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By Euclides da Cunha
Rebellion in the Backlands is set in the Northeastern backlands of Brazil. It is basically, a historical narration of a period of time (1896 and 1897) where the government of the Republic of Brazil decided to wage war against a religious group of people of about 5000. This group of people, lead by a charismatic religious leader named Antonio Conselheiro, did not accept the Brazilian government as their legitimate government and was therefore deemed a threat to the rest of the country. Some of the members of this rebellion were in fact very aggressive and uncontrollable. Eventually the Brazilian government led an attack on these people launching a battle that lasted almost a year and took the lives of hundreds of Brazilian army soldiers, and thousands of native Brazilian rebels. The poor, native people of the backlands proved impressive opposition and in fact defeated every single force sent against them and even killed the commander of the first expedition. Although, in the end the governments military did prevail over the rural people, and they were all eventually killed. Still, the interesting thing about his book is that it seems to demonstrate that there is more to the story than just a battle lost.
When I began this assignment, I set out to read each and every page of this book. Unfortunately, it is not an easy book to read and due to time limitations as well as a curiosity to “peek ahead” to further chapters, I was subsequently constrained to skim the entire book. From what I did gather this is a very well written book, incredibly detailed, by someone who is clearly well educated in Latin American History as well as military tactics and it seems as though, geology and geography as well. The amount of imagery and detail that was put into the chapter on land alone was enough to fill it’s own book. “…an unlooked-for picture awaits the traveler … all of which confers upon the landscape in a fuse in a distant and amazing blend of color.” The physical descriptions of the land were beautiful and vivid, but what really interested me was the chapter entitled “Man”.
Being a psychology major, this was by far my preferred chapter. Here Da Cunha really gets into the meat of the story he is telling about Brazilian history.
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He describes Brazilians as “…an abstract type in process of formation … as a result of a more than ordinarily complex intermingling of races.” Just a few of the peoples who’s culture he explores are: the Negro’s (Bantu or Kafir), with strong religious sentiment, the Portuguese (the first settlers), and legitimate pardo (a mixture of Chaffer, Portuguese and Tape Indian), the mulatto, the jaguncos, the influential Jesuits, the vaqueiro, and the sertanejo (the man of the backlands), as well as a barrage of smaller indigenous sects of peoples who among themselves had varying views of the world. He shows that these backlanders were a different race from the other Brazilians who really never knew anything about them. He touches on racial reformation, conflict and also explaines the importance of the land and how it seemd to virtually shape the people and their way of life. In addition he explains important and focal traditional rituals such as hunts, dances, song and even poetry.
On the other hand, there were some things in this book that were rather hard to identify with and fully understand. There is a certain hint of bias on the part of Da Cunha who seems to favor the militaristic actions taken by the Brazilian government, yet simultaneously showing sympathy and even a bit of admiration towards the native backlanders who display great loyalty to their ideals. Da Cunha both looks down on their illiteracy, superstition and backwardness while grudgingly praising their bravery, allegiance, and cleverness, and this makes the book that much more challenging for me. But the thing that really complicates this book for me is the fact that it’s filled with military terminology, which was quite confusing and uninteresting to an ordinary civilian. There are pages crammed with names of officers, dates, facts, precise battalions, casualties, supply lines, tactics and exact, detailed episodes, as though it were almost a historical textbook. Opening with a description of the topography and the early development of the land which, millions of years later would be the breeding ground of the great rebellion, he continues on with much of the book in this fashion.
All in all, this book raises many questions that could very well be relevant to our own society today. What is history? How is historical fact perceived? How much do the facts of history depend on cultural preconceptions? All significant ideas that come about from examining provocative and informative books such as this.