top of page
little capo book.jpg

History of Capoeira


In 1500 the Portuguese, led by explorer Pedro Alves Cabral, arrived in Brazil. One of the first measures taken by the new arrivals was the subjugation of the local population–the Brazilian Indians– in order to furnish the Portuguese with slave labor. The experience with the aborigines was a failure. The Indians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguese then began to import slave labor from Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic, free men and women were captured, loaded onto ghastly slave ships and sent on a nightmarish voyage that for most would end in perpetual bondage.


The Africans first arrived by the hundreds and later by the thousands. They brought with them their culture, vibrant and different from the European one, a culture that was not stored away in books or museums but rather in the body, mind, heart, and soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son, from the initiate to the novice throughout the generations. There was candomblé, a religion: the berimbau, a musical instrument: vatapá, a food: and so many other things-in short a way of life.

The origins of capoeira–whether African or Brazilian–are cause for controversy to this day; different and opposing theories have been created to explain how it all began. Capoeira is a synthesis of dances, fights and musical instruments from different cultures, from different African regions. It is a synthesis created on Brazilian soil, probably in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, under the regime of slavery primarily during the nineteenth century.

During Slavery

Starting around 1814, capoeira and other forms of African cultural expression suffered repression and were prohibited in some places by the slave masters and overseers. Capoeira began to be persecuted in a process which would culminate with its being outlawed in 1892. Why was capoeira suppressed? The motives were many.

  • It gave the Africans a sense of nationality.

  • It developed self-confidence in individual capoeira practitioners.

  • It created small, cohesive groups.

  • It created dangerous and agile fighters

  • Sometimes the would injure themselves during the capoeira game, which was not desirable from an economic point of view.

The berimbau is a one stringed instrument with a gourd attached: its simplicity belies the range of sound an experienced player can summon from it. The berimbau is accompanied by the atababaque (similar to the conga drum), hand clapping, and singing. According to one prevalent theory, capoeira was a fight that was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced unbeknownst to the white slave owners.

The Freeing of the Slaves (after the signing of the Golden Law in 1888)

In Rio de Janeiro, where capoeira had developed exclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorized the population. The club, the dagger, and the switchblade were used to complement the damage done by such moves as the rabo de arraia and the raisteira. In Bahia, on the other hand, capoira continued to develop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be an indispensable instrument used to command the roda, which always took place in hidden locales since the practice of capoeira in this era had been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892). Later on, in the 1930's in Salvador, Mestre Bimba (Manuel dos Ries Machado--1900-1974) opened the first capoeira academy (1932). In 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha--1889-1981) opened his capoeira Angola school.

Bimba and Pastinha

The two central figures in capoeira in the twentieth century were undoubtly Mestre Bimba and Mestra Pastinha. Mestre Bimba was born Manoel dos Reis Machado in 1900. Bimba opened his first school at the age of eighteen. Bimba was a feared fighter who earned the nickname "Tres Pancadas" (or Three Hits) which, it was said, were the maximum number of blows that his adversaries could take from him. He and his pupils performed in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and other major cities of Brazil. But in the beginnings of the 1970's, dissatisfied with the official institutions of Bahia that had never helped him, he decided to move to Goiana. One year later on February 5, 1974 he died in that city.

Vincente Ferreira Pastinha, Mestre Pastinha, was born in 1889. He is said to have learned capoeira from an African from Angola named Benedito. Pastinha opened his first academy a few years after Bimba's opened and, due to his charisma and leadership as well as his friendly way of dealing with others, he was able to attract a devoted group of pupils and capoeiristas that made his academy famous as a gathering point for artists and intellectuals who wanted to see the traditional Capoeira Angola. Pastinha became known as the "Philosopher of capoeira" because of his use of aphorisms. The final years of his life were sad: blind and almost abandoned, he lived in a little room until his death in 1981, at the age of ninety-two.

The Recent Years

In the 1940's Bahian capoeiristas began to immigrate to Rio, and later to Sao Paolo and other cities. None- theless, until the 1960's, the uncontested mecca for Brazilian capoeiristas continued to be Salvador and the state of Bahia. In Rio as well as in Sao Paulo, a new cord system inspired by the Asian martial arts was adopted as a means of attracting more students by giving a "clean" image of a new and organized capoeira. Capoeira Nowadays Although a few traditional Angola mestres kept on teaching, they were completely eclipsed by the new style that had it origins in Bimba's Capoeira Regional. But unexpectedly, there has been a revival of the traditional Capoeira Angola. Fortunately, some of the old mestres were still around, and returned to the capoeira scene with great strength, bringing back roots and values that had seemed completely lost.

Source of History Info. Text excerpted from The Little Capoeira Book by Nestor Capoeira, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 1995, 2003 by Nestor Capoeira. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

bottom of page