A Short History

Capoeira originates from Brazil, but is regarded as ‘Afro-Brazilian’ culture.
In the 16th century when Portuguese settlers ‘discovered’ Brazil, their main aim was to colonize the territory and make use of its resources. (‘Brasil’ is named after a type of wood that could be sold in Europe, other resources were sugar, coffee and other grains, also diamonds and gold from the mines.)

For the man-power, initially the Indigenous population were captured to work as slaves. However, this did not go to plan as the natives either escaped or died from foreign diseases in captivity. Following the previous colonization of Africa by European countries, the next move by the Portuguese was to buy and import people over from Africa to use as slaves in their South American colonies.

history-capoeiraThe African slaves were comprised of many diverse ethnic and cultural groups and the Portuguese slave traders and plantation owners used the language barriers between the different peoples to try to restrict communication between the slaves to avoid insurrection. Methods of controlling and punishing slaves were horrific and sadistic, but reports of insurrections were widespread and common. In the 17th century when the Dutch controlled certain parts of Brazil, they had several large disputes with the Portuguese, during this time many slaves were able to escape.

Escaped slaves began forming small self sufficient quilombos (villages) deep in the Brazillian forests to live independently and try to prevent recapture. The largest Quilombo was the famous ‘Quilombo dos Palmares’, with their free-born King ‘Zumbi’. However, the liberated africans had to constantly defend themselves from attacks by the Portuguese army and militias. With inferior weaponry, the people of the quilombos had to outwit and out manouvre their enemy. There is high speculation that aspects of capoeira evolved from this historical period and were used as a form of combat training within the Quilombos.

It is believed that Capoeira originated on the slave plantations of Brazil and that the slaves developed their fighting style and disguised it as a dance so that the slave owners would be oblivious to the fact that they were actually training for combat. It is also possible that Capoeira was developed as a game between men in the the circle of samba, as a means of recreation and demonstrating prowess. Capoeira was probably always accompanied by music comprised of percussion, singing and hand clapping. The earliest pictorial records of capoeira show just a drum accompanying the game. Capoeira, from it’s earliest records was synonymous with ‘troublemakers’ and rogues.

Following the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the former slaves and their descendents who were predominantly African or Afro-Brazilian, were the lowest social class. Capoeira appeared on the streets in a violent form, used by gangs of ‘malandros’ (street hustlers), who fought with rival Capoeira gangs and with the police. Capoeira players if caught, faced severe punishment and imprisonment.

A caricatured impression of Capoeira Malandros from 1855

A caricatured impression of Capoeira Malandros from 1855

Capoeira was outlawed in the late 19th century by King Dom Joao VI who had recently arrived in Brazil. He believed that if he wanted to control the Afro-Brazilian class he must first destroy their culture and sense of community.

Capoeira was almost completely wiped out in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Capoeira continued as a clandestine art in Bahia however, retaining and incorporating more Afro-Brazilian elements of music and ritual. A less aggressive form of capoeira became popular and could be seen on the dock of the port of Salvador. It’s around this time, the ‘berimbau’ (musical bow) was incorporated into the music of Capoeira.

During the 1930’s Capoeira was to under go several notable changes. The first capoeira academy was set up in Salvador, where capoeira “Regional” was taught. Capoeira ‘Regional’ was created in reaction to the street Capoeira of the twenties by the legendary Mestre Bimba and is a style of capoeira that emphasizes the fighting aspects of the art. Mestre Bimba wanted to legitimize Capoeira as a form of self-defence and an athletic game, improving the technical quality of movements and creating specific training sequences. Because of Mestre Bimba’s work, capoeira was eventually officially recognised as an actual sport/martial art by the Brazilian government.

In reaction to the growing popularity of Capoeira Regional, Mestre Pastinha began formally teaching Capoeira Angola, so it would survive further into the 20th Century. By 1941 there were schools teaching either Angola or Regional all over Brazil. By 1974, capoeira had become so popular that Brazil claimed it as it’s national sport.

Through the work and travelling of dedicated Mestres of Capoeira and the impact of modern media such as movies, television and the internet, Capoeira has become a growing global phenomenon with new groups popping up daily all over the world. Transcending language and cultural barriers, Capoeira has also become an international social network, bringing different people together in a spirit of cooperation and positivity.