The science of the art of capoeira


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The Formation of Capoeira Identity Throughout the Ages

  by Andrew C Eadie, Kings College London, 2003

The Urban Capoeirista

For the second phase in Capoeira history we take a jump to the nineteenth century urban scenario. All Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations were to be crushed as they were perceived to reinforce a counter-ideology of resistance and belonging - to a group other than the dominant one. Waldeloir Rego, in his Book Capoeira Angola brings us the scene of urban chaos in his quoting of Carl Von Koseritz’s 1833 letter. This man was witness to the shocking act of arson upon a building erroneously taken to be the Ministry of Justice, “great quantites of capoeirstas” descended on the public square and began to shout, “Viva a Revolucăo!”. In the process many grave injuries and much destruction of public property was incurred. In the same letter Von Koseritz confirms that spectacles such as these were not uncommon. Such behaviour was the mark of the capoeira maltas or gangs. The most notorious of these, the Nagoas and Guaimus of Rio de Janeiro were famed for their elaborate code of dress, perfected to the point where an individual’s gang allegiance could be easily recognised. They controlled different parts of the city, extorting money, engaging in constant inter-gang warfare and contracting their services out to political interests to assure a beneficial turnout on ballot day. Identification with capoeira was subjugated to gang membership, as another capoeirista from a different group was their sworn enemy. At this point capoeira in Rio de Janeiro came to be associated with the urban malandro (rude-boy/ wide-boy/ crook) figure.

The practice and persecution for practising capoeira was not limited to Brazilian nationals. By 1890, police records of Rio de Janeiro show that, “os brancos” (whites) came to represent a third of those imprisoned for capoeira. Ten years before, in 1880, 10% had been foreign, comprising a mix of, “Italians, Argentines, Paraguayans, Germans, North Americans, Chileans, French, Spanish ) and 6.8% of these were Portuguese. Despite the heavy penalties involved capoeira offered something to the participant that the state was clearly not providing. Perhaps it was a truer sense of belonging to a group, for the ideologies of the monarchial regime offered little to the lowest members of society. This type of membership shows a marked divergence from the previous era where capoeira was representative of Afro-Brazilians escaping slavery. In the late nineteenth century Rio de Janeiro urban scenario, capoeira came to represent and be represented by a social not an ethnic group.

The great names of capoeira history came about mainly during this epoch of urban turmoil. These legendary figures were not limited to any one locality, in fact we find examples spread throughout the major urban centres of nineteenth century Brazil. To mention but a few - in Recife there was Nascimento Grande, Rio had Manduca de Praia and Bahia can boast of producing probably the most famous capoeirista of all time - Besouro de Mangangá. These figures, particularly Besouro came to be folk heroes, their fame spread beyond the capoeira world. Capoeira came to signify a potent notion of resistance against the state, even for people who were not necessarily adepts themselves. Besouro was famous for openly beating the police and repeatedly defying capture, such was his personal legend that it is said he was only killed with the aid of an enchanted, wooden dagger. It is relevant that he was said to have carried the instructions for his own asassination to his killer, beleiving (as he was illiterate) that the document contained a recommendation for employment. Of course tha majority of poor Brazilians at the time could not read. The capoeirista can thus be mythologised as a robin-hood type figure and a repository for the impossible dreams of the popular classes. Spawned from the impoverished belly of the masses yet, due to his great personal skill, never having to suffer their collective depradations. For them he was a righteous avenger, a freedom fighter who could take recourse to the supernatural in order to surmount the insurmountable.

Most capoeiristas at this time were from the lowest social strata of society and had little option between poverty and a life of crime, even so capoeira activity was by no means exclusive to the poor. There are notable examples (most likely noted for their diversion from the norm) of privileged individuals taking part, even gaining notoriety in capoeira circles. These individuals came to be known as ‘cordőes elegantes’ and Juca Reis, the son of and brother to the first and second Counts of Matozinhos respectively was probably the most famous of these. His arrest caused an uproar in court that nearly toppled the new government, nevertheless he was punished under the strict penal code that demanded the deportation of all capoeiristas to the prison colony on the island of Fernando de Noronha.

The fact that Besouro and Juca Reis could be from such opposites of the social scale and yet swear allegiance to the same group presents a paradox to racial or sociological purists. Explanation can be found in one of two ways. Capoeira served different purposes in different circumstances, it could be enjoyed as a sportive combat game between martially minded individuals or as a means to survival for whom violent crime was one of a limited set of options. To be a capoeirista was to do capoeira, simply that and nothing more. It was not representative of any group or ideology other than its own, membership was earned by proving oneself as an adept. The fact that most capoeiristas were Afro-Brazilian was testament to its origins and popularity within this group. By the time of the late nineteenth century however membership was open to whoever could prove themselves adept. The likelihood is that a combination of both the above best explains the nuances of capoeira membership during this period. Many capoeiristas used their art for ill-gotten gain, though it is probable that this was exaggerated by the police, as the state needed an excuse to close down what it rightly saw as a resistant and potentially dangerous counterculture. I am not denying the existence of the predatory maltas, I am simply negating the idea that every single capoeirista was a desperate criminal. In fact Waldeloir Rego cites various notable nineteenth century intellectuals affinity for the capoeirista. Melo Morais Filho, Coelho Neto and Machado de Assis all attest to the nobility inherent in this solitary figure.

Capoeira thus came to be associated with an alternative to official state hegemony and this can be seen as a factor contributing to its persecution, although it was probably the eradication of Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations that was the main driving force behind oppression. In the late nineteenth century Capoeira in Bahia seems to be limited to Brazilans of African descent but in Rio while capoeira was practised mostly by this group we must add a portion of poor European whites and a smaller dose of the Brazilian upper classes. In the next phase the latter two groups were to further enter into capoeira in an helping to change the way it was viewed by the general public and treated by the dominant regime.

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