Fragmented Origins of Capoeira

As far as I can see, there are four strands within the history of Capoeira, a brief outline of which is provided below. Debates concerning the ‘purity’ and heritage of Capoeira styles began in the 1930s and groups tend to align themselves with one of these schools of thought. 

  1. those who espouse an Afro-centric vision (claiming capoeira originated in Angola among free men) see Downey 1998, 2005. Some critics have suggested that the name capoeira has Bantu roots, which supports this viewpoint. Neves e Sousa suggested in ‘Da Minha África E Do Brasil Que Eu Vi’ that similarities are evident between Capoeira and Jogo de Angola, Bassula (a traditional fishermen’s fight in Luanda) and N’Golo (a male dance performed for female puberty rights in the Mucope region).
  2. Bahian capoeiristas claiming that capoeira first appeared in Salvador. Salvador was the first slave port, alongside the economic centre of the colony. It is argued that capoeira developed in senzalas, the dance-like aesthetic acting as a facade for the study of martial arts. Parallels have been drawn between Capoeira and the syncretic religion Candomblé, which linked African deities to Catholic saints, allowing slaves to worship their gods while maintaining the appearance of Catholicism. 
  3. The artistic/martial expression of capoeira was developed in the quilombos, and the name comes from the Tupi language. The most famous figure in this narrative is King Zumbi, the leader of Palmares, the largest and longest enduring quilombo in Alagoas. It is suggested (though no physical documentation exists to corroborate the fact) that Zumbi trained an army of foot soldiers in a form of capoeira martial art. Whether or not this is accurate, today King Zumbi is a popular symbol of Afro-Brazilian pride and resistance.
  4. The earliest and most extensive documentation of Capoeira’s origins suggests it emerged first in Rio de Janeiro. By 1821, Rio possessed the largest urban slave population in the Americas (46% of the total city – Holloway 1993:26). The first visual representations stem from this environment, the most explicit reference being an engraving by Johann Mortiz Rugenda entitled ‘Jogar capoëra ou danse de la guerre’ (1835).

It is worth noting that many practitioners acknowledge the dubious validity of stories surrounding Capoeira’s heritage. However, such narratives are often taught to initiates as they begin to learn, continuing to circulate as a way to contextualise Capoeira within the history of slavery and slave resistance in Brazil.


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