Brazil is an amazing country in terms of different cultures. From the indigenous Indians, former African slaves and of course the Portuguese. Today, Brazil’s biggest influences stem from the Portuguese who controlled the country from the 15th century until the early 18th century.
Image irene nobrega via Flickr
One of Brazil’s biggest traditions is a martial art called Capoeira. If you happened to be in Brazil and saw people performing Capoeira, you would probably think you were watching a dance rather than a fighting style. To find out more about the fascinating origins and development of this exhilarating art we need to start our journey back in the 16th century.
In the 16th century the Portuguese controlled Brazil. There was not enough man power on the land to complete the work loads they required. To help with this they shipped over vast amount of slaves from Africa. These slaves were in no way allowed to participate in any sort of self defence techniques as the Portuguese wanted them to remain helpless and under their control.
Image Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1825, published in 1835. Wikipedia public domain.
But the slaves actually created Capoeira to look like a dance and not a martial art to fool their Portuguese captors. The guards presumed it was just some sort of African ritual they were unaware of and left them to it. As the years passed some slaves managed to escape while many others suffered due to health reasons.
Image Zumbi, painted by Antônio Parreiras. Wikipeia Public Domain.
The slaves that escaped started to set up their own homes and communities in Brazil and these communities would become known as Quilombos. Over time these communities grew considerably and they regularly practiced Capoeira. This continued until 1888 when slavery was abolished.
Image Lei Áurea (Golden Law) Document that abolished slavery in Brazil. Wikipedia.
But at this point in time Brazil was in a state of disarray with severe poverty, homelessness and crime. A lot of the Quilombos lost their homes and the only way to provide any sort of life for their family was to turn to crime. Capoeira now began to be used in the carrying out of crimes.
This resulted in the newly established Brazilian government declaring a complete country wide ban on anyone practising or participating in Capoeira. Anyone found to be breaking this law would have their achilles tendon sliced in half so they could never do it again.
There are also stories of people being executed under certain circumstances. Even with all of this going on, it did not stop some people risking their life to learn its teachings.
A Mestre is what they call someone who has achieved the highest rank possible in Capoeira. Mestre Bimbas’ real name is Manoel Dos Reis Machado and he is arguably the most recognised name when it comes to Capoeira.
Image Mestre Bimba_Capoeira. Wikipedia.
Although it was still banned when Bimba learned it, he would hold secret demonstrations and shows that quickly became an attraction to any tourists lucky enough to attend. Word soon spread of its growing popularity from the tourists and this resulted in the Governor of Bahia inviting Bimba to his palace to see at first hand what everyone was talking about.
He was so impressed by the demonstration that he granted Bimba the permission to open the first ever Capoeira training academy and the ban on Capoeira would soon be lifted. With permission now given for Bimba to open the academy, he wanted to bring Capoeira into the present day and so one of the first things he did was look around other countries and observe how they treated teaching martial arts.
Image kids practising Capoeira today. Eduardo Marquetti via Flickr.
Bimba copied various parts of this. He introduced a belt/ranking system. He introduced proper clothing. These small changes might not seem like much but they are still used to this very day. Another thing to understand was that Capoeira was always portrayed as a poor person’s martial art because of its links to the African slaves.
Bimbas academy changed all that and it was not long before he was training lawyers, doctors, politicians, the police and even women who had never been allowed to practice before.
Image Capoeira. Chris Brown via Flickr.
Today Capoeira is as much part of Brazilian culture as soccer or samba. But is also widely practiced in many corners of the globe. As part of my website about Brazilian martial arts I listed all the places around the world I could find that had Capoeira training. Lets just say it took me a good few months.
It does not get the same recognition as say karate in some countries which I personally think is a shame. The health and fitness benefits alone should be enough to promote it more, especially for kids. I am trying to learn to play all the musical instruments used in Capoeira and am currently on the Atabaque (a large Brazilian drum ).
If you visit Brazil there is a high chance you may see some kids having fun playing it on the beach or you could even have the option to attend a demonstration. Do not miss out if the chance arises. It is mesmerizing to watch and now you know of its origins, hopefully it you will enjoy this fascinating and exciting practice even more.
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