Capoeira's origins date back 500 years to the beginning of Brazil's era of slave trade period. Throughout this period the Congo, Bantu, and Angolan tribes interacted with one another in the senzalas (slave quarters). From this intermingling of cultures came a melding of traditions and rituals, from which, capoeira was born.
To avoid detection, music, song, dance and ritual were added to capoeira, disguising the fact that the slaves were practicing a deadly martial art. Brazil witnessed eleven rebellions that culminated with the abolition of slavery on May 13, 1888. After the abolition, former slaves headed to the cities to form slums and shanty towns. There was no employment in the cities either, and many organized into criminal gangs. Politicians hired others as bodyguards, more fortunate because of their knowledge of capoeira. The government saw all who knew capoeira as a 'plague'.
During this time it was very common for a capoeirista to have two or three nicknames - it made it much more difficult to be arrested. This tradition continues even today and when a person is "baptized" into the practice of capoeira, they are given a nickname that reflects their personalities.
Then Brazil went to war with Paraguay. The black militia was sent to the front and suddenly the outlaws became national heroes. Capoeira was given a huge boost when in 1937, Mestre Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado), one of the most important masters of capoeira, received an invitation from the president to demonstrate his art in the capital. After a successful performance he went back to his home state and with the government’s permission, opened the first formal capoeira school in Brazil in 1939. It was the first step towards a more open development, and years later the senate passed a bill establishing capoeira as a national sport. Then in 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first Capoeira Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located in Bahia. Together, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha are generally seen as the fathers of modern Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola respectively.
Capoeira and its practitioners persevered through centuries of marginalization and discrimination and today the art has evolved from cultural ritual to martial art to way of life. This once secret instrument of physical and spiritual empowerment, has transformed itself into the mainstay of Brazilian society. What was once outlawed is now an international phenomenon. Across the globe in fitness circles, artist communities, on print, television and film, we see capoeira's legacy.