A Short History of the Sertão

Sertão cactus watercolour

Sertão is an abbreviation of desertão, meaning desert. Only this parched stretch of land isn’t classed as a desert because of the 3 months of rainfall, which gives birth to the twisted shrubbery of the caatinga. Arguably the worse kind of shrubbery. This squat thorny forestry snags any creature that crawls through the wilderness in search of elusive water. In fact, the shrubbery of the caatinga yielded some of the most notorious leather-wearing bandits of Brazil.

This is a short history on the Brazilian Wild West (but in Brazil’s East).

Little resides in the semi-arid lands that spread through the interior of Brazil’s Northeastern states. What does survive, has to shield itself against the unforgiving shrubs, like the armoured armadillo that calls the sertão home.

Apart from this, masses of termites have ravaged the land for more than 40 million years.  The largest recorded termite nest counts on 200 million mounds, a network that covers an area bigger than the UK. These structures are visible from a space satellite! Termites are a vital food source for all the other brave little animals that reside in these dry lands – anteaters (the largest animal in Brazil, probably because of the endless supply of termites), raccoons, skunks, birds and the forest dog (cachorro-do-mato).

Then there’s the brave humans, the sertanejos. The lack of rainfall means much of sertanejo life is nomadic. And due to human’s insatiable appetite for beef, the sertão is also home to Brazilian cowboys that scour the banks of the São Francisco river with their cattle in tow.

This leads us to our first historical event of the sertão – the Battle of Canudos.

Bird on a tree branch in sertão

War of Canudos in the Bahian Sertão

From 1896- 1897 the War of Canudos broke out in the Bahian sertão.

It began with Antônio Conselheiro or Antônio the Counselor, a religious pilgrim who traveled the hinterlands of Brazil.

Particularly harsh droughts in the sertão made nomadic life challenging. So in 1893 Antônio Conselheiro and his sizable group of devotees settled in a small village on the banks of Vaza-Barris River. The religious leader continue to gain fame and the village ballooned in size to 25,000 inhabitants. Then Antônio decided to call the republic the anti-Christ. Not a good thing to call the republic army.

It kicked off.

Bear in mind that the New Republic was only declared by a military coup in 1889. Republicans were rather sensitive, preoccupied with quelling numerous rebellions popping up around the country. So government forces panicked when faced by this agglomeration of people and dubbed the Canudos ‘monarchists’.

That’s a lot of name calling.

The republic’s troops launched 4 attacks against the Canudos. The final attack ended with the massacre of 30,000 canudos. It completely scratched the settlement from the map.

And Antônio Conselheiro? Beheaded and his head displayed as a trophy in Salvador, the capital of Bahia.

Canganceiros Terrorize the Sertão

Meanwhile, there was another confrontation surging through the sertão that would last 40 years. Cangaço were gangs that terrorized the small towns scattered across the dry sertão. Much like the Brazilian Wild West the bandits would steal, kill and bother just about anyone they happened to cross.

We’ve arrived at our leather-wearing bandits.

Cangaceiros wore leather so they could ride through the caatinga protected from the thorns.

Perhaps the most famous cangaçeiro was Lampião, who roamed the sertão from 1920 – 1930. Many films depict Lampião as the Robin Hood of Brazil, but historical accounts tie him to a much more gruesome existence. He seemed to make no distinction between the rich or the poor. If there was money, he wanted it. If there was opposition, his gang of 60+ bandits beat it down.

Their rampages came to a swift end however, when they were ambushed by police in 1938. The Rei do Cangaço (Cangaço king) was killed in a shoot out along with his entire ferocious gang and devout love, Maria Bonita.

And you guessed it.

They were beheaded and their heads were displayed in Salvador, just like chief Canudo.

Further Resources: want to go deeper? 

Os Últimos Cangaceiros by Wolney Oliveira premiered in 2011 and consists of series of interviews with the last cangaceira couple alive. The pair were found living under pseudonyms and were supposedly part of Lampião’s infamous gang.

Vidas Secas by Graciliano Ramos is a book that follows the impoverish life of a nomadic sertanejo family. There is also a black and white film of Vidas Secas.

Bacurau is a 2019 Brazilian movie set in a small village in the sertão of Pernambuco. The movie is a satirical fiction that criticizes American intervention in Brazil, as well as addressing the prejudice that exists against the Northeastern States of Brazil.

Baião music is traditional of the sertão and Northeastern states. Luiz Gonzaga was born in the sertão of Pernumbuco and made Baião music popular around Brazil. One of his band members and another prolific Baião musician tells stories about their tours around the country, while playing some of Gonzaga’s most famous compositions in Dominguinhos Canta e Conta Gonzaga (Dominguinhos Sings and Tells the Stories of Gonzaga).

Tiradentes is another historical figure who ended with the same fate as Canudos and Lampião. Learn about Brazil’s two independence days with a history of Tiradentes.

A Guerra Do Fim Do Mundo (The War of the End of the World) by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is a dramatic retelling of the Canudos War. It has been translated into various languages including English.

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