Capoeira History.

Capoeira Classes in Manchester

The History of Capoeira

Since the 16th century, the Portuguese bought, sold, traded, and transported African peoples. Brazil, with its vast territory, received almost 40% of these African people via the Atlantic slave trade. The early history of capoeira is recorded by historians such as Dr. Desch-Obi. Originally, the ancestor tradition originated from Kingdom of Kongo and was called N’golo/Engolo(know as Angola today); a type of ritual dance that used several elements of kicking, headbutting, slap boxing, walking on one’s hands, deception, evasion etc. The purpose was also religious as it both provided a link to the afterlife (which was the opposite of the living world) and enabled a person to channel their ancestors into their dance. For example, during the dance, a person might become possessed by an ancestor in the past who was talented at N’golo. This could be applied to a martial setting in both combat and warfare which was called N’singa/ensinga; the difference to N’golo being that it included weapon use and grappling. During the Atlantic slave trade, this tradition transferred around the Americas; Brazil (capoeira), the Caribbean (Damnye) and the United States (knocking and kicking).



Painting of fighting in Brazil c. 1824 by Augustus Earle

In the 16th century, Portugal had claimed one of the largest territories of the colonial empires, but lacked people to colonise it, especially workers. In the Brazilian colony, the Portuguese, like many European colonists, chose to use slavery to build their economy.

In its first century, the main economic activity in the colony was the production and processing of sugar cane. Portuguese colonists created large sugarcane farms called “engenhos“, literally “engines” (of economic activity), which depended on the labour of slaves. Slaves, living in inhumane conditions, were forced to work hard and often suffered physical punishment for small misbehaviour.

Although slaves often outnumbered colonists, rebellions were rare because of the lack of weapons, harsh colonial law, disagreement between slaves coming from different African cultures, and lack of knowledge about the new land and its surroundings.

Capoeira originated within as a product of the Angolan tradition of “Engolo” but became applied as a method of survival that was known to slaves. It was a tool with which an escaped slave, completely unequipped, could survive in the hostile, unknown land and face the hunt of the capitães-do-mato, the armed and mounted colonial agents who were charged with finding and capturing escapees.

As Brazil became more urbanised in the 17th and 18th century, the nature of capoeira stayed largely the same, however compared to the United States, the nature of slavery differed. Since many slaves worked in the cities and were most of the time outside the master’s supervision, they would be tasked with finding work to do (in the form of any manual labour) and in return they would pay the master any money they made. It is here where capoeira was common as it created opportunities for slaves to practice during and after work. Though tolerated until the 1800s, this quickly became criminalised after due to its association with being African, as well as a threat to the current ruling regime.


Soon several groups of enslaved persons who liberated themselves gathered and established settlements, known as quilombos, in far and hard to reach places. Some quilombos would soon increase in size, attracting more fugitive slaves, Brazilian natives and even Europeans escaping the law or Christian extremism. Some quilombos would grow to an enormous size, becoming a real independent multi-ethnic state.

Everyday life in a quilombo offered freedom and the opportunity to revive traditional cultures away from colonial oppression. In this kind of multi-ethnic community, constantly threatened by Portuguese colonial troops, capoeira evolved from a survival tool to a martial art focused on war.

The biggest quilombo, the Quilombo dos Palmares, consisted of many villages which lasted more than a century, resisting at least 24 small attacks and 18 colonial invasions. Portuguese soldiers sometimes said that it took more than one dragoon to capture a quilombo warrior since they would defend themselves with a strangely moving fighting technique. The provincial governor declared “it is harder to defeat a quilombo than the Dutch invaders.”


In 1808, the prince and future king Dom João VI, along with the Portuguese court, escaped to Brazil from the invasion of Portugal by Napoleon‘s troops. Formerly exploited only for its natural resources and commodity crops, the colony finally began to develop as a nation.The Portuguese monopoly effectively came to an end when Brazilian ports opened for trade with friendly foreign nations. Those cities grew in importance and Brazilians got permission to manufacture common products once required to be imported from Portugal, such as glass.

Registries of capoeira practices existed since the 18th century in Rio de JaneiroSalvador and Recife. Due to city growth, more slaves were brought to cities and the increase in social life in the cities made capoeira more prominent and allowed it to be taught and practiced among more people. Because capoeira was often used against the colonial guard, in Rio the colonial government tried to suppress it and established severe physical punishments to its practice such as hunting down practitioners and killing them openly.

Ample data from police records from the 1800s shows that many slaves and free colored people were detained for practicing capoeira:

“From 288 slaves that entered the Calabouço jail during the years 1857 and 1858, 80 (31%) were arrested for capoeira, and only 28 (10.7%) for running away. Out of 4,303 arrests in Rio police jail in 1862, 404 detainees—nearly 10%—had been arrested for capoeira.”

End of slavery and prohibition of capoeira.


Golden Law, 1888.

By the end of the 19th century, slavery was on the verge of departing the Brazilian Empire. Reasons included growing quilombo militia raids in plantations that still used slaves, the refusal of the Brazilian army to deal with escapees and the growth of Brazilian abolitionist movements. The Empire tried to soften the problems with laws to restrict slavery, but finally Brazil would recognize the end of the institution on May 13, 1888, with a law called Lei Áurea (Golden Law), sanctioned by imperial parliament and signed by Princess Isabel.

However, free former slaves now felt abandoned. Most of them had nowhere to live, no jobs and were despised by Brazilian society, which usually viewed them as lazy workers.Also, new immigration from Europe and Asia left most former slaves with no employment.

Soon capoeiristas started to use their skills in unconventional ways. Criminals and war lords used capoeiristas as body guards and hitmen. Groups of capoeiristas, known as maltas, raided Rio de Janeiro. The two main maltas were the Nagoas, composed of Africans, and the Guaiamuns, composed of native blackspeople of mixed race, poor whites, and Portuguese immigrants. The Nagoas and Guaiamuns were used respectively, as a hitforce by the Conservative and Liberal party. In 1890, the recently proclaimed Brazilian Republic decreed the prohibition of capoeira in the whole country.Social conditions were chaotic in the Brazilian capital, and police reports identified capoeira as an advantage in fighting.

After the prohibition, any citizen caught practicing capoeira, in a fight or for any other reason, would be arrested, tortured and often mutilated by the police Cultural practices, such as the roda de capoeira, were conducted in remote places with sentries to warn of approaching police.

Luta Regional Baiana.

By the 1920s, capoeira repression had declined, and some physical educators and martial artists started to incorporate capoeira as either a fighting style or a gymnastic method. Professor Mario Aleixo was the first in showing a capoeira “revised, made bigger and better”, which he mixed with judowrestling and other arts to create what he called “Defesa Pessoal” (“Personal Defense”). In 1928, Anibal “Zuma” Burlamaqui published the first capoeira manual, Ginástica nacional, Capoeragem metodizada e regrada, where he also introduced boxing-like rules for capoeira competition. Inezil Penha Marinho published a similar book. Mestre Sinhozinho from Rio de Janeiro went further, creating a training method that divested capoeira from all its music and traditions in the process of making it a complete martial art. While those efforts helped to keep capoeira alive, they also ensured the pure, non-adulterated form of capoeira became increasingly rare.

At the same time, Mestre Bimba from Salvador, a traditional capoeirista with both legal and illegal fights in his records, met with his future student Cisnando Lima, a martial arts aficionado who had trained judo under Takeo Yano. Both thought capoeira was losing its martial roots due to the use of its playful side to entertain tourists. Bimba began developing the first systematic training method for capoeira, and in 1932 founded the first official capoeira school. Advised by Cisnando, Bimba called his style Luta Regional Baiana (“regional fight from Bahia“), because capoeira was still illegal in name. At the time, capoeira was also known as “capoeiragem”, with a practitioner being known as a “capoeira”, as reported in local newspapers. Gradually, the art dropped the term to be known as “capoeira” with a practitioner being called a “capoeirista”.

In 1937, Bimba founded the school Centro de Cultura Física e Luta Regional, with permission from Salvador’s Secretary of Education (Secretaria da Educação, Saúde e Assistência de Salvador). His work was very well received, and he taught capoeira to the cultural elite of the city.By 1940, capoeira finally lost its criminal connotation and was legalised.

Bimba’s Regional style overshadowed traditional capoeiristas, who were still distrusted by society. This began to change in 1941 with the founding of Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola (CECA) by Mestre Pastinha. Located in the Salvador neighbourhood of Pelourinho, this school attracted many traditional capoeiristas. With CECA’s prominence, the traditional style came to be called Capoeira Angola. The name derived from brincar de angola (“playing Angola”), a term used in the 19th century in some places. But it was also adopted by other masters, including some who did not follow Pastinha’s style.

Though there was some degree of tolerance, capoeira from the beginning of the 20th century began to become a more sanitised form of dance with less martial application. This was due to regions mentioned above but also due to the military coup in the 1930s to 1945, as well as the Military regime from 1964-85. In both cases, capoeira was still seen by authorities as a dangerous pastime which was punishable; however during the Military Regime it was tolerated as an activity for University students (which by this time is the form of capoeira that is recognised today).


Capoeira is an active exporter of Brazilian culture all over the world. In the 1970s, capoeira mestres began to emigrate and teach it in other countries. Present in many countries on every continent, every year capoeira attracts thousands of foreign students and tourists to Brazil. Foreign capoeiristas work hard to learn Portuguese to better understand and become part of the art. Renowned capoeira mestres often teach abroad and establish their own schools. Capoeira presentations, normally theatrical, acrobatic and with little martiality, are common sights around the world.

In 2014 the Capoeira Circle was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the convention recognised that the “capoeira circle is a place where knowledge and skills are learned by observation and imitation” and that it “promotes social integration and the memory of resistance to historical oppression.

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