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Sebastianism in Northeast Brazil

‘Sebastianism’ is a secular phenomenon, which is often seen as a cult or an element of popular beliefs.

Sebastianism in Northeast Brazil

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Last update: 20/03/2020

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

‘Sebastianism’ is a secular phenomenon, which is often seen as a cult or an element of popular beliefs. It began in the second half of the 16th century, arising from the belief in the return of Dom Sebastian, king of Portugal, who disappeared in the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir in África on 4 August 1578 while commanding the Portuguese troops. As nobody saw him fall or die, the legend spread that the ‘El-Rei’ would return. Fuelled by legends and myths, he survived in the Portuguese imagination until the 17th century.

Sebastianism has its roots in the religious concept of messianism, which is the belief in the coming or return of a divine emissary, the messiah; a redeemer with the ability to change the order of things and bring peace, justice and happiness. It is a movement that reflects an inconformity with the political status quo and a hope for salvation, though miraculous, through the resurrection of an illustrious deceased person.

It came to Brazil, mainly to the Northeast region, in the 19th century. Uniting religious fanaticism with socialist ideas, the movement was rediscovered in the northeast semi-arid region, taking on its own characteristics through symbols of the popular imagination.

Some foreign travellers attested to having met followers of sebastianism in Rio de Janeiro (1816) and Minas Gerais (1817), describing them as educated and courteous people with no apparent traces of cruelty.

In the Pernambuco semi-arid region, however, sebastianism represented a violent political-religious movement with fanatical leaders who took advantage of the goodwill of the population, especially the humble and the less-informed who had suffered greatly from isolation and the effects of drought.

Two tragic sebastianist movements occurred in Pernambuco: that of the Serra do Rodeador, in the municipality of Bonito in 1819-1820, and of Serra Formosa, in São José do Belmonte, from 1836 to 1838.

The first, known as A Tragédia do Rodeador (The Rodeador Tragedy), was lead by Silvestre José dos Santos, “Mestre Quiou”, who founded a ranch in a place called Sítio da Pedra, which was destroyed on 25 October 1820 by the Pernambuco Governor Luiz do Rego. Called the “massacre of Bonito”, the destruction of the ranch by the government forces left 91 dead and over a hundred injured. After the massacre, more than 200 women and 300 children were arrested and sent to Recife.

The second movement, A Tragédia da Pedra Bonita (The Pedra Bonita Tragedy), happened in a place called Pedra Bonita, located in the Formosa Range, in the municipality of São José do Belmonte, in the semi-arid region of Pernambuco. A group of fanatic sebastianists, lead by João Antônio dos Santos, founded a type of kingdom with its own laws and customs different from the rest of the country. Their leader was called ‘king’ and wore a crown made of vines. In his preachings he said that King Dom Sebastian had appeared to him and shown him a hidden treasure, and that the king was about to return and would transform all his followers into rich, young, beautiful and healthy people. The large number of uneducated people who followed the fanatics of Pedra Bonita worried the government, farmers and the Catholic Church. Father Francisco José Correia de Albuquerque was sent to try to make people return to their homes. The priest was able to convince João Antônio to stop preaching, but this caused his brother-in-law, João Ferreira, to take his place, and become the most fanatic and cruellest king of Pedra Bonita. He preached that Dom Sebastian would only return if Pedra Bonita were bathed in the blood of people and animals, commanding a huge massacre of innocent people in May 1838. Between 14 and 18 May, 87 people died. On 18 May, the Pedra Bonita ranch was destroyed by forces under the command of Major Manoel Pereira da Silva.

The political-religious movement was also very strong and had tragic results in the semi-arid region of Bahia, on the Canudos ranch commanded by Antônio Conselheiro, between 1893 and 1897, which culminated in the War of Canudos. Documents found at the ranch show that Conselheiro and his cohorts believed in the return of Dom Sebastian, or at least used it to obtain the support of their followers. In the case of Canudos, sebastianism preached the return of Dom Sebastian to re-establish the monarchy and defeat the Republic. In 1897, the Canudos ranch was destroyed by army troops.

The mystical-religious sense of sebastianism has also contributed to the appearance of folkloric manifestations in Brazil. There are records of legends about the return of Dom Sebastian, such as the Touro Encantado (Enchanted Bull ) and Rei Sebastião (King Sebastian).

Recife, 20 November 2006.
(Updated on 31 August 2009.)
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.

sources consulted

CARVALHO, Ernando Alves de. Pedra do Reino: a tragédia que virou festa. Recife: Ed. Do Autor, 2003.  155p.
OLIVEIRA, Simone Rosa de. São José do Belmonte, de causo a história, o mito lusitano no imaginário popular do sertão nordestino.  Revista Symposium, Recife, ano 9,n.2, p.60-70, jul./dez. 2005.
SEBASTIANISMO. Disponível em: <> Acesso em: 7 nov. 2006
O SEBASTIANISMO. Disponível em: <> Acesso em: 7 nov. 2006
VALENTE, Waldemar. Misticismo e região: aspectos do sebastianismo nordestino. 2.ed. rev. e aumentada.. Recife: ASA Pernambuco, 1986.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Sebastianism in Northeast Brazil. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.