Archive, Translation and Practice: The legal knowledge of Luiz Gama


In the second half of the nineteenth century, the country with the highest concentration of black slaves in the world, Brazil, experienced an accelerated and unprecedented production of legal knowledge. Within a few decades, dozens of courts were created, and hundreds of laws acquired and lost their normative force, depending on how they were implemented within the various local practices in the vast Brazilian territory. Thousands of judicial claims, whether made by free or enslaved peoples, were discussed and judged. Here, quite a number of legal meanings were created, translated, and modified within the context of the local practices as performed by local legal agents.

In the province of São Paulo, the heart of the Brazilian empire and home to the country's first law school, the multinormativity of slavery was translated several times. Examining this multinormativity in an effort to glocalize these translations, capturing its local shapes and its connections with other jurisdictions around the world, above all the Atlantic world, is one of the goals of this research.

Stemming from methodological approaches of legal biography, microhistory, and social history, this doctoral research analyses the work of the lawyer Luiz Gama (1830-1882) and how he acted in the courts in more than 120 cases, mostly dealing with issues of freeing enslaved people. What legal arguments did Gama construct and develop to defend the captives? Which authors did he expressly quote? What documents and kinds of evidence did Gama use in his legal strategies of freedom? Based on a close reading of judicial sources and on the study of the legal doctrine used in the lawsuits, in addition to the allegations and proofs produced by the litigants, the research seeks to ascertain how Gama creatively attributed different meanings to the multinormativity surrounding Brazilian slavery, thereby producing normative knowledge.

The analysis of Gama's strategies of freedom, rooted in the translation of legal categories and ideas, deserves attention not only because of his remarkable life or due to the erudition with which he developed concepts in Brazilian courts and journals. His arguments warrant examination from a global perspective, connecting his local experience with other Atlantic jurisdictions.

In this sense, rather than investigating the heroic dimension of a former slave who obtained his freedom, the research will deal with a question yet to be resolved: How this same former slave become a lawyer given the fact that he did not attend law school?

As he stated in a private letter to his friend Lucio de Mendonça (who some years later became a minister of the Supreme Court), Gama fled slavery and served as a soldier for several years before eventually becoming a public notary. After fifteen years in the police administration, where he dealt with hundreds of cases involving the administrative multinormativity, he cleverly exploited a norm and applied for the right to practice law, despite lacking a law degree. He acquired this right and became one of the best-known lawyers in the country. Sources report that Luiz Gama's actions in the courts helped approximately 500 illegally enslaved people achieve their freedom. By drawing on archives, records and both historiographic and legal historical methods, the primary aim of this doctoral thesis is to explain how this extraordinary and unprecedented feat in Atlantic slave societies was achieved.

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