Origins and History of Capoeira

What is Capoeira?

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art. It was created in Brazil by slaves that were forced to hide the fight within a dance some time after the 16th century. It was developed in the region known as Pernambuco in “Quilombo de Palmares”, presently state of Alagoas. Capoeira is physically dynamic because it utilizes acrobatics, cleverness, and cunning. Participants form a “roda”, or circle, and take turns either playing musical instruments (such as the Berimbau), singing, or sparring in pairs in the center of the roda. The sparring is marked by fluid acrobatic play, feints, and extensive use of sweeps, kicks, and head butts. Other techniques include elbow strikes, slaps, punches, and body throws. Capoeira is the second most popular sport in Brazil and is practiced all around the world by people of different races, age, gender, and beliefs.

Some of the benefits Capoeira offers:

  • Learn Self Defense
  • Build Cardio and Stamina
  • Develop Strength and Flexibility
  • Develop Balance and Coordination
  • Learn Discipline
  • Build Self-Esteem and Confidence
  • Learn to Play Musical Instruments
  • Learn about the Brazilian culture while learning a new language

Origins of Capoeira

Capoeira (literally, a low, grass clearing in the indigenous Tupi Guarani language) emerged during the times of slavery in Brazil’s vast sugar and coffee plantations. Developed as a method of self- defense, Capoeira was born out of the Brazilian slaves’ intense desire for freedom. Captive slaves in Brazil did not passively accept the injustices they faced each day. Rather, they rebelled and created this unique and amazing fight in order to free themselves from the cruelty and discrimination of their time. Former captive slaves soon joined in unison and created vast cities of runaway slaves known as “quilombos”. The most famous of these was Quilombo de Palmares, led by the great warrior Zumbi de Palmares, which lasted over 80 years. Throughout the years, newly freed blacks in these quilombos further developed their Capoeira skills and helped other captive slaves gain their freedom as well. The warriors of the quilombos, known as “quilombolas”, also led several violent attacks against the Portuguese monarchy that controlled Brazil at the time in hopes of abolishing slavery altogether. Part of this dream finally became reality in 1888 when Dona Isabel, who led the throne at the time, surrendered to the rebellious “quilombolas” and was forced to sign the “Lei Aurea”, or “Aurea Law”. Although this was an important step toward justice, blacks, indigenous peoples, and any one who supported the abolitionist movement in Brazil continued to be discriminated against. Capoeira continued to play a major political role in shaping Brazil’s history. Many capoeiristas used their skills to survive in harsh times and were often hired by corrupt politicians to eliminate possible competition for government offices. Due to this increase in violence, Capoeira was soon banned as a “dirty” fight practiced only by “marginal criminals”. Any person found practicing Capoeira was severely punished and often deported to the small island of Fernando de Noronha to perform forced labor. It wasn’t until 1932, during the presidency of Getulio Vargas, that the great Mestre “Bimba” was able to establish the first legitimate Capoeira academy and show the people of Brazil and of the world that this “one and only” fight was, and still is, a national treasure.

Zumbi dos Palmares

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Zumbi was born free in Palmares in 1655, believed to be descended from the Imbangala warriors of Angola. He was captured by the Portuguese and given to a missionary, Father António Melo, when he was approximately 6 years old. Baptized as Francisco, Zumbi was taught the sacraments, learned Portuguese and Latin, and helped with daily mass. Despite attempts to pacify him, Zumbi escaped in 1670 and, at the age of 15, returned to his birthplace. Zumbi became known for his physical prowess and cunning in battle and was a respected military strategist by the time he was in his early twenties.

By 1678, the governor of the captaincy of Pernambuco, Pedro Almeida, weary of the longstanding conflict with Palmares, approached its leader Ganga Zumba with an olive branch.  Almeida offered freedom for all runaway slaves if Palmares would submit to Portuguese authority, a proposal which Ganga Zumba favored.  But Zumbi was distrustful of the Portuguese.  Further, he refused to accept freedom for the people of Palmares while other Africans remained enslaved.  He rejected Almeida’s overture and challenged Ganga Zumba’s leadership.  Vowing to continue the resistance to Portuguese oppression, Zumbi became the new leader of Palmares.
Fifteen years after Zumbi assumed leadership of Palmares, Portuguese military commanders Domingos Jorge Velho and Bernardo Vieira de Melo mounted an artillery assault on the quilombo.  February 6, 1694, after 67 years of ceaseless conflict with the cafuzos, or Maroon, of Palmares, the Portuguese succeeded in destroying Cerca do Macaco, the republic’s central settlement. Before the king Ganga Zumba was dead, Zumbi took it upon himself to fight for Palmares’s independence.  In doing so, he became know as the commander-in-chief in 1675 and, due to his heroic efforts, his prestige increased.  Palmares’ warriors were no match for the Portuguese artillery; the republic fell, and Zumbi was wounded in one leg.
Though he survived and managed to elude the Portuguese and continue the rebellon for almost two years, he was betrayed by a mulato who belonged to the quilombo and had been captured by the Paulistas, and, in return for his life, led them to Zumbi’s hideout.  Zumbi was captured and beheaded on the spot November 20, 1695.  The Portuguese transported Zumbi’s head to Recife, where it was displayed in the central praça as proof that, contrary to popular legend among African slaves, Zumbi was not immortal.  This was also done as a warning of what would happen to others if they tried to be as brave as him.  Remnants of quilombo dwellers continued to reside in the region for another hundred years.

November 20 is celebrated chiefly in Brazil as a day of Afro-Brazilian consciousness.  The day has special meaning for those Brazilians of Afro descent who honor Zumbi as a hero, freedom fighter, and as a symbol of freedom.  Zumbi has become a hero of the twentieth-century Afro-Brazilian political movement, as well as a national hero in Brazil.

 

Mestre Bimba

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Manoel dos Reis Machado, commonly called Mestre Bimba, was a Mestre of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira.

The son of Luiz Cândido Machado and Maria Martinha do Bonfim, Manoel was born in Salvador, Bahia.  He started learning Capoeira when he was 12 years old, with a navigation captain in Salvador, called Bentinho, even though in those days Capoeira was still being persecuted by the authorities. He would later be known as one of the legendary founding fathers of contemporary Capoeira, the other being Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (“Mestre Pastinha”), the father of modern Capoeira Angola.

Machado was a coal miner, carpenter, warehouse man, longshoreman, and horse coach conductor, but mainly a Capoeirista.

At 18, Bimba felt that Capoeira had lost all its efficacy as a martial art and an instrument of resistance, becoming a folkloric activity. Bimba was the first to create a method of teaching to help facilitate learning because until then, Capoeira was only learned by watching and participating in the roda. This was the beginning of the development of Capoeira regional.
In 1928, a new chapter in the history of Capoeira began, as well as a change in the way black people (of African descent, brought to Brazil as slaves) were looked upon by the Brazilian society. After a performance at the palace of Bahia’s Governor, Juracy Magalhães, Bimba was finally successful in convincing the authorities of the cultural value of Capoeira, thus, in the 1930s, ending its official ban in effect since 1890.
Machado founded the first Capoeira school in 1932, the Academia-Escola de Cultura Regional, at the Engenho de Brotas in Salvador, Bahia. Previously, Capoeira was only practiced and played on the streets. However, Capoeira was still heavily discriminated against by upper-class Brazilian society. In order to change the pejorative reputation of Capoeira and its practitioners as being devious, stealthy and malicious, Bimba set new standards to the art.  His students had to wear a clean, white uniform, show proof of grade proficiency from school, exercise discipline, show good posture and many other standards. As a result, doctors, lawyers, politicians, upper-middle-class people, and women (until then excluded) started to join his school, providing Bimba with legitimacy and support.
In 1936, Bimba challenged fighters of any martial art style to test his regional style. He had four matches, fighting against Vítor Benedito Lopes, Henrique Bahia, José Custódio dos Santos (“Zé I”), and Américo Ciência. Bimba won all matches.
On June 9th 1937, he earned the state board of education certificate and officially registered the first Capoeira center.
In 1942, Machado opened his second school at the Terreiro de Jesus on Rua das Laranjeiras. The school is still open today and was supervised by his former student, “Vermelho”, until the early 1980s. The school then came under the brief supervision of Mestre Almiro before being transferred to Mestre Bamba, the man who leads the school today. He also taught capoeira to the army and at the police academy. He was then considered “the father of modern Capoeira”.
On July 23, 1953 he was invited to demonstrate capoeira to the then president of Brazil, Getúlio Dorneles Vargas. Vargas says, “Capoeira is the only sport which was truly Brazilian.”

Unhappy with false promises and lack of support from local authorities in Bahia, he moved to Goiânia in 1973 at the invitation of a former student. He died a year later, on February 5, 1974 at the Hospital das Clínicas de Goiânia due to a stroke.

Bimba managed to recover the original values within Capoeira, which were used amongst the black slaves centuries before him. For Bimba, Capoeira was a fight. Bimba fought all his life for what he strongly believed was best for Capoeira and succeeded.  After he died in 1974,  one of his sons, “Nenel” (Manoel Nascimento Machado),  took over his father’s Capoeira legacy at the age of 14.  Nenel is still responsible for the remarkable cultural and historical legacy his father left him and is president of Filhos de Bimba School of Capoeira.

Mestre Pastinha

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Vicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha, commonly called Mestre Pastinha, was a Mestre of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira.
Pastinha was born to José Pastinha, a poor Spanish immigrant who worked as a pedlar and Eugênia Maria de Carvalho Ferreira, a black Bahian homemaker. He was exposed to Capoeira at the age of 8 by an African named Benedito. The story goes that an older and stronger boy from Pastinha’s neighborhood would often bully and beat him up.  One day Benedito saw the aggression that Pastinha suffered and then told him to stop by his house to teach him a few things. In his next encounter with that boy, Pastinha defeated him so quickly that the older boy became his admirer.

Pastinha had a happy and modest childhood. In the mornings, he would take art classes at the Liceu de Artes e Ofício school where he learned to paint; afternoons were spent playing with kites and practicing Capoeira. He continued his training with Benedito for three more years.

In 1941, by Aberrê’s (Pastinha’s former student) invitation, Pastinha went to a Sunday roda at ladeira do Gengibirra located at bairro da Liberdade, where the best Capoeira Mestres would hang out.  Aberrê was already famous in these rodas, and after spending the afternoon there, one of the greatest Mestres of Bahia, Amorzinho, asked Pastinha to take charge of Capoeira Angola.
As a result, in 1942 Pastinha founded the first Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located at the Pelourinho. His students would wear black pants and yellow T-shirts, the same color as the Ypiranga Clube, his favorite soccer club.
He participated with the Brazilian delegation of the “First International Festival de Artes Negras” in Dakar, Senegal (1966), bringing with him João Grande, João Pequeno, Gato Preto, Gildo Alfinete, Roberto Satanás, and Camafeu de Oxossi.

Pastinha worked as shoeshiner, tailor, gold prospector, security guard at a gambling house, and construction worker at the Porto de Salvador to support himself financially so that he could do what he loved the most, being an Angoleiro.
Eventually, Pastinha’s academy fell on hard times. Pastinha, old, sick and almost totally blind, was asked by the government to vacate his building for renovations. But the space was never returned to him. Instead, it became a restaurant and entertainment outlet. Pastinha died a broken man and bitter about his treatment, but never regretted living the life of a Capoeirista. Pastinha was left abandoned in a city shelter (abrigo D. Pedro II – Salvador).
Having dedicated his entire life to Capoeira Angola, he played his last game of Capoeira on April 12, 1981. Pastinha, the father and protector of Capoeira Angola, died at the age of 92 on November 13, 1981. He was survived by two of his most learned students, João Grande and João Pequeno (died 2011), who continued to share Pastinha’s Capoeira Angola with the world.