He studied at the Dorn Pedro College and received a law degree from the University of Recife.
Entering journalism, he took up the cause of abolition, publishing many articles denouncing slavery.
After serving two years in Washington with the Brazilian Foreign Service, he entered politics, winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1878.
Nabuco served as correspondent for the Brazilian newspaper Journal oj Commerce in London from 1882 to 1884. Reelected to Parliament in 1884, he played a leading role in getting the abolition bill through the Parliament in spite ot clashes with his own Conservative Party.
When the republic was established in 1889. Nabuco was hostile at first and retired temporarily from active politics. However, his talents as an astute negotiator were needed to settle a dispute over the Brazil-British Guiana border. He argued Brazil's case before the Italian King Vittorio Emanuel III. He was next appointed to serve in London but was quickly moved to Washington in 1902 as the first ambassador of republican Brazil. He died in Washington.