What Insanity Is This, Dr. Euclides?


The Lives of Others

After his best seller about the War of Canudos swept through Brazil, Euclides da Cunha went to Amazonia. It nearly killed him.

Joricramos, Euclides da Cunha.


There’s an argument that 1922 was the moment modernism took flight. It saw breakthrough works by a slew of writers including Joyce, Eliot, and Fitzgerald; Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus while Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago; Hitchcock directed his first movie as Disney made his first animations; Mussolini’s Fascists took hold of Italy, and Einstein got his hands on the Nobel Prize.

Less known than those canonical events is the modernist happening that struck São Paulo, where a festival of exhibitions and lectures gave many Brazilians their first exposure to modern art, unveiling young, homegrown creative talents with a radical vision: to ditch the long-burning obsession with emulating European civilization, and instead glory at the beauty beneath their own feet.

In the nineteenth century, this would have sounded absurd to educated Brazilians, Eurocentric to the core. But the 1922 generation was the first to have grown up with Os Sertões (“The Backlands”), a classic of Brazilian literature largely unknown to the outside world. Published in 1902, the book is a unique, genre-defying exploration of the country’s arid northeast and the calamity that befell it in 1897, when, in the name of the Brazilian national motto “order and progress,” the federal government flattened the town of Canudos and butchered as much of its population as it could get its hands on. It was written by Euclides da Cunha, a young civil engineer whose experience of the so-called War of Canudos turned him from a zealous government propagandist to the anguished voice of the Brazilian conscience.

The book was a commercial sensation. It triggered a national reappraisal of the assumptions about Brazil’s varied population and the ideals of the recent republican revolution. Da Cunha followed Os Sertões with an equally revelatory study of the Amazon region. A couple of years later, he was dead, killed in a shoot-out with a love rival young enough to be his son. It was a turn of events worthy of the season finale of a Rede Globo telenovela, an ignominious but apt end for a man who spent a lifetime pondering what it meant to be Brazilian.

Born in 1866, da Cunha was a sickly and brittle child, “stunted,” in the phrasing of one biographer, “by the unpleasant surprise of being born.” At the age of three, he lost his mother, after which he was tossed between the care of various family members, and contracted tuberculosis. At twenty, still with his small frame and delicate, faintly avian good looks, he entered the Military Institute of Engineering in Praia Vermelha against a backdrop of revolution.

Euclides da Cunha. Via the Instituto Moreira Salles.

As a cadet, da Cunha was tutored by men who espoused the abolition of slavery and the monarchy, envisioning a Brazilian renaissance that would create a superpower in South America, one modeled on western Europe and, in some respects, the United States. Inspired by the positivist thinking of the French philosopher Auguste Comte, these theories claimed that Brazil had to stick rigidly to the European example in just about everything were it to assume a place at the table of truly modern nations. The revolutionaries therefore faced a knotty contradiction: they wanted to create an advanced, sophisticated nation that respected individual liberties but thought the biggest obstacle in their way was Brazil’s majority population of uneducated, rural peoples of African and native heritage. The paradox existed in microcosm within da Cunha, himself of mixed descent, the grandson of a Karari Indian and a Portuguese slaveholder. Despite this, he fell in with the orthodoxy and believed that beyond the cities on the Atlantic coast, Brazil teemed with inferior peoples in desperate need of uplift from the urban elites.

Da Cunha’s concerns about the racial composition of the country became especially pertinent in 1888, when Princess Isabel declared the end of slavery. It was to be the royal family’s last significant act: in 1889, the monarchy fell and the republic was established. For the next few years, da Cunha balanced his work as an engineer with propagandizing for the government in the newspapers of Rio. Then, at the start of 1897, the capital was hit with astonishing news from the distant state of Bahia that tens of thousands of freed slaves, Indios, and mestizos were rising up against the government, led by a crazed millenarian preacher whose aim was to destroy the nascent republic and send Brazil back to the dark ages. Humiliated by their losses, the army was preparing to assert the primacy of the new republic by crushing this raggle-taggle swarm of savages. As a faithful champion of the revolution, da Cunha was invited to tag along and document the campaign. It would prove to be a decisive step in Brazil’s coming-of-age, tough not in the way anyone expected.


The town of Canudos was founded in 1893, by Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, better known to the thousands of people who hung on his every word as “the Counselor.” Ever since his wife jilted him sometime in the 1860s, the Counselor had wandered the impoverished towns and villages of Bahia, building and renovating churches and cemeteries, foretelling the end of days, railing against the sin of slavery, and offering advice and practical help to those at the bottom of the pile.

Euclides da Cunha in Lima, 1906. Via Foto Divulgacao.

Many of the most desperate and downtrodden looked upon the Counselor as a savior, though not a messiah; there’s no record of him claiming to have supernatural powers or a special connection to God. Local landowners and their political allies were alarmed by his popularity. In 1876, he was arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife and mother, despite the fact that the former was still alive and the latter had died when he was only six years old. No charges were handed out, just a severe beating as a reminder of what happens to those who rock the boat. The Counselor took no heed. When the Republic was declared, his preaching became more vehement than ever. He condemned the new constitution’s separation of powers as heresy and urged people not to obey tax laws, which he claimed were designed to rob from the poor to give to the rich. His following swelled, thanks in part to newly emancipated slaves who found themselves free but without hope. After surviving an attempt on his life by the state police in 1893, the Counselor and a few hundred of his followers set up camp in an abandoned expanse of land owned by the local magnate, Baron de Jeremoabo. By luck or judgment, they had chosen an unusually fertile spot. Word soon spread that the Counselor had put down roots in Canudos, a new town blessed by God. It’s estimated that within two years, between twenty-five thousand and thirty-five thousand had joined him in a thriving, peaceful, community that lived by its own rules, separate from wealthy landlords, corrupt politicians, or an inconstant Church.

It was only a matter of time before things came to a head. When the government confiscated a huge order of lumber intended for Canudos’s new church, five hundred of the Counselor’s heavies went to reclaim it. The police ambushed them en route, and a hundred and fifty of the Counselor’s men died in the ensuing battle. Those who survived, however, fought ferociously and sent the police running. The authorities decided enough was enough: the dissidents of Canudos had to be brought to heel. But, to the disbelief of the generals and the dismay of the politicians, the first forces sent to discipline the Counselor and his followers were thrashed by Canudos’s fearsome guerrilla warriors. All of a sudden, what had been a local law and order issue in the back of beyond appeared to be morphing into a Manichean struggle that imperilled the very health of the republic.

The news caused hysteria in Rio. Rumors spread that the Counselor was in the pay of exiled former royals and hostile foreign governments who conspired to destroy Brazil’s new golden age. Violent mobs attacked pro-monarchy newspapers, their journalists had their homes ransacked, and one editor was murdered in broad daylight. There were even lists of prominent monarchists handed to hospitals so doctors would know whom to deny treatment.

When invited to be an embedded reporter in the march on Canudos, da Cunha was eager to serve the cause and trumpet the Republic’s virtuous strike against the forces of regression. Rio’s newspapers revealed Canudos’s diverse population as backward deviants, with names such as “Crooked-mouthed Raymondo” and “Shackle-foot Joaqium.” There were also terrifying women who fought as tenaciously as the men, such as the formidably named Maria de Guerra de Jesus, who apparently hacked a soldier to death with a sickle. The local Bahian elite agreed that the people of Canudos were fundamentally different creatures from real Brazilians. “Miserable ex-slaves and criminals,” is how Baron de Jeremoabo described them, “without a single one who is a human being.”

Da Cunha’s own dispatches told of a great victory for the federal troops over the barbarians, achieved with minimum bloodshed. It would take five years for the true story to surface. As described in Os Sertões, a two-month siege of the town killed hundreds through starvation and disease. At the start of October 1897, government artillery in the surrounding mountains smashed Canudos to pieces. Weak and demoralized, its denizens were sitting targets. Those who surrendered were promised clemency. Even so, as photographs by Flavio de Barros capture, soldiers avenged the defeats of the last several months with indiscriminate violence. Civilians, including small children, were tortured and murdered in their thousands. When the Counselor’s dead body was discovered, it was chopped up, the head put on a spike, and the brain gifted to scientists to see whether the precise cause of his madness could be identified. To their apparent surprise, no defects were found.

With shame and horror, da Cunha realized that in attempting to smother barbarism with civilization, the Republic had simply dragged Brazil down to hitherto unknown depths of savagery. To make sense of what he had seen, he wrote Os Sertões, in which the conflict is framed not as some spasm of counterrevolutionary mania but the denouement of a centuries-long process. The first two parts of the book explain how, in da Cunha’s opinion, an intricate interplay between man and his environment had created the peoples of Bahian backlands—the sertanejos—the supposed primitives who represented a roadblock on Brazil’s journey to modernity. Rather than pity or disgust, da Cunha has admiration for these people, for their resilience, ingenuity, and moral constancy, inherited qualities that allowed them to survive centuries of hardship and surged to the fore during the War of Canudos. The book wasn’t intended as a hagiography of the fallen; it frequently refers to the federal troops as heroes while characterizing the Counselor as a crazed demagogue, whose followers were “the objectivization of insanity.” Yet he cannot dismiss the sertanejos as refuse; they are not the vestigial mark of a primitive bygone era but the backbone of the nation, the biological and spiritual core of modern Brazil.

The book was an instant success, and its influence on national culture only increased as the years passed. In the words of one reviewer, Os Sertões “ordained that one discussed Brazil by discussing Canudos. And one discussed Canudos by discussing Os Sertões.” Today, when most foreigners think of Brazil, it’s the country’s wild heterogeneity that comes to mind, the teeming favelas juxtaposed with the dense jungle wilderness, or the raucous fusion of native and transplanted traditions that embodies Carnival. Da Cunha didn’t invent any of those things, of course. But Os Sertões did trigger a shift in the way Brazilians thought about their homeland, encouraging those with money, power, and influence to accept it for the South American place it is, rather than the European outpost so many of them longed it to be.

Da Cunha’s book elevated him, at the age of thirty-six, to the most rarefied plane of celebrity. He was spoken of as a peer of Machado de Assis, the absurdly prolific writer still widely regarded as the godfather of Brazilian letters. He should’ve gone on to write a dozen or more books, bequeathing a canon of stylish, intellectually nimble ruminations on the nature of the Brazilian identity, past, present, and future. For a time, it looked as though he would do just that. After Canudos, he headed for Amazonia, perhaps the one part of Brazil more impenetrable and terrifying to the city dwellers than the backlands.

He was tasked with mapping and documenting the region as part of the government’s effort to settle in Brazil’s favor a fraught border dispute with Peru. It was an epic mission of the greatest national importance, which ultimately defined the physical boundaries of modern Brazil—but it very nearly killed da Cunha. The ravages of the climate and the wildlife, hunger, thirst, shipwrecks, and ill health brought him to the brink more than once. The experience only made him appreciate Brazil’s native peoples even more. As Susanna Hecht reflects, da Cunha experienced an epiphany in Amazonia just as he had in Bahia, coming to see “Amazonia’s true conquerors in the modest, impoverished, and beaten-down sertanejos” whose travails had laid the ground for later explorers from Europe, and his own generation of revolutionaries. Instead of creating divisions among the population, da Cunha had found a way to place all of Brazil’s peoples in the same story of a single, united nation.


Da Cunha’s explorations of the interior transformed Brazil. But he left important pieces of himself in those distant landscapes that he never retrieved. The exertions of his years in Amazonia, perhaps combined with the lingering trauma of the things he’d witnessed in Canudos, hastened emotional turmoil. He grew anxious, dyspeptic, and increasingly withdrawn, prone to wild mood swings. When he discovered his wife, Ana, was having an affair with a dashing teenage soldier named Dilermando, it proved too much. Feeling rejected, betrayed, and publicly humiliated by Ana, who made little effort to spare his feelings, da Cunha lurched between explosive anger and brooding self-pity. Once, after a blazing row between the two of them, he followed Ana onto a bus, where he sat several seats behind her, shouting abuse at the top of his voice.

On the morning of August 15, 1909, Da Cunha rose to find Ana absent. In fact, she hadn’t been at home since the previous afternoon. He had a hunch where she would be. Bursting into Dilermando’s home he waved his pistol in the air, screaming, I’ve come to kill or be killed! A frenzied shoot-out followed in which Dilermando was hit three times. But da Cunha’s gun was a puny weapon, and Dilermando happened to be among the sharpest marksmen in Brazil; he managed to land two fatal shots deep into Da Cunha’s chest.

As he lay dying, those around him reportedly asked, What insanity is this, Dr. Euclides? When the brain was removed and examined during the autopsy—just as the Counselor’s had been twenty-two years earlier—several lesions were discovered, almost certainly from the legacy of his childhood illnesses and the malaria he contracted in Amazonia. These, the pathologist speculated, were the cause of not only the kamikaze revenge mission that killed him, but the years of peculiar behavior that had rendered this sage, contemplative man unrecognizable. Several years later, da Cunha’s eldest son attempted to murder Dilermando, now his stepfather, as a means of avenging da Cunha’s death. But, the boy was no more lethal a shot than his old man; Dilermando completed a morbid collection by killing Euclides Jr. in the exact same fashion as he had Euclides Sr.

Da Cunha’s legacy to the nation was unquestionably happier than that which he bequeathed his family. When the celebrations of 1922 got underway in São Paulo, the poet Ronald de Carvalho had a simple message that could have been written by da Cunha himself, and certainly wouldn’t have been possible without his influence. “Let us forget the marble of the Acropolis and the towers of the Gothic cathedrals,” urged de Carvalho. “We are sons of the hills and the forests. Stop thinking of Europe. Think of America.”


Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.