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Capoeira: From Crime to Culture

The following is a guest post by Eduardo Soares, a Senior Foreign Law Specialist in the Global Legal Research Center of the Law Library of Congress.  Eduardo is a Brazilian attorney and provides research services relating to the laws of Portuguese-speaking jurisdictions.

Portuguese explorers first made landfall in Brazil on April 22, 1500.  After the discovery, the colonial period was marked by the use of slaves who came mainly from Africa to work in agriculture and in domestic roles. Slavery existed in Brazil until May 13, 1888, when Imperial Law No. 3,353 (Lei Imperial No. 3.353, de 13 de Maio de 1888) put an end to slavery and set the slaves free.

For more than 300 years slaves were deprived of their freedom, forced to abandon their countries of origin, to work on a distant land and to live under extreme hardship.  Slaves started to develop capoeira as a result of these adverse conditions.

Capoeira (Source: piak’s Capoeira Dance Photos)

Capoeira in Portuguese means, among other things, land on which the forest was burned or grazed for the purpose of cultivating the land or the development of some other activity.  Nowadays, a master of capoeira (mestre de capoeira), Almir das Areias, has defined capoeira as a “fight, a dance, a form of personal defense, sport, culture, art and folklore, as well as music, poetry, celebration, amusement, recreation and, above all, a form of struggle, a public demonstration and expression of the people, the oppressed common man in general, who is in search of survival, freedom and dignity.”  For the purpose of comparison, a modern legal dictionary defines capoeira as a violent athletic game that, sometimes, is played with knives.

During the colonial period, slaves who were able to escape from the farms found refuge in hidden areas called quilombos.  The slaves gathered in open areas in the forest to perform a dance/fight, which was named capoeira, as a means of survival and cultural expression.  The performance received its name, most likely, because of the place where it was performed, a capoeira, or, in an open area.

The escapes did not go unpunished.  Slaves were considered expensive commodities in the agricultural-based economy that relied on them for its cultivation.  Slave owners, therefore, formed militias with the sole purpose of retrieving escaped slaves.  Without many weapons and with restricted resources, the slaves used their bodies as their main source of defense against the slave-retrievers.

Initially, the slaves imitated animal movements of attack and defense to defend themselves against the imminent threat of being captured and enslaved, once again, by the militia groups.  As a recreational form, capoeira was played as a means to demonstrate the slaves’ feelings and hopes, and also to attack their owners.  If a slave was caught playing capoeira, the punishment was to be whipped while attached to the branch of a tree, and in many cases, death.

Later, capoeira started to be played in a circle formed by people singing and following the rhythm dictated by a rustic instrument called berimbau.  The play resembled a fight disguised in a strange form of dance because its powerful strokes were strong enough to inflict serious bodily harm or even kill a person if knives were used during the dance/fight.  Apparently, the berimbau was used to warn the slaves that the slave-owner or the farm’s foreman was coming to their quarters (senzala) and to disguise the fight as a form of dance, and therefore avoid punishment.  Perhaps that explains why people who practice capoeira do not fight, they play.

Berimbau (Photo by dpub on Flickr)

After the promulgation of the law that ended slavery in Brazil, a social problem emerged.  There were no jobs available for all the free slaves, which placed them at the margins of society.  Wandering through towns with nothing to do and a lot of time to kill, the former slaves formed capoeira circles that attracted tourists and provided them with a small source of income.  With no other survival alternatives, some slaves also resorted to petty thefts and other crimes.  The now freed slaves continued to be marginalized and soon groups of slaves who practiced capoeira were formed and were perceived as a threat to society.  The fights between different groups, that also often engaged in criminal activities, helped spread a wave of terror throughout the cities, upsetting the society’s elite groups.

On November 15, 1889, shortly after the end of slavery in Brazil, a republican form of government was implemented in the country.  The new regime called for a new order and on October 11, 1890, a new Penal Code was enacted (Código Penal, Decreto No. 847, de 11 de Outubro de 1890).  In order to address the social disturbances that were caused by capoeira, the new government decided to criminalize its practice as well as its related activity of loitering.  According to article 399 of Decree No. 847, failure to exercise a profession, occupation, or any other activity that provides a means of living, and having no means of subsistence and place of dwelling, or obtaining a livelihood by an occupation strictly prohibited by law or clearly offensive to the moral and good manners, was punishable by imprisonment of 15 to 30 days.

Article 402 of the Decree also determined that the performance on streets and public squares of agility and dexterity exercises of the body know as capoeiragem; walking in groups with weapons or instruments capable of producing bodily harm; causing riots or disorder; or threatening persons or instilling fear of harm, were punishable by imprisonment of 2 to 6 months.  It was considered an aggravating circumstance if the capoeira practitioner belonged to a group or a gang and the Decree also subjected the leaders of these groups to double penalty.  Repeat offenders were subject to increased penalties of 1 to 3 year imprisonment or to deportation in cases of offenders who were foreigners.

In the 1930s, capoeira was decriminalized by the government.  In 2008, capoeira achieved the status of a cultural patrimony in Brazil.  The distinction was awarded by the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional – IPHAN, a federal agency in charge of preserving the national heritage.  Having been registered by IPHAN as a national patrimony, it is now possible to develop projects and policies involving actions necessary to preserve and continue the practice of capoeira.

For more information on Brazilian history, capoeira, and the legal definitions mentioned in this article, please see the following items in the collection of the Law Library of Congress and the Library of Congress:

You can also search YouTube for capoeira videos to see what a performance looks like.

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