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Rebellion in the Backlands

Rebellion in the Backlands

by Euclides da Cunha, Samuel Putnam
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Euclides da Cunha's classic account of the brutal campaigns against religious mystic Antonio Conselheiro has been called the Bible of Brazilian nationality.

"Euclides da Cunha went on the campaigns [against Conselheiro] as a journalist and what he returned with and published in 1902 is still unsurpassed in Latin American literature. Cunha is a talent as grand, spacious, entangled with knowledge, curiosity, and bafflement as the country itself. . . . On every page there is a heart of idea, speculation, dramatic observation that tells of a creative mission undertaken, the identity of the nation, and also the creation of a pure and eloquent prose style."—Elizabeth Hardwick, Bartleby in Manhattan

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226124445
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/28/1957
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 562
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 1.90(d)

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Rebellion in the Backlands

(Os Sertões)

By Euclides da Cunha, Samuel Putnam

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1944 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12444-5





THE central plateau of Brazil descends, along the southern coast, in unbroken slopes, high and steep, overlooking the sea; it takes the form of hilly uplands level with the peaks of the coastal mountain ranges that extend from the Rio Grande to Minas. To the north, however, it gradually diminishes in altitude, dropping eastward to the shore in a series of natural terraces which deprive it of its primitive magnitude, throwing it back for a considerable distance in the direction of the interior.

Accordingly, one who traverses it to the north is aware of notable changes in landscape relief: first of all, the continuous, dominant row of mountains which form a prominently jutting girdle above the projecting shore line; then, on the segment of seashore between Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo, a stretch of rocky coast made up of disjointed mountain ranges, studded with peaks and corroded by mountain streams, indented with bays and broken up into islands and naked reefs, mute evidence as it were of the age-old conflict which here has been waged between the sea and the earth; after which, once the fifteenth parallel has been passed, comes an attenuation of all these characteristics—rounded ridges and tempered acclivities, with hills whose slopes form a blur on the far horizon; until, as one comes out on the coast of Baía, his gaze at last is freed from the ramparts of mountains which up to now have repelled and hemmed it in and may wander at will to the west, plunging into the heart of the broad-sweeping land that slowly emerges in a distant roll of highland plains.

This geographical fades sums up the morphogeny of the great continental mass and may be established by a closer analysis made along any short meridian following the basin of the São Francisco.

It is, in fact, evident that what we have here is three different geological formations, of ages hard to determine, one supplanting another or the three intermingling in discordant stratifications, the predominance of one or two or the combination of all three going to form the variable features of the earth's physiognomy. First, there are the powerful gneiss-granite masses which, starting on the extreme south, curve around in a huge amphitheater, rearing those admirable landscapes which so enchant and at the same time prove such an illusion to the unaccustomed gaze of strangers. Beginning at a point where they overlook the sea, they proceed in successive chains, without lateral spurs, to the edge of the São Paulo littoral, constituting a broadened wall to support the sedimentary formations of the interior. The land here lords it over the ocean, dominating it from the top of the cliffs; and to climb these heights is like coming out to the edge of a majestic dais: one is ready to approve all the exaggerated descriptions—the Gongorism of a Rocha Pita, the inspired extravagances of a Buckle—which would make of this land a privileged region of the earth, one where Nature has fitted out her most prodigious workshop. And, indeed, from the threefold point of view—astronomic, topographic, and geologic—it is hard to imagine any so propitious to life as this.

When the mountains have been crossed, along the gleaming line of the tropic, there may be seen stretching away to the northwest extensive plains whose warp, consisting of horizontal layers of clayey sandstone, intercalated with juttings of limestone, or dikes of basic eruptive rocks, at once explains this unparalleled exuberance and these vast level-lying areas. The earth here exercises an irresistible attraction for man, hurling him into the very current of those rivers which, from the Iguassú to the Tietê, forming a most original hydrographic network, flow down from the coast through the interior, as if they had taken their rise in the sea, to carve a channel for their eternal energies in the depths of the opulent forest. They readily break through these strata in uniform beds, without depressed thalwegs, and give to the general lay of the land up to the far side of Paraná the form of broad, undulating, immeasurably large plains.

Meanwhile, to the east, Nature takes on a different aspect. Here, it is harshly stereographed in the rigid folds of gneiss formations; and the slope of the plateaus drops in the terrace of Mantiqueira, where the Paraíba flows, or breaks up into spurs which, after skirting the heights centering about Itatiaia, go on to carry the Alpine landscapes of the shoreland all the way to the heart of Minas. Upon entering this latter state, however, despite the tumultuous appearance of the mountain lands, one is aware of a general slow descent to the north. As on the high plains of São Paulo and Paraná, all the tributaries disclose this imperceptible slope by the tortuous character of their river beds, revealing the effort made to overcome the permanent antagonism of the mountains. The Rio Grande by the sheer force of its current breaks through the Canastra Range, and, along the meridian line, the deep erosion valleys of the Rio das Velhas and the São Francisco may be seen opening up. At the same time, beyond the elevations which run from Barbacena to Ouro Preto, the primitive formations disappear, even in the major eminences, and are replaced by a complex series of rock-crystal formations with fertile veins running through them, in this the legendary land of gold.

The structural change gives rise to landscape pictures that are more imposing than those of the seaboard. The nature of the rocks, as revealed along the edges of the quartzite hills or in the heaped folds of quartz overrunning the summits, exhibits all the characteristics to be met with, from the mountain mass that extends from Ouro Branco to Sabara, to the diamond zone which stretches away to the northeast, in rolling hills that rise to the level of the peaks of the Espinhaço Range; and this latter, notwithstanding the suggestive term employed by Eschwege, hardly stands out among those tablelands which go to determine the dominant character of the landscape. It is from here that all those bubbling streams, from the Jequetinhonha to the Doce, descend to the east, falling in cascades or leaping over a succession of "crossings"—streams that go to water the lower-lying terraces of the plateau along the base of the Aymorés Range. To the west, those waters destined for the catch basin of the São Francisco turn stagnant; and in this latter valley, after one has passed the interesting limestone formations of the Rio das Velhas, sprinkled with lakes and undermined with subterranean brooks and rivulets (where the caverns of the prehistoric man of Lund are to be found), one becomes aware of other marked transitions in the superficial contexture of the soil.

As a matter of fact, those former layers which we found superimposed on the granite rocks now fall away in turn, being overlaid with other, more recent ones, composed of dense strata of sandstone. A fresh geological horizon appears, with novel and interesting features. Insufficiently studied up to now, the truth is, it is a more than usually significant one, particularly with regard to the distribution of the mountain chains. The ranges that are most prominent in the south disappear, being deeply buried under here by thick strata of later formation. The land, however, remains elevated, stretching out in broad-sweeping plains or rising in what seem to be mountains, with steep, barren sides, whose backs, nonetheless, extend in flat surfaces on a level with a horizon that is but faintly outlined by the tops of the distant saddlebacks which prolong the coast line. The tendency to a general flattening-out is thus verified. For in this coincidence of interior highlands with depressive Archaean formations, the mountainous region of Minas is seen to be a direct continuation of the extensive zone of northern plateaus.

The Grão Mogul Range, reaching out to the borders of Baía, is the first specimen of those magnificent cordillera-like uplands which have given careless geographers so much trouble; and the neighboring ranges, from O Cabral, the nearest one, to that of Mata da Corda, which stretches away toward Goiaz, are formed in the identical manner. The erosion furrows that cut them offer significant geological cross-sections. In a vertical plane proceeding upward from the base are to be viewed the same rocks which we found appearing in a line protracted along the surface: at the bottom, granite spurs tumbled into the bottom of the valleys in the form of scattered hillocks; halfway up the slopes, at an incline, the more recent folds of schist; and, at the top, overhanging these or flanking them in sharply dipping valleys, the dominant beds of sandstone, affording an admirable plastic medium for the most capricious designs of the meteorological agents. With no distinguishing row of summits, the major highlands are no more than extensive elevated plains, which end of a sudden in abrupt slopes, exhibiting the striking sculptural effects of torrential downpours on a permeable and easily dissected ground. Falling here for centuries, the mighty rains, flowing off at first to the sides in divergent lines of drainage, have little by little hollowed out these channels, carving for themselves beds which became canyons and steep-sided valleys, until the elevated plains came to be bordered with cliffs and precipices. And, depending upon the resistance of the materials in which the elements had to work, the results were various: here, they have strongly outlined upon the surface areas the last fragments of buried rock, disclosing them in the form of ridges which in height are scarcely reminiscent of the "Brazilian Himalayas" of the long ago, now crumbled in a constant ages-old disintegration; farther on, they have capriciously formed the incorrect lines of colossal menhirs or have taken the shape of enormous circles, which, in the arrangement of their great blocks piled one upon another, call to mind the dismantled walls of cyclopic coliseums, lying in ruins; or, again, the tops of the cliffs scattered here and there, which obliquely overhang the plains, remind one of irregular archways, the remains of the monstrous vault of the ancient cordillera, now fallen.

But these cliffs entirely disappear at various points. There is now to be seen a vast extent of plains. Climbing to them by the bordering steep slopes which give them the precise appearance of suspended "tablelands," one finds, some hundreds of feet above, extensive areas which, rounded to the view, extend for a seemingly indefinite distance, like seas. This is the exceedingly beautiful region of the Campos Gerais, an expanse of undulating hills—an enormous stage where the rude company of vaqueiros, or cowboys, holds forth.

Let us cross this stage. Further along, from Monte Alto on, these natural formations break up; in a direction due north the sandstone continues to the sandy plateau of Assuaruá, until it reaches the limestone formations which give life to the landscapes along the edge of the great river, extending to the line of hills broken by fissures which stand out so effectively in the fantastic outlines of Bom Jesus de Lapa; while to the northeast, owing to the deep-going denudation of the slopes (for the Serra Geral continues to serve as a rampart against the trade winds, condensing them in diluvial showers), the ancient formations come to the surface and are once more visible. The mountains are disinterred.

The diamond region now appears, in Baia, a region wholly reminiscent of that of Minas, a reproduction, one might say, or, better, a prolongation, of the latter; for there is to be found here the same mineral formation, finally breaking through the sandstone beds, and rearing with the same disturbed Alpine contours along the slopes which spread out from the Tromba, or which, to the north, rise in the rock-crystal formations of the Huronian epoch to be found in the parallel Sincorá chains.

From this point onward, however, the axis of the Serra Geral becomes fragmentary and ill defined. It breaks up. The cordillera now bristles with counterforts and depressions, from which, to the east, the sources of the Paraguassú leap forth, to tumble, foaming, over precipitous waterfalls; and an irregular line of low hills, many in number, forms a confused crisscross over the entire breadth of the Campos. The topography of the region undergoes a transformation, reflective of the furious clash of the elements which has raged here for thousands of years, among these tumbled mountains; and the slope of the plateaus, until now a gradual one, begins to show considerable unevenness. This is revealed by the windings and twistings of the São Francisco to the east, indicative of the general change in landscape relief that is taking place. The region is here more depressed and rugged in appearance. Along the lower terraces there is a jumble of hills scattered at random. A final spur of the principal range, that of Itiuba, brings together a few indeterminate offshoots, fusing the northern expansions of Furna, Cocaes, and Sincorá. The land rises for a bit, then falls away in all directions, producing, on the north, the corredeira which extends for two hundred and eighty miles to the backwaters of the Sobradinho; to the south, in scattered segments, this terrain extends beyond Monte Santo; and, to the east, it passes beneath the uplands of Geremoabo, to come out in the prodigious Paulo Affonso Falls.

The observer who has followed such an itinerary, leaving behind him a region where the broad sweep of the Campos forms a most beautiful contrast with the mountain summits, upon reaching this point stops short in surprise.


He now finds himself upon a terrace of the continental range to the north. On the one side, the São Francisco River forms a semicircle about it, embracing two quadrants; and, on the other side, likewise curving to the southeast, in a normal line to the original direction, is the sinuous course of the Itapicurú-assú. Following a median running almost parallel between these two streams, with the same significant drop to the coast, may be seen the outline of another river, the Vasa-Barris, the "Irapiran-ga" of the Tapuias, of which the initial Geremoabo segment is a cartographer's fantasy. The fact of the matter is, the stupendous drop with which the eroded slopes of the plateau fall to the sea, or to the Paulo Affonso backwater, afford no point of equilibrium for a normal hydrographic network; and the torrential rains, together with the chaotic drainage system, accordingly give to this corner of Baía an exceptionally wild appearance.


As one approaches it, one begins to understand why it is that, until now, the data or exact details concerning this vast tract of territory, which is almost equal to the land of Holland in extent (9°11'-10°20' of latitude and 4°-3° of longitude), have been so very scarce. Our best maps, conveying but scant information, show here an expressive blank, a hiatus, labeled Terra Ignota, a mere scrawl indicating a problematic river or an idealized mountain range.

The truth is, crossing the Itapicurú on the southern side, the most advanced bands of settlers came to a halt in small hamlets—Massacará, Cumbe, or Bom Conselho—in comparison with which the ruins of Monte Santo take on the aspects of a city. Crossing the Itiúba Range to the southwest and following the course of tiny streams, they spread out among the settlements on the banks or among the rare cattle ranches, being bound, all of them, for an obscure wilderness outpost—Uauá. To the north and east they stopped on the banks of the São Francisco, between Capim Grosso and Santo Antonio da Gloria.

In this latter direction they did not make their way beyond the centuries-old town of Geremoabo, the extreme point of penetration in these regions, which were always avoided by that wave of humanity which swept up from the Baian coast land in search of the interior. For one reason or another, the stay here of these pioneers was a short one, and they speedily departed without leaving any trace. None settled here. None could settle here. This strange region, at a distance of less than a hundred and sixty-five miles or so from the ancient metropolis, was destined to be absolutely forgotten throughout the four hundred years of our history. For, while the roving bands of the south would pause on the edge of it, and, after squinting up the sides of the Itiúba, would hasten on by way of Pernambuco and Piauí to Maranhão, those from the east, repelled by the insurmountable barrier of Paulo Affonso, would go on to seek in the Paraguassú and the rivers that lie to the south of it a more practicable line of access. Meanwhile, the region in between remained inaccessible and unknown. Even those who went in the latter direction, keeping to the shorter route, could not but be forcibly struck by the strange aspect of the land and its unexpected changes of appearance.


Excerpted from Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha, Samuel Putnam. Copyright © 1944 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preliminary Note, by the Author
Part I. The Backlands
I. The Land
II. Man
Part II. The Rebellion
III. The Conflict Begins
IV. The Crossing of Mount Cambaio
V. The Moreira Cesar Expedition
VI. The Fourth Expedition
VII. The Savaget Column
VIII. The Assault
IX. New Phase of the Struggle
X. Last Days
Principal Events of the Canudos Campaign
Author's Notes to the Third Edition
Bibliography of the Works of Euclides da Cunha
Acknowledgments and Editorial Note
List of Botanical and Zoological Terms
List of Terms in Regional Use
Index of Names
Index of Subjects

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Rebellion in the Backlands 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Vanlh More than 1 year ago
This book is a classic book of history and literature. For example, the only other anglo I met who read this book, read it in a world literature course. When I read it in a Brazilian history course, I was taught it was considered a foundational piece of Brazilian literature, in the same way Hawthorne is considered a foundational writer of American literature. This is amazing considering that the author was not a writer but a scientist. In any event, the translation from Portuguese to English is masterful and the book (starting at about page 75) is a masterpiece. I just wish I could read Portuguese so I could read the original.