It is not easy to answer all the fundamental questions about the history of Capoeira, both because of the complexity and variety of aspects of Capoeira itself, and because of the lack of written historical sources and the unreliability of oral traditions.
One can attempt to define Capoeira as an Afro-Brazilian art form that includes many things: physical movements, music, song, dance, fighting, rituals and even philosophical, religious and political elements. Those who practice Capoeira can call themselves Capoeiristas or even, in turn, Capoeira.
There are disparate theories about the etymology of the word Capoeira, but two of them are now considered the most reliable.
According to the first, the term Capoeira would indicate a type of low vegetation present in Brazil, in the areas where black slaves who fled the plantations gathered to train and fight against those who tried to capture them.
The second theory is that the word Capoeira refers to baskets full of poultry brought to the head by slaves to be sold in markets. The art of Capoeira would have been born, as a pastime of the slaves in these markets, which would symbolize the constant and bloody struggle of its population for freedom, peace and all fundamental rights.
What is Capoeira?
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that is now widespread throughout the world. The martial nature of Capoeira must be understood through knowledge of its history. Movement, dance, acrobatics and martial techniques are undoubtedly the main characteristics that distinguish this discipline.
Although Capoeira can be used as a martial art, therefore, as a means of defense. Those who practice it know its history and nature well and know very well that there is much more to it than that. Capoeira is an exchange between two fighters where, inside a roda, they are put to the test. It is not a fight between two opponents, but a game between two fighters. The goal is not to prove to be the strongest, but the most skillful, the most intelligent.
In order to understand its history it is necessary to take a great space-time leap to Brazil five hundred years ago. From the beginning, Brazil has assumed the character of a mercantile company formed by goods and slaves without distinction. During the slave trade period, it is estimated that more than 3 million people were brought to Brazil from Africa.
These slaves came from different African regions. They possessed different cultures, spoke different languages. In most cases, they were part of tribes and ethnic enemies among themselves (which was widely used by the Portuguese to buy slaves). They were landed in the three main Brazilian ports: Bahia, Recife and Rio de Janeiro.
The Portuguese were careful not to leave together people belonging to the same tribe, in order to make communication and the organization of the riots difficult. Within the haciendas were the “Senzalas” (from the kimbundu “sanzala” = home), the houses of the slaves. The homeless was the only space where slaves could preserve their cultural dimension. Rituals and beliefs survived, as the most innocent form of entertainment: dance and song.
From the first moment the slaves realized that the condition in which they lived was irreversible, they began to organize escapes. As a result, they set aside the old grudges between them, thus achieving their purpose. As the captures were followed by new escape attempts, physical agility games were perfected to make the shot safe and resolute, allowing more unarmed opponents to face each other and drastically reducing the likelihood of being captured or killed.
Recife was the scene of the first slave revolt. A group of 40 rebelled against the master, killed, burned the fazenda and declared themselves free. Then they headed for the mountains of the “Serra da Barriga” (east of Alagoa) and embarked on a journey that lasted several months and would have been impossible to complete had it not been for the help of the Indians. They arrived at an ideal place for them called Palmares because of the great abundance of palm trees. Here was born the first community of free blacks in Brazil.
However, one should not think that only the black Africans lived in these communities (called quilombos), but also the Indians were part of them. The Sierra de la Barriga was home to several Quilombos, but the largest and most famous was always the first: Palmares, with more than 80,000 inhabitants at its peak. The quilombos resisted almost a century to the diverse expeditions organized against them. Within these new communities, there was an immense cultural richness given by the mixture of all ethnic groups and cultures. In this new environment, people shared with other customs, traditions, dances and rituals, religions and games.
The result of this rich cultural fusion was also Capoeira, which was already taking shape in the fazendas. Capoeira used to be compared to N’golo, but its difference is that the latter takes place in a different context. In fact, N’golo’s dance was an athletic competition related to a ceremonial function. In the Brazilian plantations, the reminiscences of such practices had changed their meaning, adding to the canons of the dance those of the “fight”. For this reason, it is affirmed that Capoeira really has Afro-Brazilian origins.
Each of the populations and tribes practiced dances and athletic competitions in the form of wrestling that involved the use of hands, or the use of feet or even the head. The Dutch invasion of northeastern Brazil was a good opportunity for the slaves to escape, and they did not escape. They accepted the request for help from the Dutch themselves with the promise, later fulfilled, of regaining their freedom, even though the war against the Portuguese lasted for about 10 years.
But the Dutch themselves became slaves. From 1644 onwards, numerous well-armed military expeditions to Palmares were organized. However, most of them were unfortunate, as they were stopped by Palmares’ men, who used ambushes in the dense jungle in which the Capoeira technique was the key element. Capoeira became a symbol of freedom.
When the men were captured, they returned as slaves. In the fazendas they taught Capoeira to others. Sunday was the only day of rest and that day they practiced it. However, unable to demonstrate that they were training, the slaves added music and song to the practice of wrestling, camouflaging it in a dance. The slaves never stopped and continued trying to escape, even at the cost of life.
Palmares was bent and destroyed after the military intervention of the Bandeirantes Paolisti. The survivors were transferred to Pernambuco. In 1871, Princess Isabella, daughter of Emperor Peter II and then regent in his name, was induced by parliament to decree the emancipation of children not born of slaves. Then, the abolition of slavery, formally according to the law, took place only in 1888, although it actually decreased gradually, even today, however, there are similar conditions in Brazil.
With the abolition of slavery, the fazendeiros were no longer interested in them as labor, because foreign immigrants cost less. This mass of ex-slaves then headed for the big cities; most of them were unable to find a job and a home. They settled in the vicinity of the cities by creating the first bidonvillas, which over the years became today’s favelas.
Without knowing how to survive, they used Capoeira in different ways: some did shows in the ports for tourists and sailors, others organized themselves into criminal gangs, others were hired by politicians or influential people, such as “bodyguards”, and also to disrupt civilian life in the country. As early as 1890 Capoeira was practiced by many representatives of the highest levels of society. Such a situation constituted a threat to the government, which created a special police force and introduced a strict penal code.
Styles of Capoeira
Understanding that it is an ancient tradition, it can be determined that the styles and evolution that accompany it can be incredibly complex, all this due to its antiquity and how turbulent could be its practice in society several years ago.
Driven by the example of Mestre Bimba, many other leaders – to remember at least Waldemar, Caiçara, Canjiquinha, Cobrinha Verde, Leopoldinha – try to organize the practice and teaching of Capoeira. In particular, Vicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha (1889-1980), later known simply as Mestre Pastinha, son of a Spaniard and a Brazilian. He took on the task of obtaining the official recognition of capoeira, underlining its value not only of physical activity, but above all of culture and history. Thanks to his perseverance and his incessant activity of mobilizing political influences, in 1952 he obtained official recognition of the “Centro di Capoeira Angola”, which he founded in Salvador de Bahia in 1941.
The Angolan Capoeira, taught by Master Pastinha differs from the regional Capoeira, taught by Master Bimba especially in the major reference to the “traditional values” linked to African origins: The aspect of combat is placed second with respect to rituality, theatricality, the complex game of strategies, tactics and simple entertainment.
Perhaps the most decisive turning point in the history of Capoeira occurred in the years of the Getulio Vargas regime (1930-45), at the initiative of the legendary Mestre Bimba, nicknamed Manuel dos Reis Machado (1899-1974), who took the first step towards transforming this activity considered illegal into a freely practiced and legally recognized art form. Deeply rooted in the culture of his ancestors, as well as an important exponent of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion, he is not only a capoeirista of extraordinary value, but also the first to introduce a method of systematic teaching of Capoeira (still famous today are his seqüência and despised belt movements).
In order to prove the validity of his method, he publicly challenged other chiefoeirists and exponents of other martial arts and won them all, thus obtaining an extraordinary popularity. In 1932 he founded the first Capoeira academy in Salvador da Bahia, the “Centro de Cultura Física Regional” (so called to avoid direct references to Capoeira, whose practice was still prohibited by law), which in 1937 was officially recognized by the Brazilian authorities, thus opening the way to greater tolerance of Afro-Brazilian cultural expressions.
The type of Capoeira that Mestre Bimba has been teaching for almost 60 years, and which since the name of his school is known as Regional Capoeira, is characterized above all by the great importance given to athletic performance and the emergence of martial art.
Today, Capoeira is present all over the world. It has become an object of great interest and study by leading contemporary sociologists, pedagogues and psychologists who support the inclusion of its teaching in schools. Capoeira develops psychophysical balance, concentration, reflexes, motor coordination and self-control.
The leader observes before confronting the opponent. He must know himself, through the externalization of non-verbal expressions, all this helps the formation of the individual, teaching fundamental values such as the concept of equality and fraternity, the value of solidarity, respect for others, the importance of the past and historical memory.
Over time, capoeira has lost all, or almost all, of its original teachings and its true essence. Its institutionalization, the expansion of its teaching and the consequent social and environmental change have wiped out the needs from which it was born, its original objectives and its functionality. However, even today it is possible to meet the caciques who defend their traditional values and who still feel their emotion, even though they practice it with current methods.
Only at this point does the real fight begin, in which opponents move first with slow movements of hands and feet as if they were cats studying each other, and then with spectacular flight movements. Lessons are usually divided into several stages:
- Theoretical explanations of Afro-Brazilian cultural traditions.
- Practical approach to musical instruments and rhythm perception.
- General athletic preparation.
- Specific athletic preparation for discipline and stretching.
- Moments of integration of the different aspects of the discipline (physical, musical and social-relational).
- Unlike other martial arts in which knowing how to block the enemy’s blows is as important as knowing how to hit, in Capoeira there are no braking techniques, because the attacks do not stop, but are avoided with agile movements that follow the direction of the shot and dismiss it.
This is the main characteristic of this martial art, which makes it so harmonious and fluid that it makes it look like a dance.
Also important are the escape techniques such as the various wheels (Aùs) that allow the wrestler to move away from the opponent with different angles and quickly position himself in a favorable position for an immediate counterattack.