Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was developed in Brazil mainly by Angolans, at the beginning of the 16th century. It is known for its quick and complex maneuvers, predominantly using power, speed, and leverage across a wide variety of kicks, spins and techniques.
The most widely accepted origin of the word capoeira comes from the Tupi words ka’a (“jungle”) e pûer (“it was”), referring to the areas of low vegetation in the Brazilian interior where fugitive slaves would hide. A practitioner of the art is called a capoeirista.
On 26th November 2014 capoeira was granted a special protected status as “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.
Capoeira’s history begins with the beginning of African slavery in Brazil. Since the 16th century, Portuguese colonists began exporting slaves to their colonies, coming mainly from Angola. Brazil, with its vast territory, received most of the slaves, almost 40% of all slaves sent through the Atlantic Ocean. The early history of capoeira is still controversial, especially the period between the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, since historical documents were very scarce in Brazil at that time. But oral tradition, language, and evidence leaves little doubt about its Afro-Brazilian roots.
In the 16th century, Portugal had claimed one of the largest territories of the colonial empires, but lacked people to colonize it, especially workers. In the Brazilian colony, the Portuguese, like many European colonists, chose to use slavery to build their economy.
In its first century, the main economic activity in the colony was the production and processing of sugar cane. Portuguese colonists created large sugarcane farms called engenhos, which depended on the labor of slaves. Slaves, living in inhumane conditions, were forced to work hard and often suffered physical punishment for small misbehaviors.
Although slaves often outnumbered colonists, rebellions were rare because the lack of weapons, harsh colonial law, disagreement between slaves coming from different African cultures and lack of knowledge about the new land and its surroundings usually discouraged the idea of a rebellion.
In this environment, capoeira was born as a simple method of survival. It was a tool with which an escaped slave, completely unequipped, could survive in the hostile, unknown land and face the hunt of the capitães-do-mato, the armed and mounted colonial agents who were charged with finding and capturing escapees.
Capoeira nowadays is not only a martial art, but an active exporter of Brazilian culture all over the world. Since the 1970s, capoeira mestres began to emigrate and teach it in other countries. Present in many countries on every continent, every year capoeira attracts to Brazil thousands of foreign students and tourists. Foreign capoeiristas work hard to learn Portuguese to better understand and become part of the art. Renowned capoeira mestres often teach abroad and establish their own schools. Capoeira presentations, normally theatrical, acrobatic and with little martiality, are common sights around the world.
The martial art aspect is still present and still disguised, leading many non-practitioners to ignore its presence. Trickery is ever present and expert capoeiristas can even disguise an attack as a friendly gesture.
Symbol of the Brazilian culture, symbol of the ethnic amalgam that characterizes Brazil, symbol of resistance to the oppression, capoeira definitely changed its image and became a source of pride to Brazilian people. Capoeira is officially considered intangible cultural heritage of Brazil.