A Poor Man's Advocate

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel was born in 1830 in a small town in the northeastern state of Cear. As a young man, he worked as a legal aid, a tutor, and a storeowner.

But after his wife ran off with a soldier in 1860, his traditional life ended.

He began wandering the northeast as a holy man. At each village, he conducted public prayer, preached against ungodly behavior, and rebuilt churches and cemeteries that had fallen into disrepair.

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He talked about subjects that affected the poor's lives: taxes, debt, and troublesome marriages. Because he gave advice, he became known as Antonio Conselheiro (Antonio the Counselor).

In 1893, Conselheiro founded Canudos. His followers - mostly dirt farmers, Indians, cowboys, and former slaves - brought furniture or just the clothes on their backs and constructed some 5,000 mud-stick dwellings.

The "mud-walled Troy" successfully defended itself against three military assaults, including the 1,500 troops under the command of Col. Antonio Moreira Csar. Colonel Cesar was the nation's most famous officer and a man so ruthless he was known as "The Beheader." Cesar was shot and killed.

Csar's death shocked the nation. President Prudente de Morais ordered 8,000 soldiers equipped with canons, dynamite, and machine guns to Canudos.

It took four months to silence Canudos. When the battle was over, 15,000 were dead. Hundreds of women and children survivors were taken to Salvador to work as servants or prostitutes.

Conselheiro died two weeks before the fall of Canudos. "The two strongest peasant movements in modern Latin American history occurred in Canudos with Antnio Conselheiro and in Mexico with Emiliano Zapata," says Juan Antonio Lizarralde, Canudos's Spanish-born priest. "Brazil should do what Mexico did for Zapata. It owes him a monument."

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