The name “capoeira” is given to a game of skill which has remote origins in Africa. In the beginning, it was an extremely useful fight in the defence of freedom and rights of the African slaves in Brazil. Police repression and the new social conditions encouraged the transformation of capoeira into a game – “vadiação” – between friends, by the 1900s.
It’s with this innocent character that it remains in all States of Brazil, but it never lost its self-defence characteristics. It was a singular fight in which the “moleques de Sinhá” showed their skills of attack and defence without, however, hitting their opponents for real. It was during the slavery period that the game of capoeira began to grow and reached its adulthood in Brazil. The discussion is endless. Researchers, folklorists, historians and specialists in African culture are still searching for answers to questions such as: is capoeira an African or Brazilian invention, was it a creation of the slaves in hunger for freedom or the invention of native Brazilians? Opinions tend to the Brazilian side, and below you can find some examples:
Priest Jose de Anchienta: in the book The Art of the Language Grammar Most Used in the Coast of Brazil, by Priest José de Anchieta, edited in 1595, it is written that “the Tupi-guarani natives amused themselves playing capoeira”.
Guilherme de Almeida: in the book, Music in Brazil, he stands up for the native roots of capoeira.
Martin Afonso de Souza: the Portuguese sailor Martin Afonso de Sousa watched tribes playing capoeira.
Waldeloir Rego: who wrote what was considered the best piece of work on this subject, also supports the idea that capoeira was invented in Brazil.
Professor Gerhard Kubik: in a piece of work published by the Brazilian ‘Xerox’ magazine, the Austrian professor Gerhard Kubik, anthropologist and member of the World Folklore Association and an expert on African matters, finds it odd “that Brazilian people name the style Capoeira de Angola, when there’s nothing similar in Angola, Africa”.
Brasil Gerson: a historian of Rio de Janeiro’s streets believes that the game was born in the market, when slaves came in with their baskets of chickens (“capoeira” in Brazilian Portuguese) on their heads and while waiting in their breaks, played of fighting and from there came the true capoeira.
Antenor Nascente: says that capoeira is related to the bird Uru (odontophorus capueira-spix), whose male is extremely jealous and fights violently against his rival, which dares to try to enter his territory (their moves resemble to those of capoeira).
Câmara Cascudo: states that “it was brought by Banto-congo-angoleses who practised religious dances to the sound of percussion instruments, and was transformed into a wrestle in Brazil, due to the need they had of defending themselves.
As if this was not enough, capoeira is a word from Tupi-guarani language which means “plain low brush” or “brushwood that has been cut”.
Period of Instability
Capoeira was first noted during the Dutch invasion in 1624, when slaves and natives (the first two groups of victims of Portuguese colonisation in Brazil), taking advantage of all the trouble, ran away into the brushwood creating Quilombos (Tribes) from which the most famous was Palmares, whose leader was Zumbi. Zumbi was a warrior and an invincible strategist who, according to the legend, had been a capoeirista.
After this time, there was a period of instability for capoeira with the Renaissance of the 19th century, when it was transformed into a social phenomenon that slowly took over urban centres such as Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife.
“Maltas” were gangs of capoeiristas who disturbed the common citizen and became a problem to the vice-kings (people of authority who were sent from Portugal to act as kings in Brazil).
They would spread throughout the city, ruining parties, chasing the police away, beating the ‘big-guys’… they would defend their rare freedom, either just using their muscular agility, sticks, knives or shaving razors. Major Vidigal became involved at the beginning of the 20th century. He was the leader of Rio de Janeiro’s police force, who seemed to be everywhere with his troops armed with long whips, protected by the distance in which it kept the capoeiristas and in which the police could attack them safely.
Machado de Assis’ books and Debret’s art registered the presence of capoeira in the habits of that time. Capoeira players lived in “maltas”, real gangs, which received nicknames like ‘guaiamuns’ or ‘nagôs’. These gangs had a very strong role in historical events such as: the mercenaries’ revolution (where foreign soldiers who had been hired to fight in the Paraguayan war rebelled and were repelled by the capoeira fighters) in the conflicts between monarchists and republicans; and even in the Proclamation of the Republic. Bahia’s gangs were upset during the Paraguayan war: the government recruited the strength of the capoeiristas, who he sent south as “patriotic volunteers”. Manuel Querino tells that many of them distinguished themselves by acts of bravery in the field of battle. When they fought each other, the scream of war scared those who weren’t familiarised with capoeira: “fecha, fecha!” (“close it, close it!”) meant the beginning of a quarrel and no one dared to be around.
People say that José do Patrocínio’s personal guard was a capoeirista, and that the emperor Don Pedro I himself was a capoeirista. This prestige began to decay with the slavery abolition laws: with no qualifications at all, a whole world of people was competing for imaginary jobs. The game started to be considered dangerous and its extinction was imperative. The “maltas” became powerful protectors of dubious deals and it all ended with the law 487, decreed by Marshall Deodoro da Fonseca in 1880 which declared that from October 11th onward, every capoeira fighter caught in action would be sent away to the island of Fernando de Noronha for a 6 month period.
Even so, capoeira showed its strength when one of its most fearful fighters, the Portuguese nobleman José Elísio dos Reis – nicknamed Juca Reis – was arrested by Sampaio Ferraz. The republican government suffered its first ministerial crisis. Juca Reis was nothing less than the brother of the Count of Matosinhos and owner of the newspaper ‘The Country’ and also the biggest defender of the republican cause. All over the newspaper, Quintino Bocaiúva mercilessly campaigned for Juca’s release and the Marshall’s government was compelled to take back the charges, and Juca returned to Portugal.
The most famous of all national fighters was born in Santo Amaro in the region of the canes-plantations of Bahia and had nicknames such as “Besouro Venenoso” and “Mangangá”. The legend tells he was invincible and that there was no one like him. Even today, capoeira songs – “chulas” – tell of his legendary deeds. The final hour came to the “maltas” of Recife around 1912, by the time Passo do Frevo, a legacy of capoeira, was born.
The 487 Decree temporarily brought an end to capoeira, and many of its fans stayed in exile in the interior of Sao Paulo doing hard labour. Mestre Bimba is seen to be the father of modern capoeira, not only because he acted decisively in the legacy of the art, but also to be one of the first to give it some discipline and to teach indoors. Mestre Bimba created the Regional style of capoeira. The Angola style had Vicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha as its most dignified representative. Nowadays, capoeira is no longer a privilege of Bahia or Rio de Janeiro having spread all over Brazil with great acceptance. It became a competitive sport, defined by the National Council of Sports, in 1972. Abroad, capoeira is practised in more than 50 countries.