Capoeira, the martial art of enslaved Africans in Brazil that threatened white supremacy in 1700s

Stephen Nartey September 01, 2022
Some young men practising capoeira. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr

Capoeira, a martial art combat style that originated from enslaved Africans in Brazil to stand up to better-armed enemies, has since its emergence faced stiff repression from colonial powers. The basics of this art were shaped under the watchful eyes of slaveowners who supervised plantations in Brazil. 

The strategy employed to conceal this hidden art as a form of combat was to perform it as a dance to their slaveowners. But, capoeira later became a symbol of resistance to white rule and an art of self-defense against any form of aggression. 

There has been raging debate among practitioners of the art and historians whether capoeira was performed with music to disguise its intent before slaveowners or it was purely the exhibition of foot kicks because the hands and legs of slaves were chained leaving them with only their feet. This is because police records do not capture musical instruments when they arrest practitioners in the art. 

Either way one looks at it, capoeira was a war dance which in modern times is accompanied by music, drumbeats and hand clapping. The potential danger the art posed attracted fierce vilification and criminalization of the war dance. 

Records from Brazil’s House of Deputies for September 1887 described capoeira as the brutal and dangerous art which came across as an entertainment sport, but, unknowingly hides a dagger and injures its targets when they are unaware. 

Obadele Kambon, a researcher who submitted a paper to the University of Ghana in his journal of African studies on the art, said evidence abounds that capoeira was vilified by the colonial government. He said the approach early practitioners adopted was to repackage the art after it was banned in 1800 as cultural aerobics. 

He recounted that the war dance was looked on with scorn by the Whites because it was developed by the enslaved and they made all efforts to ban its public exhibition. 

Practitioners of capoeira, according to tourists and press reports from the 19th century, were tagged as dangerous drifters who were prone to violence and criminal acts that threatened public order. 

Kambon cited a case of repression from one Police officer, Paulo Fernandes Viana, in 1817 who said practitioners of the war dance were subjected to 300 lashes and three months of forced labor when caught. He said this penalty was exerted without any evidence of injury or death by those who are seen practicing capoeira. 

Stressing the repression of enslaved Africans in Brazil, Kambon said the practice of capoeira was banned from being practiced in the streets, squares and even public houses in the municipal law of Cabreuva. Slaves were subjected to 20 lashes and a fine if found to have violated this law. 

He explained that when the colonial authority realized it was unable to dissuade the practice of capoeira, it sought to get rid of the war dance practitioners by placing them on the frontline of the Paraguay War. 

The enslaved soldiers who were part of the 31st Corps of Volunteers however emerged victorious when they run out of ammunition and had to rely on their capoeira blows after charging on the enemies in their trenches. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 1, 2022


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