The Bahian sertão provided the backdrop for one of the most remarkable events in Brazilian history: the 1895 rebellion of the messianic religious leader Antônio Conselheiro. Conselheiro gathered thousands of followers, built a city called Canudos, and declared war on the young republic for imposing new taxes on an already starving population. The rebels – or sertanistas – proved to be great guerrilla fighters with an intimate knowledge of the harsh country, and twice mauled military forces sent confidently north from Salvador; the city troops found the sertão as intimidating as their human enemies. A third force of over one thousand, commanded by a national hero, a general in the Paraguayan war, was sent against the rebels. In the worst shock the young republic had suffered to that point, the force was completely annihilated; the next expedition discovered the bleached skulls of the general and his staff laid out in a neat row in front of a thorn tree. A fourth expedition was sent in 1897 and Canudos finally fell, with almost all of its defenders killed. Conselheiro himself had died of fever only a few weeks before the end. One member of the force, Euclides da Cunha, immortalized the war in his book Os Sertões, generally recognized as the greatest Portuguese prose ever written by a Brazilian. It was translated into English as “Rebellion in the Backlands” and is a good introduction to the sertão. A more entertaining read is The War of the End of the World by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (see “Books”), which gives a haunting, fictionalized account of the incredible events in Canudos.

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