“The only true wisdom is in knowing you can always know more.”
The History of Capoeira
Written by: Prof. Boaz (Swiss Center for Capoeira – Cordão de Ouro)
The aim of this article is to provide a brief summary of the history of Capoeira and to introduce you thereby to the complex and interesting world, from which it emerged. This article is based on several sources, which are listed at the end and will allow you to dive deeper into the history of Capoeira if you are interested.
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A note on the lack of documentation:
Capoeira was born in the slave communities of colonial Brazil. Low literacy rates among these communities mean that there is very little written documentation of Capoeira from its early days. As a result, there is no clear proof of when, where and how exactly Capoeira evolved. It is not even clear where the word Capoeira comes from and what it means. So the history of Capoeira is mostly an oral history carried through the generations in songs, legends and stories. This also means that there is no definitive history of Capoeira and sometimes even contradictory historic accounts co-exist.
A majority of historians believe that Capoeira was created and developed by African slaves in Brazil sometime during the 17th or 18th century.
Jogar Capoeira-Dança de Guerra (Rugedas 1835)
2. Slavery: from Africa to Brazil
After occupying Brazil at the beginning of the 16th century the Portuguese soon discovered the richness of its soil. With that came also a challenge: an immense work force was needed to extract the natural resources and cultivate the land.
At first, the Portuguese considered enslaving the local indigenous tribes. However, the local tribes proved to be rebellious, physically not compatible and they got sick often. In search for alternative sources of slaves , the Portuguese turned to Africa. They started hunting, capturing and enslaving thousands of Africans. Enslavement took place from the north-west of the continent in regions that now correspond to Guinea and Nigeria, all the way to the south-east in Angola and Mozambique.
While no official numbers exist, estimates of the numbers of enslaved Africans reach up to several millions. Men, women and children were forced to march long distances barefoot, chained like animals, exposed to cruel conditions and violence on a daily basis.
Enslaved Africans on the march to the costal port cities
Those who managed to survive this terrible march finally reached the port cities, where they were branded and loaded on slave ships. Their long and harsh journey to Brazil had begun. Conditions on these ships were unforgiving. They were kept like animals in big groups below deck, often naked, with little to eat, and the men were often chained. Many died on the way and their bodies were thrown in to the sea.
Illustrations demonstrating the ships transporting enslaved Africans on their way to Brazil
The slave ships finally reached the Brazilian port cities, mainly Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador. The arriving slaves were examined, fed, and got medical treatment if needed. They were then put for sale in auctions, to be purchased by their future slave holders.
This business of human trade was very lucrative and profitable. Slave holders paid special attention that their slaves come from different geographical and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, the enslaved Africans found it difficult to communicate, shared little cultural identity and were consequentially less likely to resist and rebel.
3. Slavery: Brazil
On the Fazendas (farms) the slaves were normally housed together in Senzalas (small elongated wooden cabins). It was more of a small jail than a house though. Men were often chained at night. The slaves had to endure a lot, mentally as well as physically. They often got sick or injured, had to work barefoot at times. Life expectancy on those farms was low, especially among children.
A Senzala at the farm of Boa vista (São luis de paraitinga)
Some were even forced to convert to Christianity.
A certain hierarchy was formed depending of the type of work the slaves performed. At the top were those working in the household. At the bottom those carrying out the harsh physical jobs, mainly working the cotton, tobacco, sugar cane or coffee fields.
Punishment was a daily practice. Those physical (and mental) methods of torture knew no boundaries. Death wasn’t a seldom outcome. It often took place in the so called „Casa do tronco“. A kind of torture cabin. Alongside the common methods of whipping and hitting using a wooden stick, the farmers also used devices such as iron neck collars, face masks or means of breaking bones in the most inhumane ways imaginable. While violence was the norm, some slavers were somewhat less violent.
Whipping of a slave (Pau do Pelorinho)
The so called Gargalheira (iron neck collars and face masks), which were used as means of punishment
Thumb screw device, used to inflict great pain
4. Slavery: the fight for freedom and the birth of Capoeira
The inhumane conditions on the farms encouraged many to attempt escape, despite the dreadful destiny if recaptured. As more slaves escaped a new occupation arose - the “Capitao do Mato” (slave hunters, see introduction).
Capitão do Mato presenting a recaptured slave
Nevertheless, escape attempts continued to grow and many slaves found their freedom. They found refuge in remote areas, forming communities of free former slaves, sometimes up to many thousands of men, women and children.
They lived out of fishing, agriculture, hunting or robing.
Those communities were called „Quilombos“.
The Quilombos became an important symbol for all African slaves in Brazil.
A symbol of freedom, of the fight against slavery and of the resistance against the oppression.
The Portuguese authorities, police and military never succeeded in finding and destroying them all.
One Quilombo even turned into a legend: the „Quilombo dos Palmares”.
It was able to fight off attacks against it for many decades, until finally falling after a massive military offensive in 1694. Legend has it that the leader of this Quilombo, a former slave called Zumbi, used Capoeira in his fights against the army.
Two young men practicing capoeira
Many historians believe Capoeira to have emerged at roughly that time. For the slaves, all traditions, religions and practices of cultural nature were forbidden. And so they found some comfort in the practice of Capoeira. At the beginning it is likely to have been composed of a variety of movements of defensive and offensive character. It was probably inspired by other traditions, rituals, dances and music elements originating in Africa. Through Capoeira, slaves prepared themselves for the day of escape. It was a way of expressing resistance, a symbol of their free spirit and mind. It is believed that the Capoeira of that time was lacking many modern elements such as acrobatics or even the Berimbau.
5. Capoeira: growth
Despite the vast distances and difficulties exchanging information, Capoeira continued its development and spread throughout Brazil. The exchange and trade of slaves in between farms surely contributed to it. The Quilombos, as a place where free Africans of many different origins and cultures could meet and inspire each other, is likely to have played a central role as well.
6. Capoeira: a king’s order of prohibition
In 1808 King Dom Joao IV arrived in Brazil after fleeing the military campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe. The king perceived Capoeira (as well as all foreign religions and cultural practices) as a possible threat. He feared that it might strengthen the sense of identity, unity and empowerment of local slave population which in turn was thought to increase the risk of slave rebellion. As a result, he prohibited all cultural practices, including Capoeira.
It is believed that around this time the use of Apelidos (nicknames) was introduced to conceil the Capoeirista’s true identity. Indeed, documents reveal the arrest of roughly 300 Capoeiristas between 1810 and 1821. The use of Apelidos may have made it more difficult for authorities to track down the fellow Capoeirista’s of those arrested.
Also this situation attributed to the role of music. The Berimbau became an important instrument while playing Capoeira. Whenever Policemen were sited, the music were used to alert the Capoeiristas of their presence. They then could either run away or switched to dancing, disguising their gathering as an innocent social event.
The main instruments used in the capoeira nowadays
7. Abolishment of slavery
The fight against slavery was long and difficult. During the 18th- 19th century it was the British empire, once a big player in the slavery trade itself, who played an important role in its abolishment. This change in attitude towards slave trade was triggered by the so called „Song-Massaker“. A captain of a slave ship decided to defraud his insurance, drowning all of the slaves on board by throwing them off deck into the sea. He hoped to cash out the insurance money. Fortunately, this horrific crime was uncovered, became known to the public in England, and helped the antislavery movement, founded one year before, to gain popularity and raise awareness. At the year of 1807 the British empire announced the abolishment of slave trade in England as well as all throughout its colonies. Still, it took many more years, until 1833, for slavery itself to become forbidden by law. It was called the Slavery Abolition Act. Out of political and economic interests the British leadership also started pressuring other countries to follow them and later even sent warships to patrol the west coast of Africa enforcing this law. Slave ships which were captured were treated as pirate ships and the enslaved Africans were set free.
It took the Portuguese many more years before following the footsteps of the British. In 1871 they first partially prohibited the slave trade (inland slave trade remained legal). It wasn’t until 1888 that they finally abolished slavery itself with the so called “Golden Rule”.
The enslaved Africans finally got their freedom!
Despite the welcome change, the route to a better life was still long. Being free also meant suddenly being on the street with no place to sleep, no work or food. As a result, crime rates increased. Conflicts between the police and former slave gangs became routine. Some also used Capoeira during their fights, increasingly giving Capoeira a bad name.
In 1890, two years after the abolishment of slavery, Capoeira was declared illegal (until 1937). Capoeirstas were at risk of imprisonment of up to six months if caught.
The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by constant conflicts between law enforcement and gangs of former slaves. Those took place mainly in the states of Pernambuco, Bahía and Rio de Janeiro. The Capoeirista back then was a „Malandro“ (a criminal), who didn’t hesitate to also use weapons such as shaving blades or a machete (a big knife used to clear plants in the forest or fields). Some gangs were even hired by local politicians to terrorize rivals.
Interestingly, Capoeira evolved differently in different regions of Brazil.
In Rio and Recife, Capoeira tended to be more violent. Then, due to the constant harassment by the police, Capoeira became less and less common in these regions.
In Bahia on the other hand, it transformed more and more into a mixture between a dance-ritual and martial art. The berimbau also became a key part in the Capoeira roda (the circle, in which the Capoeira game is taking place at).
Surprisingly it was „Capoeira Carioca“ in Rio (Carioca is a nickname used still today for people from Rio) that got to be the first to appear in a military manual in 1907 ("The Guide of Capoeira - Brazilian Gymnastics."). In 1916 two military police officers, Ataliba Nogueira Lapa and Leite published the “Manual of Capoeira”. Both of the publications mentioned above were probably a sort of a handbook, destined to function as a Capoeira guide for soldiers. It has an important symbolic act, demonstration the change of perception towards Capoeira, gaining more and more interest and value even in official circles.
8. Capoeira: legalization and professionalization (Capoeira Regional)
The work of Manoel dos Reis Machado (Mestre „Bimba“, 1899-1974), in particular his development of the Capoeira Regional, is considered until this day to be the birth of modern Capoeira and a milestone in its legalization. In his life time, Capoeira developed from the practice of criminals into an important cultural asset of the Brazilian nation.
Manoel dos Reis Machado (M. Bimba)
M. Bimba was born on the 23th of November 1899 in Salvador da Bahia, to Luiz Cândido Machado and Maria Martinha do Bonfim. He started to “learn” Capoeira around 1912. Back then there were no Capoeira schools. It was practiced on the streets. One would watch others doing it and then try to imitate them. At the age of 19 he was already known as a top fighter, defeating also fighters from other martial arts such as Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and Boxing.
He held several jobs, working at the docks or as a carpenter. At some point he also started to give private classes to students from Brazil’s upper class. After having “too” many students, he decided in 1932 to open his own Capoeira school. Since it was still forbidden, he called it „Luta Regional Bahiana“ (the regional martial art of Bahia), or better known as Capoeira Regional.
M. Bimba was a pioneer and an innovator. He recognized the need of the traditional Capoeira to change in order to make it accessible for people of the upper classes. Through schools or church, they were used to more structured teaching methods rather than the way Capoeira was taught on the streets. M. Bimba developed methodical teaching techniques, emphasized the role of music, developed a special set of sequences for training purposes, integrated a series of acrobatic elements and introduced a belt-system (Cordãos). M. Bimba declared a set of behavioral rules and norms based on respect and even demanded of his young students to go to school.
Together with his students, some with connections to high officials, he worked to legalize Capoeira. He was lucky. The President during the 1930s, Getulio Vargas, was a nationalist and pursued the strengthening of the Brazilian Identity. He perceived Capoeira as an important part of the Brazilian culture and pushed toward its legalization.
One story describes a visit of M. Bimba at the royal palace 1928. There he took it upon himself to fight the best fighters the military had to offer using only Capoeira. He supposedly won them all, demonstrating the high value of Capoeira.
9. Capoeira Angola: preserving the traditional Capoeira
During the revolution of M. Bimba, another important figure managed to leave a mark in the world of Capoeira: Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (Mestre „Pastinha“, 05 April 1889- 13 November 1981). Unlike M. Bimba, M. Pastinha fought to preserve the traditional style of Capoeira. He believed that this way he was able to preserve Capoeira as an expression of resistance and strength of the Afrobrazillian people, seeking freedom and fighting for equality. In 1941 he opened his first school “Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola”. He worked to clearly differentiate his style, today known as Capoeira Angola, from M. Bimba’s Capoeira Regional. Capoeira Angola is characterized by slower and more theatrical movements. It has no belt system and often has a strict set of rules.
M. Pastinha, probably one of the most known and respected Capoeiristas alongside M. Bimba, died lonely and blind in his one room apartment at the age of 92.
Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (Mestre Pastinha)
T. Weathersbee (2015): Capoeira and the Commodification of Resistance: Conflicts in the Global Consumption of an Afro- Brazilian Martial; University of Florida
Chvaicer, M. (2002): The Criminalization of Capoeira in Nineteenth Century Brazil; Hispanic American Historical Review
Nestor capoeira (1995): The little capoeira book ; North Atlantic books, Berkeley, California
M-C Thull (2006): Kampf und Tanz: Ein ethnologischer Vergleich von Capoeira, Moringue und Danmyé in ehemaligen portugiesischen und französischen Kolonien; Fachbereich Historische Ethnologie der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität
Herbert S. Klein, Ben Vinson III (second edition 20079): African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean ; Oxford University Press, Inc.