January 13, 1838
May 9, 1898
André Rebouças, a pivotal figure in Brazil's abolitionist movement and a scientist committed to the project of modernity during the last decades of the Brazilian empire, was born in Cachoeira, Bahia, in 1838. A child during the decline of Bahia's sugar slave society, a witness to the final decree that abolished slavery in 1888, and a self-imposed exile after the fall of the Brazilian monarchy, Rebouças lived during a transitional era that he himself recognized in his autobiography. Rebouças was born into an educated, middle-class mulatto family, which had ascended socially owing to the support of white patrons. This family background informed his subjectivity. Many of his biographers have described him as a self-made man and a staunch antitraditionalist, albeit a monarchist, in the oligarchic political culture of the late nineteenth century.
In 1846 Rebouças and his family moved to Rio de Janeiro, an event that transformed his educational, professional, and political development. The capital city and cultural center of the Brazilian empire, Rio de Janeiro had, since the transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil in 1808, a botanical garden, an imperial library and museum, and a variety of technical schools and universities. Rebouças studied engineering in military school and in the nearby city of Petrópolis, where he met Emperor Dom Pedro II, whom he greatly admired and with whom he developed a long-lasting friendship. Devoted to the project of modernity, as was the enlightened Dom Pedro II, Rebouças studied engineering in France and in England, but was denied further study abroad due to his skin color, and returned to a Brazil that had expansionist ideals. The outbreak of the Paraguayan War in 1864 saw the conscription of many free blacks and mulattoes, as well as slaves who were promised their freedom once the war ended. Rebouças was a military engineer during the war and with his brother directed the infrastructure of several forts around the Brazil-Paraguay border. This experience resulted in a book on the Paraguayan War authored by Rebouças.
On his return, Rebouças coordinated a variety of public works related to water management and distribution in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Bahia, and Maranhão. Being a hygienist, Rebouças was highly committed to the reformation of urban infrastructure, and his multiple accomplishments in this area resulted in the naming of the "Rebouças Tunnel" in Rio de Janeiro. In addition to his dedication to urban planning, he was a student of agricultural systems. He wrote several works on post-abolition land tenure and agriculture, and elaborated a legislative project that was intended to facilitate the transition from slavery to free labor. He believed education was the key instrument for the integration of freedpeople into society, and advocated the transformation of ex-slaves into yeoman farmers. During this period, he was a professor at Rio de Janeiro's Polytechnic School, where he founded an abolitionist center and published several abolitionist articles.
As the abolitionist movement gained momentum in the 1870s and 1880s, Rebouças became a close friend of the renowned abolitionists Joaquim Nabuco and Alfredo Taunay. In his memoirs, Nabuco dedicates pages to Rebouças, whom he described as an engineer, mathematician, astronomer, botanist, geologist, industrialist, moralist, hygienist, and philanthropist. Rebouças's political orientations were as diverse as his professional development; he traveled through a political spectrum of "isms," from Yankeeism to Jacobinism to purist individualism. In the 1870s he was a great admirer of U.S. post-Emancipation society, and particularly what he saw as the success of the reconstruction and modernization of the U.S. South. However, his travel experience to the United States in 1873 is likely to have changed this perception; he was relegated to inferior hotels, denied service in restaurants, and not allowed to attend a performance at the Grand Opera House in New York City. Rebouças believed Brazil would follow a different path, transforming into a multiracial and equal society after abolition.
The Golden Law abolished slavery a year before the monarchy was deposed by a military coup d'état in 1889. Rebouças followed the imperial family into exile, thinking the monarchy would be restored, but this dream, as well as his return to Brazil, was never realized. While in exile, Rebouças traveled to France, West Africa, and Madeira. In Africa, he returned to his activities as a reformer and engineer, but disillusionment with increasing racism and inequality, as well as the deterioration of his financial situation, changed his outlook of the future. At the age of sixty he committed suicide in Madeira; patriotic histories suggest that he "slipped" off a cliff.
De Carvalho, Maria Alice Rezende. O quinto século: André Rebouças e a construção do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Editora Revan, 1998.
Dos Santos, José Rufino, ed. Negro brasileiro negro. Revista do Patrimonio Historico e Artistico Nacional, Num 25 (1997).
Dos Santos, Sydney M. G. André Rebouças e seu tempo. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Ed. Vozes, 1985.
patricia acerbi (2005)