(Investigator 124, 2009 January)


At midday, October 5, 1897, the Brazilian town of Canudos lay in ruins. The great temple was rubble, the houses were ashes, thousands of mutilated bodies lay around and the stench of blood and smoke filled the air.

Thus ended the rule of the Jacuncos, religious fanatics dedicated to the overthrow of the Brazilian republic who brought Brazil to the edge of anarchy.

The leader of the cult, Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, was born in 1842 in Quixeramobim on the Sertao plateau in Brazil and grew up there.

As a youth Maciel kept largely to himself and became a cashier. At 15 he became infatuated with a prostitute and they married a year later.

After the honeymoon the girl returned to prostitution. She left the house for days at a time, threw tantrums when criticized by her husband, and eventually eloped with a policeman. 

Maciel retreated into the wilderness, lived a solitary life for ten years, and gradually convinced himself he had a special mission from God.

Then he returned to civilization – to the Brazilian state of Bahia. Maciel was now a combination of wild-man and prophet, shouting religious slogans and exhortations.

Thousands of superstitious people, mostly Indian and Negro ranch workers, began to follow him. Maciel ordered them to call him Conselheiro. For the next ten years he roamed the plateau, begging, singing and holding meetings. Many followers compared him to God. He declared the world would end in 1900 and only his disciples would survive.

The Brazilian monarchy was abolished in 1889 but the transition to republic proved difficult. There was economic recession, drought and social unrest. The capital of Bahia, Salvador, was inundated with freed slaves, immigrants and unemployed. It was a setting where thousands looking for a better life found Conselheiro's preaching attractive. 

With the end of the world at hand Conselheiro's disciples concluded man-made laws were irrelevant. They wallowed in wild celebrations and orgies, singing hymns by day and sharing the women by night. 

The Roman Catholic Church denounced Conselheiro but failed to redirect him to the straight and narrow.

Conselheiro preached against the evils of the new Republic, advocated a restoration of the monarchy, and told his followers, now called "Jaguncos", that they must destroy the republic.

The Republican Government in Rio de Janeiro sent 200 soldiers and police to arrest him and end the threat that he posed.

As the soldiers advanced the Jaguncos retreated and the soldiers then charged. The Jagunco ranks separated revealing cavalry to their rear. The cavalry and soldiers collided and the latter were slaughtered.

Conselheiro now led his horde of followers into the jungle. At a river bank surrounded by high rocky walls and approachable by a narrow pass they constructed a religious community, houses of palms and cane, and settled. A network of trenches guarded the approach from the pass. The town was called Canudos.

With the people housed Conselheiro demanded they construct a huge stone temple. As the work progressed, criminals and down-and-outs from far and wide flocked to this new "Zion" and swelled the numbers.

With a peak of 35,000 people in 1896 Canudos was the second largest town in Bahia after the state capital. It had schools, reportedly suffered very little crime, and by hard work the surrounding land was made agriculturally productive.

Conselheiro now demanded building materials from a nearby town but the mayor refused. The mayor appealed to the Government which sent 100 soldiers to destroy the rebels and capture their leader.

As the soldiers approached Canudos a thousand waiting Jaguncos arose from the jungle and, shouting psalms and songs, they massacred them. A few survivors made it to the town of Janzeiro and told of the slaughter.

The report was telegraphed to Rio de Janeiro. At the time there was a wave of violence in Brazil against monarchist newspaper publishers several of whom had sent funds to Conselheiro. With a serious rebellion apparently in the making the Government feared a monarchist plot and now sent a force of 600 trained soldiers

These too the Jaguncos largely butchered in an ambush. Fleeing stragglers were cut down by Conselheiro's cavalry for days afterwards.

The government next sent Brazil's most famous soldier, General Antonio Cesar, with a force of 1,300 men.

They reached Canudos, found it empty, and occupied it. 

Then a crescendo of psalm singing arose from all sides, Conselheiro appeared at the temple, and thousands of Jaguncos in concealed trenches opened up with rifle fire. 

The troops fell and died in hundreds, including their General. Again survivors fled. 

The Government now took the matter very seriously and sent the flamboyant Colonel Arthur Oscar with 5,000 men and a number of one-ton Whitney guns.

In March 1897 the previous episode repeated itself: Colonel Oscar's troops captured Canudos whereupon concealed Jaguncos rose up on all sides and fired rifles until heaps of dead littered the streets.

Surviving troops fought one engagement after another, day after day, as they retreated through the jungle.

In June 1897 the Government sent 10,000 troops led by the Secretary of War, Marshall de Bittencourt, along with machine guns and Krupp artillery.

A prolonged bloody siege began in July. De Bittencourt offered Conselheiro a truce, which was rejected. 

In October the troops stormed Canudos. In a four-day inferno of smoke, massacre and fire thousands of troops became casualties. But the Jaguncos were wiped out – any men who tried to surrender had their throats slit. Canudos became ashes and the temple rubble. Only 150 children and women survived. Conselheiro's head was cut off and paraded on a stick.

And so ended the threat to the Brazilian Republic. The victorious Marshall de Bittencourt died a month later, stabbed to death protecting the president in an assassination attempt.