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.
Evaristo, Romeu. “Heróis de Todo Mundo - NEGRO COSME” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQDNy7124kU
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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.
James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.