Luiz Gama was a man as extraordinary as he was complex, starting with his achievements: abolitionist, republican, poet, lawyer, journalist and freemason. He belonged to a generation that was instrumental in the downfall of the Second Empire in Brazil in the 19th century. With pen and oratory, he immersed himself in the struggles and conflicts of the era, such as the relationships between Church and State, Monarchy and Republic, race and nation. He took the side of libertarian causes, a choice that reflected his own personal story: Gama had been a slave; as a child, he was sold into slavery by his father. When he was still young, he was able to gain his freedom. Self-educated, he drew from his dramatic and epic history the strength and stubbornness to free more than 500 slaves.
His name adorns public areas throughout Brazil, especially in São Paulo, where he was most active, but he is still little known. To study him, understand him and put a spotlight on him has been the work of researchers such as Ligia Fonseca Ferreira, a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). She is the author of a doctoral thesis on the life and work of the former slave, which she defended at the University of Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle. Ferreira is black and has taken on the responsibility of studying someone with whom she has a more complex relationship than a neutral researcher would normally have with her subject. “Sometimes the work of black researchers about black historical figures who affirmed this common identity is underrated, if not made invisible,” she says.
Ferreira’s contribution to understanding Luiz Gama is remarkable. She organized the critical reissue of Primeiras trovas burlescas & outros poemas de Luiz Gama [First Burlesque Ballads & Other Poems of Luiz Gama] (Martins Fontes, 2000) and Com a palavra, Luiz Gama [Now Speaking, Luiz Gama], Poems, Articles, Letters, Maxims (Government Printing Office of the State of São Paulo, 2011). Educated in the humanities, with an emphasis on French language and literature, Ferreira became aware of the abolitionist when she did research at the Sorbonne between 1987 and 1988 on black literature in Brazil, a field in which Gama was no less than the pioneer. But given the fragmented documentation on the poet, and already considering a doctoral degree, her solution was to visit libraries, study centers and even secondhand bookstores. She found quite a lot.
Primeiras trovas burlescas de Getulino was published in 1859 in São Paulo, which, at the time, was a province with few readers, a scarcity of writers, and a meager number of printers and booksellers. The book contained 22 poems by its author, and three by the politician and law professor José Bonifácio, the Younger. The choice of the pseudonym “Getulino,” derived from “Getulia,” an ancient territory in North Africa, already indicated that the author was of African origin, entering the restricted circle of scholars, a privilege of whites. Two years later, the work was reissued in Rio de Janeiro by the same press that published the romantic novels by José de Alencar. In the second “corrected and supplemented” edition, Gama published 39 poems, including 20 new ones.
In the context of Brazilian slavery, to write and be read were two ways to stay close to power. Try to put yourself in the place of a former slave, in the early 1860s. Then imagine using your writings to satirize the politicians and customs of the day, by parodying archaic institutions, criticizing the “educated elite” and raising the issues of corruption, racial prejudice, the whitening of mulattos who renounced their roots, and anticlericalism. According to Ferreira, Luiz Gama did it with that work. By publishing a compilation in 2000 containing the entire poetic output of the abolitionist, Ferreira opened up a fruitful field of study.
Luiz Gama was born on June 21, 1830 in Salvador, Bahia State, the son of a free African woman, the “stuck-up” Luiza Mahin, and a gentleman of Portuguese origin and member of a prominent Bahian family. The abolitionist son never revealed the name of the father who had sold him into slavery. He was turned over to the dealer and smuggler Antônio Pereira Cardoso, who, unable to resell him, himself ended up with the 10-year-old boy. Gama learned how to be a butler, a shoemaker, and do washing, ironing, and sewing. Seven years later, he lived with a student, Antonio Rodrigues do Prado Junior, who taught him his first letters. In 1848, having, by his own account, “obtained in a cunning and secretive way inconclusive evidence of his freedom,” he fled the Cardoso house.
Just two years before his death on July 25, 1880, Luiz Gama sent a letter to Lúcio de Mendonça, one of the founders of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, revealing some new facts about his biography. Ferreira found this document in the National Library in Rio de Janeiro. “It is one of the few accounts of the life of a former slave in Brazil. In the history of blacks and Brazilian literature, there are no equivalent memoirs of slaves, as are found so frequently in the United States,” she says. This text is key to understanding how Gama became an influential voice in the republican and abolitionist movements.
An earlier letter dated November 26, 1870, and also found at the National Library, can be added to this document. Ferreira published it in her book Com a palavra, Luiz Gama. Poems, Articles, Letters, Maxims—a work that brings together a selection of over 40 texts, many previously unpublished, and also about 30 illustrations, plus six essays by the author. The letter was addressed to José Carlos Rodrigues, founder of O Novo Mundo, the first periodical published in Portuguese in the United States. Gama talks about the republican movement in Brazil and the Masonic Lodge America, founded by him and a group of liberals, whose distinguished members included Rui Barbosa and Joaquim Nabucco. “I assure you that the Republican party, thanks to the divine ineptitude of Pedro II, is seriously organizing itself throughout the empire,” he wrote. But according to Ferreira, he argued that the establishment of a republic should be accompanied by abolition. His conviction was such that he abandoned the Itu Convention (1873), upon finding coffee growers who opposed the emancipation of slaves in the foundation of the São Paulo Republican Party.
By that time, Luiz Gama was already a well known personality. In 1864, he and the Italian cartoonist Angelo Agostini founded O Diabo Coxo, the first illustrated humorous periodical of São Paulo, the state capital. Two years later, he collaborated on the weekly Cabrião, also with Agostini and Américo de Campos. In controversial articles, he vehemently criticized the slave regime and went on to suffer from political persecution. His anger turned against the abuse of the Moderating Power [one of the four imperial powers, along with legislative, executive and judicial] and against emperor Pedro II himself, whose image had been badly tarnished by the Paraguayan War (1864-1870).
In 1869, Luiz Gama received a license to practice law in the lower courts, and that same year he founded the Clube Radical Paulistano with other members of the Masonic Lodge. Using solid arguments, Gama revealed the fragility of the judicial system. According to Ferreira, in addition to his criticisms, Gama tried to innovate in the legal arena, as when he unearthed the Law of November 7, 1831, which had abolished the slave trade, in order to free Africans sold after that date. In an 1869 case, he clashed with one of the leading judges of the capital, Rego Freitas, whom Gama demanded should “respect the law and do his duty, to what is paid for by the sweat of the nation.” Gama’s speech remains very current today.
He was also owner and editor of the political and satirical weekly O Polichinelo (1876). The press and freemasonry were crucial to Gama’s activism, because they gave him space to defend republican ideals and supported him in his liberation of slaves. There were other black abolitionists in the 19th century such as journalists Ferreira de Menezes and José do Patrocínio, and the engineer André Rebouças, but none of them had experienced the ordeal of slavery. One can compare Gama only to American abolitionists, such as the activists Frederick Douglass, author of The Life of an American Slave (1845), and Booker T. Washington, author of Up from Slavery (1901).
Gama expressed admiration for the United States, for him “the beacon of universal democracy.” An exemplary model: a federative republic of free and equal citizens, and anchored in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Gama was disturbed by the fact that Brazil remained the only monarchy in the Americas and last slave nation in the Western Hemisphere. Ferreira continues to question, in her article Representações da América nos escritos de Luiz Gama [Representations of America in the Writings of Luiz Gama], to be published in the Revista de Estudos Afroasiáticos, Gama’s lack of allusions to race riots and the segregation of blacks in the United States after slavery was abolished.
She has called attention to the fact that Gama never mentions Joaquim Nabuco in his writings, and the latter almost never mentioned Gama. This may have been because Joaquim Nabuco, also a leader in the antislavery struggle, was the son of Nabuco de Araújo, former president of the province of São Paulo and denounced by Gama for his complicity in the illegal enslavement of Africans. Gama, probably tired of waiting for the liberation of Africans, argued for encouraging a popular movement, since, for him, if insurrection is a “crime,” “resistance” would appear to be a “civic virtue.” Joaquim Nabuco, however, was convinced that abolition should be carried out by parliamentary means.
Luiz Gama died in 1882, having not lived to see the liberation of slaves and the end of the Empire. Ferreira notes that Gama was spared from seeing the birth of the Republic by military coup, realizing that the ideals of equality among men were not being applied, and learning that one of the purposes of the immigration policy had been to “whiten” Brazil in order to eliminate traces of the stigmatized and troublesome African presence in Brazil.Republish