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Capoeira History

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

The fight disguised in dance

Rugendas's painting

The history of capoeira is associated with the period of slavery in Brazil. The martial art began to be formed in the 16th century when Brazil was a colony of Portugal. Brought to Brazil from African countries, the black people came to work on the sugarcane plantations, coffee plantations, swiddens, or in the homes of the lords. Capoeira began as a liberating activity for these enslaved people, to protect themselves from the violence and punishment of Brazilian colonizers. They were often the targets of aggression and atrocities from the lords.

Slaves were repressed not to practice anything that could be offensive to their "owners", then they used the music and "dancing" while practicing the strikes, takedowns, and defenses, with the argument that they were only dancing, but were creating a powerful weapon. One of the main instruments used in the practice of capoeira was the berimbau, which nowadays we can say that it is the icon of capoeira.

Usually, the practice of fighting was carried out in yards and open places in the forest and was a form of distraction due to the stress generated by heavy work, as well as the preservation of their culture.

The abolition of slavery in Brazil took place in 1888. Free, the black people were left to their own devices. For the most part, they had nowhere to live, nowhere to work and were despised by society, which saw them as vagabonds. Soon a large part of them was marginalized and, naturally, capoeira with them.

It was inevitable that many capoeiristas began to use their skills in unconventional ways. Many began to use capoeira as bodyguards, mercenaries, and henchmen. Groups of capoeiristas called as "maltas" terrorized Rio de Janeiro. In a short time, more specifically in 1890, the Brazilian Republic decreed the prohibition of capoeira throughout the national territory, given the chaotic situation of the Brazilian capital and the notable advantage that a capoeirista had in the corporal confrontation against a policeman.

Mestre Bimba playing capoeira - Bahia, Brazil

After much persecution, in 1930, capoeira was removed from the Brazilian penal code and one of the most responsible for this was Mestre Bimba, as he was the first master to create a real capoeira academy in Brazil, with rules, graduations, and nomenclature of moves. He created a style of capoeira and named it Luta Regional Baiana. He evolved a lot of the blows, put a more aerobic rhythm in the game, and implanted organization.

Nowadays, capoeira has become not only an art or a cultural aspect but a true exporter of Brazilian culture abroad. Present in dozens of countries on all continents.

The martial aspect is still very present and, as in ancient times, it is still subtle and disguised. In addition to the cultural aspect, capoeira is also seen as a sport, where there are several championships around the world. A symbol of Afro-Brazilian culture, a symbol of ethnic miscegenation, a symbol of resistance to oppression, capoeira definitely changed its image and became a source of pride for the Brazilian people. Currently, it is considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Brazil.

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