The exact birthplace of Capoeira is questionable. While it is undoubtedly a mix of African and Brazilian influences, its community has debated much over what degree each cultural influenced in its development. Regardless of the exact origin of the physical movements, its philoposhy grew out of a reaction to an unjust and repressive system. It is certain that the history of African slaves in Brazil is entangled in the evolution of Capoeira. Much of Capoeira's lore is passed down verbally and hidden within its songs. Aside from slaves not able to read or write, when slavery was abolished in 1888, the minister of finance had all official records relating to slavery burned to elminate the subject from Brazil's history. A likely reason for this action was to avoid paying compensation to former slave owners, but in doing so, the destruction of such documents such as records of entrance, sale, and taxes, much of the history of Capoeira was also lost. This page is a very abridged telling of the history from it's inception to the art that it has evolved into today.
Around the 1500s, Pedro Alvares Cabral and his men arrived in Brazil declaring it a Colony of Protugal. Upon arrival, the portuguese attempted to enslave the local indigenous people to work on the plantations. This quickly proved challenging as many of the natives had a familiarity with the land and quickly were able to escape and live outside the settlements. The solution for this was to enslave Africans. Approximately 3.5 million people were brought to Brazil during the 350 year slave trade. Upon arrival, the slaves began to resist in many ways. While outright rebellion was infrequent, they used more subtle tactics such as inefficieny and feinged ignorance to slow completion of tasks. Other slaves, however, resorted to a more overt form of resistance: by escaping into the bushes. Protected by the thick vegetation unsettled by the Europeans, slave communities (Quilombos) were established and endured decades of survival.
When it comes to the origin of Capoeira there are three theories that are discussed and often controversial when trying to pinpoint Capoeira's inception. One thing is for sure that it was a call for survival. Slaves from many different tribes held different languages and traditions were all housed together in the slave quarters (senzalas). Music has been known as a universal language; drumming, chanting, and singing was used to build community.It is hypothesized that Capoeira's origin is that it grew from the Angolan zebra dance called N'golo. The winner of the zebra dance would take a wife without paying a dowry. This and the collection of many different customs and cultures is why it is believed that Capoeira was developed in the senzalas.
In 1808, the Brazilian Empire was created, supposedly free from Portugal but still ruled by members of the Portuguese royal family. The new Emperor created the Guarda Real de Policia led by Major Miguel Numes Vidigal. There inwhich began a ban on drumming, dancing, shouting, along with curfews. Vidigal's enforcement did not extinguish Capoeira or reduce the number of altercations between capoeiristas and the police. A rhythm called cavalaria was played on the berimbau to alert players of the approaching law enforcement. When slavery was abolished in 1888 (23 years after the US) the government did not provide a transition for the now "freed" slaves. The majority of ex slaves had to make their own means. During this time, a mass wave of european immigrants came to Brazil as the government encouraged the "whitening" of the country. In 1890, a law was passed specifically outlawing Capoeira and threatened practitioners with jail time. Capoeira had been in the past an expression of freedom against the oppression of slaver, it collasped into a form of violent street fighting. In Rio de Janieiro, many practicioners used their skills to form gangs (maltas). Capoeira was seen as a criminal activity. Rodas were conducted in private and as many practitioners that were persued by the police had two or three nicknames making them difficult to arrest.
It is boradly believed that Capoeira transformed in response to governmental pressure. In order to survive, it had to radically adapt to the changing surroundings. In Capoeira Angola, movements are very slow, less forceful, and more playful. Vivente Ferreira Pastinha, or Mestre Pastinha became well known as the folkloric Capoeira hero in Salvador, Bahia. Through the eyes of a trained figher, Capoeira Angola may not resemble a martial art. The vast richness of this art is completely misunderstood as it incorporates a high level of mental concentration. This is reflected in the expectation to understand all rituals. The game within Angola is full of expression, balance, and control. Blocking or dusrupting an opponent's moves are frowned upon. Some capoeiristas maintain that Capoeira Angola is the only true Capoeira as it is the oldest of the styles, others claim to be proficient in all Capoeira disciplines and argue that every style is in fact a single unified art form.
Capoeira would have been lost to the underworld with its persecution and gang activity. Undoubtedly if it wasn't for the preservation of Mestre Pastihna and the innovations of Mestre Bimba.
Without doubt, one of the most influential capoeirista of this era was Manuel dos Reis Machado (Mestre Bimba). His father was a well known Batuquiero, or practictioner of Batuque ( a game played in a circle to music in which two dancers try to sweep each other off their feet through blows to the legs, hip throws and other take-downs). Manuel began learning Capoeira Angola from Bentinho when he was twelve. At that time there were no academies or even formal classes. Students learned during free time at the dock or in the streets.
Manuel studied with Bentinho for four years and had become a formidable fighter. He began teaching and decided he wanted to create a style that would be a more effective personal defense. He incorporated elements from Batuque as well as inventing many new movements. Unlike Capoeira Angola, which emphasize trickery that actualy contact is often cosidered bad form, Mestre Bimba's repertoire included takedowns and punches. At this time he called it the Luta Regional Baiana as Capoeira was still illegal until the 1940s.
He opened his first academy of Capoeira Regional (Centro de Cultura Física e Capoeira Regional) and the fifth Capoeira academy of any kind in 1932 in Bahia. Mestre Bimba legitimized the art in the eyes of society with his academy and by creating an organized teaching style. In 1936 Mestre Bimba issued a challenge to anyone, from any martial art. Four men from various disciplines accepted his challenge and were knocked out immediately. After this showing, Mestre Bimba was given the nickname Tres Pancadas (Three Hits).
In 1965, Mestre Preguiça, Rafael Flores Viana, and Fernando de Albuquece Cavalcante founded Grupo Senzala Capoeira. All of them teenagers, they united to form what would become one of the most influential Capoeira groups in the world. Each founder took charge of a different aspect of the group. Mestre Preguiça's part was technical instruction. Although different styles now exist within Regional, groups descended from Grupo Senzala, such as Omulu still play the basic style refined by Mestre Preguiça.
Grupo Senzala doned a uniform of white pants and white shirts with bare feet, influenced by the uniform worn during Mestre Bimba's graduation ceremony. They also created a system of eight belt colos inspired by other martial arts.
With a rich history passed down from teacher to student, Capoeira has endured the test of time overcoming many obsticles as an art form. Today Capoeira is practiced and taught in many after school programs and recreation centers with over 100 million practicioners.
Alamedia, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. Blue Snake Books, 1986.
Capoeira, Nestor. The Little Capoeira Book. Translated by Alex Ladd, Blue Snake Books, 2003.
Mestre Preguiça. The Art of Survival. 2nd ed., City College of San Francisco, 2000.