Luis Gama - The first great black leader of Sao Paulo

In our series Black History around the globe, the story of Afro-Brazilian Luis Gama.

By Toyin Ashiru

Luís Gonzaga Pinto da Gama (June 21, 1830 — August 24, 1882) was a Brazilian Romantic poet, journalist, lawyer and a prominent abolitionist

Luis Gama was born in June 21 1830 in Salvador the capital of Bahia which in the 1800s was the most important city for the slave trade in Latin America. He was born to a wealthy white father who would later sell his son at the age of 10 to pay off a gambling debt and a free black woman called Luiza Mahn who was from the Nago nation located in Ghana. Although she had been snatched from Ghana, she had managed to gain her freedom by the time Luis Gama was born and was selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of Salvador.

Luis Gama never told anyone who his father was, but always wrote and spoke freely of his affection for his mother. According to him, his mother was both strong and vindictive which reflected in the fact that she refused to have her son baptised into the Christian religion, she was also known to be a great leader in several uprisings, and is famed for her involvement in the great Males revolt in 1835 where her home was used as headquarters. The revolt involved African Slaves who had converted to Islam and who went on to carry out a series of holy wars in the hope of erasing Christianity and also the white man, the revolt was eventually suppressed and rumour has it that when Luiza Mahan was accused of involvement in the revolt she fled to Rio de Janeiro, but know one knows for certain, what we do know though is; a young Luis Gama was later sold by his father into slavery at the age of 10.

In November 1840 Luis Gama arrived in Rio de Janeiro and was one of 100 slaves purchased by slave trafficker called Antônio Pereira Cardoso. He was to work in the coffee plantations of São Paulo but being from Bahia which had a bad reputation for insurgent slaves, Cardoso couldn’t sell Luis Gama, so he decided to keep him as his personal slave. Gama stayed with his master for 8 years on an estate and learnt how to read and write from a students who rented rooms on the estate. In 1848 Gama escaped and managed to prove that his condition was illegal to justice courts thus becoming a free man.

Once a free man he became a solider in the Urban Guard a military police force where he stayed until 1858 until he was discharged for insubornation, after this he joined the police force and progressed to be the scribe at the Sao Paulo Police Secretariat. He made the most of this job and got to know the legislation and how it was used, he then became a special type of lawyer which was called at the time Rabula (a lawyer without a degree) which was basically a man who made lawsuits on behalf of slaves against their masters. This job highlighted his extraordinary intellect and oratory skills which he used to help the defenceless, who were was the black people of Sao Paulo.

In 1860 Gama published a collection of poems in which he gained huge notoriety and fame for satirizing and mocking Pardos (The Brazilian term for mixed raced or Biracial persons of African and European ancestry ) who wanted to be white and sold out their black brother and sisters by denying their roots so they could join the elite, also poems condemning slavery, his love of black women and of Africa, and the African customs he had experienced growing up in Salvador from his mother and others, this at the time was un heard of. Even though Gama was also a Pardo he found great pride in his blackness and saw himself as black and was proud to have had such a strong and beautiful black mother.

The poems were entitled when first published Primerias trovas burlecas de Getuliano (The burlesque ballads of Getuliano) and the second expanded edition was entitled Novas Trovas Burlescues 1861

In 1869, he lost his job as a scribe due to his behaviour towards a judge who was reluctant to try cases for the release of slaves proposed by him. The dismissal was requested by the Governor of the Province but Luís Gama did not quiver. He replied: “I am honoured at the dismissal I have just received”. He was not only sacked but also sued for libel and defamation.

He took on his own defence before a popular jury and was acquitted by unanimous decision. After this episode, Luís Gama worked as a lawyer and a journalist where he scorned the values of the Paulista elite incompetent judges and the monarchy.

In response the judges accused him inciting rebellion by slaves, the president of São Paulo at the time accused Gama of confounded philanthropy and to much preference towards blacks in the country, this from a country that would later import white Europeans to whiten the country.

Gama was a hero amongst black Brazilians and asserted in articles and speeches that slaves should use violence against their masters if they had to.

Alongside the help of the Paulistano club and the masons. His work made sure that many Negro slaves were freed. His main resource was to use the laws currently in effect, that were not respected by the owners. The most important of these was the 1831 law that declared that any Negroes entering the country after that date would be free. By the end of his career over a 1000 slaves had benefited from his legal assistance.

Gama was also an exceptional journalist and founded Diablo Coxo (lame Devil) Brazil’s first lampoon magazine, which mocked the Brazilian elite also O Cabario he also contributed regularly to three other newspapers and magazines in São Paulo.

During debates over the free womb Gama called for an immediate end of slavery and the other throw of the monarchy, a lot of people in Brazil were very scared of Gama’s power and influence over black people and feared he would inspire blacks to rise to unacceptable positions of power.

His obstinate defence of the Abolitionist and Revolutionary causes meant that Luís Gama had a difficult life, almost impoverished yet he was a hero in Bahia, Salvador and Rio with activists naming abolitionist groups after him also a patriotic Battalion.

He died on 24 August 1882, of diabetes and his burial was a significant event in Brazil. In the city of São Paulo, which then had 40 thousand people, three thousand people followed the coffin of the abolitionist leader which included very prominent figures of São Paulo. The A Província de São Paulo newspaper published the following comment: “This capital city has never seen such an imposing and spontaneous expression of intense pain and nostalgia from a whole population, towards one citizen.” About Luís Gama, Rui Barbosa said the following: “The heart of an angel, a brilliant mind, a torrent of eloquence, dialectics and grace”.


  1. This man was a giant. Martin Luther Kimg and Nelson Mandela learned from his example.

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