The slaves who were transported to the Americas were not weak. At least the probability was high that weak people were not bought on the coast of Africa. Young men were interesting, especially the strong ones. Of course they were in chains and of course they did not have much to resist against European firearms, at least not in the beginning. But their martial arts came with them. And they made use of them.
The first thing to know is that Martial Arts seem to have evolved everywhere on the world. Most people are quite ignorant of this fact, mainly because East Asian arts like Kung Fu or Judo come into our minds when we hear the word Martial Arts. But French fencing, Turkish oil-wrestling, Zulu stick fighting and Indian Kalarippayat are martial arts, too. Martial arts evolve efficient fighting patterns, rules and rituals, because most of the martial arts are meant to be practised and you cant practise a martial art when your partner gets severely injured or killed every time. That’s what makes them arts, apart from pure violence. Also in Africa martial arts exist,and someof them belong to the most ancient fighting systems there are on Earth.
African Martial Arts
Sadly there is one problem when researching about African martial arts: they are very poorly documented. To find written information is about as simple as to nail a pudding to a wall, and finding video footage is about impossible. The best way to find information would be: go there and see it. That is what TJ Desh Obi did and does and his new book which came out this year (“Fighting for honour”) should give some new insights into this not-so-clear chapter of African history. In this post I just want to spotlight some martial arts of Africa and show that a) there are actually a lot of African martial arts out there and b) that these did influence several martial arts in the Western Hemisphere. This would then be the last thing I want to do for this African roots series. Yes, people, although there is a lot more African’s did contribute to the Americas, after having described the people, their believes and their music I will finish with this, describing the martial arts of the African Ancestors.
The first martial art I want to mention is Nubian wrestling. That is because it is so unbelievably old. The picture above is, as you might have recognized, Egyptian, showing men who engage in a clearly martial art. The picture is to be found in the temple of Ramses III. in Medinet Habu and is, yes, over 3100 years old. That is older than East Asian Martial arts, which are only just above 2200 years old, by the way. A modern historical view of Ancient sports does see Nubian wrestling as a predecessor of Graeco-Roman wrestling, eventually, of modern wrestling. Why is that? The Nubian people had times when they were pretty dominant in Africa.
Nubia was home of various empires and states as early as 3500 BC and was for long times under the rule of Egypt, but there were also times when the Nubians did rule over the Egyptians (during the times of the Kush Empire, which existed between 1000 BC till 300 BC). So there was a 3000 year long cultural interdependence and cultural exchange. So Nubian wrestling started to get known to the Egyptians. And the influence of the Egyptian culture on Ancient Greek culture was quite strong and is well documented… But is Nubian wrestling just history? No, as the picture above shows clearly, Nubian wrestling is still a tradition among some people in Nubia. The Nuba people for example still practise it. Some hardcore readers will now say “So, but that’s clearly not Capoeira’s predecessor, right?”. There you might be right, but look at this description and try to imagine it and then try to find similarities to Capoeira. The description is from Oskar and Horst Luz and their article “Proud primitives” (National Geographics Magazine 130, 5: 672-699; published 1966):
A wrestler dances into the ring, looks challengingly around, assumes a fighting
stance, elbows on his knees-and waits. Whoever accepts the summons enters the
ring. . . . Now the two men take measure of each other, crouching, wary, flexing
bulging biceps. To over awe the opponent, they whirl with springy steps, shake
arms and shoulders, limber up, and ripple their muscles. One wrestler darts
forward, taps his head, feints probingly, backs away, flicks his tongue in and out,
advances again. The easy graceful movements resemble advance. The adversary
springs forward, reaches down, tries to seize his opponent’s legs. The two
grapple, arms coiled around each other. One lifts his opponent and attempts to
throw him to the ground, but the other, catlike, lands on his feet. It is only a
momentary reprieve. A quick fake, a rush, another clinch, another lift-and this
victim is slammed on his buttocks to the ground. Next match!
But there are other martial arts, all over Africa. Let’s go closer to the origins of most Afrobrazilian people, for example the Congo. For the Congo I found the mentioning of at least 3 martial arts, although most of them are poorly described (as always). There is Kipura, Mousondi and Gwindulumutu. There are already people saying that the word Capoeira comes from the Kipura martial art. As I am not an etymologist I won’t comment on that. Much more interesting is Gwindulumutu which is only described as a “headbashing martial art” (and I didnt find anything else on this martial art except this 3-word-description, would come in handy if somebody knows more details about it). I am kind of interested in that because there was the mentioning of Rugendas when he was describing Capoeira in the early 19th century where he write “Much more violent is another war game of the Negroes, Jogar capoeira, which consists in trying to knock one another down with headbutts in the chest, which one dodges which skilful side jumps and parrying. While they are throwing themselves against one another, more or less like rams, sometime heads run terribly into each other. Thus not infrequently the prank turns real fight and a bloody head or blade put an end to the game.” For the German original of that text click on this link.
And then there is the N’Golo or Engolo, which is often cited by Angoleiros as being a direct ancestor of Capoeira. This theory came up in the sixties where the Angolan Neves e Souza stated that the N’Golo is Capoeira. The N’Golo is a dance ritual of the Mucupe people in Southern Angola. It is a passage to adulthood and the champion of the N’Golo ceremony is allowed to marry the girl he wants, without paying the prize for her. The dance is believed to be derived from the way Zebras fight, it is also called the Zebra dance. In memory of this history a lot of Angola groups do have a Zebra in their logo and the one or other mestre does wear a zebra belt while playing in the Roda.
There is still a lot of doubts considering this version, especially as there are only few people who have seen this N’Golo. As far as I know Mr. Desh Obi does have video footage of the N’Golo and it is said to be very similar to Capoeira Angola. But this is only hearsay. If somebody can come up with some solid information, he/she would make me a very happy man 🙂
Capoeira d’Angola, Ladja and Jailhouse Rock
Now we are going over the Atlantic Ocean and try to see if there are African Martial arts and since when they are there. The problem here, as everywhere, is that the documentation is poor and that the African people (or those of African descent) were able to hide parts of their martial arts as ritual or dance. On the other side, the European slave masters were not stupid, so they found out. And when they found out, sometimes they documented. And one of the earliest documents I found about an African martial art in the Americas is actually about Capoeira. I found this document on two pages, on the Capoeira Connection page (who by the way just posted some brand new info on the Capoeira community!) and on the French Capoeira Palmares site. This document is from the year 1789 and the first documented evidence of Capoeira. Of course we dont know if there are older ones or if they were all burnt after the abolition. That is something we will see in the future. What this document shows is that Capoeira seems to be a known phenomenon back then. So it didnt just come up in 1789, but was around for a while already. How many years was that? Nobody knows. Here the text I copied from the Capoeira Connection site:
Adam, the mulatto boy that master Manoel Cardoso Fontes had bought a young lad, grew into a robust, hard-working and very obedient slave in household duties.
Manoel decided to rent him out as a mason assistant, a porter, or for any other hard labor. So Adam turned out to be a major source of income for his master.
With time, the shy slave who used to be fairly domesticated became more off-handed and independent and began to come back late, much later than the end of his working hours. Manoel asked repeatedly what was it that made Adam change so much — but his answers were weak and inconsistent. Until one day, fulfilling Manoel’s fears, Adam did not come home at all. He had certainly fled to one of the villages [quilombos] around the town.
To his surprise, Manoel found Adam behind the bars of the regional jail. He had been arrested with a gang of ruffians who practiced capoeira. A quarrel had broken out that day and one of them got killed in the action. These were extremely grave crimes under the laws of the time: practicing capoeira, and what’s more, causing a death.
The trial found Adam not guilty of the homicide, but confirmed his guilt on the charge of capoeira, and condemned him to 500 lashes and two years hard labor in public service.
After Adam had suffered the lashes in public and laboured some months in the public works, his master sent the king a plea in the name of the Passion of Christ, asking that his slave be released from the rest of his term, on the grounds that himself was a poor man and depended on the income that his slave brought him. He promised to take care that Adam would not join the capoeiras again. His plea was granted by the Regional Judge on April 25, 1789.
But Capoeira is by far not the only African martial art which came and developed in the Americas. There is for example Ladja. Ladja (or also Danmye or Ag’Ya) is a martial art which is practised on Martinique. Also here, drums and singing do give the competitors the energy they need for the fight. And like in Capoeira there is no easy distinction between fight and dance here. Just watch the video beneath and you will see what I mean. Capoeira and Ladja might be brothers, or at least cousins, coming from the same region or even from the same ritual. But there is no evidence for that. So maybe Ladja did develop it’s dance properties and it’s delusiveness because of the same needs Brazilian slaves had: Deception. There is no proof for both arguments, so this is the point where you believe this or believe that. For me the video footage clearly shows a martial art which is related to Capoeira and might have come from the same people.
But there are also other martial arts, also in the U.S. Here you’ll find the mentioning of Jailhouse Rock. Interestingly there is also very poor information on this martial art. Jailhouse Rock does go under many different names like 52 Blocks, peek-a-boo or Stato. It is believed to have been developed in the American penal system, spreading from jail to jail and – due to the very special circumstances in jails – quickly developing into “regional” styles (the regions were the different jails). Oral tradition says that Jailhouse rocks originates in the 17th and 18th centuries when first African people were put into jail. Today Jailhouse Rock is more a collective term trying to summarize very different Fighting Systems which are nowadays strongly influenced by boxing. Only few people believe that Jailhouse Rock does still have much of its old traditions in it. So the videos you find for that are oviously not that flashy or dance-like as Capoeira is. But the agility and dance-like stance of African martial arts does come through sometimes. For example in the following video footage, showing the martial art called 52 blocks.
So…that’s it. This was the last post of the African roots series. That does not mean that I wont come back to these topics once I have some nice things to share with you (for example an N’Golo video footage!), but for now I think everybody has enough overview over the African influences on the Americas, especially on Brazil. And maybe I have convinced some people to see that Capoeira does have so many African features, that you can call it an African martial art. Yes, it did evolve in Brazil for the last 500 years and that’s something which has to be recognized. But even there the influence of Africans did dominate till the 19th century.
But as you also have seen, documents about the African Diaspora are extremely hard to find, especially documents which are not biased. I hope together with these posts I can persuade other people to research about African diasporic culture and make them publicly available.
Some Sources used for this post:
Journal of Sport History 15, No.2, Summer 1988 – Ancient Nubian Wrestling
Library of Congress for an interview on Ladja
An article about Ladja/Danmye (how reliable this is I dont know)
Capoeira – A Game-Dance-Fight for Life by Edward L.Brough Luna
San Diego County Office for Education
Capoeira – A Game-Dance-Fight for Life by Edward L.Brough Luna