Ernesto Casteda isn’t a familiar figure to most, but he should be, especially in the area that he lived, now part of Brazil. But successive governments have preferred to maintain the fiction that the area has always been part of their nation, casting the period of time in which Casteda lived as an abortive rebellion.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The República Rio-Grandense, often called the República Piratini after its capital, was independent for nearly nine years. Sandwiched neatly into an area where the Spanish and Portuguese colonial ambitions had frequently clashed (a conflict later inherited by their successor states of Argentine, Brazil, and tiny Uruguay), the population was a potent mix of Spanish, Portugeuese, Mestizo, and Indian that had long defied attempts from far-off capitals to impose political control.

Though nominally a constitutional republic, the República Piratini was in fact largely under the control of rebel generals during its tumultuous existence. Bento Gonçalves, Antônio de Souza Neto, even Giuseppe Garibaldi…many of the participants have become famous in Brazil and elsewhere. Yet for many years the central thread binding these disparate personalities together was General Tomás Azambuja, a native Portuguese who had thrown his lot in with Brazil in 1822 and the Rio-Grandense rebels in 1835. Thanks to his behind-the-scenes actions organizing and training the rebels, they were able to achieve spectacular successes against Imperial troops.

Casteda was a poor farmer of Spanish descent who often claimed to hear the voice of God speaking to him in the fields. Drafted by the rebels, he had been a poor soldier, unpopular with his companions and ridiculed by his officers. Mocked as much for his baldness and childlike face as his “conversations with God,” Casteda become convinced that it was his holy duty to lead the forces of the Rio-Grandense against the (in his mind) pagan hordes of the Brazilian Empire. To that end he spent months stalking the principal players in the rebellion with a loaded arsenal pistol.

General Azambuja was supervising the distribution of supplies to soldiers in the field when Casteda called on him. Irritated, Azambuja dismissed him rudely; the general was shot dead the next moment. Casteda began to read a proclamation declaring himself Azambuja’s rightful successor; the general’s guards read the remainder after they had killed the assassin and taken the note from his body.

Without Azambuja’s logistical skill and ability to juggle the strong personalities in the rebellion, the campaign ended in total defeat for the rebels and the final imposition of Brazilain sovereignty.

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