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Sentencing Canudos

Sentencing Canudos: Subalternity in the Backlands of Brazil

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    Sentencing Canudos
    Book Description:

    In the late nineteenth century, the Brazilian army staged several campaigns against the settlement of Canudos in northeastern Brazil. The colony's residents, primarily disenfranchised former slaves, mestizos, landless farmers, and uprooted Indians, followed a man known as Antonio Conselheiro ("The Counselor"), who promoted a communal existence, free of taxes and oppression. To the fledgling republic of Brazil, the settlement represented a threat to their system of government, which had only recently been freed from monarchy. Estimates of the death toll at Canudos range from fifteen thousand to thirty thousand.

    Sentencing Canudos offers an original perspective on the hegemonic intellectual discourse surrounding this monumental event in Brazilian history. In her study, Adriana Michele Campos Johnson offers a close examination of nation building and the silencing of "other" voices through the reinvisioning of history. Looking primarily to Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões, which has become the defining-and nearly exclusive-account of the conflict, she maintains that the events and people of Canudos have been "sentenced" to history by this work. Johnson investigates other accounts of Canudos such as local oral histories, letters, newspaper articles, and the writings of Cunha's contemporaries, Afonso Arinos and Manoel Benício, in order to strip away political agendas. She also seeks to place the inhabitants and events of Canudos within the realm of "everydayness" by recalling aspects of daily life that have been left out of official histories.

    Johnson analyzes the role of intellectuals in the process of culture and state formation and the ensuing sublimation of subaltern histories and populations. She echoes recent scholarship that posits subalternity as the product of discourse that must be disputed in order to recover cultural identities and offers a view of Canudos and postcolonial Latin America as a place to think from, not about.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7765-0
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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    (pp. 1-11)

    The title of my book owes something to Homi Bhabha’s suggestion that “it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history—subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement—that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking.”¹ The notion of “suffering the sentence of history” sounds a double register. Legally, a sentence is the imposition of punishment following a judgment of condemnation. One is sentenced never to happiness but rather to jail, to death, or to oblivion. Suffering the judgment of history, then, suggests material defeat of some kind: subjugation, domination, annihilation, disappearance. It refers to those who, like...

    (pp. 12-44)

    Euclides da Cunha was perhaps the first to voice the kernel of what was to be the canonical and largely celebratory interpretation of his relationship to Canudos.¹ In a letter to his friend Francisco Escobar in early 1902, da Cunha presentedOs sertõesas an “avenging book”: “And yet, however it may be, I am heartened by the ancient conviction that the future will read it [the book]. That is what I want. I will be an avenger and will have played a great role in life—that of advocate for the poor sertanejos assassinated by a . . ....

    (pp. 45-77)

    The various biographical accounts of Antônio Conselheiro—also known as Antônio dos Mares, Santo Antônio Aparecido, Santo Conselheiro, and Bom Jesus—differ as to details of his early life (e.g., date of birth, his relationship with his wife, and the date he left Ceará for Bahia). Most stories concur, however, on the following points.

    The Conselheiro was born Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel in Quixe-ramobim, Ceará, in 1828 (or 1830, the year of his baptism). His father, Vicente Mendes Maciel, was a smalltime merchant who owned a few houses. His first wife having died, Vicente remarried when Antônio was six. Tradition...

    (pp. 78-104)

    The myth of Canudos had the city founded out of nothing, a Troy arising from thin air in the middle of nowhere: the very materialization of rupture. Envisioned and portrayed as the refuge of criminal elements such asjagunços, fanatics,sertanejos, communists, and monarchists, the community was defined in terms of lacks. Its houses were squalid, disoriented, and disordered, like so many bits of wood and mud thrown together, as if they had been “built rapidly, feverishly, in a single night by a multitude of madmen!”¹ Euclides da Cunha gave us the most well-known portrait, but others, too, defined the...

  5. CHAPTER FOUR OS SERTÕES Nationalism by Elimination
    (pp. 105-137)

    Da Cunha enters the discussion of Canudos after the defeat of the Moreira César expedition, July 17, 1897, with an article entitled “A nossa vendéia,” in which he prefigures Canudos through Victor Hugo’s novel on the Vendée peasant revolt against the postrevolutionary French republic.¹ Because of this article,O Estado de São Paulosent him to cover the last expedition. Public discourse was by then already organized by a full-fledged prose of counterinsurgency, and da Cuhna’s articles, like much of the coverage by southern newspapers, cast the fighters of Canudos as strange, alien beings (taes seres):

    They live on the...

    (pp. 138-162)

    InA imitação dos sentidos, Leopoldo Bernucci notes that although works such as Afonso Arinos’sOs jagunços, Dantas Barreto’sUltima expedição a Canudos, Alvim Martins Horcades’sDescrição de uma viagem a Canudos, César Zama’sLibelo republicano, and Manoel Benício’sO rei dos jagunçoshad addressed the military campaign and Antonio Conselheiro’s messianic movement before Os sertões appeared, da Cunha’s text, not its predecessors, entered triumphantly into literary history. Why, he asks, didn’t these other works acquire the literary or historical importance ofOs sertões? Why does the public still ignore them despite their vehement critiques and the polemical tone of...

    (pp. 163-174)

    I have used the termsentencingto keep visible the relationship between power and representation. Those who have been sentenced to history have been inscribed in history, overtaken by it, condemned to take part in it, turned into its subjects. If power relations are (mis)translated into epistemological structures so that condemnations (one sort of sentence) become descriptions (another sort of sentence), what reconciliations can representation afford?

    The community of Canudos was etched into the archive under a particular face that is intimately bound up with the representational politics of the modern nation-state and the place of intellectual mediation within that...