The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The historical personages of Rebellion in the Backlands are not developed or viewed from inside as are characters in a novel. Cunha often gives only their names, and even then he shows an aristocratic bias by naming only officers or leaders: The troops and common folk remain anonymous. The most prominent leaders, however, are accorded elaborate analytical introductions.

Cunha devotes his most complete analysis to Antonio Conselheiro, whom he views as a perfect embodiment of the backlands mentality. Coming from a powerful family previously involved in a bloody feud with a rival family, Antonio Maciel seems born to the pattern of violence endemic to the lawless backlands. Yet the crucial event of his life is a personal blow: When he is a young man, his wife deserts him for a policeman, which seems to leave Antonio Maciel permanently deranged. He begins wandering the backlands roads, eventually adopting the life and appearance (flowing beard, blue tunic, and staff) of an early Christian ascetic. Impressionable and superstitious, the backlands population soon accepts him as Antonio Conselheiro, whose confused message is heard as the wisdom of God. The power which this following gives him makes the Counselor a walking time bomb whose fuse is only shortened by religious and civil persecutions. Primarily important as the rebellion’s instigator, the Counselor gradually fades into the background, dying during Canudos’ last days either from dysentery...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel

Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel (vee-SEHN-teh MEHN-dehs mah-see-EHL), also called Antonio Conselheiro (kohn-sehl-HA-roh), the fanatic religious leader of the backlands rebellion. Quiet and withdrawn, this former store clerk vanishes into the backlands in the aftermath of a disastrous marriage, only to reappear, years later, transformed into an ascetic and emaciated anchorite. Roaming from town to town, Maciel, now known as Conselheiro (the counselor), preaches an apocalyptic religious message and is asked to settle disputes. In the process, he attracts an increasingly large following of the dispossessed poor, including numerous outlaws, who eventually settle with him in Canudos in 1893. Threatened by what they perceive as Conselheiro’s antirepublican message, the state and federal governments organize four different expeditions to destroy the rebel town. Conselheiro dies two weeks before the final surrender of Canudos. His body is later exhumed so that his brain can be studied scientifically.


Pajehu (pah-heh-EW), the guerrilla leader of the sertanejos. A notorious bandit, this tall and athletic man of mixed race exhibits extraordinary bravery and superb tactical skills in leading the rebels against the government troops. He dies in July, 1897, in one of the many fierce battles during the government’s fourth expedition against Canudos.

Lieutenant Manuel da Silva Pires Ferreira

Lieutenant Manuel da Silva Pires Ferreira (

(The entire section is 704 words.)