Luiz Gama: Self Made Man, Lawyer, Writer and Abolitionist

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When the Brazilian borders eventually reopen after nearly two years of lockdown, many African Americans will revisit their travel bucket list. While visiting any major city in Brazil, visitors are bound to run across a street, park or building named after a figure critical to the liberation of African descendants in the diaspora. 

This truly self-made man also lived a life that would make for an amazing blockbuster film.

Afro Brazilians recently celebrated the birthday of Luiz Gama. On June 21, 1830, Luiz Gonzaga Pinto da Gama was born in the capital of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. The son of a white Portuguese father and a Black mother, Gama was born free. His mother, a freed Black woman, Luiza Mahin, participated in the historic  Malês Slave revolt (Revolta dos Malês)  and other uprisings. This forced her to leave Luiz with his father while she fled to Rio de Janeiro.

Three years later in 1840, Luiz’s father sold him to a slave merchant to repay a gambling debt. 

Luiz Gamo monument  Largo do Arouche in São Paulo, Brasil. Photo via wikicommons

His reputation as an enslaved Bahian made it difficult for the merchant to sell Luiz to a plantation owner. White Brazilians considered enslaved Africans from the Northeast of Brazil insubordinate and difficult to control. Instead, the merchant took him to his plantation in the interior of Sao Paulo. When he was 17, Gama met and became friends with a white student who visited the plantation. He convinced the student to teach him how to read and write. 

Realizing that his mother was a free woman, making his captivity illegal, Gama fled from the plantain to the metropolis where he enlisted in the military in 1948. A few years later he met and married Claudina Fortunata de Sampio, with whom he had a son named Benedito Graco Pinto de Gama. Gama attempt to enroll in law school was rejected due to his race. In spite of this, he audited a full law curriculum while facing discrimination and harassment from students and teachers. 

After six years in the military, Gama was discharged and spent a month in jail for insubordination and threatening an officer who had insulted him. He then used his legal education to obtain various positions in the São Paulo Provincial Police Department.

A shifting political climate resulted in Gama’s dismissal. It wouldn’t be long before he landed an editor position at O Piranga, a leading newspaper in Brazil at the time. Gama used various pseudonyms to publish anti-slavery articles.

During his journalism career, Gama founded several publications including Radical Paulistano and a satirical journal called Diablo Coxo with illustrator, Ângelo Agostini. Diablo Coxo was well known due to its use of illustrated social satire and antislavery propaganda which gave illiterate Brazlians access to news and information.

Besides journalism, Gama was a creative writer, publishing poems in several newspapers and eventually publishing his own books. Once again using pseudonyms, his poetry satirized the aristocracy and other elite classes of his time. Between 1859-1861, he published a series of books under the pen name Getulino. “Primeiras Trovas Burlescas de Getulino (Getulino’s First Burlesque Ballads)” mocked the mixed-race class for their emphasis on valorizing whiteness and instead advocated for the recognition of Black beauty and Afro Brazilian culture. 

Gama’s experiences made him a leader in the abolition movement. He used his oratory skills and legal knowledge to defend enslaved Africans who had money to purchase their freedom but were prevented by their owners. He also defended those who were trafficked to Brazil after the prohibition of the slave trade in 1850. His abolitionist operations were financed in part by his association with secret masonic societies. 

He freed over 500 captives in his lifetime. 

Luiz Gonzaga Pinto da Gama died in Sao Paulo at the early age of 52 from diabetes. Thousands of people attended his funeral. A procession stretched for miles as people followed behind his casket.

It remains one of the most memorable events in the city’s history, according to historians.

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