Posted On:7/31/2006 5:32am
Style: BJJ-white belt
Yes there's another thread on the history of Capoeira, however some issues weren't addressed there (or I may have missed them) that I thought I'd clear up with some research I've done on the subject (I'm working on a research paper on martial arts). If anything in here appears unnecessary in this forum (Such as colorful wording or simplistic explanations of some terms) I apologize, as this was taken directly from my paper. Also I haven't done my bibiliography yet, and will provide a complete list of my sources as soon as possible (two of my major ones were "The Little Capoeira Book" and "Capoeira: Roots of the Dance Fight Game" both by Mestre Nestor Capoeira.
In 1500, the explorer Pedro Alves Cabral led the Portuguese to Brazil. Upon entering Brazil, the Portuguese attempted to subjugate the aboriginal people, but the venture failed as the Indians either died or escaped, and the Portuguese then set their sights on West Africa for slave labor, marking the beginning of what would eventually become the cultural integration that would give birth to the Brazilian martial-art of Capoeira. Several disputing theories revolve around the possible origin of Capoeira as to it’s cultural identity, two of the most important Mestres, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha (the two men responsible for creating the two major sub-styles of Capoeira, Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola respectively) even have conflicting views on the subject.
Mestre Bimba is quoted to have said:” The Negroes were African, but Capoeira is from Cachoeira, Santo Amaro, and Ilha de Maré camarado!” “…Capoeira came from Africa, the Africans used it to fight.” said Mestre Pastinha (Capoeira, “Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game” 107). There is an underlying importance to Capoeira’s cultural identity because, as Mestre Nestor Capoeira asserts “it became ‘politically correct’ and fashionable to delegate one’s darker skin to some Tupi or Guarini ancestor” (109), regarding Brazilian society following the creation of the “Golden Law” in 1888 which abolished slavery. Thus, we see Capoeira not so much just as a martial art or practice of self-defense, but as integral piece of afro-Brazilian history and culture. Slave owners allowed the traditions of the aboriginal people to be freely practiced up until 1892, “. . . forms of African cultural expression, were permitted and sometimes even encouraged, not only as a safety gauge against the internal pressures created by slavery but also to bring out the differences between various African groups in a spirit of ‘divide and conquer’”. In this sense, Capoeira was used even as a weapon or tool against its own practitioners, however this would change with the outlawing of Capoeira in 1892. Capoeira was outlawed for a variety of reasons revolving around the slave trade; Nestor Capoeira asserts possible reasons, which lead to this decision: It gave the Africans a sense of nationality and created small, cohesive groups and dangerous fighters. Also was perhaps one of the main reasons which was in fact that “sometimes the slaves would injure themselves during the Capoeira game, which was not desirable from an economic point of view”. (Capoeira, “The Little Capoeira Book” 5, 6)
In “Alive and Kicking in London” an article for Brazzil magazine, Burton Guy writes:
Suspicion and distrust by the authorities was particularly heightened by the creation of the quilombos—self-contained communities made up of runaway slaves—several of which withstood years of government and army pressure to destroy them. As a result, they clamped down on any expression of black activity which might threaten slavery—and Capoeira suffered. (Guy)
However, despite this hindrance, Capoeira was still practiced in different forms around Brazil, as Almeida states “While the upper classes of colonial Brazil turned towards literature, politics and fashion from Europe, the poorer rungs of the population had their capoeira” (qtd. in Berg). Capoeira was practiced in different forms around Brazil; one such form was practiced in a very violent way, with the usage of clubs, knives, and switchblades for added damage (Travado). The violence of this more dangerous method of practicing Capoeira, is likely what led to the brutal methods that the Brazilian government used in order to squash the practice of this art, such as slicing the Achilles’ tendon as punishment, insuring that a capoeirista would never be able to grace the roda with their skills again. To hinder the Brazilian government’s efforts to end the beautiful cultural amalgam that is Capoeira, the art was practiced undergound. So who are these underground Capoeiristas? Are these Capoeiristas switchblade wielding thugs who engage in brutal fights where life and limb are on the line? Are the Capoeiristas merely martial artists whose only wish was to practice in peace? Are these Capoeiristas even simply a group of individuals who just want to sing, dance, and play music while enjoying the company of their camarados? The answer is not as simple as yes or no, the Capoeiristas were a mixture of all of these things, in the same sense that one cannot judge a people by any one stereotype or generalization, and neither can the entire multitude of Capoeiristas. The government obviously viewed Capoeira negatively as apparent by the inhumanely violent methods employed to prohibit it, the role of the capoeirista was obviously either misinterpreted or maliciously misrepresented in society. Nestor Capoeira asserts that even when Brazil was independent from Portugal, it was still under the economic rule of England (“The Little Capoeira Book” 35), which may perhaps be a possible reason why the repression of Capoeira existed for decades even after the passing of the “Golden Law” in 1888. The Capoeirista who plays the role of the “malandro” is very likely to be misunderstood if viewed outside it’s cultural context, for the malandro at face value is merely what the term’s literal translation suggests “thug”, “hoodlum” or “rogue”, in essence a bad person. However, the direct translation is not an accurate descriptor of the true nature of Capoeira’s malandro, in fact though the malandro is outside the realm of the law as Malandro Records webpage www.BrazilianJazz.com states:
“. . . In the 30s, the period of Vargas and the Estado Novo, [the malandro] ruled the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Protector of the oppressed, almost a tropical version of Robin Hood, the good malandro was loyal to his protectees and merciless to his enemies. . .”
The malandro was not necessarily inherently bad, as the societal perception would likely lead one to believe, in fact Capoeira’s usage of the word “malandro” is more geared to the romanticized view of the charming trickster, as Mestre Nestor Capoeira states:
. . . People believe that the life and codes of conduct of the Malandro, the ethics of the malandragem, are something shallow and mediocre…But the Malandro’s bad name came about as a result of the actions of false malandros. Luckily for us, the Malandro has some true representatives . . . in our world of Capoeira (“Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game” 67-68)
In Capoeira, the malandragem or blend of trickery, slyness, and cunning, incorporates “malícia” another concept easily misconstrued as meaning the same as the English word “malice” at a glance. However, again Mestre Nestor Capoeira clarifies this term by placing it within its cultural context: “…malícia, the knowledge of humanity, of life, of the suffering and motivation and fantasies of human beings…Malícia means a mixture of shrewdness, street-smarts, and wariness. It should not be confused with the English word ‘malice’” (“The Little Capoeira Book” 31-32). In short, Capoeira has proved to be the cultural underdog of society, while initially the government used extreme force to crush this budding art underfoot, and while the practitioners were the dregs of society-those whose literal and cultural ancestors were the suppressed aboriginal people of Brazil and slaves of West Africa. This art has in time gained favor in the eyes of the people, from practice in underground Capoeira clubs, eventually leading to President Vargas’ congratulations to Mestre Bimba for making Capoeira Brazil’s “national fight” (Capoeira “The Little Capoeira Book” 12) Capoeria’s history is a true “rags to riches” story if there ever was one.
Also of note is the common misconception that capoeira was practiced because they wanted to disguise thier martial art as a dance, however in The Little Capoeira book, Nestor Capoeira states that such was unlikely as in 1892 all forms of Afro-Brazilian cultural expression (including dancing and the like) were outlawed.
 “Mestre” means “master” in Portuguese,
 Note: Cachoeira, Santo Amaro, and Ilha de Maré are all names of cities in Bahia.
 Camarado means “Capoeira friend” (Capoeira, “Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game” 107)
 Capoeirista is a term which means ‘practitioner of Capoeira’
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