From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Portugal shipped slaves into South America from Western Africa. Brazil was the largest contributor to slave migration with 42% of all slaves shipped across the Atlantic.
These people brought their cultural traditions and religion with them to the New World. The homogenisation of the African people under the oppression of slavery was the catalyst for Capoeira. Capoeira was developed by the slaves of Brazil as a way to resist their oppressors, secretly practice their art, transmit their culture, and lift their spirits.One of the most common forms of work to which they were assigned were the sugar cane plantations. At night, large numbers of slaves were forced into the sleeping quarters called the “Senzala”. These Senzala were often horrendously cramped and unhygienic.
In terms of Capoeira, there is a question raised by historians and Capoeiristas alike, as to how much of Capoeira was an import from Angola in Africa and how much of it was a new development on Brazilian soil. Some historians believe that the indigenous peoples of Brazil also played an important role in the development of Capoeira.
Within a movement Capoeira could change from a lethal form of martial art to a graceful acrobat or dance move. The music contained messages of freedom and hope to those still working under the tyranny of the Portuguese.
After slavery was abolished, the slaves moved to the cities of Brazil and with no employment to be found, many joined or formed criminal gangs. They continued to practice Capoeira, and it became associated with anti-government or criminal activities. As a result, Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1892. The punishment for practicing it was extreme (practitioners would have the tendons on the backs of their feet cut), and the police were vicious in their attempt to stamp out the art. Capoeira continued to be practiced, but it moved further underground. Rodas were often held in areas with plenty of escape routes, and a special rhythm called cavalaria were added to the music to warn players that the police were coming. To avoid being persecuted, Capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas) also gave themselves an apelido or nicknames, often more than one. This made it much harder for the police to discover their true identities. This tradition continues to this day. When a person is baptized into Capoeira at the batizado ceremony, they may be given their apelido.
The history of Capoeira is a much disputed topic. This makes it very interesting to search further into the origins, asking people and learning morw and more about the game at every opportunity.
This is a story of a famous capoeirista who could turn himself into a giant black beetle (called a besouro) and escape his enemies by flying away. Manoel Henrique Pereira, known as Besouro Manganga, was a master of black magic and could fall into a deep spiritual state that would protect his body from flying bullets and stabbing knives. He fought against police injustices, and white-oppression of the black people in Bahia, Brazil. Legend has it that one day Besouro was having a drink in a local bar when he had a premonition that a battalion of police were coming to get him–dead or alive! Just as the police drew near the bar, Besouro raced out the back door and into the market-place. The police chased Besouro until he stopped to lean against a Christian cross in the middle of the market-place. Besouro spread his arms open, like Jesus, and said “I will never surrender!” at which point the whole battalion opened fire upon him. Besouro’s body slumped down onto the ground. The battalion leader walked up to the body to confirm Besouro’s death and got a great surprise when Besouro jumped to his feet, snatched the policeman’s gun and ordered the battalion to leave the market-place. Then he sang a cheerful song!
The police were probably chasing Besouro because of a recent incident where he had forced one of them to drink so much cachaça he barely knew his own name, then made him walk through the market-place as a mockery to the police force. Besouro was also known to take the policeman’s weapons and use them to force the policeman into their own jails where Besouro would lock them up like criminals. Besouro Mangaga hated the injustices served by police so much that every time he passed the police-station he would hit the guard across the head with no other provocation than the fact that the guard was a policeman! Besouro is famous as the Robin Hood of Bahia, protecting the under-dog and fighting for the rights of those who were unfairly persecuted. In Santo Amaro de Purificaçao, where Besouro lived and worked, the white landlords and factory managers often treated the black people like slaves, even though slavery had been abolished a long time before.
One story tells of the Colonia Mill where workers were not being paid for their labour. Anyone who objected was tied to the trunk of a tree, whipped, and left there for 24 hours. When the mill hired Besouro they were not prepared for his revolutionary spirit! On pay-day Besouro and the other workers were told they would not get paid. Besouro objected and just as the manager tried to grab and beat Besouro, he swiftly avoided the manager’s grasp, grabbed him by the throat and slammed him up against the wall. The manager begged to be released and promised to pay Besouro but when he gave the money, Besouro threw it back at him and told the manger this was just a warning and if he didn’t start paying all his workers then Besouro would really come after him!
Besouro Mangaga died in 1924, aged 27 years, in a cruel trick. Besouro was working for the influential Dr Zeca as a farm hand when the Doctor ordered Besouro to deliver a letter to his friend, an administrator at the Maracancalha Mill. The letter said “Kill the man who delivers this letter”. When Besouro delivered the letter, administrator coldly asked Besouro to come back the next day for his response. In some versions of this story, the administrator rewards Besouro for carrying out his orders by giving him the “services” of a beautiful woman who steals Besouro’s patuà (his spiritual protection). Without his patuà, Besouro is susceptible to bullets and knives. Early the next morning, Besouro returned to get the administrator’s response but there was no letter waiting for him. He was welcomed by 40 soldiers shooting at him, Besouro used the sway of his body, the ginga, to dodge the bullets. One man, Eusebio de Quibaca snuck-up on Besouro while he was fighting and stabbed him in the abdomen with a ticum knife, killing the legendary capoeirista.
A ticum knife is made out of special wood used in Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion, it is believed that the ticum wood is the only thing that can kill a man whose body and spirit are “closed” to death. Besouro’s story is full of wild-myths and folklore and some parts are very hard to believe. Antônio Liberac Cardoso Simões Pires researched the story of Besouro and found the name Manoel Henrique Pereira in court documents saying he was known as Besouro and was charged with assault.
Besouro is survived by two students: his cousin Rafael Alves Franca (Mestre Cobrinha Verde) and Siri de Mangue. Some of the stories told today come directly from Mestre Cobrinha Verde, and some have been whispered in the ears of capoeiristas for so long that no-one can remember where they came from. Today, Besouro is an icon of capoeira, known for his bravery, loyalty and sense of justice. A movie called “Besouro” is due for release in Brazil on 30th October this year, you can watch the trailer on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2QgxB5xw-k
This story was written and researched by Fogueira
Still to come….
Styles of Capoeira:
Capoeira Angola – Capoeira mãe! Mestre Pastinha
Capoeira Regional – Salve Mestre Bimba!