Rebouças, Antônio Pereira

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RebouÇas, AntÔnio Pereira

August 10, 1798
March 28, 1880

Antônio Pereira Rebouças, a free-born Brazilian mulatto, rose to be a prominent lawyer, jurist, and member of Parliament. He was born in the province of Bahia, the legitimate son of a Portuguese tailor and a mulatta ex-slave. With only an elementary formal education, he taught himself Greek, Latin, and French, and he read voraciously. A man of unflagging energy, Rebouças worked as a legal clerk and eventually learned so much law that his employer recommended he be allowed to take the bar exam, which he easily passed.

When Brazil's political fate lay in the balance in 18221823, with the Portuguese army in the coastal city of Salvador hoping to reassert colonial rule over the country, Rebouças astutely sided with the slave-owning planter elite who were plotting independence, and not with Portuguese officials, some of whom hinted that freedom might be offered to those slaves who supported them. Rebouças was named member and secretary of the planter-led insurgent council, and, when the Portuguese were finally driven out, he was rewarded with the prestigious Imperial Order of the Southern Cross and named secretary, similar to a chief-of-staff position, to the president of the neighboring province of Sergipe, who directly represented the newly enthroned Brazilian emperor.

Prominent local politicians, however, were quick to protest the appointment of a mulatto to this post, and they invented the story that Rebouças fomented unrest among slaves and free people of color, an allegation that, although easily disproven in the ensuing investigation, cost him his job. He went on to serve in both the provincial and national legislatures and became a sought-after lawyer at the national capital, where his legal opinions carried much weight. His library, with books in many languages, was one of the largest in the city, containing not only legal texts but many plays and novels.

In his legal writings and parliamentary speeches, Rebouças displayed a deep commitment to the principle that individual rights enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution should be enjoyed by all citizens equally, regardless of their color. He turned his back, however, on efforts to assert the collective rights of blacks and opposed all revolutions. When, in 1837, radicals in Salvador expressed their grievances by declaring the independence of the province, he once again joined the white planters of the interior who opposed the insurgents, even though free blacks and mulattoes of the city made up the bulk of the revolting forces. Over a thousand of them were killed after the defeat of the movement, but there is no record that Rebouças regretted his choice or saw the black and mulatto victims of repression as his fellows.

Indeed, Rebouças argued that among the rights of the individual was the right to own property and not have it confiscated by the government, even if such property included slaves. He did, however, urge that the law recognize the right of slaves to purchase their own freedom and thus become citizens who would be the equal of any white before the law. Like others of his class, regardless of their color, he owned several slaves of his own. As Brazilian elite opinion in the late 1840s shifted away from a liberal philosophy and toward a more conservative and hierarchical view of society, Rebouças found himself marginalized and even forgotten. As an old man he reported to his son that over the course of his lifetime he had often suffered racial discrimination but had kept his peace rather than acknowledge the slight.

See also Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean; Politics and Politicians in Latin America


Grinberg, Keila. O fiador dos brasileiros: Cidadania, escravidão e direito civil no tempo de Antônio Pereira Rebouças. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Civilização Brasileira, 2002.

Kraay, Hendrik. "'As Terrifying as Unexpected': The Bahian Sabinada, 18371838." Hispanic American Historical Review 72, no. 4 (1992): 501527.

Spitzer, Leo. Lives in Between: Assimilation and Marginality in Austria, Brazil, West Africa, 1780-1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

richard graham (2005)