The Inner Circle - What Does a 17th-Century Escaped Slave Have in Common with a 21st-Century Brazilian Breakdance Fighter?

What Does a 17th-Century Escaped Slave Have in Common with a 21st-Century Brazilian Breakdance Fighter?

Some time around the year 1600, Portuguese settlers were making a fuss because some of their slaves had snuck off into the interior of Brazil. The government duly sent some expeditions in after the slaves, but the tangled jungle proved to be a serious obstacle. While the occasional slave was recaptured, most avoided the Portuguese and formed independent communities that came to be called quilombos. At the same time, the Dutch were harassing the Portuguese all over the globe. This, the Dutch-Portuguese War, lasted about sixty years, during which the Dutch commandeered a great deal of Portugal’s trade routes and colonies. Right in the middle of this extended argument over who was the better conqueror, the Dutch West India Company crept into Brazil via the city of Recife (effectively the easternmost point of Brazil and just a Sarah-Palin-glance away from West Africa’s panhandle---where the majority of slaves came from---and thus definitely not a city you’d want under foreign control if you were the Portuguese government) and spent ten years eating away at Portugal’s control of the country. By 1641 half of Brazil was contested territory. While the two European nations squabbled among themselves, a huge number of slaves took the opportunity to slip away. The quilombos swelled. Meanwhile, England, in a bid to out-Dutch the Dutch, sent military forces into West Africa to secure some slaves for itself. Hemmed in by both the English and the Portuguese, the Dutch signed a treaty in 1661 and left Brazil in a huff. The Portuguese military, sharpened by decades of war, turned its attention to the flood of escaping slaves. In particular, they went after the largest and most famous quilombo, Quilombo dos Palmares.

Palmares, located a bit south of Recife, was actually a collection of quilombos centered around two large towns of some 6000 people per. It was ruled by a king, who oversaw both daily operations and military preparation--a necessity given Portuguese incursions. Although the Portuguese enjoyed advantages in numbers, weapons, training, and resources, assaulting Palmares was a formidable undertaking. The dense jungle forced supply lines to be long and filmsy. Trucking in food, troops, and cannon was a continual challenge, doubly so when being harassed by Palmarian guerillas.

Even so, the Portuguese were successful enough that Palmares was always a nation under seige. In effect, Palmares was an independent city-state inside a larger, hostile power. Even with the advantage of terrain, it lived an uneasy life.

Eventually, in 1671, Palmares suffered enough devestation that its king, Ganga Zumba, sued for peace. Fine, said the Portuguese, we’ll spare you and your followers as long as Palmares is relocated closer to the coast and our settlements. Oh, and hand back all the escaped Africans who weren’t born in Palmares. Cool, responded Zumba (in fact, most accounts say that while Zumba did agree to the conditions, he did so only reluctantly and more out of sheer weariness from years of fighting than out of any hope of true peace).

But one of Ganga Zumba’s commanders disagreed. A young man named Zumbi, who had been born in Palmares, captured as teen by the Portuguese during a raid, held for years, taught to speak and read both Portuguese and Latin, he’d escpaed captivity, returned to Palmares and won an important position in the army. Zumbi rallied enough Palmarians to stage a coup, killing Zumba and assuming command of the city. Under his rule, war resumed.

Zumbi lived and fought for another 20 years. This was the most violent period of conflict and both sides took severe casualties. The final assault on Palmares came in 1694: the Portuguese made an alliance with an army of native Indians and, together, they destroyed the Palmares’s main town, Great Palmares. Zumbi was ultimately captured and beheaded.

The quilombo only just outlived its most famous king. Following their victory, the Portuguese had set up a permanent camp where the main town had been. Without its center, Palmares eroded away.

It’s said that the Palmarians used capoeira to defend themselves. Plenty of romantic accounts of capoeira invoke Zumbi as a kind of First Mestre, the true leader who led the slave rebellion against their Portuguese oppressors. But most scholars agree that the escaped slaves fought with hand-to-hand weapons, bows, guns, and guerrilla tactics. The surviving accounts of the clashes between the Portuguese and Palmares don’t mention capoeira by name.

However, to argue over whether slaves literally did or did not use capoeira to resist their would-be captors is to miss the point. Capoeira is a weapon of cultural resistance, not necessarily martial resistance (if it were a strict martial art, wouldn’t it look much more like other martial arts? There aren’t any cartwheels in krav maga). It’s a means for a downtrodden minority to bind together against marginalization. Palmares is an enduring capoeira symbol not because the city employed capoeira, but because it survived for almost 70 years against an enemy determined to not only capture its land and structures, but to enslave its citizens. As a fight against oppression goes, that’s about as pure as it gets. The veneration of Zumbi and Palmares continue in capoeira today because capoeiras still identify with that fight in one way or another. Capoeiras want to “identify themselves with what they consider to be the purest and strongest form of resistance to oppression, and Palmares has become a symbol of such total and successful resistance against great odds,” as J Lowell Lewis writes in Ring of Fire: Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira.**

Of course, “resistance to oppression” means something different in 21st-century America than it did in 17th-century Brazil. Literal slavery is gone and capoeira is no longer a survival mechanism. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that capoeira isn’t useful. For most of its dedicated students, capoeira has always been more than just recreation or exercise. It’s community, self-expression, art, meditation. But I think that something of its original purpose remains: creating a world where choices are available. Slaves and, later, desperately poor Afro-Brazilians were denied many choices, whether explicitly (slavery) or implicitly (poverty). Now, in a globalized/Westernized/modernized/sanitized/pasteurized world most of us are lucky enough to live easier lives than our predecessors, but no one can pretend that we’ve conquered oppression. And I don’t think to myself, “Ah, time to train some capoeira: fight the power!”---but whether I’m a poor Bahian or a privileged American, capoeira is a device for building choices into my life. Learning macaco gives me the option to use it; singing in Portuguese helps me use a new language; coming to class introduces me to a community to be leveraged for friendship, jobs, knowledge, whathaveyou; teaching class teaches me leadership, patience, empathy; traveling to events opens my mind and installs new creative pathways and ideas. Applying some French philosophy to Brazilian art, we might say, “I choose, therefore I’m free.”


** If you only read one book on capoeira this should be it. Or Greg Downey’s Learning Capoeira - Lessons in Cunning. Or this one.  Heck, just read ‘em all.

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