A Brief History of Capoeira

A Brief History of Capoeira

Capoeira is an unusual style of martial art that has an Afro-Brazilian origins, focuses predominantly on using your lower body to kick, sweep and take your opponents down, though elbow and hand strikes are also incorporated, and is designed to allow a fighter who’s outnumbered to take on even armed enemies.

Famously capoeira combines aspects of acrobatics and dance alongside it’s striking techniques. It’s a high paced and adaptable martial art designed to be in constant motion – strike flows into evasion and into the next strike in an unending flow. This is because when Portugal colonised Brazil in the 16th century they brought in huge numbers of slaves to work on huge sugar plantations in horrific conditions. Though the slaves far outnumbered the colonists they were controlled by the colonists access to weaponry and harsh punishment (among other factors). If they wanted to learn to fight and defend themselves they had to do so unarmed and without attracting the attention of the colonisers.

While the slaves brought to Brazil would have come from many different places, people taken from the Kingdom of Kongo brought across the tradition of ritual dances called N’golo or Engolo that included kicking, headbutting and slap boxing (and could also incorporate use of a weapon in a variation called N’singa or Ensinga). While the harsh rules imposed on the slaves would have banned training in martial arts the techniques of N’golo were taught to other slaves – it’s often said that it was under the guise of teaching each other to dance, which has further influenced capoeiras style, though there may have been some tolerance from the colonisers at least initially. The training gave escaped slaves a chance to survive in the hostile environment and fight back against the capitães-do-mato – or slave hunters – that were sent to find them.

Capoeira was tolerated within Brazil until the 1800’s when it was decided that, in the more urbanised Brazil, that it was a criminal act that threatened the ruling class and was associated with being African. However, the art survived in Quilombos, the settlements created by escaped slaves, natvie peoples and Europeans that were escaping the regime’s laws or extreme religiousness. Quilombos became multicultural hubs, a melting pot of freedom to express traditional cultures and practices and they grew over time. However they were constantly under threat from the colonising forces – the largest, Quilombo Dos Palmares, was a collection of settlements and survived for over a century and fended off at least 24 small attacks and 18 colonial invasions. In these settlements capoeira developed from a survival tool to a method of combat and it has been recorded that it often took multiple soldiers to subdue and capture a single quilombo warrior due to their use of a ‘strangely moving fighting technique’. 

Capoeira show Master de fleuret 2013
Capoeira show Master de fleuret 2013 – Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons

In Urban environments there are records of capoeira practice throughout the 18th century, as more and more slaves were brought to Brazil the training became more and more common – though the practice was outlawed and practitioners were often hunted down and killed in plain sight. Police records from the time showed that, from 288 slaves brought to a single Brazilian jail between 1857 and 1858 more than 30% of them were arrested for practicing capoeira, and of the 4000+ arrestees taken to jails in Rio during 1862 nearly 10% had been arrested for practicing.

As slavery ended in Brazil in 1888 former slaves found themselves abandoned; unable to find work or places to live and shunned by the rest of Brazilian society. The capoeiristas soon turned to using their skills to survive how they could, joining criminal gangs and working as bodyguards for warlords. Bands of capoeiristas, known as Maltas, at one point raided Rio and were used as hit forces by political parties. In 1890 a blanket outlawing of capoeira occurred as it was recognised as being such an advantage during fights during this period of chaos. After the ban anyone caught practicing or using capoeira in a fight would be arrested, tortured and even mutilated by the police – though it still occurred in isolated locations with sentries keeping watch for authorities. 

Through the 1900’s capoeira underwent a bit of a revival, starting to emerge in the 1920’s combined with other martial arts like Judo, or wrestling into more rounded styles. The first training manuals were published and attempts were made to separate the martial arts elements from the dance and music to make it a pure martial art. In 1932 the first official capoeira school was opened with a systematic teaching approach that formalised the techniques. Though tolerance increased throughout the 1900s this was mainly for a less martial style of capoeira that focused more on entertainment, as coups and military regimes that controlled Brazil through parts of the 20th century saw capoeira as a dangerous pastime that was potentially punishable. The military regime allowed university students to train, and this is essentially where capoeira as we know it today emerged. 

Since the 1970’s capoeira mestres have emigrated across the world to teach their techniques in different countries, spreading the knowledge and Brazilian culture across the world. 

If you want to read more of our Brief History articles you can find them here

Have you ever trained capoeira? Are you interested in taking it up? Did you know much about its history? Let us know in the comments!

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