Since the 16th century, Portugal extensively adopted slavery to provide labor for their colonies, transporting slaves mainly from West and Central Africa. Brazil, with its vast territory, was the major destination of African slaves, receiving 38.5% of all slaves sent by ships across the Atlantic Ocean.
Capoeira has a long and controversial history, since historical documentation in Brazil was scarce in the colonial era, but evidence and oral tradition leave little doubt about its Brazilian roots.
Capoeira is believed to be connected with tribal fighting called Engolo, from the Benguela Highlands region of Angola. In many tribes in Africa, there’s the tradition of people that fight each other in order to acquire a bride or a desired women, in which a fight body to body, without weapons, is held inside a circle. It is very probable that many other tribes and cultures (totally lost or enslaved) once held the same traditions.
In the 16th century, Portugal had claimed one of the largest territories of the colonial empires, but it lacked people to colonize it, especially workers. In the Brazilian colony the Portuguese, like many European colonists, chose to use slavery to supply this shortage of workers. Spanish and English colonists tried to enslave Brazilian natives at first, but this quickly proved too difficult for many reasons, including the familiarity natives had with the land, which allowed them to escape and survive outside the settlements. The solution was importing slaves from Africa.
In its first century, the main economic activity in the colony was the production and processing of sugarcane. Portuguese colonists used to create large sugarcane farms called engenhos, which were dependent on the labor of enslaved workers. Slaves, living in inhumane and humiliating conditions, were forced to work hard and often suffered physical punishment for any small misbehavior. Even though slaves outnumbered the Portuguese colonists, the lack of weapons, the colonial law, the disagreement between slaves coming from different African cultures and the lack of knowledge about the new land and its surroundings usually discouraged the idea of a rebellion.
In this environment, capoeira was born not as a fighting style, but as a hope of survival. It was a hope of survival because they would say they were dancing when a colonist came along but really they were practice fighting and preparing to fight back. 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. So although they were outnumbering them without weapons they were hopeless but once they had learnt how to fight they could break free.