The War of Canudos in the Flávio de Barros collection

Awarded the UNESCO Memory of the World Prize in 2009, this collection preserves the only photographic records of one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of Brazil

"Partial view of Canudos to the North" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

It was in the last century, in the interior of Bahia...

The War of Canudos took place between 1896 and 1897 and opposed military forces sent by the Union and State governments to the residents of the religious community of Belo Monte, located in Arraial de Canudos, in the hinterland of Bahia.

The religious community of Belo Monte

Founded by Blessed Antônio Conselheiro in 1893, it attracted thousands of people attracted by the promises of eternal salvation and earthly relief from drought and poverty. This photo shows a panorama of Belo Monte at the time of the war, when there were around 5,000 houses in the place.

"Antônio Conselheiro" by Ivan Wasth RodriguesMuseu da República

The Counselor

Blessed Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel was a famous preacher in the interior of Bahia and Sergipe. In his sermons, he criticized the republican regime for "anti-Christian" measures such as civil marriage, the separation of Church and State, and the secularization of cemeteries.

All-out war against Canudos

Belo Monte's rapid growth challenged the authority of the Church and local landlords. The criticism caused by the failure of the first three military expeditions against the camp led the federal government to mobilize a fourth offensive, bigger and better armed.

"Flavio de Barros Expeditionary Photographer" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

Flávio de Barros, our eyes on Canudos

In March 1897, the fourth expedition arrived in Bahia. To record it, the Army hired photographer Flávio de Barros, who owns a studio in Salvador. In this exhibition, we will see some of the 68 photos taken by him between August and October 1897.

"Vaza-Barris and Umburanas Rivers" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

Brazil from the coast did not know Brazil from the hinterland

The photos by Flávio de Barros register the harsh nature of the caatinga: dry rivers, arid soil, sparse and sparse vegetation. This environment and its inhabitants were almost unknown in Brazilian capitals, where there was more interest in European societies and cultures.

"Canet Division" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

In the sertão, the war was different

The sertanejos were experienced hunters and cowboys. They attacked quickly and accurately, bringing fear and confusion to enemies. On the other hand, military logistics were inefficient. There was a lack of food and equipment. Cannons were dragged by ox carts on uneven roads.

"Officers of the 29th Battalion", Flávio de Barros, 1897, From the collection of: Museu da República
"Sanitation Corps and a Wounded Jagunça", Flávio de Barros, 1897, From the collection of: Museu da República
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The fourth expedition sought to correct the logistical and strategic deficiencies of the previous ones. To erase the memory of those failures, Barros' photos showed organized camps and well-fed, uniformed and armed troops. The images would also offer a counterpoint to the denunciations of war correspondents about the cruelty in treating prisoners. Above, an injured counselor child is shown receiving medical attention.

"Prison of jagunços by cavalry", Flávio de Barros, 1897, From the collection of: Museu da República
Providência Hill, Arquivo da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, From the collection of: Museu do Amanhã
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In the center of the photo on the left, where soldiers stage a surrender, a thorny tree called favela (Cnidoscolus phyllacanthus) can be seen, abundant on an elevation of Canudos known as "Morro da Favela". Years later, in the center of Rio de Janeiro, the hill inhabited by soldiers and their families, who awaited payment for their participation in the war, was called "Morro da Favela". The term "favela" came to designate irregular housing occupations in large Brazilian cities.

"A Jagunço Arrested" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

The countryman and his armor

This photo shows a councilor prisoner wearing the tanned leather garment that protected the cowboys against the thorny vegetation of the caatinga. The fate of the man after the photo is unknown; it is known, however, that beheading was an end common to many prisoners.

"Attack and Fire of Canudos" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

Siege, famine and destruction

From July onwards, the siege of Canudos intensified. Despite the tenacious resistance, its residents began to suffer from a lack of water and food. The final offensive took place between October 1 and 5, when Canudos was set ablaze after an intense cannon bombardment.

"400 jagunços prisoners" - Surrender of Antônio Conselheiro's followers (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

White flag at the ruins of Canudos

On October 2, around 600 councilors, mostly women, the elderly and children, surrendered in exchange for a guarantee of life. Many had been without water or food for days, sick or injured. Despite assurances, the next day the valid men in the group had "disappeared."

"Corpses in the ruins of Canudos" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

Monuments of victory, documents of barbarism

On October 5, the last defenders of Canudos surrendered: four men, including an old man and a boy. Flávio de Barros entered the camp with the victorious soldiers and began photographing the burned ruins of houses and churches, as well as some human corpses.

"Portrait of Bom Jesus Antonio Conselheiro, after being exhumed" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

Counselor is dead, long live the Republic

On October 6, the grave of Antônio Conselheiro, who had been dead since September, was found. Barros photographed the exhumed body, whose head was cut off and sent for studies at the Faculty of Medicine of Bahia. The photo was used by the government as proof of the final victory over Canudos.

"St. Anthony's Church (Old)" (1897) by Flávio de BarrosMuseu da República

The last photos in the collection show aspects of the camp after the final conflict and surrender. Here, a group of soldiers poses in front of the bullet-riddled ruins of the Igreja Velha de Santo Antônio. It is estimated that around 5,000 soldiers and 20,000 councilors died in the conflict.

News about the cinema showing of Flávio de Barros's photos about the Canudos War (1898)Museu da República

In 1898, 25 photos from the collection were shown in cinemas in the Federal Capital. Some of them would become well known after their publication in the book "Os Sertões", by Euclides da Cunha. About the photographer Flávio de Barros, however, nothing more was learned afterwards.

The memory of Canudos emerges from the waters

The Flávio de Barros collection records the memory of an event whose last physical traces were erased in the mid-20th century, when the camp was flooded by the Cocorobó Dam. In this image, the dam is seen from Mirante do Conselheiro, in the Bahia municipality of Canudos.

Credits: Story

Museu da República /IBRAM/SECULT
Director - Mario Chagas
Technical Coordination - Livia M. N. Gonçalves
Communication Sector - Henrique Milen

See all 69 images from the Flávio de Barros Collection on the Portal Brasiliana Fotográfica.

Montage & texts: Paulo Celso Liberato Corrêa


ALMEIDA, Cícero Antônio F. de. Canudos: imagens da guerra. Rio de Janeiro: Lacerda Editores; Museu da República. 1997.

COSTA, Carla. Cronologia resumida da Guerra de Canudos. Rio de Janeiro: Museu da República, 2017.

CUNHA, Euclides da. Os Sertões. Brasília: Editora da Universidade de Brasília, 1963.
MELLO, Frederico Pernambucano de. A Guerra Total de Canudos. São Paulo: Editora A Girafa, 2007.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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