Capoeira: The Bakongo Resistance turned Martial Art

In the history of Latin America, Bakongo culture has notably been one that has been marginalised. The untold stories of many African slaves are jewels that would give clarity to so many mysteries in life, and would help us all to understand more about where we come from and who we are. But the Bakongo culture is one that is right under our noses and hardly ever credited. This blog post is going to explore just one of the mainstream ways that Bakongo (Bantu) culture has been assimilated into modern day societies.

From it's Black Atlantic to Afro Brazilian roots, to "blossoming into a fashionable form of physical exercise and cultural expression" (Assuncao, 2005; p.4). The mainstream topic discussed in this blog is the popular martial art / dance known as 'Capoeira'.

Bakongo by Nature

Bakongo slaves in colour by Alberto Henschel

When colonists arrived in Brazil in the mid 16th century, they noticed that there was an opportunity to trade in the land by exporting sugar cane, and quickly sort to adopt a workforce to cultivate the land. The colonisers began transporting Africans to Brazil on ships for almost 300 years until approximately 1850. They were sent to work on plantations, cities and mines spread across Brazil. Generally, the people affected most by the trans-Atlantic slave trade to Latin America were the Yoruba people of Nigeria, to Fon of Dahomey and the Bantu speaking people of Kongo-Angola, "coming from the Atlantic coast of West and Central Africa, from an area ranging from the Senegal river to the Kongo river in Angola" (Dossar, 1992). This region was also the main source of African slaves that arrived in North America and the Caribbean - in the early periods of the enslavement of African people in Brazil, approximately 68% of them were taken from the Kongo area. Thus, it is no wonder why there is still a strong connection between the Angolan and Brazilian people to this day. In essence, you can say that present-day "Angolans" in Brazil are likely to be descendants of the Kongo people, who marked the first traces of African culture there; "the earliest roots of African culture in Brazil was derived from Bantu people" (Dossar, 1992).

Bakongo people enslaved as workers on a coffee farm, Rio de Janeiro , Brazil, 1885

African culture in Brazil began to expand. Because although the majority of enslaved Africans there at the time were from a Bakongo background, there was still a remaining 32% that were made up of Yoruba people from Nigeria and the Fon also, as aforementioned. They formed a bond based on similar beliefs that they shared, which allowed them to somewhat reinforce African culture in Brazil in general. For example: most Africans shared the belief in humans having an intimate connection with nature, they also believed in the existence of a supreme being, along with other ancestral beings. The Africans believed strongly that the spiritual and physical world can intersect, and this is the source of divine inspiration for humans.

"Dancing between two worlds" this expression comes from the Kongo belief that:

"existence is the constant movement between the world of the living and the world of the dead".

As it is noted by Dossar (1992; p.5), Bunseki Fu- Kiau, who is an informant on Bakongo culture and an author on several books about Kongo peoples, recalled when he visited Northern Angola, and saw the children there playing games which they would refer to "walking in another world" - this would involve them doing various moves, such as walking and twisting on their hands with their feet in the air, like in a handstand. They say that the upside down position when walking in a handstand is parallel to "walking in another world".

If you are familiar with the martial art Capoeira, it more or less mirrors what Fu-Kiau explained. Practicing it would consist of combining self-defence, acrobatics, dance, music and song.

Dancing for resistance

What is interesting about Brazil, is that multiculturalism was almost a force that couldn't be stopped. 'Black Rio' became the centre of the Quilombo revolution. Many religious dances were performed on plantations, dating back to the 19th century; there were many ancient and traditional chants and body movements that the Africans had brought to Brazil with them from their homelands. Slaves who were tired of living under oppression and racial segregation would not take a pacifist approach. Rather, they took the calculated approach; they performed acrobatic dance moves accompanied with song and dance, which they used to disguise moves for physical combat. I love it. This was the birth of Capoeira. Over time, Capoeira became an art that was used in Brazil to express resistance.

Murphy (2007) produced an article which acted as sort of an introductory European's guide to Capoeira. In the article she touches on some of the dance moves, partically the 'Ginga', which means 'sway' in Portuguese. This is a popular move in the art of Capoeira and originally was used as an escape or retreat. It is the most fundamental Capoeira step, and the one from which all other movements stem. When white people decided to bring Africans to brazil as slaves, it was so they could be a workforce - not so that the bravery and the creativity demonstrated by their cultures could become influential and infectious. Capoeira has a hand, in disintegrating the socio-cultural barriers between whites and blacks (which is what has happened over time).

"a form of confrontation of the politically strong by the politically weak. A physical defence used by the weapon-less slave in response to the Brazilian Matchpolitik" (Assuncao, 2005).

'Machtpolitik' is an old German term that translates to 'power politics' , this being used to describe the political climate in Brazil, suggests that segregation and racial discrimination was at an alarming rate in the early 20th century. Those that practiced Capoeira were called 'Capoeiristas' ; they had a bad reputation for promoting destruction. Those who performed the art were labelled as "dangerous drifters who committed criminal acts" (Tahmon-Chvaicer, 2008). The imagery surrounding it was of black slaves fighting policemen on the street and terrorising citizens with their outlandish movements. Much of the commentary about Capoeira were negative and subjectively targeted at discrediting this new sensation of martial arts, that had been rising to prevalence from smaller African communities.

But they were captives in a New-World colonial city; the art was their form of resistance and expression - this is how they refused to lose who they were. This topic goes so much deeper. We can talk about how much colonisers try to suppress the African identity. There are endless examples of how European colonisers tried to assimilate themselves into entire African civilisations (France *coughs*). This was another attempt in eliminating the culture of an entire people, so many people felt threatened by Afro-Brazilians expressing themselves.

Capoeira Breaking out

In the late 1980's into the 1990's, Capoeira has travelled to various countries across the world, such as Mozambique, Australia, Venezuela, Finland, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, just to name a few. It was introduced in the UK by Master Sylvia Bazzarelli in 1988. Along with her partner, Marcos dos Santos, they opened the London School of Capoeira. By the dawn of the 21st century, estimates for Capoeira suggested that over 3 million people were practicing it around the world (Assuncao, 2005).

That's the end of the post, as usual I hope you enjoyed it and learned something new. I realised that I wanted to write about Bakongo background so much especially because it is my heritage. I really enjoyed writing this one especially because we don't talk about Angola much. If you haven't checked out the thread on Twitter about this yet, you can check it out here.

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- SS