Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art

Through song and dance, capoeira is the revolutionary symbol of Afro-Brazilians. Reduced to slavery, deprived of the right to defend themselves, African and indigenous slaves will develop a martial art fighting to free themselves from their enslave.

Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art

What is Capoeira?

capoeiraCapoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art born in 1537, with the deportation of thousands of African slaves from Africa to work in sugarcane fields in Brazil. Drawing its roots in African dance and fighting methods, capoeira became a revolutionary symbol for Afro-Brazilians. With its playful and acrobatic side, capoeira mixes dance, singing and fighting.
Capoeira-like forms are practiced in most countries of the slave trade.

  • The ladja or danmye in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
  • Moring in Reunion, Madagascar and Mayotte.
  • The susa in Suriname.
  • The maní in Cuba.
  • The pingue in Haiti.


What is the characteristic of capoeira?

Main feature of capoeira is the “roda. Indeed, the capoeirists form a circle, a circle around two capoeirists who fight. This style of struggle mainly uses the feet, for the hands of the slaves were tied. While the two capoeirists clash, they sing and clap their hands to encourage them in a festive and joyful atmosphere. As soon as the fight ends, two others take over.
Different types of capoeira movements are jumps and acrobatics, movements of animals, movements on the ground and movements at mid-height. The basic movement of the capoeira is the Ginga. The Ginga allows you to move in rhythm, like boxers and continuously.

What are the origins of capoeira?  

Peinture sur la Capoeira pendant l'esclavageOrigins of capoeira cause many disagreements and remain blurred. Two movements clash.
 The first movement expresses that the capoeira came with the African slaves. For example, for Angolan slaves, capoeira was a dance of seduction used for pretenders of young women. Others explain that capoeira was inspired by the fighting techniques of Kongo Kingdom (Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon). This fighting art of the warriors was called« NGO-LO » in French, the force of the panther, this being the historical totem of the KONGO people), according to the Society of Historians of Congo-Brazzaville. The testimony of Albano de Neves and Souza via L. Camara Cascudo confirms this idea.
Second movement says that capoeira was born in Brazil. Of course, it has been refined by African slaves, but it is created in Brazil.

A famous master of the capoeira mestre Bimba declares to the newspaper ‘Tribuna de Bahia’ in 1969:
It was in the senzalas of the Reconcavo that the Capoeira was born. »

As for the African and Angolan origin of the capoeira he states in the same newspaper:

The blacks, yes, were from Angola, but the Capoeira is from Cachoeira, Santo Amaro and Maré Island. »

Capoeira: a revolutionary symbol of Afro-Brazilians?

 Capoeira 1Chained, abused, African slaves developed a martial art to defend themselves from their oppressors. In order not to get caught, they used cunning in disguising this martial art by singing and dancing. They trained daily to the rhythm of percussion to prepare for a rebellion to free themselves from their Portuguese settlers. Exhausted physically, they secretly develop a traditional struggle that will release them one day from their chains.

Some slaves manage to escape and form Quilombos, that is, hidden communities that live in forests. To defend themselves from the colonists, they use capoeira. The most famous Quilombos “O Quilombo dos Palmares” has been held for more than a century. It is celebrated and the most famous of the Resistance is “Zumbi Dos Palmares”, an indisputable figure of the resistance of the African slaves.
Capoeira can be defined as a traditional struggle through gestures and blows, a cultural manifestation with songs and dances, but also an acrobatic game between capoeirists.
In exchange for their freedom, during the Paraguayan war, Brazil sent many capoeirists fighting on the battlefield.
In 1890, Brazil created an offense to prohibit capoeira. Anyone who was surprised to practice capoeira was guilty of “capoeiragem.” Their punishments were terrible, for they were imprisoned and sent to forced labor.
For years, it was crafty to make capoeira. It was practiced secretly. The cap of the cavalry was played to warn the capoeirists of the arrival of the colonists and allowed them to flee.
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the democratization of capoeira. It is gaining more and more popularity. Capoeira has become a respectable and democratic art. It is supported massively by many artists, dancers, Brazilian public men. It is the symbol of the revolution, rebellion of the Afro-Brazilians towards their oppressors. It is a popular manifestation of Brazilian culture. In addition, capoeira leads to the creation of a school to learn this art.

Traditional or Angolan capoeira.                    Regional capoeira
  • His representative is the master Pastinha who wishes to keep all ancestral and traditional customs. Indeed, Vicente Ferreira Pastinha known as Mestre Pastinha is the movement that wishes to keep the traditional capoeira, and will be called the Angolan capoeira.
  • In 1941, he founded the “Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola” in Salvador to develop his art.


  • His representative is Manuel dos Reis Machado, better known as Mestre Bimba. In 1930, he created the “Centro de Cultura Fisica e Capoeira Regional” in Salvador de Bahia and created the regional capoeira style.
  • It is different from the traditional capoeira because it incorporates elements of “Batuque”, an African struggle that his father practiced, and other elements from foreign martial arts. To remove the negative image, that capoeira is for Thugs, delinquents or banditry.
    He selects and accepts honest individuals who can certify a job. The first generations are young white people from good families.
  • In 1952, he impressed the Brazilian president, Getúlio Vargas, who considered that capoeira is the “true Brazilian national sport. “

Finally, in 1940, capoeira was legitimate. The law prohibiting it was repealed. Thanks to the work of Mestre Bimba and Pastinha, capoeira leaves the image of clandestinity and becomes a legitimate sport. Today, it is one of the most practiced sports in Brazil after football, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and volleyball. It is a cultural event, part of the heritage of Brazilians. It expresses its identity, its history and the Afro-Brazilians’ combativeness. The values of capoeira are numerous. She develops physical stamina, agility, flexibility and a sense of rhythm in a very warm atmosphere.

The phrase that defines capoeira by many people is that it is the art of fighting inside the dance and dancing in the fight. “

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