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  • Militão and the Guerreiros:Local Feuds, Long Memories, and Brazil's Struggle to Control the São Francisco River

Between 1842 and 1848, a violent conflict erupted on the banks of the São Francisco River in northeastern Brazil. Militão Plácido de França Antunes and his faction declared war on the family of Captain Bernardo José Guerreiro. Both families were based in the river town of Pilão Arcado, but the fighting spread to the nearby town of Sento-Sé, and by 1848 violence had engulfed the entire region from Barra to Juazeiro (see Figures 1 and 2). Bands of armed men loyal to Militão roamed the streets and attacked the households of people they considered to be on the side of the Guerreiros. Many people were killed, and others fled the region altogether. The violence ended only after Militão's faction killed Guerreiro's last adult son on August 1, 1848.1 Although a family feud in the backlands was not unusual, this fight resonated with coastal lawmakers who, in Brazil's Second Empire, had been looking toward conquering the west and consolidating their own vast territory. The reports of wrenching violence in the backlands, unchecked by the rule of law, represented the deepest fears of the coastal elite and made the need to conquer the Brazilian interior even more urgent.

The story of Militão and the Guerreiros, however, goes beyond the much-explored dichotomy between the coastal elite and the degenerate backlands. [End Page 9]

Figure 1. Brazil and the São Francisco River
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Figure 1.

Brazil and the São Francisco River

Indeed, some of the coastal elites were from this very region, and either they or their family members had been personally involved in the Militão-Guerreiro conflict. The two main coastal protagonists were the powerful conservative deputy João Maurício Wanderley (the Barão de Cotegipe, later senator, and finally Minister of State) and another conservative, Joaquim Jerónimo Fernandes da Cunha, who had been a provincial then a national deputy before becoming a senator. Both men had been raised in the middle São Francisco region and had deep roots there. Their colleagues and friends on the coast were aware of the conflict as well, because it was discussed in the Chamber of Deputies and [End Page 10] written about in the newspapers. Their opinions of this event shaped their views about what Brazil needed to do to conquer the semi-arid backlands—the sertão and the valley of the São Francisco River—a region that had become in the minds of many in the mid-nineteenth century the very "center of the Empire" and the key to national unity, economic progress, and Brazil's future grandeza.

Figure 2. The Middle São Francisco, with the Major Towns of the Militão-Guerreiro Struggle
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Figure 2.

The Middle São Francisco, with the Major Towns of the Militão-Guerreiro Struggle

The intense focus on the São Francisco River and its valley in the nineteenth century emerged from the desire to create and articulate a Brazilian national [End Page 11] identity, one built on the twin pillars of imagination and territorial expanse.2 In the nineteenth century, and especially during the rule of Emperor Pedro II (1840-1888, the period known as the Second Empire) Brazilian elites moved forward with great energy to create, imagine, and rationalize Brazil. Much of the effort came from leaders in the fields of literature and history, who in a great burst of romantic creativity imagined the nation as a confluence of indigenous culture, European civilization, and African presence.3 The trope of the three races served as an important foundation for the creation of Brazilian identity.4 Another important foundation was the dream of greatness through territorial expansion. The people who produced works in literature and history were also involved in the emerging fields of geography and science, and many also participated in politics and diplomacy. Among them were key members of the literary world who were also members of the emerging scientific associations in the mid nineteenth century, and served as deputies, ministers, and senators in the imperial government. For them, national identity...


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