Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, or Antônio the Councellor, was the leader of a religious movement that brought thousands of people from the semi-arid region of northeast Brazil to the town of Canudos, in northeast Bahia, on the banks of the Vasa-Barris river, where they fought against Federal government troops.
He was born on 13 March 1830 in Vila do Campo Maior de Quixeramobim in the Ceará province. His father, Vicente Mendes Maciel, traded in foodstuffs and liked to dabble in the field of civil construction. His mother, Maria Joaquina do Nascimento, died when Antônio was six years old.
Antônio had a childhood that was marred by the mistreatment of his stepmother, by the alcoholic rages of his father, by the murders of relatives in his family’s (Maciel) fight against the Araújo family and by mystic influences common to the remote semi-arid region.
Mr. Vicente, Antônio’s father, was proud of his son, and although studying, Antônio went to help his father behind the counter of his warehouse. Having already learnt to read and write, Antônio began to study with the teacher Manuel Antônio Ferreira Nobre, where he learned Latin, Portuguese and French.
He enjoyed reading “Lunário Perpétuo” (Perputual Moon), “Carlos Magno” (Charlemagne) and other books with mystic narratives that were popular in the region at the time. He showed a tremendous understanding of religion, attended church and was friends with the priest. He had a caring manner with which he treated children and the elderly, winning the admiration of the people of Quixeramobim and its surrounding area.
Shaken by the losses suffered in the civil construction field, Antônio’s father grew more and more unbalanced and turned to alcohol. Antônio tried to console him through passages from the Bible. Vicente died in 1855, leaving his widow, three unmarried daughters and Antônio, who became head of the family, while his stepmother was beginning to show signs of madness.
Pressured by the creditors of his father, and without any great aptitude for the business of foodstuffs, Antônio, fearing failure, looked to the Bible for consolation. After his sisters had married, Antônio began to think about starting his own family.
It was then he met, coming from Sobral accompanied by her mother, the beautiful and young Brasiliana Laurentina de Lima, his 15-year-old cousin, with whom he fell in love and married soon after the death of his stepmother, who did not condone the relationship.
While in dire financial crisis, Antônio’s first son was born. He decided to liquidate the foodstuffs business, pawn off its assets and set off, along with his wife, son and mother-in-law, for the interior of the Province.
He worked as a salesman in Sobral, a writer in Campo Grande, where his second child was born, a solicitor (where he did the work of a lawyer without having graduated) in Ipu, and a teacher in Crato. Left by his wife, he gave up his life to become a fanatic preacher, roaming the semi-arid areas of Ceará, Pernambuco, Sergipe and Bahia, where he came to be known as a miracle-worker.
When he appeared in Bahia in 1874, he was already being followed by his first disciples. In Vila de Itapicuru-de-Cima he was arrested under suspicion of homicide and sent back to Ceará. Due to the accusation’s lack of premise, the charges were dropped and he returned to Bahia.
He joined a campaign for spiritual reform and renewal in the Church. He spent the years from 1877 to 1887 wandering the semi-arid region, stopping here and there, endeavouring to be among his Blessed and building and restoring chapels, churches and cemeteries. His disciples followed all the deeds of Antônio the Counsellor, and blindly obeyed him.
At that time, however, the Archbishop of Bahia issued an order to all parishes which forbade church members to attend the preachings of Antônio the Counsellor. And, in 1886, the Sheriff of Itapicuru sent to the chief of police in Bahia a letter which mentioned the disagreement between Antônio the Counsellor’s group and the Vicar of Inhambupe, but neither the Archbishop’s proclamation nor that of the Sheriff were effective.
In 1887, the Archbishop, together with the provincial president, accused the Counsellor of preaching subversive doctrines. In response, the president tried to have the Counsellor committed to a mental hospital in Rio de Janeiro, but was unable to due to lack of places available.
The first “holy city” was then founded, the town of Bom Jesus – nowadays Crisópolis – where the chapel built by Antônio the Counsellor still stands. In 1893, when the central government authorised municipalities to issue taxes in the interior, Antônio the Counsellor decided to preach against this decision and ordered that the document with the decision be torn up and burned.
After this, his group of about two hundred disciples left the town but were followed by a police force of thirty soldiers who caught up to them in Massete. The Counsellor’s group was, however, able to defeat the police.
The escape continued and new disciples joined the fugitives. Finally they settled on an abandoned cattle farm on the banks of the Vasa-Barris river, where they founded a community whose principles were communal ownership of the lands and division of assets. The legend of Antônio the Counsellor was spread throughout the entire country. The population of the settlement grew into the thousands, revitalising the region, and the people raised livestock and planted crops for their own consumption.
However, the government continued the pursuit, sending troops to control the rebels. Despite cannons and guns, four expeditions were required to massacre the people. The first military attack occurred in October 1896, at the behest of the Bahia government. The second expedition took place in January 1897, commanded by Major Febrônio de Brito. Following this was an expedition commanded by Colonel Antônio Moreira. The fourth and largest expedition was commanded by General Arthur de Andrade Guimarães. It had 4,000 soldiers. Throughout the course of the battle, the Minister of War himself, War-Marshal Carlos Machado Bittencourt, went to the semi-arid region of Bahia and set up the operations base in Monte Santo, 15 leagues (equivalent to 90,000 metres) from the front line. Euclides da Cunha followed the expedition as a correspondent for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo.
The Canudos rebellion was finally quashed. On 5 October 1897, the last defenders were killed. Canudos never surrendered, resisting until the end. The Counsellor was killed, decapitated and his head was sent for scientific study. On 6 October, the town, which had been completely destroyed and burned, had 5,200 dwellings.
These events had national repercussions. It was called the “War of Canudos” or the “Canudos Campaign” in 1896-97. Euclides da Cunha wrote about the “Canudos Rebellion” in his literary masterpiece: Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands).
Recife, 24 September 2006.
Updated on 9 September 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.
Updated on 27 march 2018.
ANTONIO Conselheiro [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <https://www.grupoescolar.com/a/b/31B23.jpg>. Acesso em: 12 mar. 2018.
DANTAS, Paulo. Quem foi Antônio Conselheiro? Roteiro histórico e biográfico. 2. ed São Paulo: Arquimedes, 1966.
ENCICLOPEDIA Mirador Internacional. São Paulo: Enciclopédia Britânica do Brasil, 1995.
HOUAISS, Antônio. Pequeno Dicionário Enciclopédico Koogan Larousse. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Larousse do Brasil, 1978.
MACÊDO, Nertan. Antônio Conselheiro: a morte e vida do beato de Canudos. Rio de Janeiro: Gráfica Record Ed., 1969.
how to quote this text
Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. Antonio Conselheiro. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.