Exploring the History of Capoeira

In July 2008, the Brazilian magazine “Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional” (History Magazine of the National Library) published the article “Berimbau Universal” by Lorenzo Aidé.

The article was published soon after Iphan recognized capoeira as a national patrimony in 2008. It reports that between 2007 and 2008, researchers produced an inventory of texts related to capoeira, including books, movies, and more. They also interviewed seventeen mestres, including Mestres João Pequeno, Russo, Leopoldina, Nestor and others. (Not for nothing, but only seventeen mestres? There are more than seventeen mestres in the city of Salvador alone.)

The article relates a bit of the history that the inventory revealed. And here, we present a little of that:
… The common sense, sacred origin myth associates the practice of capoeira with a rural environment: in the slave quarters, slaves demonstrated their resistance to captivity by training the marital arts inherited from their African ancestors, but they disguijavascript:void(0)sed these arts with dance and music so as not to spark the suspicion of the overseers and plantation owners. There is no documentation that confirms this theory. “There does not exist a single register of capoeira in Palmares, for example. It was more present in the port cities than in the quilombos”, explains Maurício Barros de Castro, Doctor of Social History from USP and assistant coordinator of the study.

Urban and marginal art. The oldest registration of capoeira that is known comes from Rio de Janeiro and dates to 1789. It is a document related to the liberation of a slave named Adão, who had been imprisoned for practicing “capoeiragem”. In the following century, “o capoeira”, in the masculine [the gender of the word], is already a figure recognized in the port cities. In these cities, the streets were areas of intense business, where those known as “escravos de ganho” [non-slaves who rented themselves out for work] dedicated themselves to sporadic work. In this atmosphere, people began to form groups, dispute territories, provoke fights and riots, and get in trouble with the police. The capoeira was the father of the malandro.

It is curious that in Salvador during almost all of the 19th century, the term “capoeira” does not appear. The art form was the same as that in Rio and Recife, but the press and the Salvadoran police used all sorts of synonyms to describe those marginal figures(“valentões”, “bambas”, “navalhistas”) and their crimes (“rabo de arraia”, cabeçada”, “rasteira”, “pontape”). Could it be that the word only came along later? Mauricio Barros de Castro doesn’t risk this conclusion, preferring to highlight another important point of the objective: that of stimulating new research. “Despite the work done by the researchers like Antonio Liberace, Fred Abreu, there is still much to be discovered in relation to 19th century Bahia, unlike Rio de Janeiro, about which we know very much,” he says.

In Recife, the study received much enthusiasm for the same reason – it is another city where there is not much documentation the subject. Known as the land of frevo, the capital city was also the place of much capoeiragem until police persecution reduced the presence of the practice, forcing practitioners to hide it within other popular manifestations. The steps of frevo were inspired by capoeira during Carnaval, pulling the cords with razors clenched in their fists, between twirls and pirouettes.

… It would not be an exaggeration to say that capoeira influenced the formation of our urban popular culture. Capoeiristas made up maltas, and they were also present in Brazil’s most significant conflict – capoeiras enlisted (and were enlisted) heavily in the War of Paraguay (1864-1870). In the political sphere, they created the Guarda Negra (1888), in defense of the monarchy and abolition, and served in three cities as political thugs – protecting both republicans and conservatives. In exchange, the authorities turned a blind eye to their street-fighting games…
Overall, this is an informative article and the inventory is an exciting project that may change the way we think about capoeira, but it raises important concerns about relying heavily on documented materials in re-constructing a history of a phenomenon that has largely been preserved orally.

This problem is further highlighted by the incredible fact that only seventeen mestres were interviewed. Police and war records are given priority over the knowledge of mestres. Surely there is much more important information left to be collected from the many mestres and long-time capoeiristas who were not interviewed.

Here is a link to the entire article (in Portuguese).

The “Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional” is an excellent magazine, and each month it almost always includes an article pertaining to capoeira or some similar subject. And of course, it includes many other interesting historical topics including an article on the King of Belguim’s 1920 visit, when he scandalized Rio de Janeiro’s high society and drew crowds of carioca spectators as he took his morning bath at Copabana beach. O la la!

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