Categorized | General History

General Capoeira History

Posted on 29 December 2007 by chan

general capoeira history

When the Portuguese arrived in brazil on April the 22nd, 1500, they could not possibly have dreamt the magnitude of what they had found. From that day, triggered the beginning of a country and a moulding of a culture. Originally calling Brazil Terra de vera cruz, the land of the true cross, it was favoured for its rich natural resources. 

From wood to sugar cane to eventually mining and coffee plantations Brazil, was an absolute gold mine for the Portuguese. The Portuguese began by negotiating with the native Indians of brazil by trading muskets, clothing and material and tools for information of fresh water rivers, good forests and general mapping of the area. After a while they began taking the natives by force, and used them as slaves. Due to the amount of money to be made from exporting brazil’s natural resources more slaves were needed. The native Indians were not used to the work ethic of the Portuguese slave drivers. They were also very susceptible to the european foreign diseases brought over by the portuguese, thus not being able to meet the work demand and many dying. The Portuguese thus looked elsewhere for slave labour and decided to go to Africa for slaves. In Africa they proceeded to travel around raiding communities, capturing them and shipping them back to Brazil. They would also negotiate with certain African tribes to help them locate and sometimes even capture other tribes.

Up to 50,000 slaves a year were being shipped over to brazil to work. An estimated 4 million slaves were transported to brazil from the early 1500’s up until 1888 when the golden law, the abolition of slavery was finally ruled. In 1549 Brazil appointed its first governor, Tome de Sousa, who chose Sao Salvador da Bahia as the capital city. Many of the slaves that were transported over to Brazil would be sold in slave markets and put to work with usually very little food and water and poor living conditions. Many of these African slaves came from different parts of Africa. They would all have different languages, customs and would sometimes have tribal enemies within the same plantation.

Regardless, they would all have to find a way to work together under the same suppression.The first record of Capoeira was in 1818 in a police report from Rio De Janeiro. Many believe that Capoeira was created in the 1700’s. However some believe their may be records as early as 1624, where the African slaves were put to war against the dutch when they occupied north-eastern Brazil. Some others believe, (there is no supporting documentation) that King Zumbi, the leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares, was the first Capoeirista. The Quilombo dos Palmares was a renegade slave community situated in the state of Lagoas. It survived for nearly 100 years before falling. King Zambi was the first leader of the Quilombo, and actually negotiated peace between the Quilombo dos Palmares and the Brazilian government which lasted until he passed away and his successor King Zumbi broke the peace agreement, and led the Quilombo to its demise.The word Capoeira literally translates to: tall grass. Most people believe that when the slaves would escape from their senzalas (slave owners plantations), they would hide in the ‘tall grass’ or in the trees and forests. Some of them would then look for a quilombo, some would walk through dense forest over 3,000km away to the Quilombo dos Palmares, in Lagoas. They would also practice Capoeira in their quilombo, paralleling the game of Capoeira to the grass. Short grass parallelling with Capoeira Jogo de dentro, (the Capoeira close game), Tall grass, to Capoeira Alta, Capoeira played upright.


Some also believe Capoeira means chicken coop, derived from slaves imitated the cock fights on the docks of Bahia, Brazil. Whilst others believe it was the name of a certain bird in brazil. When the slaves were hiding in the trees they would use the sound of this bird to communicate to their companions. Whatever the case, Capoeira the word has undertaken in today’s literary terms, a more complex and layered meaning.Throughout the 1800’s Capoeira would appear more and more in documented history.

Also due to increasing pressure from foreign countries competing with more efficient sugar cane plantations, Rio de Janeiro changed its crops to coffee and became the capitalof not only brazil but of the Portuguese empire. Shifting the power, money, slaves and most probably capoeira to Rio De Janeiro 1888 Princess Isabel signed the abolition of slavery law, whilst the emperor is out of the country. Almost overnight the slaves run free throughout the countryside, causing disruptions to many parts of brazil. These slaves did not have any ‘real world’ skills, and many would resort to stealing as a means of survival. As a result Capoeira along with all cultural manifestations were banned in 1889.

In 1892, due to social and economic pressure most of Brazil’s historical government documents were burnt. Many rich landlords lost huge amounts of labour, money and businesses because of the abolition of slavery. Princess Isabel was offered protection by some of Brazil’s best Capoeira practitioners who named themselves the ‘velha guarda’ the old guard.

old roda

Capoeira was nearly wiped out due to the ban and many police officers cracking down hard on anyone who may have an association with capoeira. Many revolted however, and one of these renegades became a famous almost mythical Capoeira character. His name was ‘Besouro de Manganga’. Much of his story is hazy, but there were police records of him in certain incidents. One of the legends was that besouro used to get chased by the police, and lead them into a back alley where he would beat them up and steal their weapons. The next day he would go to the police station and return them.He also apparently had a ‘corpo fechado’ which translates to ‘closed body’, a candomble ritual that can be performed which protects you from harm.

It was believed that he was protected from bullets, and weapons, everything except for a special knife made of Ticum, a type of hard wood. Many believe he died in an ambush and was stabbed with a knife made of ticum.The tension eased by the 1920’s when capoeira could be played only in authorised spaces under police watch. Many capoeira people would play in front of bars and clubs, but it was considered to be a very low class activity to participate in. It was in 1918 that Mestre Bimba first began teaching Capoeira.

Mestre Bimba learnt Capoeiragem from an African named Bentinho at the age of 12. He learnt Batuque from his father, an African martial art involving the participants to form a circle, playing a berimbau and pandeiro etc whilst two people in the middle would try and hit and trip each others legs to off balance them. Capoeira Regional, originally called ‘Luta Regional Bahiana’ The regional fight of Bahia was created in 1932. by 1936 Capoeira became legalized which was the beginning of capoeira becoming popularised. Mestre Bimba was a strong undefeated fighter who would post open challenges in the newspaper to anyone willing to fight him.He instantly gained fame in the world of Capoeira, and because of this much controversy over certain historical issues are debated regularly.

One of the major issues that comes up frequently is how he is criticised for the ‘whitening’ of capoeira. Mestre Bimba placed rules in his academy, one of them was that you either had to have a job or had to be studying to be accepted into his school. Since the majority of people who had jobs or were studying were Caucasian, he was criticised for westernising capoeira not only in racial terms but in philosophy, meaning, interpretation and movement. Mestre Bimba at the time of making such rules was most probably trying to create a system that would help capoeira and its reputation progress, rather than risk it from being banned again.

Without Mestre Bimba, his pedagogical systemisation and more importantly his vision, capoeira could have been quite possibly eradicated forever.Capoeira Angola was formally introduced into Brazilian society through the formation of a group called the centro esportivo de capoeira Angola. It was formed by mestres such as Daniel Coutinho, Noronha, Livino, Mare, Amouzinho, Chapeleiro, Bigode de ceida, Cara queimada, Onca preta, Olho de pumbo and Pastinha amongst others.

Capoeira Angola was created because many believed Capoeira regional was going the wrong way. Each of the ‘angola’ masters were all very proficient in their style of capoeira, many of them undefeated and famous in their own areas.However, Mestre Bimba’s style became the most popular, and overshadowed other groups. One of the main differences between Capoeira Regional and capoeira angola is the belief that capoeira came from Africa. Capoeira Regional always believed capoeira was created in brazil by mainly African slaves, whereas Capoeira Angola practitioners generally believe that capoeira was originally created in Africa and brought over to Brazil.

Because of these beliefs, and no way to prove either claim, the whole meaning of the game is widely interpretive. Mestre Pastinha was probably the most famous Capoeira Angola practitioner in history. This was mainly due to his profound philosophies and powerful presence. Sayings such as ‘Capoeira is whatever the mouth eats’ and ‘in the roda of capoeira both great and small am I’ have given people the urge to delve further into living capoeira in mind body and spirit. Capoeira Angola was never hugely popular, until its resurgence in the 1980’s, where it began to spread to other countries and Capoeira as a whole was becoming a part of popular culture. 

mestre bimba 

By the early 1970’s Mestre Bimba was not getting the support from the government that he needed. The area in where his academy was situated became dangerous and run down. Many of the people he once taught, who had started their own schools and became famous would now rarely visit him and hardly offer any support. His academy was going to have to close down, until he received an option to go and teach capoeira and make a music record in Goiania. Mestre Bimba chose one of his long standing students, Vermelho 27 to take care of the academy. Vermelho 27 helped Mestre Bimba through his financial difficulty as he had a good job working for petrobras. Mestre Bimba died in Goiania, and the legacy of Capoeira Regional was passed into the hands of Mestre Vermelho 27.

Mestre Vermelho 27 was an enigmatic spontaneous and gifted capoeirista. Daring and sometimes reckless he would sometimes randomly walk out of the academy and disappear for a month. No one would know where he had gone or what he had been doing. Mestre Vermelho 27 would roam the streets going in every street roda he could find. Being a funny looking Caucasian capoeirista in a dark alley challenging random street capoeiristas was definitely not common, and he would often be jeered at until they played him. He got his nickname ‘red 27’ because he liked to gamble.

His teaching methods were irrational and prolific, but nonetheless made a huge impact.Mestre Bamba once told me that he was once put to the test when Vermelho drove up to the academy and told him to get in the car with him. So he and a friend went in vermelho’s car and vermelho told them they were not allowed to ask where they were going. Vermelho drove them out to the country side six hours away to a little farm shed, that had no electricity or running water. There was a pot of old meat that stunk as if it had been sitting there for months.

They were so hungry, thirsty and tired, and they stayed there overnight in the rain, without saying a word. The next day they asked when they were going home and Vermelho 27 told them that they had failed the test and drove them home. Vermelho 27 was loved and respected by everyone in Salvador, until his death in 1997.From the early 1980’s however, Rubens Costa Silva, or Mestre Bamba was already destined to take responsibility of Mestre Bimba’s academy and legacy.Mestre Bamba started capoeira at the age of 12, by the time he was 14 he was already considered ready to teach and often helped out in the academy. One of the main reasons why Mestre Vermelho wanted to pass the academy onto Mestre Bamba was because he was the only one who would treat the academy as if it was his own home.

Mestre Vermelho 27 always new that the academy would be in good hands if it was left with Mestre Bamba.Throughout the years Mestre Bamba has always pushed to keep the original space of Mestre Bimba maintained, and constantly strives to educate and demonstrate Capoeira as a whole complete artform. Whilst still teaching traditional Capoeira Regional, he also endeavours to help capoeira as a unified body to progress and prosper. His ability and knowledge surpass his age, and I consider him one of the most amazing individuals I have ever met. He has always given me the motivation and vision to always overcome, whatever the obstacle. 

Tags | ,

8 Comments For This Post

  1. Ramsay Says:

    This is a fantastic article Chan. Lots of heart as well as history in there. A really good read.


  2. Oil Future Says:

    Hey!…Man i love reading your blog, interesting posts ! it was a great Monday

  3. chan Says:

    I am glad you enjoy them. stay tuned…

  4. Kelsi Says:

    why did the slaves start capoeira???

  5. chan Says:

    this is a hard one, it seems so simple but really, I do not think that anyone really knows for sure.
    The Capoeira seems to have not really have been created by any one person. It was developed over time and modified and adapted between people and time. Capoeira began popping up all over the place in brazil back in the 17-18oo’s, I have not heard of it, being proven to have come from any one place. Most people would however assume that the slaves began capoeira because they were oppressed. Through oppression people naturally create resistance. Capoeira seems to have been one of those things created. Every culture has some kind of martial art. To my understanding, Martial arts are generally created from oppression. Hope this helps.

  6. Akira Says:

    Did Bamba ever find out what Vermelho 27 was actually testing him for? What was the purpose behind driving him to an abandoned shed in the middle of no where with a pot of stinking meat? I’m incredibly curious now and am dying to know!

    Also, do you happen to have anything on Nenel? For example, where and who did he study under after his father passed away, what is his relationship with old students of his father like and what is he currently doing to further the legacy his father left behind?

  7. chan Says:

    Mestre Bamba always told me that once a student really dedicates himself to his mestre, the student must have faith. This ‘journey’ was a test of faith. No matter where your mestre takes you or what he shows you, you must have complete faith in your mestre’s teachings. This is a magical relationship and a trust that very few people ever really fully commit to. I guess as a teacher, you need to know which students are really on the level.

    As for nenel. I know a few things, but what has been told to me is not politically correct, so I will not get into the feudal matters. All I can say is that he is continuing to promote capoeira and capoeira regional, and to the best of my knowledge, doing a good job.
    Nenel I believe studied under many people, but I am sure you will be able to find that out on their website.
    hope this helps

  8. Pedra Says:

    Hey, Chan

    Well, I think you mentioned all the usual elements and strove to be accurate (not that that’s really possible), but we all have to recognize that the elements that you mention are the ones that make up the folklore of the art. Whether these things are history, who can say…

    I think we probably accept that the spirit in Capoeira begins with the Quilombos regardless of whether or not Capoeira was practiced there or not.

    Is it African or Brazilian? How about both? The ancestor(s) of Capoeira may be found on that continent, but it’s modern expression could only grow in dynamic that is Brazil, and is now uniquely Brazilian.

    I might quibble slightly with your description of Batuque, since that’s not really how it was described to me: One attacker, one defender; a circle yes, but no particular mention of which (if any) instruments were played — but I suppose I never saw it with my own eyes, so who am I to say.

Leave a Reply