By Sam Istvan
What if you were a slave in Portuguese-settled Brazil in the mid-1550s. You have a horrible life and are forced to exhaust yourself every day. You’d probably want to escape, right? That is the environment that the art of Capoeira was invented in. Recently, our middle school was treated to an assembly on this 500 year old art form by a group of talented performers from Project Capoeira from the Bella Vista section of Philadelphia.
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art. It began in the 16th century between African slaves at work in Brazil, mostly working on sugar cane plantations. There were many more slaves than Portuguese colonists at that time. Rebellion was continually coming up, but it was always shot down by the fact that slaves were unarmed and many disagreed on what they should do if they were to rebel. Despite that, there were still runaway slaves. Capoeira was developed at that time. It was a fighting style that slaves could use when they were caught trying to run away. The slaves formed groups, kind of like small villages, in hard-to-reach spots. They were called Quilombos and this is where they practiced Capoeira. Despite Quilombos’ carefully planned locations, Colonial Troops continually watched the Quilombos. Martial arts were not allowed to be practiced by the slaves so they needed a way to be able to practice Capoeira without the Colonial Troops realizing it.
To do this, the slaves added rules to it to make it kind of like a game and they also added music to it. This effectively misguided the Troops to believe that it was just a dance or a game. This way, slaves were able to develop skills in the practice of Capoeira and use it when they ran away and were caught by the Colonial Troops. Portuguese soldiers repeatedly stated that, “it was hard to catch them because they defended themselves with a strange moving fighting technique.” When the slaves ran away now, they did it in groups with their whole Quilombos. The governor from one of the provinces in Brazil even said, “It is harder to defeat a Quilombo than it is to defeat the Dutch invaders.” Now in modern times it is mostly done as a game or as a dance as it was mistaken as by the Portuguese troops.
The art of Capoeira usually does not focus on knocking down or destroying the opponent, rather it emphasizes skill. The competitors often just try to takedown their opponent allowing the opponent to recover and get back into the game. It is also very common and expected to slow down a kick inches before hitting the target, so that you can show superiority without injuring the opponent. If an opponent clearly cannot dodge an attack, there is no reason to complete it. However, between two high-skilled competitors, the game can get much more aggressive and dangerous, even though they try to avoid the public seeing those kind of more violent games.
Capoeira might just be another form of a martial art, but it sure has a cool history.