(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 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 (“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 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.
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.
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:
Sources about the Mbundu: