Capoeira is the common name for the group of African martial arts that came out of west Africa and were modified and mixed in Brazil. These original styles included weapons, grappling and striking as well as animal forms that became incorporated into different components and sub styles of the art. In 1500’s the Portuguese, led by explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Brazil.
One of the first measures taken by the new arrivals was the conquering of the local population, the Brazilian Indians, in order to allow the Portuguese slave labor (for sugarcane and cotton). The experience with the Indians was a failure. The Indians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguese then began to import slave labor from Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic, free men and women were captured, loaded onto slave ships and sent on nightmare voyages that would end in bondage. The Africans first arrived by the hundreds and later by the thousands (approximately four million in total).Three major African groups contributed in large numbers to the slave population in Brazil, the Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean peoples, the Mohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese groups of Malesian and Hausa peoples, and the “Bantu” groups (among them Kongos, Kimbundas, and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique.
The Bantu groups are believed to have been the foundation for the birth of capoeira. They brought with them their culture; a culture that was not stored in books and museums but in the body, mind, heart and soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son, throughout generations. There was candomble’, a religion; the berimbau, a musical instrument; vatapa, a food; and many other things. The Dutch controlled parts of the northeast between 1624 and 1654. Slaves took steps towards reconquest of their freedom when the Dutch fought against the Portuguese colony, invading towns and plantations along the northeastern coast, concentrating on Recife and Salvador.
With each Dutch invasion, the security of the plantations and towns were weakened. The slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities, fled into the forests in search of places in which to hide and survive. Many, after escaping, founded independent villages called quilombos. The quilombos were very important to evolution of capoeira. There were at least ten major quilombos with economic and commercial relationships with neighboring cities. The quilombo dos Palmraes lasted sixty-seven years in the interior of the state of Alagoas, fighting off almost all expeditions sent to extinguish it.
Because of the consistency and type of threat present, capoeira developed as a fight in the quilombos. The birth of capoeira as a fighting style was created in the slaves’ quarters and might not have developed further if left only to that environment. Starting around 1814, capoeira and other forms of African cultural expression suffered were prohibited in some places by the slave masters and overseers. Up until that date, forms of African cultural expression were permitted and sometimes even encouraged, not only as safety against internal pressures created by slavery but also to bring out the differences between various African groups, in a spirit of “divide and conquer”. But with the arrival in Brazil in 1808 of the Portuguese king Dom Joao VI and his court, who were fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Portugal, things changed.
The newcomers understood the necessity of destroying a people’s culture in order to dominate them, and capoeira began to be persecuted in a process, which would end with its being outlawed in 1892. Why was capoeira suppressed? There were many motives. First of all it gave Africans a sense of nationality. It also developed self-confidence in individual capoeira practitioners. Capoeira created small, cohesive groups.
It also created dangerous and agile fighters. Sometimes the slaves would injure themselves during the capoeira, which was not desirable from an economical point of view. The masters and overseers were probably not as conscious as the king and his intellectuals of his court of all of these motives, but even still, they knew something didn’t seem right. There are many other theories to explain the origins of capoeira. According to one well known theory, capoeira was a fight that was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced without knowledge of the white slave owners.
This seems unlikely because when African culture began to be repressed, other forms of African dancing suffered prohibition along with capoeira, so there would be no sense in disguising capoeira as a dance. Another theory says that the Mucupes in the South of Angola had an initiation ritual (efundula) for when girls became woman, on which occasion the young warriors engaged in the N’golo, or “dance of the zebras,” a warrior’s fight-dance. According to this theory, the N’golo was capoeira itself. This theory was presented by Camara Cascudo , but one year later Waldeloir Rego warned that this “strange theory” should be looked upon with reserve until it was properly proven (something that never happened).
If the N’Golo did exist, it would seem that it was one of several dances that contributed to the creation of early capoeira. Other theories mix Zumbi, the legendary leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares with the origins of capoeira, without any reliable information on it. All of these theories are important when trying to understand the myth that surrounds capoeira, but they cannot be accepted as historical fact according to the data and information that we presently have. Maybe with further research, the theory that capoeira as a mix of various African dances and fights occurred in Brazil, mostly in the 19th century, will also be outdated in future years.
With the signing of the Golden Law in 1888, which abolished slavery, the newly freed slaves did not find a place for themselves within the existing society. The capoeirista (practitioner of capoeira), with his fighting skills, self-confidence and individuality, quickly descended into criminality and capoeira along with him. In Rio de Janiero, where capoeira had developed exclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorized the population. Soon thereafter, during the transition from the Brazilian Empire to the Brazilian republic in 1890, these gangs were used by both monarchists and republicans to exert pressure on and break up the rallies of their adversaries. The club, the dagger and the switchblade were used to complement the damage done by various capoeira moves. In Bahia on the other hand, capoeira continued to develop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be an indispensable instrument used to command the rodas ( sessions of capoeira games), which always took place in hidden places since the practice of capoeira had been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Rio the capoeirista was a rouge and a criminal. Whether the capoeirista was white, black or mulatto, he was an expert in the use of kicks (golpes), sweeps (rasteiras) and head-butts (cabecadas), as well as in the use of blade weapons. In Recife, capoeira became associated with the city’s principal musicbands. During carnival time, tough capoeira fighters would lead the bands through the streets of that city, and wherever two bands would meet, fighting and bloodshed would usually occur.
In Bahia, the capoeirista was also often seen as a criminal.