in the USA, there was also slavery in Brazil. The slaves were
put to work in the plantations where sugar and tobacco were the
main crops and the demand for slave labor was great. During the
history of the slave trade, it is estimated that more than two
million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa.
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.
Rio and Recife, the slaves were from different ethnic groups and
sometimes from enemy tribes as well, 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.
the slaves became aware that their condition was irreversible,
that they were intended to be an involuntary work force forever,
they began to run away.
Recife, a group of 40 slaves rebelled against their master,
killed all the white employees, and burned the plantation house.
They then set themselves free and decided to find a place where
they could be hidden from the slave hunters. They headed to the
mountains, a trip that took many months to complete. Had it not
been for the help they received from the Indians, this journey
would have been practically impossible to accomplish. Eventually
they reached what they thought was a safe place, which because
of its abundance of palm trees they named Palmares. In this
place an African community was born; a community which lasted
nearly a century. In this community the first forms of Capoeira
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
Over the course of years, scattered
settlements were established in the mountains. The largest of
these was Palmares with more than 20,000 inhabitants, including
some Indians and whites.
Here tribes that were strangers or
enemies in Africa united to fight for a common goal.
A new community was formed with a
very rich cultural mixture. In this new environment they shared
and learned from each other their dance, rituals, religion, and
games. One result of this rich cultural fusion was Capoeira in
its earliest form.
Palmares was growing rapidly as
more refugees arrived in this little African nation. It started
to worry the Portuguese colonizers. People from Palmares would
come down from the mountains to trade produce, fruit, and animal
skins and would often raid plantations to free more slaves.
Palmares began to effect the life
of the plantations as more and more of the slaves escaped. The
colonists suffered economically because of the diminishing labor
To make things worse for the
Portuguese, Holland invaded Brazil in 1630. The slaves took
advantage of this situation and with assistance from Palmares
left the plantations and fought the Portuguese Army. The army at
this point was fighting two enemies.
The Dutch won the war, but the
Africans never stopped fighting. In 1644 the Dutch organized an
expedition to go to Palmares, but nothing was accomplished. In
the following years a second expedition was sent to the
mountains which also failed.
It is important to point out that
these expeditions were formed by very experienced and well-armed
soldiers. But the Africans developed a system of fighting called
"jungle war" or ambush. Capoeira was the key element
in the unexpected attacks. With fast and tricky movements the
slaves caused considerable damage to the white men. Capoeira
became their weapon, their symbol of freedom.
When an expedition was successful,
the slaves who were returned to 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 colonies
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. The
planters being no longer interested in them 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. Others, more fortunate because of their
knowledge of capoeira, were hired by politicians as bodyguards.
All were seen by the government as a "plague."
The main activities of these "capoeiristas"
(anyone who practices the art) was 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 Chapter B of
this code, ten articles were specifically related to the
actions, practices, and crimes related to capoeira. A tougher
law was later added stating that any person who was a known
capoeirista would be expatriated. To enforce these laws, the
president hired a man named Sampaio, 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.
One incident brought to an end
Sampaio's relentless pursuit of the capoeiristas. He arrested a
man named Juca, 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.
The law that prohibited the
practice of capoeira was still effect until 1920, and 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, 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 capoeira school in
Brazil. It was the first step towards a more open development,
and years later the senate passed a bill establishing capoeira
as a national sport.
Today capoeira is all over the world. In Brazil,
as part of the culture, there is capoeira everywhere - in
elementary schools, universities, clubs, and in military