last chapter, the focus was the analysis of Conselheiro’s cranium as a source of crime and lunacy. With his final observation, the author shifts from the individual as the cause of national unrest to a larger scope: the collective responsibility for the safe-keeping of the nation as a whole. Clearly, da Cunha meant these last words to push his message to new heights.
Henry Maudsley was a celebrated psychiatrist in Victorian England who, unlike Sigmund Freud and others, believed that mental illness was the result of cerebral deficiencies. The Brazilian physician and author Moacyr Scliar, himself a member of a minority (he is Jewish), once explained the relevance of Maudsley’s name at the end of
Os sertões.
He was not a believer in psychological development. Instead, he considered internment in a psychiatric ward the optimal solution. In other words, da Cunha might be suggesting that Conselheiro was a menace to society in his incapacity to differentiate “between good sense and insanity.” Thus the responsibility, according to da Cunha, isn’t in the individual but in society. The only way to prevent nations from committing “acts of madness and crimes against humanity” like the one executed by the government during the Canudos campaign is to have a psychiatric system able to identify dangerous lunatics who, through personal charisma, might organize a sinister revolt and, in doing so, threaten an emerging republic.
 
Os sertões
speaks forcefully to a number of issues of our time. It is, as the last chapter shows, a hidden treatise on psychiatry. But it is much more: a study of the environmental, social, and political conditions that allow for a leader like Conselheiro in a raw, rough habitat. And, last but not least, it is an extraordinary document about a reporter at war, and, as such, a meditation on journalism as eyewitness to history, in particular in an incipient democracy as Brazil was at the dusk of the nineteenth century.
It was da Cunha’s self-imposed responsibility to describe the principal events of the so-called Canudos War, which had enormous reverberations on the national stage. The foundation of Canudos as a town in the backlands of the state of Bahia is marred by myth. Race and religion were essential ingredients. After an itinerant life that started in the 1870s in scarcely populated areas of the region, Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, a.k.a. Antônio Conselheiro (described later on by the press as “a false messiah” and the building of his community as “a messianic act”), amassed a growing number of disenfranchised supporters. Soon Canudos was known in the vicinities as a bastion of discontent, which, in the eyes of urbanites in Bahia, translated into an endorsement of the monarchic system that Brazil had recently broken from.
It is important to remember that, unlike other Latin American nations that had become independent from their European matrix at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Brazil, in 1822, simply shifted from the configuration of colonial dependency when the Portuguese king, João VI, running away from Napoléon’s troops, transplanted himself to the colony across the Atlantic. It was the king’s son who proclaimed Brazil’s independence, which de facto retained a monarchic structure. It would take decades for things to change: In 1888 slavery was abolished, and a year later the nation finally adopted a republican form of government. Still, political fragility remained. The emerging country looked for threats to its new life in all quarters. Indeed, the Canudos upheaval wasn’t the first to be seen as a menace to the establishment. Shortly after independence, there was a revolt of the marine and army forces (Revolta da Armada, 1893-94) that led to new presidential elections.
The trouble in Canudos entered public discourse in October 1896 with a telegram sent to the governor by Dr. Arlindo Leoni, magistrate of the Juazeiro district, asking for help as a horde of lawless
jagunços
, dwellers of the backlands, led by Conselheiro, was about to invade the town. In contrast to the type of life led in a metropolis like Bahia, and farther away São Paulo, hunger, illness, and dispossession were the sine qua non in Canudos. And unlike the city, the countryside was defined by more flexible codes of racial interaction. Clearly, the incipient agitation was caused by a ferment of popular unhappiness. Letting it continue, it was believed, undermined the future of the republic. Thus the army was sent in. But the response by the
jagunços
was forceful. Reinforcement was needed. It was only after three failed military expeditions that the rebel stronghold in Canudos was destroyed and, in October 1897, the followers of the religious leader were slaughtered. The number of deaths was enormous: Five thousand soldiers lost their lives, and the entire population of Canudos, estimated between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand people, was killed. Not surprisingly, the war became a media sensation in Brazil and all over the Americas.

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