June 21, 1830
August 24, 1882
Brazilian abolitionist, republican, freethinker, and poet Luiz Gama was born in the city of Salvador da Bahia. His early life is the subject of some mystery and is likely to remain one, as all accounts of it are based on a single letter containing his own reminiscences. Gama's mother, Luiza Mahin, was an African-born freedwoman who made her living selling foodstuffs in the city market. Gama's father, whose name he declined to reveal, was the dissolute son of a prominent Bahian family. In 1837, when Gama was still a young boy, his mother was forced to flee Bahia, perhaps after being implicated in antislavery plotting. A few years later, in 1840, his father sold him into slavery after squandering his own inheritance.
Following this illegal sale, young Luiz was shipped south to the port of Rio de Janeiro, then to the neighboring province of São Paulo. He was a house slave in the city of São Paulo for nearly eight years, during the last years of which he befriended a boarder in his master's home, a law student who taught him to read.
Gama proved a quick study, using his newly acquired literacy to obtain documentation proving that he had been enslaved illegally and, in 1848, regaining his freedom. In the years that followed, he served in the military, worked as a clerk, and acquired a thorough, if informal, training in the law, eventually establishing his own practice.
Not content with having achieved his own freedom, Gama dedicated himself to the cause of human freedom more broadly, using his legal skills to liberate other enslaved men, women, and children through the courts and otherwise advancing the abolitionist cause as a lecturer, journalist, and fund-raiser. In all, Gama claimed to have assisted in the freeing of more than five hundred slaves.
Gama was not only an abolitionist, he was a republican during a period in which Brazil was ruled by a constitutional monarch, seeing the two struggles as joined and writing of his desire to see his country "without king and without slaves." He is said to have been the first Brazilian to use the phrase "United States of Brazil," and although he was deeply disappointed by the refusal of the rump leadership of the São Paulo Republican Party to take up the cause of immediate abolition, he never broke with the republican movement, as is often claimed.
Gama's abolitionism and republicanism are well known, but a further aspect of his intellectual formation has been overlooked. In matters religious, Gama was a freethinker, taking pride in the fact that his African-born mother had refused to allow him to be baptized as a Catholic. Although his father eventually had him baptized in the Church and he later expressed his belief in certain Christian tenets, Gama eschewed organized religion and expressed an admiration for Ernest Renan's iconoclastic Life of Jesus. Not coincidentally, this religious and political nonconformist was among the most prominent freemasons in São Paulo, a position he used to attract further support for the abolitionist cause.
Gama was also a poet, most famous for the doggerel with which he lampooned Brazilian racism, privilege, and hypocrisy. In "Quem sou eu?" ("Who am I?"), the most celebrated of his poems, he mocked the racial pretensions of his countrymen, playing on the nineteenth-century slang term for a male mulatto, bóde ("billy-goat"):
Se Negro sou, ou sou bóde
Pouco importa. O que isto póde?
Bódes ha de toda a casta,
Pois que a especie é muito vasta …
Ha cinzentos, ha rajados,
Bayos, pampas e malhados
Bódes negros, bódes brancos,
E, sejamos todos francos,
Uns plebeus, e outros nobres
[If I am black, or am billy-goat
It matters little. How can it?
There are goats of every caste,
For the species is very vast …
There are gray ones, there are spotted,
Chestnut-colored, streaked and mottled
Black goats, white goats,
And, let us all be frank,
Some plebian, and others noble]
In a further passage, the "billy-goat" proclaimed of his bleating, bucking countrymen:
Gentes pobres, nobres gentes
Em todos ha meus parentes.
[Persons poor, noble persons
Among one and all are my relations.]
But as a poet Gama also had a serious side, one clear in his ode to his mother, "Minha mãe" ("My Mother"), and in love poems like "A captiva" ("The Captive") and "Meus amores" ("My Loves"). These works, with their evocations of African and Afro-Brazilian beauty, were part of a larger effort on Gama's part to valorize blackness at a time in which African contributions to Brazilian society and culture were broadly ignored or denigrated. In his celebration of blackness, Gama was truly ahead of his time, anticipating the black-consciousness movements of the twentieth century.
Gama died in 1882, six years before the emancipation of all of Brazil's remaining slaves. His funeral cortège was among the most impressive that São Paulo had seen, with thousands of mourners accompanying the casket across the city to its final resting place.
Gama was married to Claudina Fortunata Sampaio, who survived him, as did his son—his only child—Benedicto. A collection of Gama's poems, titled Primeiras trovas burlescas, was published in two editions in his lifetime (1859, 1861) and in various posthumous editions (1904, 1944, 1954, 1981, 2000).
Azevedo, Elciene. Orfeu de carapinha: a trajetória de Luiz Gama na imperial cidade de São Paulo. Campinas, Brazil: Editora da Universidade Estadual de Campinas, 1999.
Kennedy, James H. "Luiz Gama: Pioneer of Abolition in Brazil." Journal of Negro History 59, no. 3 (July 1974): 255–267.
Mennucci, Sud. O precursor do abolicionismo no Brasil: Luiz Gama. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1938.
james p. woodard (2005)