This essay synthesizes the accumulation of unpublished or dispersed revisionist research on the Canudos religious community since Euclides da Cunha’s classic Rebellion in the Backlands (1902). Although Robert Levine modestly calls it “reappraisal” rather than revisionism, little survives of da Cunha’s arguments. Antonio Conselheiro was neither a paranoiac nor much of a prophet, but rather a quasi-orthodox lay missionary who stressed “penitence, personal sin, and the imminence of holy judgment” until the siege of Canudos brought out a “mood of fiery prophecy” (pp. 193, 230). His followers were not an atavistic extreme of the nation but rather “a cross section of the sertanejo population” (p. 158). Droughts, unemployment, and a newly “intrusive” state motivated them to seek refuge at Canudos. Canudos was not a pathological encampment but rather “a viable community promising stability in exchange for rigid personal conformity, ... well integrated into the life of the region (pp. 94, 142). There was no rebellion but only fierce self-defense against the government’s attacks.

Levine argues that both the government’s attacks and da Cunha’s misunderstanding of the community derived from a visão do litoral, a coastal Brazilian viewpoint that at best dismissed people of the interior and at worst feared they would doom national progress. In this case, it mislabeled a conservative and retreatist millenarian community as a monarchist rebellion. The book nicely fleshes out the responses to Canudos by the Catholic church, neighboring political bosses, and the state legislature. It demonstrates that contemporary reports of Antonio Conselheiro’s sermons “mirrored observers’ prejudices” (p. 130) and that military personnel could report tile-roofed houses where in reality there were only thatched huts (pp. 154–55). It also concedes, however, that an inaccurate and misleading assessment of the situation by outside observers was only one factor in the chain of conspiracy and accident that started the massacre, and that da Cunha’s view was far too complex to correct by simply prescribing a new lens (p. 208).

Levine’s reappraisal of the Canudos disaster is informative. Without substantial new evidence directly from Canudos (other than from analysis of Conselheiro’s sermons), Levine relies on indirect evidence that places the episode in a regional context. Assuming that all precapitalist societies are analogous, Levine extrapolates from twentieth-century research on the Brazilian sertão and from social histories of similar rural groups to reconstruct a brutal society that left most backlanders “traumatized by deprivation” (p. 226). Their only glimpse of autonomy came in the give-and-take of market fairs; their main hope lay in religion. Backlanders’ decisions to migrate to Canudos were “a search for self-control,” best compared to their exodus, a generation later, toward southern cities (p. 211). They built Canudos as a holy city sharing the “aspiration to civic virtue” of progressive capitals. Under Antonio Conselheiro the fast-growing city was distastefully restrictive and penitential, but “who knows what quality of life might have evolved, had Canudos been permitted to survive ... ?” (pp. 202-5). Levine interprets Canudos as an “episode in a long millenial tradition of hope and expectation,” but also as a precursor to urban popular movements for dignity.

This essay will become the required reading-list antidote to Rebellion in the Backlands. It deserves broad attention in its own right for its autonomous analysis of Brazilian millenarianism.