About Capoeira and it’s history
Capoeira is a martial art, dance and art form that combines kicks, escapes and acrobatics with music, style and artistic expression. Performed by two people, it is often called “Capoeira Game” that is played, not a fight. The uniqueness of Capoeira will give your body physical strength, power and flexibility and your mind self-confidence, concentration, courage and creativity. I’ve heard many people say things such as: Capoeira has tremendously enhanced my life and it is the best thing that ever happened to me. However, the only way to truly understand the magnetism of Capoeira is to see it and try it for yourself. Capoeira caters to Men, Women and Children of all ages, sizes and ethnic backgrounds.The most widely accepted origin of the word capoeira is referring to the areas of low vegetation in the Brazilian interior where fugitive slaves would hide. A practitioner of the art is called a capoeirista.
Capoeira’s history begins with the beginning of African slavery in Brazil. Since the 16th century, Portuguese colonists began exporting slaves to their colonies, coming mainly from Angola. Brazil, with its vast territory, received most of the slaves, almost 40% of all slaves sent through the Atlantic Ocean. The early history of capoeira is still controversial, especially the period between the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, since historical documents were very scarce in Brazil at that time. But oral tradition, language, and evidence leaves little doubt about its Afro-Brazilian roots.
In its first century, the main economic activity in the colony was the production and processing of sugar cane. Portuguese colonists created large sugarcane farms called “engenhos“, literally “engines” (of economic activity), which depended on the labor of slaves. Slaves, living in inhumane conditions, were forced to work hard and often suffered physical punishment for small misbehaviors. Although slaves often outnumbered colonists, rebellions were rare because of the lack of weapons, harsh colonial law, disagreement between slaves coming from different African cultures, and lack of knowledge about the new land and its surroundings. In this environment, capoeira was born as a simple method of survival. It was a tool with which an escaped slave, completely unequipped, could survive in the hostile, unknown land and face the hunt of the capitães-do-mato, the armed and mounted colonial agents who were charged with finding and capturing escapees.
Soon several groups of escaping slaves would gather and establish quilombos, settlements in far and hard to reach places. Some quilombos would soon increase in size, attracting more fugitive slaves, Brazilian natives and even Europeans escaping the law or Christian extremism. Some quilombos would grow to an enormous size, becoming a real independent multi-ethnic state.
Everyday life in a quilombo offered freedom and the opportunity to revive traditional cultures away from colonial oppression. In this kind of multi-ethnic community, constantly threatened by Portuguese colonial troops, capoeira evolved from a survival tool to a martial art focused on war.
The biggest quilombo, the Quilombo dos Palmares, consisted of many villages which lasted more than a century, resisting at least 24 small attacks and 18 colonial invasions. Portuguese soldiers sometimes said that it took more than one dragoon to capture a quilombo warrior, since they would defend themselves with a strangely moving fighting technique. The provincial governor declared “it is harder to defeat a quilombo than the Dutch invaders.
In 1808, the prince and future king Dom João VI, along with the Portuguese court, escaped to Brazil from the invasion of Portugal by Napoleon‘s troops. Formerly exploited only for its natural resources and commodity crops, the colony finally began to develop as a nation. The Portuguese monopoly effectively came to an end when Brazilian ports opened for trade with friendly foreign nations. Those cities grew in importance and Brazilians got permission to manufacture common products once required to be imported from Portugal, such as glass. Registries of capoeira practices existed since the 18th century in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife. Due to city growth, more slaves were brought to cities and the increase in social life in the cities made capoeira more prominent and allowed it to be taught and practiced among more people. Because capoeira was often used against the colonial guard, in Rio the colonial government tried to suppress it and established severe physical punishments to its practice. Ample data from police records from the 1800s shows that many slaves and free coloured people were detained for practicing capoeira:
“From 288 slaves that entered the Calabouço jail during the years 1857 and 1858, 80 (31%) were arrested for capoeira, and only 28 (10.7%) for running away. Out of 4,303 arrests in Rio police jail in 1862, 404 detainees—nearly 10%—had been arrested for capoeira.”
End of slavery and prohibition of capoeira
However, free former slaves now felt abandoned. Most of them had nowhere to live, no jobs and were despised by Brazilian society, which usually viewed them as lazy workers. Also, new immigration from Europe and Asia left most former slaves with no employment. Soon capoeiristas started to use their skills in unconventional ways. Criminals and war lords used capoeiristas as body guards and hitmen. Groups of capoeiristas, known as maltas, raided Rio de Janeiro. In 1890, the recently proclaimed Brazilian Republic decreed the prohibition of capoeira in the whole country. Social conditions were chaotic in the Brazilian capital, and police reports identified capoeira as an advantage in fighting. After the prohibition, any citizen caught practicing capoeira, in a fight or for any other reason, would be arrested, tortured and often mutilated by the police. Cultural practices, such as the roda de capoeira, were conducted in remote places with sentries to warn of approaching police.
Luta Regional Baiana
By the 1920s, capoeira repression had declined. Mestre Bimba from Salvador, a strong fighter in both legal and illegal fights, met with his future student, Cisnando Lima. Both thought capoeira was losing its martial roots due to the use of its playful side to entertain tourists. Bimba began developing the first systematic training method for capoeira, and in 1932 founded the first capoeira school. Advised by Cisnando, Bimba called his style Luta Regional Baiana (“regional fight from Bahia“), because capoeira was still illegal in name. In 1937, Bimba founded the school Centro de Cultura Física e Luta Regional, with permission from Salvador’s Secretary of Education (Secretaria da Educação, Saúde e Assistência de Salvador). His work was very well received, and he taught capoeira to the cultural elite of the city.By 1940, capoeira finally lost its criminal connotation and was legalized.
Bimba’s Regional style overshadowed traditional capoeiristas, who were still distrusted by society. This began to change in 1941 with the founding of Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola (CECA) by Vicente Ferreira Pastinha. Located in the Salvador neighborhood of Pelourinho, this school attracted many traditional capoeiristas. With CECA’s prominence, the traditional style came to be called Capoeira Angola. The name derived from brincar de angola (“playing Angola”), a term used in the 19th century in some places. But it was also adopted by other masters, including some who did not follow Pastinha’s style
Capoeira nowadays is not only a martial art, but an active exporter of Brazilian culture all over the world. In the 1970s, capoeira mastres began to emigrate and teach it in other countries. Present in many countries on every continent, every year capoeira attracts thousands of foreign students and tourists to Brazil. Foreign capoeiristas work hard to learn Portuguese to better understand and become part of the art. Renowned capoeira mestres often teach abroad and establish their own schools. Capoeira presentations, normally theatrical, acrobatic and with little martiality, are common sights around the world. The martial art aspect is still present and still disguised, leading many non-practitioners to ignore its presence. Trickery is ever present and expert capoeiristas can even disguise an attack as a friendly gesture. Symbol of the Brazilian culture, symbol of the ethnic amalgam that characterizes Brazil, symbol of resistance to the oppression, capoeira definitely changed its image and became a source of pride to Brazilian people. Capoeira is officially considered intangible cultural heritage of Brazil.