Capoeira’s History

 
The Slaves In Brazil

About 300 years ago slavery was very popular in Brazil. The Portuguese brought slaves from Africa to work in the plantations where sugar and tobacco were the main crops. During the history of the slave trade, it is estimated that more than two million slaves were brought over. These slaves came from different regions of Africa and thus had different cultures. They were distributed in three main ports: Bahia, Recife, and Rio de Janeiro. In Rio and Recife, the slaves were from different ethnic groups as well as from enemy tribes, which made it difficult for these slaves to organize a revolt. More slaves in Rio were from Bantu peoples, while in other areas, such as Bahia, slaves came primarily from West Africa.


Because of the ha
rd slavery conditions, Slaves began to run away, Many slaves escaped and made small communities. Inside the small communities, Capoeira began taking shape in its most basic forms. Self-defense techniques were devised and practiced.


Slaves who were caught and returned to work in the plantations, taught Capoeira to others there. Sunday was their one day of rest and that was when they practiced Capoeira. But there, in the quarters, the practice soon was altered. Music, singing, dance and ritual were added to Capoeira, disguising the fact that the slaves were practicing a deadly martial art.


In twenty-five years the many European colonies in Brazil suffered eleven rebellions that culminated with the abolition of slavery on May  13, 1888. After the abolition, some ex-slaves returned to Africa, but the majority stayed in Brazil. Since the slaves were no longer needed as a work force, most headed to the cities to form slums and shanty towns. There was no employment in the cities either, and many organized into criminal gangs. Politicians hired others as bodyguards, more fortunate because of their knowledge of Capoeira. The government saw all who knew Capoeira as a "plague."


The Pursuit After Capoeirista

The main activities of these Capoeiristas  (anyone who practices the art) were to disrupt the political life of the country. In the 1890's some very influential people in high levels of society, were practitioners of Capoeira. This was a threat to the government, and the president created a special police force to control the situation. When this effort was ineffective, a rigid penal code was initiated. In the code, ten articles were specifically related to the actions, practices, and crimes related to Capoeira. To enforce these laws, the president hired a man named Sampaio Ferraz, who was reputed to be the most ruthless police chief in Brazil's history. He was determined to extinguish Capoeira. What is interesting about Sampaio was that he was an excellent Capoeirista, and was a terror to the gangs. Sampaio's special police force learned Capoeira, so they were able to challenge their "enemy" on their own ground. Had it not been for the strong resistance by the Capoeiristas, as well as support by influential people, he may have succeeded in his mission.


The Law Against Capoeira

One incident brought to an end Sampaio's relentless pursuit of the capoeiristas. He arrested a man named Juca Reis, a member of the gentry, for practicing Capoeira and demanded that he be expatriated. This caused a crisis for the government for the members of the president's cabinet opposed this action because Juca's father was well known and favored by many politicians. The president called a special meeting of his cabinet, and after eighteen days, two important members of the cabinet resigned and Juca was expatriated. After this event, change was expected in the behavior of the Capoeiristas. But the change was in their favor. The opposition to the government created a black militia to disrupt the president. This militia was formed exclusively of Capoeiristas and they spread fear in the capital. The police were ineffective against them and just as the situation was becoming desperate, Brazil went to war with Paraguay. The black militia was sent to the front and suddenly the outlaws became national heroes. And Capoeira entered another phase in its history.


Mestre Bimba

The law that prohibited the practice of Capoeira was still in effect until 1920, and capoeiristas from Bahia were under attack from police chief Pedro de Azevedo Gordilho. Gordilho used his cavalry intensely and was considered the number one enemy of Capoeira in Bahia. Under strong pressure throughout the country, Capoeira became a much less aggressive pastime, its practice disguised as a "folk dance." In their hidden places, capoeiristas did their best to keep the tradition alive, and by presenting it as a folk art, they made the practice of Capoeira more acceptable to the society. In those years it was very common for a Capoeirista to have two or three nicknames. The police knew all the Capoeiristas by these names and not by their real identity, so it made it much more difficult to arrest them. (This tradition is continued today. When a person is "baptized" into the practice of Capoeira, they are given a nickname.)


In
1937, Mestre Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado), one of the most important masters of Capoeira, received an invitation from the president to demonstrate his art in the capital. After a successful performance he went back to his home state and with the government's permission, opened the first formal Capoeira school in Brazil in 1939. It was the first step towards a more open development, and years later the senate passed a bill establishing Capoeira as a national sport. Capoeira then proceeded to evolve and was spread throughout the world. Capoeira is still gaining more recognition these days, through the practice and media.


Mestre Bimba was the creator of Capoeira Regional (Luta Regional Baiana). It was created in reaction to the sloppy street Capoeira of the twenties. Regional emphasizes on the fighting aspects of the art. Mestre Bimba wanted to legitimize Capoeira as a from of self-defense and an athletic game, improving the technical quality of movements and creating training sequences.

He used techniques from a rough type of dance-fight called Batuque, that he learned from his father Luiz Candido Machado. The main innovation of Mestre Bimba's style was the cintura desprezada, which means casual use of one's waist in throwing with ease. Application of this technique is a sequence of acrobatic throws trained recklessly without spotting to help students lose their fear of falling.


"When you strike a martelo, kick to break your own foot; when you throw a galopante, punch to break your hand; and when you throw someone with the head to the floor, do it to make a big hole in the cement" -Mestre Bimba


Mestre Pastinha

In 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first Capoeira Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located in Bahia. He had his students wear black pants and yellow t-shirts, the same color of the "Ypiranga Futebol Clube," his favorite soccer team. Most Angola schools since then follow in this tradition, having their students wear yellow Capoeira t-shirts, although more recently each club has begun to adopt more personalised uniforms.


"Capoeira is whatever the mouth eats" -Mestre Pastinha


Together, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha are generally seen as the fathers of modern Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola respectively.


While no one would deny the tremendous African influence on Capoeira, nothing is really known about a form of Capoeira originating in Africa. All that is written on this subject is based on speculation. The earliest known historical record of Capoeira as a martial art is approximately 1770, long after early years of slavery. No further accounts of Capoeira are found until the early 1800's in the form of various police records from Rio de Janeiro.


Capoeira is called by many names: Capoeira Regional, Capoeira Angola, jôgo de Capoeira, brincadeira de angola, roda de capoeira, capoeiragem, malandragem and vadiação

 

Mestre Bimba's Academy

Mestre Pastinha playing Capoeira