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Cosme Bente das Chagas

Cosme Bente das Chagas (known as Cosme) was the leader of enslaved rebels during the Balaiada Rebellion in the province of Maranhão, Brazil (1838–1841).

Little is known about his early life, except that Cosme was born into slavery around 1800 in the town of Sobral, in Ceará Province. He was already freed by 1830, when one document refers to him as a capitão de campo (militia officer, a post no slave could hold) in Maranhão province.

Cosme was arrested and imprisoned for homicide in 1830. He escaped twice. By his second escape in 1839, a major civil war known as the Balaiada was already ravaging Maranhão province. The Balaiada grew out of violent conflicts between liberals and conservatives in the early Brazilian Empire, in particular resistance by the poor free population to compulsory military service. This population consisted mainly of vaqueiros (cowboys) and caboclos, (peasants), many of whom were nonwhite. They greatly resented the massive draft of their most productive labor force into the army and feared re-enslavement, prompting them to rebel along with Maroon groups in 1838.

In November 1839, Cosme emerged as the main leader of the three-thousand Maroons of the Itapecuru Valley. He forced local slaveholders to sign letters granting freedom to their slaves and sent letters to authorities, proclaiming that the Lei da República (Law of the Republic) had replaced the Lei da Escravidão (Law of Slavery), and that planters would have to manumit and pay their slaves.

Cosme made repeated offers of cooperation to rebels in his area, who called themselves Bem-te-vis, the nickname for liberals in Maranhão. He signed his letters “Tutor Emperor of Freedom, Defender of the Bem-te-vis,” which reveals an interesting attempt to combine imperial traditions with the revolutionary discourse of freedom and liberalism.

In the last phase of the Balaiada (February 1840–February 1841), the governor forced rebels wanting to surrender to hunt down Maroons in order to receive an imperial offer of amnesty. Some Bem-te-vi officers complied with this requirement, which helped to sow confusion in the rebel ranks. Cosme’s Maroons were finally taken prisoner on February 7, 1841 signaling the end of the rebellion. Cosme was condemned to death by a jury in Itapecuru-Mirim and executed by hanging in September 1842.

Cosme’s legacy is a reminder of the fragile nature of freedom under slave societies and the fragmentation caused by divisions of race and slave status.

Read the full, original biography by Matthias Röhrig Assunção in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Evaristo, Romeu. “Heróis de Todo Mundo - NEGRO COSME” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQDNy7124kU


Araújo, Mundinha. Em busca de Dom Cosme Bento das Chagas, Negro Cosme: Tutor e imperador da liberdade. Imperatriz: Ética, 2008.

Araújo, Maria Raimunda, comp. Documentos para a história da Balaiada. São Luís: Edições FUNCMA, 2001.

Assunção, Matthias Röhrig. "Chagas, Cosme Bento das." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e461 (accessed Thu Sep 05 11:21:23 EDT 2019).

Assunção, Matthias Röhrig. “Elite Politics and Popular Rebellion in the Construction of Post-Colonial Order: The Case of Maranhão, Brazil, 1820–1841.” Journal of Latin American Studies 31, no. 1 (1999): 1–38.

Santos, Maria Januária Vilela. A Balaiada e a insurreição de escravos no Maranhão. São Paulo: Ática, 1983.


Matthias Röhrig Assunção

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1800

Born into slavery in the town of Sobral, in Ceará Province, Brazil.


A new Brazilian Constitution grants formal citizenship rights to free nonwhites, but they continue to face systematic discrimination and abuse by elites.


Now freed, Cosme is arrested for homicide and imprisoned in the provincial capital, São Luís.


After leading an unsuccessful prisoner rebellion Cosme is transferred to a prison ship for security reasons.


He escapes from the prison ship and is only caught again in November 1838 in the sub-district of Urubu. His whereabouts during these years are unknown, but he possibly took refuge among the Maroon groups that were particularly strong in the rainforests of this cotton plantation area.


An era of conservative and centralizing government known as the Regresso begins. The Regresso era came as a reaction by conservative elites to the liberal advances of the previous decade.


A free peasant nicknamed Balaio resists an oppressive military draft system by releasing his son and other recruits that were being transported to the capital in October. This kicks off the rebellion known as the Balaiada (1838-41). In a similar action in December, the vaqueiro Raimundo Gomes frees his drafted companions from jail in the town of Manga and issues a proclamation demanding that the governor abolish prefectures and step down. Around ten thousand rebels take over most of the eastern and southern part of the province of Maranhão and the neighboring province of Piauí.


Cosme again manages to escape from jail with seven other inmates. By November, he emerges as the main leader of the Maroons of the Itapecuru Valley, whose ranks swell to three thousand. Cosme sets up a headquarters on the former Lagoa Amarela plantation in eastern Maranhão. He forces the plantation owner to sign freedom letters for all of his slaves and establishes a school.


The governor orders deserters seeking amnesty from the imperial side to hunt down Maroons in order to receive it, turning free peasant groups against the Maroons.

February 7, 1841

Cosme’s Maroons, the last group still resisting, are finally taken prisoner.

April 5, 1842

Cosme is sentenced to death by a jury in Itapecuru-Mirim. He is executed by hanging in September.