The Orphans of Canudos



Director's thoughts on the feature-length documentary

The actuality of the Canudos war

On October 5, 1897, the war in Canudos ended. The conflict, which lasted from November 1896 to October 1897, involved a contingent of around 12 army and police men from 17 Brazilian states. More than 50% of the existing Brazilian Army at the time. Casualties were about five thousand men. Of the Canudenses, it is estimated that 25 were killed.

Defenders of the newly proclaimed Republic of Brazil saw in Canudos a dangerous monarchist focus, led by Blessed Antônio Conselheiro and who, therefore, should be exterminated.

Since the Conselheiro's arrival, in 1893, in the lands of Belo Monte, as he named it, Canudos had become, in four years, the second largest city in Bahia, after Salvador.

After three unsuccessful expeditions and shamefully defeated by the councilors, annihilating Canudos became a matter of honor for the Brazilian Army and government. Thus, a fourth expedition was prepared by the Minister of War himself, composed of six thousand men and led by General Artur Oscar.

Heavily armed, the soldiers surrounded the Canudos camp for three months, which suffered a violent bombardment and was later burned with kerosene and dynamited. The hovels were set on fire along with the unburied bodies of the sertanejos. Men, women, old people and children were massacred by the soldiers, who had orders not to take any prisoners. Men, mainly, were victims of the “red tie”, as the sticking was known.

Contrary to the words of Euclides da Cunha in his masterpiece the sertões, when describing the final picture of the Canudense resistance – “There were only four of them: an old man, two grown men and a child, in front of whom five thousand soldiers roared angrily” – around 200 people remained alive, albeit in precarious conditions, after the massacre. These survivors, women and children in deplorable physical condition, who had lost a father, mother and close relatives, were now prisoners of war.

The documentary The Orphans of Canudos proposes a review and reflection on the War of Canudos through a very little known fact, that of a group of women and children survivors.


new readings

One of the bloodiest episodes in the history of Brazil, the War of Canudos is a subject whose bibliography reaches a large number of titles released until today. José Calasans, one of the greatest scholars on the subject, places Canudos among the most important events in our history, which had greater repercussions than other similar movements, particularly due to the multiplicity of versions that researchers have represented the figure of the Counselor and his supporters.

For some decades now, the new historiography has been reviewing the war, based on new research into documents and manuscripts, resulting in a new reading that moved away from the Euclidean interpretation.

Given its complexity, with social and historical variants that point to issues that have not yet been studied in detail, and that will not be exhausted, Canudos continues to challenge historians and researchers to understand its short, but troubled existence.


Left to their own devices

With Canudos decimated, around 200 surviving women and children, in rags and even naked, malnourished, many with exposed wounds, were at the mercy of their own fate. Those in better health conditions were traded by Army officers who sold them to “colonels” and even brothels. Many of these girls were raped by soldiers in the final moments of the war and then by those who bought them. Many were turned into slaves by those who harbored them.

Then, in Salvador, the Patriotic Committee of Bahia was formed, a group of good citizens – doctors, merchants, teachers, journalists, etc. – who, concerned about the situation of those children, decided to go to Canudos to pick them up and send them to nursing homes and Santas Casas in the capital of Bahia.

The Committee was also looking for parents and relatives to take them back to their families. At the end of its work, the Committee published a report that informed what had been possible to do for the children, describing the situation in which many of them were found: they were pubescent girls and young women, they found themselves in the houses of greengrocers and prostitutes. It was, therefore, to lament the undue distribution of children, with many being sent to various parts of the state and to the capital, as a living memory of Canudos or as a gift, without relatives or the government knowing their whereabouts”.

More than a century later, the surviving children of the Canudos war, who were distributed and taken by soldiers are the same girls who are prostituted in Brazil today, victims of poverty and ignorance.

The film The Orphans of Canudos it is a documentary clipping of this broad, complex and passionate theme. Its relevance lies in the fact that, even today, Canudos raises questions about the Republic we built and which, 124 years later, lives with the same social inequality as during the war. If to understand the Canudos of the Conselheiro era it is necessary to go back in time, this exercise immediately confronts us with the contradiction of two Brazils: modern Brazil against archaic Brazil, the one of yesterday and the one of today.

Ivo White he is a filmmaker, screenwriter and, sometimes, a professor of cinema. He directed, among other films, the documentary EH PAGU, EH!.



The Orphans of Canudos
Brazil, documentary, 2017, 56 minutes
Direction and script: Ivo Branco
Available in full at


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