Thursday, August 15, 2019

The war at the end of the world

Died one hundred and ten years ago this day, did Euclides da Cunha, a Brazilian engineer and political writer - shot dead by his wife’s lover. In 1897, he was commissioned by a São Paulo newspaper to report on the war being fought by the government against a large group of rebellious peasants which had established a settlement, called Canudos, in the remote northeast. His dispatches were in the form of a daily diary, and these are available online (in the original Portuguese). Da Cunha went on to write a book about the conflict, which became a bestseller; to this day it remains a cornerstone of Brazilian political literature. In 1981, the world famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa based his novel, The War of the End of the World, on the events surrounding Canudos, and included da Cunha as a prominent character.

Euclides da Cunha was born in Cantaglo, some 140km northeast of Rio de Janeiro city, in early 1866. His mother died when he was three years old, and he went to live with relatives in Teresopolis and then Rio. In 1883, he started at Aquino College, where he first encountered Benjamin Constant, an influential military and political thinker, and in 1885, he joined the Polytechnic School. The following year, he signed up for the Military School of Praia Vermelha, where he again found himself being taught by Constant. He was expelled in 1888, for protesting during a visit of the Brazilian war minister, and took up journalism, working for the prestigious A Província de São Paulo. However, he was readmitted to the military school in 1889, and then entered the Brazilian war school (Escola de Guerra) in 1891. He graduated the following year with a degree in civil engineering. Around 1890, he married Ana Emília, daughter of Major Solon Ribeiro, and their first child (of three) was born in 1893.

That same year, in 1893, da Cunha moved to São Paulo to work in the administration for the railway organisation, but then, during the so-called Naval Revolts, he was called to serve for the Directorate of Military Works, and was sent to Minas Gerais to build barracks. Subsequently, he was appointed Superintendent of Public Works of São Paulo. In 1894, da Cunha published two influential articles in the Gazeta de Notícias, suggesting a comparison between the French Revolution and the ongoing revolts in Brazil. When a new conflict arose, with the government trying to crush a large communal settlement, named Canudos, in the northeastern state of Bahia, da Cunha was commissioned, in 1897, as a war correspondent, to personally witness events as they unfolded. Returning from Canudos, later the same year, he went to São José do Rio Pardo, in São Paulo, to manage the construction of a bridge. Around this time, he started writing Os Sertões, a work he would finish in 1900, and publish in 1902 (later translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands). In the book, da Cunha, influenced by theories of positivism and social Darwinism, used the story of the Canudos conflict to argue for political change. Eighty years later, Vargas Llosa fictionalised the events that Da Cunha had witnessed and written about for his novel The War of the End of the World - which he dedicated to da Cunha.

Os Sertões was enthusiastically received by critics and became a best-seller in Brazil. Its success guaranteed Cunha membership of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which he joined in 1903, and also opened up opportunities to work with the government. In 1906, after returning from an official trip to the Amazon, where he chaired a committee to survey the borders of northwestern Brazil, Cunha began to write a report that became his next most important book, Contrastes e confrontos (Contrasts and Comparisons), published in 1907. He spent the last two years of his life working on his third book, À margem da história (On the Margin of History), which was published posthumously. In 1909, he was named chair of logic at Colegio Pedro II. However, at this time, difficulties in his personal life came to a climax. His wife had been having an affair for years with a much younger man, and had even born him two children (one had been accepted by da Cunha as his own, the other had died). On 15 August, he went to his wife’s lovers house intent on murder, but instead was shot dead himself. Further information can be found online at Wikipedia (though the Portuguese entry is more detailed) or

During the time that da Cunha spent observing the situation in Canudos, he wrote a daily diary which was published in the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. Some forty years later, the diary was edited by Gilberto Freyre and published as Canudos: diário de uma expedição (José Olympio, 1939). The diary can be found online at Literatura Brasileira (though only in Portuguese).

I have used Google Translate (with a handful of edits) for this (crude and fault-full) English translation of one entry.

20 August 1897
‘Still awaiting, awkwardly, the next departure for the backcountry, I walk - unknown and lonely - like an ancient Greek in the streets of Byzantium the old streets of this great capital, in a persistent inquiry about its beautiful traditions and retaining its interesting old-town features coming almost intact from the past to these hectic days.

And I regret that the capital and exclusive purpose of this trip prevents me from studying it better and transmitting the impressions received.

Because this cross current of strange and diverse sensations is really inevitable, irresistibly invading the subject and pre-established programs.

In one hour sometimes the most mismatched impressions assail me.

Visiting the São Bento Monastery recently, for example, where the arriving wounded now accumulate, after traversing through extensive rows of constricted beds, I descended to the lower floor.

I crossed the long aisles cautiously, with calculated steps, my eyes fixed on the ground, trying not to tread on the grave limbs on which all devotees tread indifferently and where they still read, half-erased by the persistent friction of boots, names among them - oldest in our history. And stripping me of all the purpose that led me there - bending over the slabs that appear as the undiscovered palimpsest of marble in the remotest days, I remained long, absorbed.

What a huge transition in just five minutes, in this insensitive and quick passing, as I descended a staircase, from a busy, noisy present to the silent gloom of the indefinite past.

Fortunately, as I went on, I senselessly struck the wide doorway and as I passed through it, I suddenly turned back to the present.

Assomava, forced uphill and into Castro Alves Square, in a beam of glittering bayonets, the 4th infantry battalion. It comes from far, from the south - it's the last one we wait for.

With it are twenty-five battalions of line, to which are added the police corps here, of Sao Paulo, Pará, Amazonas and contingents of Artillery and Cavalry.

I calculate with a reasonable approximation of at least 10,000 men the troop that will fight the rebellion in the backlands.

And in the face of this armed multitude, it haunts me more than the natural dangers of war, the incalculable sum of efforts to feed it through regions almost impractical by the sharp unevenness of the roads that straighten into the mountains and narrow into long gorges.

A quick calculation shows us that this 10,000-necked minotaur will be sick, fasting almost one hundred and fifty sacks of flour and two tons of meat a day.

And this excludes elementary foodstuffs that constitute a luxury under the strict conditions of war.

This fact expresses one of the most serious and difficult conditions of the campaign: it is the tenacious, inglorious and frightening combat to an enemy who dies and revives every day, involving in the same trances friends and adversaries - hunger.

The natural conditions of the terrain, making it difficult to transport quickly, creating all sorts of stumbling, have already determined, as is well known, the appearance of that in our army - living forces at the mercy of chance, from imbu roots, or damp stalks of mandacarus sap, or hunting the scapegoats of the plateaus, in bold mounts in the caatingas.

Now this unfortunate situation is only attenuated today and every train that arrives deceives it for only one day.

Imagine now the series of difficulties that will come with the greatest accumulation of men.

In addition to slow marches, the lack of freighters makes the ammunition carried very small. Because, we must say frankly, what lies beyond Monte Santo, and even beyond Queimadas, is the desert in the meaning of the term - arid, harsh, unpopulated.

The scattered surrounding populations were lost far away, hiding in the woods, populating the most remote camps, abandoning houses and possessions, terrified by the terrifying scarecrow of war. Yes, you're right.

The narrative of the journey of those who have come, however free from the primitive ambushes, striking across the roads that radiate from Monte Santo, unfold through the absolutely empty and monotonous backcountry.

Only at one point and another as a sinister variant: for a refinement of satanic wickedness the jagunços arranged serially on the two sides of the road the bones of the dead from previous expeditions.

Uniforms, caps, gallons, talines, glittering red trousers, broad cloaks, ragged shirts, saddles, and blankets, hanging from the tree limbs, sway gloomily over the head of the grounded traveler passing through two rows of arranged skulls, lined at the sides.

It is a dreadful picture, capable of disturbing the most robust soul.

The unsuccessful Colonel Tamarindo - an old jovial soldier as there were few - was recognised by his uniform in this fantastic setting; without a head, stuck in a dry branch of Angico and having on his bare shoulders, hung like a hanger, and down the skeleton, down the skeleton.

The whole first column passed in amazement at the formidable spectre of the old commander.

All of these causes justify the indescribable panic that is currently raging in the backcountry and the disorderly ebb of entire populations to the remotest points.

The army is now raging in a desert of thirty lightning bolts, and it is absolutely necessary that the action of this expedition - which will be the last - be swift and fulminating in spite of all necessary sacrifices.

I believe we leave after all these days. I will then judge, in situ, what I have known so far through narratives that do not always fit the same conclusions.

And may that wild but interesting nature, that barbaric nook of our land, under the persistent attraction of its still unknown aspect, make light and quick these hours of longing that I cannot define.’

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