The book "Afro-Latin America, 1800 -2000" by George Reid Andrews is an excellent overview of the history of the African Diaspora in Latin America, including the Caribbean. While it seems like an impossible task to succinctly cover such an immense subject, the author does a superb job examining and presenting major, overarching historical themes - such as the wars of independence, the institutional policy of “whitening” the population, and the oppression of blacks - and then applying specific examples from the different countries of Latin American and the Caribbean, comparing and contrasting results and consequences.
Brazil, with the largest population of African descendents in the area, gets much attention in the book, and the author talks about capoeira as well as other African traditions, including samba, that came to be defined as essential to the cultures of the countries of Latin America.
Here is a little of what Andrews has to say about capoeira:
This was the martial art of capoeira, a combination of dance and kick-boxing based on Angolan antecedents and developed into a distinctly New World discipline and aesthetic by African slaves. The term and the phenomenon first appeared in Brazilian documents in the 1770s. By the 1790s and early 1800s, capoeiristas were organizing themselves into the maltas, or gangs, that became as much a part of nineteenth-century urban life in Brazil…and later in the book:
… the capoeira gangs were entirely male and based on rigorous codes of secrecy and loyalty to the group. Betrayal of the code meant harsh punishment, up to and including death… capoeira was closely tied to seaports and the sea...
… capoeira gangs in Rio de Janeiro sought to acquire control over the hiring of dockworkers in the port. Frustrated in their effort, they turned to protection rackets and other forms of criminal activity, dividing the city into small fiefdoms and fighting violent turf wars against each other. The gangs somewhat rehabilitated their public image in 1828, when they joined forces with the army to defeat a mutiny by German and Irish mercenaries. During the second half of the century they sought to establish patron-client ties with powerful protectors by hiring themselves out as bodyguards and “enforcers” of important politicians and businessmen. But… the violence of the intergang struggles provoked intensifying police repression and the eventual outlawing in 1890 of “the exercise of agility and corporal dexterity known as capoeira.”
Brazilian authorities undertook a similar war against capoeira, which was outlawed by federal statute in 1890. In Rio de Janeiro, police arrested more than 600 suspected capoeiristas and sent them to the penal colony on the far offshore island of Fernando de Noronha. Organized capoeira gangs were eliminated from the capital, and from all Brazilian cities except Salvador, where police repression continued through the 1920s and 1930s. According to elderly practitioners of the sport, the police would tie captured capoeiristas to horses and drag them through the streets at full gallop back to police headquarters. As a result, they jokingly recall, they always practiced near police stations so that, if arrested, they would be dragged a shorter distance.This book is packed with interesting information. We will present more relevant finds in the future.
"Afro-Latin America 1800-2000" is available in the FICA-DC Archives library thanks to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.