Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel (1830 – 1897), or Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor) as he was called, led a turbulent life. He was born from a family of cattle breeders in the Brazilian Northeast and educated by his grandfather, who was a local teacher. He married and settled down but after his wife betrayed him, he became restless and started to wander around. Being both an outspoken religious man and sensitive to the needs of the poor, Antonio slowly developed a following. Furthermore Antonio was not shy of criticizing the Catholic Church, so when his following grew, it did not take long for the Church to publicly declare him a ‘madman’.
In 1888 slavery was abolished in Brazil and shortly thereafter the Brazilian republic was founded. The consequences were enormous: five million Brazilians were suddenly unemployed… and hungry. Antonio had always spoken out against slavery and as a consequence his following started to grow rapidly. In 1893, after a small conflict between some of his followers and the local police, Antonio decided to settle down in an abandoned farm called Canudos. In the years following the amount of people living in Canudos increased to about 30 000. The settlement was organized in a semi-communistic way applying socialistic ideas like the division of labor and produce, having common property, and the abolition of the official currency.
In 1896 following a trade dispute between the inhabitants of Canudos and a local wood merchant, the Brazilian government in Rio de Janeiro decided that enough was enough and sent in 500 troops to bring Canudos back to order. The men of Canudos however did not agree and made short work of these 500 troops. The conflict continued to escalate and in April of 1897 government troops (8000 soldiers) laid siege to Canudos. The siege lasted until the 5th of October of that same year when the government troops razed Canudos to the ground. Subsequently all captured prisoners were beheaded for treason. Antonio was already dead by that time: he died in September 1897 from the consequences of extended fasting. The total death toll is still unknown but is estimated to consist of about 25 000 Canudos inhabitants and 5000 soldiers.
For a long time the official story behind the atrocities committed by the government troops has been that the inhabitants of Canudos were dangerous rebels and the government did what it needed to do. Recent work by historians however indicated that the inhabitants of Canudos were far more likely to have been hungry peasants than dangerous rebels.