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Luiz Gonzaga Pinto da Gama

Luiz (also spelled Luís) Gonzaga Pinto da Gama was a freeborn mulatto who overcame illegal enslavement and prejudice to become a successful journalist, lawyer, and abolitionist.

Gama was born on June 21, 1830 in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil to a freed African mother, Luisa Mahin, and a Brazilian father of Portuguese descent. Mahin is said to have been one of the only female leaders of the African slave revolts that occurred in Bahia during the early nineteenth century, and she was deported to Rio de Janeiro in the aftermath of one of the rebellions in 1837. Gama never saw her again. Gama never revealed his father’s name. It is known, however, that he was an affluent nobleman from a Bahian family who was addicted to drinking and gambling.

After having gambled away his entire fortune, Gama’s father wagered ten-year-old Luiz one night and lost. He was sold to slave traders and his father beguilingly led him aboard a slave ship that was preparing to leave Salvador for Rio. It was only when the ship began to depart that the abandoned Gama realized what had happened and shouted desperately to his father, who stood on the pier below, “Father, you have sold me!” Since Gama had been born to a free woman, this enslavement was illegal.

Upon arriving in the capital of the Brazilian empire, Gama was sold twice and then put up for sale in several interior slave markets but never purchased because of his Bahian origin. Slaveholders were very leery of purchasing Bahian slaves as a result of the recent uprisings there. Gama was taken instead to the home of slave trader Antônio Pereira Cardoso in São Paulo, where he worked as a houseboy for eight years. In 1847 Antônio Rodrigues do Prado, a law student, came to live in Cardoso’s home. Prado taught Gama how to read and write and inspired in him an interest in the law. In 1848 Gama escaped from Cardoso’s home after obtaining documents proving the illegality of his enslavement.

Gama next joined the army and served on the police force for a period of six years. He also worked part-time as a clerk in the law office of Francisco Mariade Sousa Furtado de Mendonça, a high-ranking police official and later professor who taught Gama literature and the basics of law.

After leaving the military in 1854 Gama was eventually hired as a clerk in the São Paulo police department’s headquarters. Meanwhile, he fell in love with Claudina Fortunata de Sampaio. The couple married and had a son. Gama’s police salary enabled him to devote his free time to exploring social issues and to publishing poetry and newspaper articles. His firm anti-slavery stance drew criticism and threats from conservative abolitionists and slaveholders alike and resulted in his being fired from his job. However, Gama soon landed on his feet with several jobs in newspaper editing.

Shifting his anti-slavery efforts to the courts, Gama trained himself and used his extensive legal knowledge to defend people who had been illegally enslaved. He also purchased the freedom of several slaves with donations he received from his antislavery speeches. Gama even used his own home in São Paulo as a place of refuge for fugitive slaves. Through his efforts he became known as the “lawyer of the slaves,” freeing more than five hundred people.

The ardent abolitionist died from complications of diabetes in his home in São Paulo on August 24, 1882. His dream of freedom for all slaves was realized six years later in 1888.

Read the full, original biography by Lamonte Aidoo in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

View complete story (pdf)


Aidoo, Lamonte. "Gama, Luiz Gonzaga Pinto da." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e839 (accessed Thu Sep 05 11:25:07 EDT 2019).

Azevedo, Elciene. Orfeu da carapinha: A trajetória de Luis Gama na imperial cidade de São Paulo. Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 1999.

Conrad, Robert Edgar. The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850–1888. Malabar: Krieger Publishing, 1993.

Câmara, Nelson. Luiz Gama: O advogado dos escravos. São Paulo: Lettera.doc, 2000.

Gama, Luiz Gonzaga Pinto da. Primeiras trovas burlescas. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2000.

Kennedy, James H. "Luiz Gama: Pioneer of Abolition in Brazil." The Journal of Negro History 59, no. 3 (1974): 255-67.

Luna, Luiz. O negro na luta contra a escravidão. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Leitura, 1968.

Mennucci, Sud. O precursor do abolicionismo no Brasil: Luiz Gama. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1938.

Ramos, Arthur. O negro na civilização Brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria-Editora da Casa do Estudante do Brasil, 1971.

Schwarz, Roberto. Autobiografia de Luiz Gama. São Paulo: Novos Estudos Cebrap, 1989.

Silva, J. Romão da. Luís Gama e Suas Poesias Satíricas. Livraria Editora Catedra, 1981.

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

O líder abolicionista e ex-escravo brasileiro Luiz Gama, numa imagem por volta de 1880.

Key Events

June 21, 1830

Born free in Salvador de Bahia to a freed African mother and a noble father of Portuguese descent.


Gama’s mother is deported for her leadership role in rebellions that had wracked Bahia. They never see each other again.


The boy is baptized in accordance with his father’s wishes (his mother had always resisted Christianity for herself and her son).


Gama’s father illegally enslaves him to cover gambling debts, sending him to Rio with a slave merchant. He is first placed in the home of a Portuguese merchant by the name of Vieira, whose family treats him well. Then he is sold to slave trader Antônio Pereira Cardoso. In the interior cities of Campinas and Jundiaí, Gama is offered at auction but does not find a buyer and is ultimately sent to Cardoso’s home in Campinas.


Law student Antônio Rodrigues do Prado comes to live in Cardoso’s home. He teaches Gama to read and write and inspires his interest in the law.


Gama obtains documents proving the illegality of his enslavement and escapes from Cardoso’s home. He joins the military and serves in the police for six years.


After being charged with acts of insubordination and imprisoned for thirty-nine days, Gama admits to threatening an officer who had insulted him. He is discharged and works for two years as a copyist in several police stations in São Paulo.


He is hired as a clerk in the police department’s headquarters.

Late 1850s

Gama falls in love and marries Claudina Fortunata de Sampaio, who becomes his wife and constant source of support in his fight for the emancipation of all slaves.


He published his only book, Primeiras Trovas Burlescas (First Comic Ballads), a collection of poetry and social and political satire.

July 20, 1859

The couple has a son, Benedito Graço Pinto da Gama.


Gama founds the Diabo Coxo (Lame Devil), a humorous periodical in which he publishes political and social satire, as well as antislavery propaganda. The paper is short-lived, lasting for no more than a year.


The conservative party comes to power and Gama is dismissed from his job because of his ardent abolitionism and radical views.

October 25, 1869

He is soon hired as a proofreader and apprentice editor for Ipiranga, one of Brazil’s most prominent newspapers. Gama and his wife formalize their marriage in the Catholic church. He also publishes several antislavery articles under the pseudonym “Afro.”


Gama joins the editorial staff of the newspaper Radical Paulistano, which includes leading abolitionists Rui Barbosa, Joaquim Nabuco, and Castro Alves, all of whom are students at the São Paulo law school.

By 1881

The Caixa Emancipadora Luiz Gama (Luiz Gama Emancipation Fund) is created to facilitate the purchase of freedom for slaves.


Gama establishes the Centro Abolicionista de São Paulo (Abolitionist Center of São Paulo).

August 24, 1882

Gama dies at his home in São Paulo from complications of diabetes, leaving behind his wife and son.

May 13, 1888

Slavery is completely abolished in Brazil.