The Rebouças family: a family of Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists and Engineers
Note from BW of Brazil: There are a number of fascinating stories and figures in Brazil’s history, and many of them have to do with the Afro-Brazilian population. But for most Brazilians, if they are familiar with the stories and the personalities, they may not be aware of what these people looked like and what they were famous for. This applies for Brazilian historical figures in general, so you can imagine how this applies to Brazilians who are or were black.
Back in 2007, in the city of São Paulo, for the celebration of Black Consciousness Month, a number of enormous banners were hung on the large buildings in the city to educate the population on some very important people who made noteworthy contributions to the nation’s culture and history. In the case of some of people featured on those banners, people knew the names and even knew what some of them they looked like, but didn’t know they were black, or if you prefer, of African descent. This was also the motivating factor of a recent campaign about writer Machado de Assis by the country’s only black college.
In the case of the illustrious Rebouças brothers in particular and the family in general, most people are probably familiar with the family surname because of the streets or avenues named after them, but again, probably have no idea that this family was black. When one learns of the accomplishments of this family as a whole, it becomes even more unbelievable when we consider the restrictions Brazil placed on its black population just to learn to read and write. I could devote numerous posts to just the most famous brothers in the family without even considering the lesser known members of the family, but for now, here is a brief introduction.
The Rebouças family: In 19th century Brazil, during the slavery era, this incredible family included accomplished doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers
They marked the country’s history as notable politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers and engineers who propelled the abolitionist movement
By Sandra Almada
The black engineer André Pinto Rebouças was one of the most brilliant intellectuals in Imperial Brazil. Mathematician, astronomer, geologist, industrialist, botanist and passionate abolitionist, he is perhaps the only member of the Rebouças family who remains alive in the memory of the people. In fact, the history of this family brings together several other notable names, starting with the poor couple who lived in Maragogipe, Bahia, in the 18th century. Gaspar Pereira Rebouças, a very simple businessman, had three children with Mrs. Rita Bastia dos Santos: José, Manoel Maurício and Antônio. If, on the one hand, the family was experiencing difficulties, on the other, the three boys received a valuable inheritance from their parents. From an early age, they learned the values that would make the Rebouças family known as the “study, work and character dynasty”.
José opted for art. He became an accomplished violinist and talented composer, building a brilliant career with presentations in the halls of Europe. Manoel Maurício chose other paths. He started working as a notary public clerk in Jaguaripe, Bahia, and soon left his job, traveling to study in France. When he returned to Brazil, in 1832, with bachelor’s degrees in science and doctor in medicine, he started teaching botany and zoology at the Bahia School of Medicine. The 25 years dedicated to teaching and the services provided to the population during epidemics of yellow fever and cholera earned him the honor of Knight of the Order of the Cruzeiro.
But it was the youngest, Antônio Pereira Rebouças, who achieved the greatest projection by turning to the world of politics. He was a moderate liberal who represented Bahia in the Câmara dos Deputados (House of Representatives), from 1830 to 1873. In 1837, he introduced a bill prohibiting the slave trade in Brazilian territory and the importation of black Africans – which had already been prohibited by law in 1831, but hadn’t been implemented. With the title of Counselor, Antônio died in 1880, leaving eight children – among them André and Antônio, who stood out as notable engineers.
At that time, the Rebouças were a typical family of aristocrats. Illustrious black men, who had slaves – the last of them freed at the height of the abolitionist struggle – and who lived naturally among barons, noblemen and figures of high society in Rio.
Bridges, railways and ports
The brothers André and Antônio were inseparable companions. They were together at school and in the military, where they obtained the rank of lieutenant. In the years 1858 and 1859, they received, respectively, the title of Bachelor of Science and Mathematics. They then became engineers and went on to specialize in Europe.
Focused on the construction of bridges, railways and ports, André became a professor at the Escola Politécnica (Polytechnic School) and built the first docks in the ports of Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Maranhão and Bahia. He was also responsible for numerous port and water supply projects across the country. He designed railroads and was a pioneer in Brazil in the use of Portland cement and in soil mechanics.
An engineer of equal talent, Antônio specialized in roads. And he was to accompany the construction of one of them, the Estrada de Graciosa of the cities of Antonina and Curitiba in Paraná state, which separated him from André in 1864. After traveling through Colombia and the Pacific States as secretary of a diplomatic commission, he went to Paraná to take up the post of chief engineer of the exploration commission from Estrada de Curitiba to Guarapuava and Baixo Ivaí. In 1873, he became technical director of the Campinas/Limeira/Rio Claro stretch of another road. The following year, during surveys and studies on a bridge over the Piracicaba River, Antônio fell ill and died at the age of 35.
After the death of his brother, André Rebouças began to dedicate himself more intensively to the black abolitionist movement, becoming an activist alongside José do Patrocínio. With Joaquim Nabuco he founded the Centro Abolicionista da Escola Politécnica (Abolitionist Center of the Polytechnic School). In 1870, he had already started his studies, readings and the production of works on the cause of slaves.
Later, these ideas, mature and well elaborated, served as ammunition in the passionate struggle that he would fight, for the end of the slave system. As a journalist, he started to write several articles about black slavery in the newspapers Gazeta de Notícias, Jornal do Commercio and Gazeta da Tarde. His works were also used in the manifesto of the Abolitionist Confederation. He was one of the most powerful brains behind the campaign for the liberation of enslaved blacks.
Once, during the burial of the Visconde de Itaboraí, André Rebouças promoted a violent anti-slavery demonstration that stirred the province. Behind the intellectual of mathematical and precise reasoning, there was a man driven by the overwhelming passion for everything he did. And even though there were brilliant and exalted journalists, activists and speakers among the abolitionists, the engineer’s ideas inspired many of them in the tribunes. André Rebouças continued to produce important studies on what the country’s agrarian structure should look like after blacks attained their freedom.
André Rebouças carried within him courage and patriotism, sometimes romantic, sometimes exaggerated. His engineering projects, his industrial ventures, his classes, his fight against slavery, in short, he embraced everything with the same devotion.
So much so, that when the Republic was proclaimed, he went to Portugal with the imperial family, demonstrating his loyalty to D. Pedro II, the dethroned monarch. Hde was a voluntary exile, for which the engineer would never return to Brazil. From Europe, he went to Africa. He traveled to the “martyr continent” driven by a kind of love for socialism, intense religiosity, a cult of poverty, renunciation and contempt for the riches and pleasures that most men covet.
André Rebouças lived for six years in African lands, mainly visiting the Portuguese colonies and South Africa. Until he took up residence in Funchal, on Madeira Island, where he died in 1889, at the age of 60, ill, very poor, lonely, and disillusioned. His body was found floating in the sea in front of the hotel where he lived. The reason for his death has never been confirmed, but it seems that he committed suicide. Today, those who pass through the Rebouças tunnel, in Rio de Janeiro, and on Avenida Rebouças (avenue) in São Paulo, may know little about the brothers of whom they are named. And although there are many citizens with the same surname in the telephone directories of the two cities, probably none of these possible descendants know their history.