A Brief History of Capoeira

The history of capoeira is a complex and fascinating story of the development of a martial art by slaves as a form of self defense. The history provided here is an overview of the major points. It's not complete and thorough, but gives a basic foundation for capoeira's development.

Capoeira Origins

The History of CapoeiraIn the 1500s, the Portuguese in Brazil began to import slaves from Africa as a workforce for their sugarcane and other plantations. Over time slaves in various plantations escaped or started small rebellions to get freedom. These escaped slaves began to gather and form quilombos, or communities of escaped slaves, native Indians and other oppressed groups.

This set the stage for the development of capoeira. This part of capoeira history is well known, but the actual creation of capoeira is a lot less clear. There are many theories on how it began, but I'll mention some of the major ones.

  • Quilombos - Inside the safety of quilombos, capoeira developed as a means of self defense and use in guerrilla attacks. Numerous times quilombos were attacked or raided by slave hunters. Capoeira was used to protect these communities and was effective in repelling attacks. Those slaves who were captured, taught capoeira to the others in plantations and disguised it with music and dance.
  • Cultural Blend - It's also believed that capoeira is a result of the blends of various cultures. The slaves brought from Africa represented numerous different tribes or groups from Africa. In an effort to maintain their culture and traditions, capoeira was developed, combining their various aspects to become the art as we know it today.

There are many other theories, but today, it's extremely difficult to concretely know which is right. What is known is what happened to the history of capoeira after slavery ended...

Illegal Times of Capoeira

In 1888, slavery was abolished in Brazil. This resulted in numerous poor slaves moving to the slums in the cities. Those that knew capoeira began to form criminal gangs. Others became political bodyguards and assisted politicians in terrorizing others with capoeira.

This became a threat to to government which responded by creating a special police force against capoeira and eventually made it illegal to practice. The common punishment for practicing capoeira was jail or cutting the tendons on the players legs (ouch!).

During this time, capoeira continued in secret. In an effort to avoid being caught, capoeira players adopted the tradition of nicknames, to hide their real identity. Also warnings were created to alert capoeiristas of police, such as the berimbau toque called calvalaria. It was played whenever police were around to inform the players to dance samba instead of capoeira.

Capoeira Legitimized

Mestre BimbaThe outlawing of capoeira changed when Mestre Bimba came onto the scene. He reorganized capoeira into his regional style and had performances for both the governor of Baiha and the President of Brazil. This resulted in Mestre Bimba opening the first legal capoeira school in 1937.

At that time capoeira still had the stigma of being
a low class activity and only used in gangs. Mestre Bimba instituted rules, such as white uniforms and certain philosophies to attract middle and higher class people to capoeira. This was effective and capoeira was soon practiced by
doctors and businessmen.

From this point, capoeira began to grow into its modern roots and flourish within Brazil and worldwide.

The history of capoeira is amazingly interesting. This overview only provides a brief look at this history but shows the important elements of its past. Now when playing, you'll have a better understanding for the history and traditions that make capoeira what it is today!

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