Capoeira (pronounced cap-wearer) is a Brazilian martial art form, combining self-defence, acrobatics, dance, music and song. It was developed by slaves who used it to disguise the fact that they were practising fight moves. Capoeira is ‘played’ (it’s known as the ‘game’, or jogo) in a circle called a roda, accompanied by music and singing. Only the hands and feet touch the floor.
In the 16th century, Portugal had claimed one of the largest territories of the colonial empires, but lacked people to colonize it, especially workers. In the Brazilian colony, the Portuguese, like many European colonists, chose to use slavery to build their economy.
In its first century, the main economic activity in the colony was the production and processing of sugar cane. Portuguese colonists created large sugarcane farms called “engenhos“, literally “engines” (of economic activity), which depended on the labor of slaves. Slaves, living in inhumane conditions, were forced to work hard and often suffered physical punishment for small misbehaviors.
Although slaves often outnumbered colonists, rebellions were rare because of the lack of weapons, harsh colonial law, disagreement between slaves coming from different African cultures, and lack of knowledge about the new land and its surroundings.
Capoeira originated within as a product of the Angolan tradition of “Engolo” but became applied as a method of survival that was known to slaves. It was a tool with which an escaped slave, completely unequipped, could survive in the hostile, unknown land and face the hunt of the capitães-do-mato, the armed and mounted colonial agents who were charged with finding and capturing escapees.
As Brazil became more urbanised in the 17th and 18th century, the nature of capoeira stayed largely the same. However, the nature of the slavery differed from that in the United States. Since many slaves worked in the cities and were most of the time outside the master’s supervision, they would be tasked with finding work to do (in the form of any manual labour) and in return they would pay the master any money they made. It is here where capoeira was common as it created opportunities for slaves to practice during and after work. Though tolerated until the 1800s, this quickly became criminalised after due to its association with being African, as well as a threat to the current ruling regime. 
Soon several groups of enslaved persons who liberated themselves gathered and established settlements, known as quilombos, in far and hard to reach places. Some quilombos would soon increase in size, attracting more fugitive slaves, Brazilian natives and even Europeans escaping the law or Christian extremism. Some quilombos would grow to an enormous size, becoming a real independent multi-ethnic state.
Everyday life in a quilombo offered freedom and the opportunity to revive traditional cultures away from colonial oppression. In this kind of multi-ethnic community, constantly threatened by Portuguese colonial troops, capoeira evolved from a survival tool to a martial art focused on war.
The biggest quilombo, the Quilombo dos Palmares, consisted of many villages which lasted more than a century, resisting at least 24 small attacks and 18 colonial invasions. Portuguese soldiers sometimes said that it took more than one dragoon to capture a quilombo warrior since they would defend themselves with a strangely moving fighting technique. The provincial governor declared “it is harder to defeat a quilombo than the Dutch invaders.”
n 1808, the prince and future king Dom João VI, along with the Portuguese court, escaped to Brazil from the invasion of Portugal by Napoleon‘s troops. Formerly exploited only for its natural resources and commodity crops, the colony finally began to develop as a nation. The Portuguese monopoly effectively came to an end when Brazilian ports opened for trade with friendly foreign nations. Those cities grew in importance and Brazilians got permission to manufacture common products once required to be imported from Portugal, such as glass.
Registries of capoeira practices existed since the 18th century in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife. Due to city growth, more slaves were brought to cities and the increase in social life in the cities made capoeira more prominent and allowed it to be taught and practiced among more people. Because capoeira was often used against the colonial guard, in Rio the colonial government tried to suppress it and established severe physical punishments to its practice such as hunting down practitioners and killing them openly.
Ample data from police records from the 1800s shows that many slaves and free colored people were detained for practicing capoeira:
“From 288 slaves that entered the Calabouço jail during the years 1857 and 1858, 80 (31%) were arrested for capoeira, and only 28 (10.7%) for running away. Out of 4,303 arrests in Rio police jail in 1862, 404 detainees—nearly 10%—had been arrested for capoeira.”