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.
“Gama, Luís Gonzaga Pinto da” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition
“Gama, Luiz Gonzaga Pinto da” in Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography
“Luiza Mahin” in this database
“Mahin, Luiza” in Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography
“Mahin, Luiza” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition
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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.
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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.