Tracking the Silence of the Backland: In search of a non-Euclidean criticism on the Massacre of Canudos

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Tinker Research Reports, Summer 2012

Partial view of Cocorobó Dam, where the 1st and the 2nd Canudos are submerged. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

Partial view of Cocorobó Dam, where the 1st and the 2nd Canudos are submerged. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

Tracking the Silence of the Backland: In search of a non-Euclidean criticism on the Massacre of Canudos

I came to the city of Salvador, capital of Bahia, on June 12, 2012, after a week in Rio de Janeiro crossing libraries, first and secondhand bookstores. The city of Salvador is deeply eccentric, in the precise sense of the term, i.e., its center of attention is outside itself. Perhaps this will serve to partially explain the reasons for its predatory tourism. Everything that is foreign interests Salvador. Economically though, because culturally I saw a city that never ceases to recycle old cliches of music, cuisine, religion and festivals. However, there is infinite research work to do in the collections of libraries. My research would focus on the Centro de Estudos Bahianos, a library at the Federal University of Bahia, where one can find the archive created by Prof. José Calasans.

This collection functions poorly. There is no direct access to the bookshelves, nor is there a computerized catalog for consultation. The only way to know what books are available there is by consulting the cards that different waves of employees have filled out by hand. These cards are not all available for consultation at once in a file. We need to ask for the cards by author or subject, and only then can we get a sense of what is in the collection. This entire process to make the book arrive at the table of the researcher takes a lot of time. However, even when requesting a book from its record, it is not always found, either because it does not correspond to the numbers indicated in the record, or because it seems to have simply disappeared.

 

Ruins of the Catholic Church of the 2nd Canudos. Both the 1st and the 2nd Canudos are underwater today. These ruins appear only when the droughts in the region are very severe, as so it was when I visited the Backlands. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

Ruins of the Catholic Church of the 2nd Canudos. Both the 1st and the 2nd Canudos are underwater today. These ruins appear only when the droughts in the region are very severe, as so it was when I visited the Backlands. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

To complete the unfavorable scenario, the library staff informed me of an extraordinary decision made by their union: everyone would join the national strike of university teachers that had lasted several weeks so far, and for this reason the library would close the next day indefinitely. Given this situation, and having only one day to investigate on site, I had to photograph all potentially interesting material for research, rather than reading them and taking notes of what could serve me. Of course, I could not photograph even 1% of the archive’s more than 5000 volumes. So I modified the query strategy and asked the librarian Wilson Machado Filho to give me access to the books more surveyed, the rarest, the oldest or those that were considered the most important relating to the Canudos War.

Thus, in addition to the studies of Prof. José Calasans about the presence of the blacks and slaves in Canudos (an erased theme in Euclides da Cunha’s book), I discovered the existence of the testimonial of Franciscan Friar Pedro Sinzig, who was at Canudos in the final months of the conflict and wrote a journal about his experience there. I also had access to the minutes of the so called Patriotic Committee, formed in Bahia from 1897 to 1902 to provide humanitarian aid to victims of war. But certainly the most important document I had access to was the Breviary of Antonio Conselheiro, a thick apocryphal manuscript dated 1895, which belonged to Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, the Counselor and religious and political leader of Canudos. This manuscript contains transcriptions of the Gospels, many notes and other sources for religious teachings that the leader of Canudos uttered. This breviary had a partial facsimile edition in 2002. Given its number of pages and interest, with basically theological content, it certainly does not shy away from bringing up the political and social inflection of the religion that characterized the profile of Antonio Conselheiro. Thus, it merits a detailed study aside, tangential to the goals of this research.

In the days that followed the strike by employees of the library, I had to devise a plan B, in order to get alternatives for further research. Thus, upon the suggestion of Professor Adriana Johnson, UC Irvine, I sought out the researcher, photographer and filmmaker Antonio Olavo. Olavo has nearly 30 years of research on Canudos, having edited the book “Proceedings of the Patriotic Committee of Bahia” (2002), exhibited photographs of survivors of the war and their descendants, and also made two important and award-winning documentaries on the theme: "Passion and Death in the Canudos Backland" and "Teacher’s Ioio — a testimonial about Canudos," through which he reworks the context of the conflict from precious oral sources, unfortunately missing today.

Alto da Favela (Favela Peak) at the sunset. One of the main settlement of Canudos Resistance. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

Alto da Favela (Favela Peak) at the sunset. One of the main settlement of Canudos Resistance. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

The conversation with Antonio Olavo was undoubtedly one of the most useful for this study. In addition to his large knowledge on the theme, he also put me in touch with other scholars that address precisely the non-Euclidean perspective that interests me. Olavo made me aware of valuable resources, such as Nertan Macedo’s work, including his "Memorial de Vilanova," an important account by Honorio Vilanova, a businessman who fought in and survived the Canudos War. Moreover, the filmmaker gave me directions on how to reach Canudos, where I should stay and who to seek out. I’m sure his support was the most valuable one among the rest because it opened both intellectual doors, for the research, and practical ways, for the accommodations during the journey through The Cocorobó Backland, in which Canudos is found. Olavo had suggested that there were no descendants of survivors at Canudos today. So, it was likely that I had little or nothing to accomplish in terms of gathering testimony and primary memory research. Therefore, Olavo suggested to me that three days were enough to visit places of interest: Canudos State Park, where there are archaeological remnants of war; Memorial Antonio Conselheiro, administered by the State University of Bahia, and also the Historic Museum of Canudos, where one can find a mini-museum with material traces of war; and then the Popular Institute Canudos Memorial, administered by the Catholic parish of the city, where one finds the holy cross that belonged to the so called New Church, built by Antonio Conselheiro.

In fact, I could not locate the city elders who had inherited individual memories of the conflict. The memories that I could collect in conversations and interviews with the folks were all collective memories, many of them mediated by the official version developed in Euclides da Cunha’s book. Certainly, the perspective of Euclides’ book has, still today, a considerable presence in the imaginative formation of the conflict. A subtle example of this Euclidean ideology is the layout of Canudos State Park. The visitor enters the park following the narrative logic of Euclid, whose perspective is that of the invading Republicans, as opposed to a possible layout of the park following the logic of the Canudos resistance.

Detail of Alto da Favela at noon. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

Detail of Alto da Favela at noon. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

This is partly justified by the fact that the city was entirely destroyed and today is submerged by the waters of Cocorobó Dam, built between 1959-1967 to irrigate the dry region. Indeed, the Dam erased the archaeological sites of the resistance. However, it is precisely this mix of official discourse and alternative discourse that interests me here: how this ambiguity, telling about Canudos but only from the winner’s perspective, already present in Euclide’s work, became the ideological model of the history. His report seems violent itself because it creates indiscernible margins of intellectual and ethical responsibility and, by extension, reproduces that confusion in the cultural broadcastings for later generations.

Once in Canudos, I became aware of the difficult everyday life and the reality of its inhabitants, the precarious way they live and their perspectives. Therefore, contrary to the suggestion of Antonio Olavo for me to spend only three days in the region, I ended up spending about 10 days, experiencing and living along with its people, especially the rural people of the city. The contemporary city of Canudos corresponds to the 3rd Canudos. The 1st was devastated by war in 1897. The 2nd was tentatively constructed in the following years by some survivors, beside the camp-war. Expelled in 1967 by the dammed waters of the Vaza-Barris river, some of its inhabitants built the 3rd Canudos a few miles away, in the valley of Cocorobó, as beautiful example of resistance and attachment to the land.

As usual in the Brazilian backlands, today’s Canudos is largely unassisted by the government. Considering its population of approximately 16,000 inhabitants, most of whom seem to be of black descent. They lack employment, schools, roads, hospitals, diversity of commerce, public transportation, telecommunications, professional services, etc. Thanks to the dam, however, the town does not lack water. There are many bars, and on every street corner you hear recordings of the modern forró bands. Even today, the exodus repeats itself: many leave Canudos to try life in the southern part of the country. São Paulo is the most popular destination, where they believe there are better promises of jobs and prosperity.

Although there is a lot of garbage scattered both in the urban and rural areas, Canudos looks less like a dirty city than an abandoned one. Although shy, people are very friendly and welcoming, and there is no sense of public insecurity in the city streets at all. Moreover, the mild weather of June, with its breezes, and the landscape opening to beautiful mountains in the background, brings a special sense of well-being to the place.

After this season in the backlands, on returning to Salvador, I had an uncomfortable feeling that the capital of Bahia is much more dirty, violent and ugly if compared with Canudos. That sentiment shifted my notion of poverty in Brazil. Yet unable to provide matured answers about this issue that shapes the basic perspective of my research (that is, the criminalization of poverty), after visiting Canudos I came to better perceive how poverty has nothing to do with economic power but it expresses an adaptation to circumstances that policies of isolation and exclusion have set to the inhabitants of Canudos. Poverty, therefore, is not necessarily an evil to be criminalized or eradicated in favor of progress and modernization of the country, as was the main goal of Canudos War, but strictly a way of living that learns how to survive only with what it actually has.

Therefore, I think it is necessary to think about Canudos War having in account not only the primary sources as alternative for Euclides da Cunha’s version, but also the reality of today’s Canudos, its problems and the social initiatives taken by the unions of rural workers, fishermen, traders and service providers. Such cooperatives, specially focused on the urgency of the demands of everyday life, are entirely in accordance with the ideals of Antonio Conselheiro in the late 19th century, that is to create a community life in mutual collaboration. This ideal was deeply troubling to the dominant forces of Brazil’s Republic, but it is also a burden today, because it represents a threat to the exploitation system established in the Backlands through the capitalist economy, whose dynamics implies both inequality and individualism.

Antonio Conselheiro Memorial, administered by The State University of Bahia. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

Antonio Conselheiro Memorial, administered by The State University of Bahia. (Photo by Sebastian Edson Macedo.)

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