By Master Vaguinho (Wagner Bueno)
Source: http://www.capoeirasj.com/history/index.html (contains pictures)
Due to many circumstances, the history of Capoeira, in part, is obscure. There are
many documents and facts that can be proven, but there is also much speculation and correct and incorrect conclusions that
can not be proven. There is also the popular romanticism and stories that come from the past, for generations, without historic
foundation but that is accepted by many. The reality is that there are always questions without responses. The history of
Capoeira, ironically through its destiny, reflects the actual jogo (game) de Capoeira. In some ways it's a charade and full
of mandinga (secrets/deception). In my 27 years of Capoeira I have heard many different responses for the same question. I
have read numerous books, which speak of the same subject but take totally different angles. I have spoken with and listened
to, attentively, the opinion of many mestres old and young, famous and unknown. I can say that I have already read 99 percent
of the published books about Capoeira, some good and some bad. I have heard many different berimbau rhythms with the same
name. I have seen many of the same movements with different names. I know of cordao graduations with the same level in different
colors. I have seen many rodas, many mestres and many capoeiristas but to none has Capoeira revealed all of its' history.
Because of this, there will always be questions without exact answers. And because of this I suggest to all who are interested
in Capoeira and its' history, read as much as possible about the subject and discover its' various angles. The following information
that you are about to read doesn't completely reflect my way of thinking. The following information reflects various opinions
from various authors*, some of which I don't completely agree with but I respect and recommend their work. - Wagner Bueno
In 1500's the Portuguese, led by explorer
Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Brazil. One of the first measures taken by the new arrivals was the subjugation of the local population, the Brazilian Indians,
in order to furnish the Portuguese with slave labor (for sugarcane and cotton). The experience with the aborigines was a failure.
The Indians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguese then began to import slave labor from
Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic, free men and
women were captured, loaded onto ghastly slave ships and sent on nightmarish voyages that for most would end in perpetual
The Africans first arrived by the
hundreds and later by the thousands (approximately four million in total).Three major African groups contributed in large
numbers to the slave population in Brazil, the Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean peoples, the Mohammedanized
Guinea-Sudanese groups of Malesian and Hausa peoples, and the "Bantu" groups (among them Kongos, Kimbundas, and Kasanjes)
from Angola, Congo and Mozambique.
Who or what is responsible for Capoeira? Where did the foundation of capoeira come from? That is the eternal question
that can never really be answered. The Bantu groups are believed to have been the foundation for the birth of Capoeira. They
brought with them, from Africa, their culture, a culture that was not stored away in books
and museums but rather in the body, mind, heart and soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son, throughout generations.
There was candomble', a religion; the berimbau, a musical instrument; vatapa, a food; and so many other things. Basically
a way of life.
The Dutch controlled parts of the
northeast between 1624 and 1654. Slaves took steps towards reconquest of their freedom when the Dutch lashed out against the
Portuguese colony, invading towns and plantations along the northeastern coast concentrating on Recife
and Salvador. With each Dutch invasion the security of the
plantations and towns were weakened. The slaves taking advantage of the opportunities, fled, plunging into the forests in
search of places in which to hide and survive. Many after escaping founded independent villages called quilombos.
The quilombos were very important to evolution of Capoeira. There were at least ten major quilombos with internal socio-economic
organizations and commercial relationships with neighboring cities. The quilombo dos Palmraes lasted sixty-seven years in
the interior of the state of Alagoas, rebuffing almost all expeditions sent to extinguish it. Because of the consistency and
type of threat present, Capoeira developed it's structure as a fight in the quilombos. The embryo of Capoeira as a rudimentary
fighting style was created in the slaves' quarters and perhaps would not have developed further if left only to that environment.
Starting around 1814, Capoeira and
other forms of African cultural expression suffered repression and were prohibited in some places by the slave masters and
overseers. Up until that date, forms of African cultural expression were permitted and sometimes even encouraged, not only
as a safety gauge against internal pressures created by slavery but also to bring out the differences between various African
groups, in a spirit of "divide and conquer". But with the arrival in Brazil
in 1808 of the Portuguese king Dom Joao VI and his court, who were fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Portugal, things changed. The newcomers understood the necessity
of destroying a people's culture in order to dominate them, and Capoeira began to be persecuted in a process, which would
culminate with its being outlawed in 1892.
Why was Capoeira suppressed? There were many motives. First of all it gave Africans a sense of nationality. It also
developed self-confidence in individual Capoeira practitioners. Capoeira created small, cohesive groups. It also created dangerous
and agile fighters. Sometimes the slaves would injure themselves during the Capoeira, which was not desirable from an economical
point of view. The masters and overseers were probably not as conscious as the king and his intellectuals of his court of
all of these motives, but intuitively knew something didn't "smell right."
It must be stressed that there are
many other theories attempting to explain the origins of Capoeira. According to one prevalent theory, Capoeira was a fight
that was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced unbeknownst to the white slave owners. This seems unlikely because,
around 1814, when African culture began to be repressed, other forms of African dancing suffered prohibition along with Capoeira,
so there was no sense in disguising Capoeira as a dance.
Another theory says that the Mucupes
in the South of Angola had an initiation ritual (efundula) for when girls became woman, on which occasion the young warriors
engaged in the N'golo, or "dance of the zebras," a warrior's fight-dance. According to this theory, the N'golo was Capoeira
itself. This theory was presented by Camara Cascudo (folclore do Brasil, 1967), but one year later Waldeloir Rego (Capoeira
Angola, Editora Itapoan, Salvador, 1968) warned that this "strange theory" should be looked upon with reserve until it was
properly proven (something that never happened). If the N'Golo did exist, it would seem that it was at best one of several
dances that contributed to the creation of early Capoeira.
Other theories mix Zumbi, the legendary leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares (a community made up of those who managed
to flee from slavery) with the origins of Capoeira, without any reliable information on the matter.
All of these theories are extremely
important when we try to understand the myth that surrounds Capoeira, but they clearly cannot be accepted as historical fact
according to the data and information that we presently have. Perhaps with further research the theory that we have proposed
here, i.e., Capoeira as a mix of various African dances and fights that occurred in Brazil, primarily in the 19th century, will also be outdated in future years.
A TURNING POINT
With the signing of the Golden Law in 1888, which abolished slavery, the newly freed slaves did not find a place for
themselves within the existing socio-economic order. The capoeirista (practitioner of Capoeira), with his fighting skills,
self-confidence and individuality, quickly descended into criminality and Capoeira along with him. In Rio de Janiero, where
Capoeira had developed exclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorized the population. Soon
thereafter, during the transition from the Brazilian Empire to the Brazilian republic in 1890, these gangs were used by both
monarchists and republicans to exert pressure on and break up the rallies of their adversaries. The club, the dagger and the
switchblade were used to complement the damage done by various Capoeira moves.
In Bahia on the other hand, Capoeira
continued to develop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be an indispensable instrument used to command
the rodas (actual sessions of Capoeira games), which always took place hidden locales since the practice of Capoeira in this
era had already been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892).
At the beginning of the twentieth
century, in Rio the capoeirista was a rouge and a criminal. Whether the capoeirista was white,
black or mulatto, he was an expert in the use of kicks (golpes), sweeps (rasteiras) and head-butts (cabecadas), as well as
in the use of blade weapons. In Recife, Capoeira became associated
with the city's principal musicbands. During carnival time, tough Capoeira fighters would lead the bands through the streets
of that city, and were ever two bands would meet, fighting and bloodshed would usually ensue. In Bahia,
the capoeirista was also often seen as a criminal.
The persecution and the confrontations with the police continued. The art form was slowly extinguished in Rio and Recife, leaving Capoeira only in Bahia. It was during this period that
legendary figures, feared players such as Besouro Cordao-de-Ouro in Bahia, Nascimento Grande in Recife and Manduca da Praia
in Rio, who are celebrated to this day in Capoeira, made their appearances It is said that Besouro lived in Santo Amaro da
Purificacao in the state of Bahia, and was the teacher of another famous capoeirista by the name of Cobrinha Verde. Besouro
did not like the police and was feared not only as a capoeirista but also for having his corpo fechado (a person who through
specific magic rituals, supposedly attains almost complete invulnerability in the face of various weapons). According to legend,
an ambush was set up for him. It is said that he himself (who could not read) carried the written message identifying him
as the person to be killed, thinking that it was a message that would bring him work. Legend says he was killed with a special
wooden dagger prepared during magic rituals in order to overcome his corpo fechado.
THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT
Of all the rouges that led the carnival bands through the streets of Recife,
Nascimiento Grande was one of the most feared. Some say he was killed during police persecution in the early 1900s, but others
say he moved from Recife to Rio de Janiero and died of old
Manduca da Praia was of an earlier
generation (1890s) and always dressed in an extremely elegant style. It is said that he owned a fish store and lived comfortably.
He was also one of those who controlled elections in the area he lived in. It is said that he had twenty-seven criminal cases
against himself (for assault, knifing etc.) but was always absolved due to his influence of the politicians he worked for.
GODFATHERS OF CAPOEIRA
The two central figures in Capoeira in the twentieth century were undoubtedly Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha. These
two figures are so important in the history of Capoeira that they (and the mystery that surrounds them) are the mythical ancestors
of all Capoeira players. Much of what a modern Capoeira player tries to be is due to what these men were or represented. Even
though they were not the first, they are definitely the most prominent figures associated with Capoeira today. They are synonymous
with Capoeira because they are the heart, soul, spirit and essence of the martial art. Both are legends.
In the 1932 in Salvador, Mestre Bimba (Manuel dos Reis
Machado) opened the first Capoeira academy. He started teaching what he called "the regional fight from Bahia," eventually
known as Capoeira Regional (faster more aggressive than traditional Capoeira Angola
style). This feat was made possible by nationalistic policies of Getulio Vargas, who wanted to promote Capoeira as a Brazilian
sport. Although Bimba opened his school in 1932, the official recognition only came about in 1937, when it was technically
registered. It must be noted that the Getulio Vargas government permitted the practice of Capoeira, but only in enclosed areas
that were registered with the police. With the opening of Bimba's Academy, a new era in the history of Capoeira began, as
the game was taught to the children of the upper classes of Salvador.
Bimba was active in Capoeira his whole life. As a matter of fact he was planning to give a Capoeira demonstration on the day
he died, February 5, 1974.
In 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha) opened his Capoeira angola school. For the first time, Capoeira began to be taught and practiced openly
in a formal setting. He became known as the "Philosopher of Capoeira" because of his many aphorisms. Unfortunately, government
authorities, under the pretext of reforming the Largo do Pelourinho,
where he had his academy confiscated. Although he was promised a new one, the government never came through. The final years
of his life were sad. Blind and almost abandoned he lived in a small room until his death in 1981 at the age of ninety-two.
TODAY & BEYOND
Capoeira has grown tremendously over
the last fifty years. It has finally been excepted by the masses in Brazil.
Capoeira competitions and academies are surfacing everywhere. In 1974 it was recognized as the national sport of Brazil. This forced the creation of a national federation
of Capoeira. It was formed to govern, promote and coordinate Capoeira since no effort was made previously to unite the various
emurgances of Capoeira throughout Brazil.
How is Capoeira practiced today? It usually starts with musicians playing instruments such as the berimbau (one string,
bow type instrument), atabaque (congo),
pandiero (tambourine), and agogo (bell). The musicians are based at the foot (pe' da) of the circle (roda).This roda is made
up of participants (capoeiristas or players) crouching down. The musicians and/or players may be singing a song in Portuguese.
Players enter the game from the pe'da roda (foot of the circle), usually with a cartwheel (au). Once in the circle the two
players interact with a series of jumps, kicks, flips, hand and headstands and other ritualistic moves. Games can be friendly
or dangerous. The music plays a big part in the feel of the game. The type of game to be played (fast or slow, friendly or
tough) depends upon the rhythm being played and the content of the lyrics.
Capoeira has expanded
beyond the borders of Brazil and is growing rapidly in other countries
(including the United States). Capoeira
appeals to many for many different reasons. First of all the pure beauty of the art is hypnotic. Capoeira is a dance and a
fight. It's not only a combination of gymnastics, dance and martial arts but also music, culture, history and knowledge. The
capoeirista must learn to balance the physical with the mental. The capoeirista must play many instruments and sing. The capoeirista
may at times be your enemy but is usually a friend. The capoeirista is a historian. The capoeirista is all of these.