Capoiera in Rio in the 19th Century

… The key year for capoiera in Rio is 1870. For various reasons, the War of Paraguay (1865 – 1870) was a turning point in its history. Rounded up by the hundreds and sent to the battlefield, they [capoeiristas] became famous for their feats of bravery in hand-to-hand combat, and they gained the respect of government officials. They returned as heroes. They re-took control of the maltas [gangs] that they had abandoned when they “volunteered” to fight in the south.

It was not simply a return. The conservative elite that dominated the political life of the nation, in one way or another, was enthused by the martial fervor of those at the battle front. It was also greatly impressed with the violence of the street fights upon the return of the veterans. From this moment forward, for reasons that remain unclear to this day, the capoeiras entered definitively into the political agenda of the elite monarchy of the Imperial Court of Rio de Janeiro.

The malta that became a kind of legend in the political-electoral life of Rio at this time was Flor da Gente. It dominated the community of Glória, a noble part of the city, full of mansions and landed estates of the elite of Rio. In 1872, Flor da Gente entered with fury into the violence that characterized the electoral disputes of the empire.

… During the eight years that the “political capoeiras”- as the opposition press called them- dominated the corridors of the power of the city. With the support of powerful patrons, they infiltrated the police force…

The party ended in 1878. The conservatives fell, bringing with them Flor da Gente. The repression that fell on their heads was severe, but it was not enough to eliminate them. For the next ten years, they continued to control the political violence in the city, until they were forced out once and for all by the moralistic and republican energy of Sampaio Ferraz in 1890.
This excerpt about the history of capoeira in the city of Rio de Janeiro at the close of the nineteenth century comes from an article published in the Brazilian magazine Nossa História in March of 2004. The article, entitled “A era de ouro da capoeira” (“The Golden Age of Capoeira”) and written by Carlos Eugênio Libano, includes an excerpt from a small publication of the time called “Os capoeiras” that depicts a street fight among capoeirstas. It also reflects upon the origins of capoeira, and talks about the rivalry between the great malts of Rio de Janeiro, the Nagoas and the Guayamus. The article is quite comprehensive and very well-written (in Portugese). It’s worth a read.

If you want to read the rest of the article, it is available in the library of FICA-Bahia.

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