Slavery: Roots of Capoeira

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is still controversial, especially the period between the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, since historical documents were very scarce in Brazil at that time.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 the 16th century, Portugal had claimed one of the largest territories of the colonial empires, and in the Brazilian colony, they chose to use slavery to build their economy off of African 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.

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, primitive 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.”

Finally Brazil would recognize the end of the institution on May 13, 1888, with a law called Lei Áurea (Golden Law), sanctioned by imperial parliament and signed by Princess Isabel.

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 and toques on the berimbau (cavaleria) to warn of approaching police.

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.

Historical Brazilians

Zumbi is a great hero to the capoeira community.  He is sung about in many songs and exemplifies the spirit of liberty and self resolve.  His notoriety in Brazil is akin to that of Kunta Kinte, a slave who was portrayed in Alex Haley’s Roots.

Lampiao is sung about a lot in capoeira songs.  He is seen as a Billy the Kid style folk hero in Brazil.

Past and Present Mestres

Mestre Pastinha,  Mestre Bimba

Mestre Ray, Mestre Lua Rasta, Mestre Dunga

Capoeira Social Project is a registered tax-deductible non-profit organization under the IRS Section 501(c)(3) guidelines.  CSP teaches capoeira in Baltimore, MD USA and Belo Horizonte, MG Brazil