History of Capoeira




Capoeira's origin dates back about 500 years to the beginning of Brazil's slave trade period. Throughout this time various tribes were brought from West and Central Africa by the Portuguese and sold to work on the plantations. These slaves met and intermingled in the senzalas (slave quarters) and soon formed the quilombos (escape slave nations). Some as stong as 40,000 people.  From this mix of African cultures came a melding of traditions, rituals, rites of passage, food, dance, language and religion.  Slowly, a new Afro-Brazilian identity with a distinct set of cultural practices was born.  With this new identity came the development of Capoeira, a practice that would years later be referred to as the art of liberation. 

Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that has its roots in the culture, methods of combat and dances of African slaves deported to Brazil in the sixteenth century.

It is distinguished from other martial arts by its playful side, strategy and acrobatics. During combat, also called playing, parts of the body can be used such as, hands, head, knees and elbows, but mainly the legs are used to attack. The "players" can also balance on the hands to perform kicks or acrobatics. Capoeira has many different forms and styles, played and/or fought at different levels and different speeds, depending on the rhythm of the instruments and the songs. The first capoeirists (people who play capoeira) trained to fight by hiding their martial art to appear as a game; so when the slave master approached, the fight was changed and disguised by the music and the songs.  Quickly transforming into a sort of dance appearing as a "brincadeira" (game or entertainment).  Once they became great fighters the slaves were able to escape and form “Quilombos”. Secret refuges of escaped slaves created in inaccessible places to escape their torturers. The best known, "O Quilombo dos Palmares" has held over a century and has been the subject of many songs and his most famous, Zumbi Dos Palmares, is one of the figures of resistance of African slaves.  The first slaves speaking different languages and belonging to different cultures would have created capoeira’s ill-conceived manner as a form of inter-ethnic communication. These are the most common explanations by many historians to explain the circumstances of the birth of capoeira. This is known as the Slavery Era of Capoeira. 

After slavery was abolished around 1870 there was a huge migration to the city centres throughout Brazil. This is when capoeira became quite violent and many capoeiristas were involved in gangs and other misconduct. So people had to hide their true identity with nicknames and be cautious to be seen training or else one might me thrown in jail. This was the beginning of the Underground Era of capoeira.

At the beginning of the 20th century, capoeira gained more and more popularity and became more respectable. It was supported by many Brazilian artists and public figures who began to issue the possibility of making it legal to train.  In the 1930s, Manuel dos Reis Machado better known as Mestre Bimba founded the first school of capoeira. He called it the "Centro de Cultura Fisica e Capoeira Regional" in Salvador de Bahia and created the capoeira style that is called "Capoeira Regional". This was the beginning of the Academy Era of Capoeira.  Capoeira Regional is distinguished from the traditional capoeira because Mestre Bimba integrated elements of "Batuque", an African fight that his father practiced, and other elements came from foreign martial arts to make the fight different from the traditional capoeira. One of his wishes was to clean the image of capoeira by dissociating it from the problems of delinquency of the Brazilian society of the time.  In 1952 he managed to attract the attention of the then Brazilian President, Getúlio Vargas, after which the president would affirm that capoeira is the "real national sport".

Totally against the foot of Mestre Bimba, Vicente Ferreira Pastinha known as Mestre Pastinha would embody the traditional capoeira, and it was to be called "Capoeira Angola".

These are the events that allowed capoeira to come out of hiding and to assert itself today as one of the most popular sporting activities of Brazil.

With the rise of capoeira, Brazil has seen many groups appear and around 1970, a group that wanted to practice capoeira created a system of cords like coloured belts of Asian martial arts.

Nevertheless, there is no uniformity between the different groups of capoeira with regard to the colours of the cords. Each group has a colour classification of its own. 

At the international level, the discipline of capoeira is mainly organized in groups, composed of academies and schools. Each group has its own aspirations, practices and customs, while maintaining the common cultural base of the discipline.