African Roots I – Ancestors

(Jean Baptiste Debret, 1835)

More than 3 million Africans were enslaved in Brazil before the abolition in 1888. The Portuguese did, for economical and political reasons, have only access to certain African people, which is the reason why most of the ancestral nations of today’s Afrobrazilians are known.

In this first post of the African Roots series I want to begin with the uttermost basis of Capoeira. That is: the people who were brought to Brazil. The people which did not just bring their bodies with them, but also their beliefs and their knowledge.

The Portuguese had two major sources of slaves, the Sudan people and the Bantu people. The Sudan people were native to West and Central Africa. Sudan people being a summarizing word for different nations, like the Asante/Ashanti, Mandinka, Yoruba, Igbo, Fon and Adangbe. The Bantu people were natives of South-West Africa, living in the areas which are present Angola, Mozambique and Congo. All of these cultures and nations did add to the diasporic culture evolving in Brazil, the other South American states, the Carribean and North America. Usually because of sheer numbers there are nations which had a bigger influence on diasporic African culture than others. I will now concentrate on them rather than digging up information about every nation which “contributed” slaves to the Americas. The most influental nations were the Mandinka and Yoruba people from West Africa and the Congo and the Mbundu people from the old Southwest African Empires.

As I already posted some information about the Mandinka, I will first start with the Yoruba.

The Yoruba

The Yoruba are a common word for different tribes which are loosely linked by geography, language, history, and religion. In Nigeria, Benin and Togo the number of Yoruba people is about 15 million.


As far as history can say the Yoruba were always there. There is some archaeological evidence that the area where the Yoruba live is occupied since prehistoric times. Other theories say that the primary ancestors, the Odudua, came from Egypt. These are based on the fact that there are similarities between early Egyptian and Yoruban sculptures (though this can also be just an effect of trade or intercultural cross-talk). According to Yorubas myths, the founders of the Yoruba states were the sons of Odudua. The Yoruba still refer to themselves as “the children of Odudua.”  Although they had a common origin, a common language and common believes the Yoruba never had one single political organization. They were more organized into up to 25 different nations with urban centers as the center of political, economical and cultural life. The Yoruba were the most urbanized Africans in precolonial times. Of the urban centers, Ile-Ife is universally recognized as the oldest and ritually most important Yoruba city. The founding of Ife is believed to date to about 850 AD. Its biggest rival, the Oyo kingdom just to the northwest of Ife, was founded about 1350 AD. The Oni of Ife and the Alafin of Oyo are still the most highly respected Yoruba kings in Nigeria. Other major kingdoms were Ijesha, Ekiti, Shabe, Ketu, Egbado, Ijebu, Awori, Ondo, Owo, and Itsekiri. By the 18th century a lot of wars between Yoruba states did add to the slave trade and on the other side, were also affected by the political, economical and demographical challenges of the slave trade. Slaves of Yoruba descent were resettled in Cuba and Brazil, where elements of Yoruba culture and language can still be found.


I will only shortly describe the religion of the Yoruba. Not for the reason that there is not much to tell, but for the reason that a lot of Yoruba will come up in the later posts (actually in the following post) and that I dont want to state here things which would be better in the next post. Important to know is that the Yoruba had a very strong influence on belief systems in South-America and the Carribeans.

In the religion of the Yoruba there are important beings like kings, ancestors and deities. The number and the interrelationship of the vast numbers of gods the Yoruba have (according to the Yoruba it is 401 gods) remindes me of the Ancient Greek with their rich mythology and immense number of stories. These deities, known as Orishas, are also known to Carribean and South-African religions like Candomblé (and yes, the next post will be about Candomblé and other belief systems of the African diaspora).


The Yorubas are famous for their art and craftwork, especially for their wood sculptures, which are important even in modern times. Carved doors, drums, and ritual masks are important articles of Yoruba art. The doors are often covered with carved panels of scenes of everyday life, history, or mythology. The masks are more facial carvings that represent different types of Yoruban religious entities like the trader, the servant, and the seducer.
Other than wood carvings the Yoruba also have beautiful sculpture work in brass, terracotta, and steel.

The Congo

The Congo (“hunter”) people, or Besinkongo or Bakongo, as they refer to themselves, are part of the loosely connected ethnic groups known as the Bantu. There is about 10 million Congolese people living today mostly on the African Atlantic coast between Brazzaville and Luanda.


The word Bantu does refer to over 400 ethnic group in Sub-Saharan Africa and a language diversity similar to the diversity of the Indo-European languages. The Bantu seem to be descendants of a “proto-tribe” which went through a huge expansion phase in the last 5000 years (we have to keep in mind that this expansion was mostly not an active war on neighbouring tribes, but a kind of diffusion of the culture and the language companying the one or other occasional movement of people from one place to the other). Around the year 500 BC the Congo people did arrive at the area of the Congo River. They arrived as settlers and did engage in iron work and agriculture since then. During the 2000 years of pre-Colonial Congo there were a number of kingdoms built up by the Congo people, including the Kingdom of Kongo, Ngoyo, and the Loango kingdom. The Kingdom of Kongo does play a very important role in young Congo history. It was presumably founded around the year 1100, the first recordings being around the end of the 15th century.

First contacts after the Portuguese “discovered” (right, as if the Congo people were lost or did’t know where they are…) the Congo Empire in the year 1482 were respectful (in comparison to later times, not in terms of common decency…) with Congolese nobles visiting European courts (or being presented there). On the other side there were attempts to Christianize the kings of Congo, which seemed to have worked with “Nzinga a Nkuwu” who was baptized as Joao I. in 1491.

When the Kongo people had to defend themselves against the Yaka in the mid of the 16th century, they asked the Portuguese for help, who came and stayed. Congo was officially colonized by 1885. Before then the Congo kingdom did lose his power in long years of bad governing and civil war. During these times a lot of Congo people were sold as slaves to the Portuguese. The starting point for most Congolese slaves was Luanda, which is a place still sung about in Capoeira songs. Luanda was founded by the Portuguese explorer  Paulo Dias de Novais in 1575. Since its foundation till 1836 it was the administrative center of the Portuguese slave trade.


One important subject of Congo religion are the existence of “spirits”, which can be ancestors, but also other spirits, which can inhibit objects. These objects, the minkisi (singular: nkisi) can act as chantments, protecting the person who wears them. Nkisi do also come up in Candomble. Most of the Congolese traditions in African Diaspora can be found in the Quimbanda (Macumba), an Afro-Brazilian religion. Yes, I’ll come to that in the next post 🙂


Congolese art is predominantly focussing on human beings and animals with a lot of sculpture work. Most of the Congo art is wood carvings, thought they ere also doing pottery arts.

The Mbundu

The southern neighbours of the Congo people were another ethnic group with a high importance for Portuguese slave trade, the Mbdundu. The Mbundu count nowadays something like 10 million people and share common traditions and their common language Kimbundu. Like the Congo people the Mbundu also have a disctinct history which changed drastically upon the arrival of the Portuguese. And like the Congo also a lot of Mbundu people were sold into slavery to Brazil and other Southamerican states.


 The oral tradition of the Mbundu does tell us that the founder of the Mbundu kingdom was a person called Ngola Kiluanje, who emigrated from the Congo and founded the kingdom of Ndongo. The kings of the Ndongo were called N’Gola, thus the modern name of the state of Angola. First records of Ndongo are from the 16th century when missonaries and adventurers did write down oral traditions of the Mbundu. In those times the Ndongo was a tribute state of the Congo Kingdom, although in later times the Ndongo did gain power with the help of the Portuguese (for all little Macchiavellists here, there is a classical example of divide et impera). The rest of the history of this kingdom does read like a classical story of the time of Colonialism with the exception of Queen Nzinga. Queen Nzinga was born 1582 to the Ngola Kiluanji. Special about this woman was that, once she succeeded in getting into power she managed to build up a coalition against the Portuguese attempts to gain power in the region. This woman was able to hold back the Portuguese in a time when those were thirsty for new land and new slaves to be sold to the growing agricultural economy in Brazil. This woman, who led the armies against the Portuguese personally, did manage to have a Peace treaty with the Portuguese by 1657 and died peacefully in the year 1663.

She is still one of the most important figures in Angola history and there is a statue of her in the center of the capital Luanda. Sadly soon after her death the Portuguese submitted the Mbundu in the year of 1671 and suffered under the slave trade and under Colonialism till the 20th century. Important about Queen Nzinga might be her role as a woman in Mbundu society. Mbundu society is strongly matrilineal and did have a lot of important female figures in its history.


The belief systems of the Mbundu are based on the interactions, praise and communication with ancestral spirits and nature spirits. Problems and difficulties in life are referred to as problems in the communication with these spirits. To solve these problems there was the Kimbanda, the diviner, who has the ability to communicate with the spirits. These diviners are still referred to when Angolans do have problems, although Christianity did enter the Mbundu society beginning with the very first contacts with the Portuguese.


Seated Woman - example of Mbundu Arts

Seated Woman - example of Mbundu Arts

 Mbundu arts are, when you find sources about them, usually intermixed witht the arts of neighbouring nations, as well as the arts of the Congo. As the Congo nations the Mbundu do have a lot of artwork with carvings. One speciality seems to be the Mbundu masks worn in rituals.


Well, that was the first part of the African roots series. Finally! And it was a lot of work! But I hope with this you have a basic knowledge regarding the question who came to Brazil?. this knowledge is needed to fully comprehend Capoeiras roots, because everything in Capoeiras history and present is somehow related to these people who came to Brazil (with the exceptions of some modern inventions, like cordas). In the next post I will refer about Candomblé, Macumba and – in general – religious believes of the African Diaspora outside and inside of Capoeira. Hope that you people will continue reading this series. If there is anything to comment on, or some information you want to see here, just post it under the comments. And if you are interested in more information, check out the links given at the bottom. They and others were the main sources for this post.

picture source:

Sources about the Yoruba (though this is not a complete list, but most of these sites have links to very good other sites!):

Sources about the Congo:–%20Britannica%20Online%20Encyclopedia

Sources about the Mbundu:


Filed under African Roots

15 responses to “African Roots I – Ancestors

  1. The Griot

    Ive just begun reading the information here and I have to take the time to thank you for this effort.

  2. These unique and deceptive moves bring together their comprehensive knowledge of traditional Capoeira techniques and other martial arts. Saharan Economy

  3. xixarro

    Great stuff angoleiro.
    Now you really got me interested! I’m looking forward to your next post!

  4. Hey Griot! You are welcome and well, I hope this effort does lead to some fruits a.k.a. people thinking more about the roots of Capoeira etc. if that’s what happens I am more than willing to take this effort.

    Hoi Xixarro! sounds good, keep on reading 😉
    And thanks for your comment!

  5. Pintado

    Thank you for doing all this work (and the work to come, I’m looking forward to it!). It is very much appreciated! 🙂
    Have you read Gerard Taylor’s The Jogo de Angola from Luanda to Cyberspace? It’s a heavy, but interesting book (or two books actually, 1 and 2).

  6. I read excerpts of the first book while researching for this post. and now it is another book on my “to buy” list. I liked it and it seems to have pretty detailed information about Capoeiras history. definitely worth its money! (I should go to advertisments, I know 😉 )

  7. Awe-some, Angoleiro. As in actually “a post of/to awe”. I can only imagine the work that must have gone into researching and organizing and writing up all this information! Great work, and keep it up 😀 I hope you enjoy your mini-vacation!

  8. Pingback: Brazil » Gilberto Gil steps down as Brazil culture minister (AP)

  9. Kimbandeira

    You want to be careful about conflating language and “culture” (Do you really, really want to use the word “tribe”? I would urge you to think on the implications of that). There’s a lot of research that suggests, for example, that “the” Yoruba were forged into an identity in the Diaspora, and as you probably realize, there were a substantial number of Brazilian returnees in Luanda, Lagos, Ouidah, etc. (Cubans, too). A lot of the ethnographic sources are also derived from dated and deeply flawed anthropology bound up in colonial epistemologies, as well as early accounts by Africans working with/for missionary/colonists (famously, Samuel Ajayi Crowther). This all reads a bit anachronistically.

    Even more problematic is the notion of “the Mbundu.” Even if you want to talk about polities that did eventually become centralized, like Matamba and Ndongo, there was never a unitary Mbundu identity. If you want one example, look at Kisama, south of the Kwanza River. The folks there speak Kimbundu, but their (decentralized) communities were formed by refugees from all over the region who fled and fought against the Portuguese slave raiding activities from the sixteenth century onward (into the twentieth). Their identities are certainly very different from an Ambaquista or someone from Malanje, despite the fact that they all speak Kimbundu…

    Mocambique is in southeastern African, not southwestern. Very different.

    There’s just an overall issue with sources. As you know, the sources were produced by slavemasters for their own purposes and through their own understandings. African identities were not so neatly intelligible as the slavemasters would have liked, of course. One obvious example about which there has been a lot of (Brazilian) scholarship recently is the meaning of “Mina.”

  10. Kimbandeira

    Also, since we are talking about capoeira, you probably want to research people from southern Angola, where the martial art originated. You don’t want to overlook the peoples who were mostly speakers of Umbundu, Kwanyama, and Nyaneka and were mostly taken from the port at Benguela and thus appear as “Benguelas” in the Portuguese/Brazilian records. T.J. Desch Obi’s research quite conclusively points to the origins of capoeira in martial arts forms from southern Angola; this region is usually overlooked in the scholarship due to the legacy of colonialism in Angola.

  11. Hey Kimbandeira!
    Welcome on my blog. Didnt have the opportunity to check my own blog for a few days, but now I am back on the scene. Thank you very much for the constructive comments on this first post. I must admit I am only recently researching about the roots of Capoeira, that means that it takes eons until I have found some reasonable sources which doesnt sound like pure rubbish. I am also checking for more or less neutral sources, meaning not coloured in a “white men are evil and brought only evil and thus everything white is evil” and not coloured in a “black people are primitive and without us white people they wouldnt have known nothing”/White Man’s Burden -view. Although I try to avoid misinformation I cant guarantee there is not any misinformation i find in my researches and – conclusively – post. That’s the reason why this is a blog and not a scientifical paper 😉
    Thanks for the source for Capoeira’s roots – I anyway wanted to check Desh Obi, as he came up quite often as point of reference when I was doing my lil research. Oh and one of my future posts will indeed be about African Martial Arts and their influence on Capoeira (or other Martial Arts of the African Diaspora). Keep on visiting this site. I like to see qualified and/or controverse opinions about my posts!


  12. Hey, and you are right about the Mozambique…

    and about the word use of tribe, nation, ethnic: before I started doing research on pre-Colonnial Africa I didnt really care about the word use of these. I was aware that the use of tribe is a bit sloppy and doesnt do right for a lot of nations in Africa. As for “the Bantu tribe” while they might be as existent as the “Indogerman tribe” or similar things. And I know that tribe is a word used by Colonnial powers even if what they encountered was a fully grown-up state! This made it easier to call African nations “primitive” gatherings of mere tribes which are a bit larger than average. I know. And I also know that African nations did fom, reform, split up, get more or less centralized over time… That all should be things everybody should think of when they see the word tribe. Don’t imagine some tents in the woods always when you hear that word. On the other side I must admit: I am not anthropologist. Do not expect me to be all over correct about terms which might be controverse in the field of anthopology itself!
    A very good document I found about the false use of the word “tribe” is the one you can find under the following link:

  13. compasso

    well , first translation is up , check it out and let me know if you have comments , desires or remarks
    go easy on the desires though , I know you holland folk !
    thanks again


  14. hey compasso!
    thanks for that link. I was not able to read a word, but I believe that you did a good job and you can translate whatever you want from my posts. I actually wanted to comment it directly on that post, but it didnt support OpenID. anyway….

    keep up the good work!

  15. compasso

    full credit for translations go to botafogo of course , I was merely the middle man in this .

    catch you later !

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