A brief history of Capoeira

The history of capoeira starts with the beginning of the Brazilian nation, as a result of the environment and the way in which the relationship between the European conquerors, natives and Africans developed.

For the conquerors, the new world that had just been discovered had to be exploited in all aspects, in order to provide more wealth to the countries in Europe. To make possible the building of a new empire, they needed to hire manual workers who would help them in harvesting and any other heavy work that had to be done. After the failed attempt of making the natives work as slaves, Africans were brought to Brazil to fulfil this need ( XVI century).

Since the middle of the XV century, the Portuguese were already trading slaves from Africa. The African slaves were put together and shipped as cargo, in the dark, dirty cargo deck of the Portuguese ships known as ´tumbeiros´. Most of them would die during the journey, due to the non-human conditions on the ships. ´Banzo´ is the name given for the feeling of intense pain caused by the lost of freedom,  for the separation from their loved ones and their land. After acquiring ´banzo´, the Africans died.

Upon their arrival in Brazil, the Africans were sold at auctions. They worked in agriculture and lived in ´senzalas´(slaves quarters). The ´senhores de engenho´ were the owners of the properties and the absolute power over all. The ´feitores´ were given the responsibility of establishing discipline and order at any cost.

Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife were, in the XVI and XVII centuries, the main slave centres. Sudaneses (iorubas, geges, haussas , minas), Bantos (angolas and cabindas) and Males (arabs and islamics) were brought to these centres in order to be sold at the auctions.

Taken by force from their land, a life of sacrifice was waiting for them in the new land: hard work in the big farms under the boiling sun. The work was so hard that these Africans’ life expectancy was from 7 to 10 years. Arriving in Brazil was already a proof of their strong resistance: about 40% of the slaves died during the journey.

As payment for their work, the slaves received all types of punishment and torture given without any mercy. But they reacted. They killed ´feitores´, committed suicide and avoided reproduction. They sought relief from the pain through their cults, rituals, dance, prayers and songs. The ‘capitao do mato’ was responsible for the capturing of fugitives and to bring them alive…or dead if need be, as a deterrent for other slaves who wanted to run away.

The ‘senzalas’ were where the Africans tried to preserve their human dignity, until they had another chance of escaping. Under the guise of songs and dances, followed by the drums (atabaque), their beliefs and rituals survived, as innocent ways of recreation and from which capoeira was born.

As time passed, the escapes became more organised. The land with low grass was perfect for them to fight against their oppressors. The short vegetation which covered the ground was known in tupy as ‘caapuera’ and gave the name to their fight: capoeira.

In the woods, escapees formed villages of their own, which were called ‘quilombos’. In these quilombos, the Africans lived under their own rules. In mid XVI century, these communities were numerous and spread all over the counties, especially in Pernambuco and Alagoas, where it became a real nation known as ´Palmares`.
“No tempo que o negro chegava fechado em gaiola/ Nasceu no Brasil/ Quilombo e Quilombola/ E todo dia/ Negro fugia/ juntando a corriola/ De estalo de açoite, de ponta de faca e zunido de bala/ Negro voltava pra argola/ No meio da senzala/ E ao som do tambor primitivo, berimbau, maraca e viola/ Negro gritava: abre ala, vai ter jogo de angola”.
“Dança guerreira/ O corpo do negro é de mola/ Na capoeira ele embola e desembola/ E a dança que era uma festa pro povo da terra/ Virou a principal defesa do negro na guerra/ Pelo que se chamou: Libertação/ E por toda força, coragem e rebeldia/ Louvado será todo dia/ Que este povo cantar e lembrar o jogo de Angola/ Da escravidão do Brasil”.
Mauro Duarte & Paulo César Pinheiro
This is believed to have been the birth of capoeira: from the senzalas to the escapes to the Quilombos, they used their bodies to defend themselves.

There is nothing that indicated that capoeira has developed in any other part of the world and there is also no historic record of capoeira during the XVI and XVII centuries. This makes it difficult to understand how capoeira was taken from the farms to the cities. It’s believed to have happened at the beginning of the XIX century, due to historic references from this time mentioning capoeira.

In the XIX century, the main capoeira centres were in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife. The capoeiristas met at popular festivals where they could relax after a hard-days work on the farms, from the tortures they endured and forget their slave status.

Gradually, capoeiristas became famous as fighters, dressing in a peculiar way with pantaloons, hats and round earrings as a sign of strength and bravery. They were responsible for most disorders, amazingly always escaping from the police. They worked as mercenaries, as killers or as bodyguards for local politicians. Even the police was afraid of them.

During the middle of the XIX century, capoeira was essentially practised by slaves but after 1850 many others joined in, including white people from high-society and many foreigners, mostly Portuguese.

During the war in Paraguay, from 1865 to 1870, many capoeiristas were sent to the army to fight and came back as heroes. This only helped their fame to grow even more.

At that time, capoeiristas used the streets and squares as their schools, gathering together to practise and were seen by society as a dangerous and feared gang of professional criminals. The word ´capoeira´ was synonym of bandits, thiefs, etc.

When Brazil became a Republic in 1889, Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca, under pressure from a rising wave of crime started a campaign to combat capoeira. On the 11th of October 1890, law 487, proposed by Sampaio Ferraz, was brought into effect. This law prohibited the practice of capoeira with a punishment of 2 to 6 months forced labour on the island of Fernando de Noronha.

In article 402 it says: ‘Participation in public of any exercises of agility or honing the body sculpture under the name of ‘capoeiragem’; congregating with arms or instruments capable of causing physical lesion, provoking disorder, threatening people indiscriminately or instilling fear. Punishment – 2 to 6 months imprisonment.
First paragraph: it will be considered a sign of aggravation to belong to a group or association of capoeira. The chiefs and heads of which will receive this punishment in double.´

This situation remained until 1932 when Mestre Bimba took capoeira off the streets and into the gym where the teaching was perfected and exhibitions started to be visited by higher levels of society.

Thus the history of capoeira went through some profound transformations. The middle class and bourgeois levels of society hurried themselves to the gyms, initially, to watch but afterwards to learn and practise as well.

Then on the 9th of July 1937 the government recognised capoeira officially by registering Mestre Bimba and his gym. It was at this point that people with a superior social status entered capoeira forcing some original members (who were viewed as ‘louts’ or ‘yobs’) to leave. Those that resisted and continued with capoeira, did their best to adapt to the new profile that capoeira had taken.

Thereafter, capoeira started its socio-cultural ascension returning to the cultural scene. Tt’s now present in music, in plastic art, in literature and on stage. Whereas before only practised almost exclusively by men, capoeira had now opened its doors to women and children.

In 1973 capoeira became officially recognised as a national sport. Since then it’s grown and expanded acquiring more members from all races and social levels from, not only Brazil, but the whole world.

The roots of capoeira in Brazil come from Negro slave resistance. It was an instrument of liberation against a dominant and oppressive system. Today it is one of the most valued legacies of our ancestral Africans: a dignified and happy expression of afro-Brazilian culture that today is followed by members spread throughout the world.