“A civilized person, an intellectual.” The character who thus describes himself, pompously, in Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1981 historical novel, The War of the End of the World, is only ever referred to as “the nearsighted journalist” and appears as a neurotic city boy, all allergies and nerves. The year is 1897, and the journalist has come to Brazil’s backlands to report on a fight to the death between the young republic’s modernizing troops and the almost medieval community of Canudos, populated by social rejects and religious fanatics. Once his glasses are smashed, the journalist’s civilized myopia gives way to a blindness that paradoxically enables him to identify with the wretchedness and grandeur of the doomed rebels. The Canudos War is grim historical fact, and the journalist—one of the few factually based characters in this great novel about myths and mind-sets—is an uncharitable portrait of Euclides da Cunha, whose account of the conflict supplied Vargas Llosa with much of his material.
Susanna Hecht’s The Scramble for the Amazon is in part the biography of this unjustly forgotten figure. Hecht hails da Cunha as a frustrated literary and scientific genius who was actively involved in Brazil’s political transitions before being gunned down in 1909, at age 43, by his wife’s young lover. This great scandal of Brazil’s Belle Époque had a second casualty: the unfinished potential masterpiece about the Amazon left behind in da Cunha’s desk drawer. The journalist died a one-book wonder, with his dream of merging his articles and field notes into a grand celebration of the Brazilian far west to be called The Lost Paradise remaining exactly that.
Hecht places da Cunha’s quirky personal tale inside the more ambitious story of a country at the crossroads, freed from colonialism and monarchy, ready-fractured in class and ethnic terms, and coming into existence as a republic within the global commodity economy that had always shaped it. Brazil was founded in the sixteenth century on the brazilwood trade. Sugar in the northeast redefined the country’s existence in the seventeenth century, only to be superseded during the eighteenth by gold and coffee in the southeast; last came the short-lived surge of Amazonian rubber, harvested under conditions too inhospitable for a plantation system. By 1912, the industry had relocated to Southeast Asia, but rubber was still an economic and geographic frontier when Brazil became a republic by military coup in 1889, one year after the very belated abolition of slavery. Disgruntled slaver aristocrats; an upstart, authoritarian officer class; and thousands of ex-slaves, both native and African, for whom no provision had been made, a miscegenated, essentially migrant population composed of dispossessed tribals, longtime maroons, surplus serfs: such were the Brazilians in search of a society that would include them and, as Hecht emphasizes, an ideology that would define them—one which da Cunha attempted to supply.
The oligarchs quickly imported white laborers to replace their freed slaves. Against their dominant Europeanist values, da Cunha would propose the resilient mongrel energy of caboclos (mestizos) and mulattoes as the essence of Brazilian virtue. The Amazonian headwaters in Brazil’s northwest, where many such groups had emigrated, was an apt setting for da Cunha to make that case, given the disputed frontier with Peru: here Brazil might define its shape and currents, in every sense. But for da Cunha to acquire the insights that informed his Amazon writings, he first had to undergo the trauma of the Canudos War.
In fact, da Cunha witnessed that tragedy’s final act: some 25,000 northeasterners who, having fled bondage and drought, built an autonomous multiethnic community in Canudos under the leadership of the millenarian preacher Antônio Conselheiro, only to be starved out and slaughtered to the last man (women and children were prostituted or indentured) by the fourth military expedition sent against them. The previous three had been routed by creative guerrilla tactics that mixed indigenous and African techniques: drop traps and spikes, or luring starving soldiers to their doom with goat bells, or causing their horses to bolt into the thorn forests, where in Hecht’s words “man and beast were horribly flayed, impaled on the landscape itself. There they remained, mummifying in the increasing drought, ghoulish sentinels saluting the next attackers.”