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Coming from a poor family of farmers, Emidio Dantas Barreto was born in 1850 in Bom Conselho, Pernambuco. As a matter of necessity, while still a boy and together with a brother, he sold jewellery for a living in the semi-arid region of Northeast Brazil.
At the age of fifteen, Dantas joined the Brazilian Army and shortly afterwards went to the war in Paraguay. In 1869 at only 19 years old, having already seen combat, he was promoted to lieutenant.
After crossing the plains of Rio Grande do Sul and the fields of Itororó, Dantas returned to regular service, then concluded courses in artillery, cavalry and infantry. In this sense, he undertook a distinguished military career. In 1879, as a sub-lieutenant, he was promoted to lieutenant; in 1882, he became captain through his studies; in 1890, a major on merit; to lieutenant-colonel in 1894 on merit; in 1897, a colonel for bravery; in 1906, brigadier general; and in 1908, division general.
The soldier also participated in the Armada Revolt, having been an active combatant in the Canudos War, in the latter as commander of the 25th Infantry Battalion and later as commander of the third brigade. Dantas afterwards became an author of books on war.
To combat Antônio Conselheiro and his followers, the experienced Dantas ordered his soldiers to search the region house by house. This was followed by rearguard of a large security cordon, with bayonets and heavy fire, devastating 300 of the 6,500 residences of the camp, trampling on women and children’s bodies for about 150m, putting the national flag in the rubble of the remaining towers.
On this event, later, he wrote:
The destruction of the great village was begun, through fire and demolition. It was necessary not to leave a wall in the middle, a beam even, intact [...]. Three days later there was nothing but the wreckage of this immense population that had disappeared in the name of Brazil’s order, civilisation, and morality.
As commander, he remained in the area from the beginning to the end of the Canudos war, participating in the last local combat on 1 October 1897. This represented a war that led 12,000 men to the Semi-arid region, among whom were many veterans of the Paraguayan War, the Armada Revolt and the Federalist Revolution. As expected, in addition to the combatants having decimated 5,000 followers of Antônio Conselheiro, they even completely eliminated the second-largest city in Bahia, after its capital.
It should be noted that on 6 October 1897, the body of Antônio Conselheiro was unearthed from the altar of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, thirteen days after his burial, with Major Miranda Curio being left to decapitate the decomposing body of the devout. His head, after being stored inside an urn with quicklime, was sent to Salvador to be studied by doctors Juliano Moreira and Nina Rodrigues. In December 1897, the latter published the report on the material received and reported that there were no anomaly or degeneracy found, and classified the dead as an individual who had a normal skull.
Four decades after this episode, a process of decapitation equivalent to that of the Conselheiro was undertaken with Lampião, Maria Bonita, and other members of Virgulino Ferreira da Silva’s band, with their heads being dipped in formaldehyde and taken, after a long pilgrimage, to the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador – a museum named after the late famous doctor.
On 15 November 1910, when Hermes da Fonseca assumed the Presidency of the Republic, the military supported Dantas Barreto – then the Minister of War – to compete politically with Rosa e Silva.
When the soldier decided to run for Governor of Pernambuco in 1911, one of the most agitated periods of state politics arose. Rosa e Silva was supported by the political forces and Dantas Barreto by the Army troops – the 49th Battalion of Hunters – under the command of General Carlos Pinto. The general was given the task of facing the street fighting caused between “rosistas” [Rosa e Silva supporters] and “dantistas” [Dantas supporters].
On 18 October 1911, in front of a theatre (the Helvetica) that existed on Rua Imperatriz, there was a bloody confrontation between the popular and the army cavalry, and Captain José de Lemos, commander of the troop, died. This incident allowed the Chief of Police to suspend all subsequent rallies and marches.
After the elections, the Diary of Pernambuco announced Rosa and Silva as the winner, with 21,613 votes, with Dantas having 19,585 votes. But supporters of the military were not satisfied with the result of the ballot box, and Recife experienced a series of violent incidents, converging on the tram stops, the closure of cinemas and businesses, and the great fear of the population in being on the streets.
On 12 November, a shootout occurred on the streets of Aurora, Flores, Barão da Vitória and Imperador, and in Praça da Indepêndencia. One of the main targets of this confrontation was the writers at the Diário de Pernambuco newspaper, a company owned by Rosa e Silva.
Subsequently, there was an even more serious incident: with the support of army troops, popular groups attacked the police barracks. The Government Palace was also attacked and the shots from Cais do Apolo and Fort Brum almost killed Estácio Coimbra, who was at that time the Governor of Pernambuco and a person of total confidence for Rosa e Silva. One of the shots had even hit Estacio’s study and lodged into a wall a foot from his head.
The Governor began to work from the Police Headquarters after the incident.
After 24 November, police returned to searching passers-by in the streets, the Great Western trains were stopped (with requests to guarantee the Garrisons at the Brum, Cinco Pontas and Central stations), the Faculties of Law and Engineering suspended their tests, and there was a shootout at the Pernambuco Gymnasium. In fact, the city was again going through a time of great anguish.
From Rio de Janeiro at that time, Jose Mariano, who was already ill, sent the following telegram that the newspaper A Província came to divulge:
Physically unable to find myself on the side of the Pernambuco people on the day of the re-conquest of their freedom, I hope that they will shake the ignominious rule of the oligarchy that demeans us, and it will give me consolation, if my political career is finished, to leave the land that I have loved so much free. The People will not need me to stimulate them, because they are aware of their responsibility in the current historical moment of our demands.
Local incidents became international news, even in Lisbon newspapers – such as O Século and A Ilustração Portuguesa – and Paris – Le Matin. Only when Estácio Coimbra requested federal intervention in Recife did the situation normalise, and Congress was then called to recognise the elected candidate.
This time, however, General Dantas Barreto was appointed as the legitimate Governor of the State, having defeated Rosa and Silva by a difference of 1,164 votes. This meant the end of the predominance of Rosism, a strong oligarchy that had remained in power from 1896 to 1911, and which, through the alliances, had dominated the police, the Treasury, and the tax authorities. Dantas was received in an apotheosis by the population that sang the following coco music song:
The stick rolled, fell.
Rosa withered, Dantas rose.
As governor of Pernambuco, one of his numerous actions was to decree the mobilisation of the police in order to contain the immense damage caused by the bandits who were engaged in cangaço. In this sense, he dispatched countless paramilitary forces to the interior with the intention of fighting Antonio Silvino and his band.
Besides a vertiginous military and political career, Dantas Barreto also wrote diverse scientific works, military studies and historical novels. He was also the first author to write on Canudos, besides leaving the most information about the military campaigns.
His works include A condessa Hermínia [The Countess Hermínia] (1883), Margarida nobre [Noble Marguerite] (1886), Última expedição a Canudos [Last Expedition to Canudos] (1898), Impressões militares [Military Impressions] (1909), Destruição de Canudos [Destruction of Canudos] (1912) and Acidentes da guerra [Accidents of War] (1914).
Because of his valuable literary production, the writer Dantas Barreto was elected as a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1911, occupying the chair that belonged to Joaquim Nabuco.
General Emidio Dantas Barreto died on 1 October 1931. In his honour, the Municipality gave the name of the military man and politician from Pernambuco to one of the main avenues in the centre of Recife. This huge avenue extends from Praça da República to Praça Sérgio Loreto (the former Muniz nursery), in the Afogados neighbourhood.
Approximately in the middle of the great artery, in front of the Carmo Basilica, is located the bust of the general that governed the State of Pernambuco and the plaques on the inauguration of the avenue.
Recife, 9 December 2003.
(Updated on 20 November 2007).
Translated by Peter Leamy, September 2016.
MELLO, Frederico Pernambucano de. Que foi a guerra total de Canudos? Recife; Zurich: Stahli, 1997.
PORTO, Costa. Os tempos da República Velha. Recife: Fundarpe, 1986.
RIBEIRO, José Adalberto. Agamenon Magalhães: uma estrela na testa e um mandacaru no coração. Recife: Assembléia Legislativa do Estado de Pernambuco, 2001.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Dantas Barreto. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.