Capoeira’s Ancestor: A Brief History of the Ngolo Tradition

Brazil is home to Capoeira, which is not only a Martial Art but also a type of dance. A lot of people don’t know it originally came from Angola; like many Martial Arts in the Caribbean, South America, and the United States, there are Angolan and West African Influences that survive in these places, whether it be unarmed combat, stick or knife fighting etc. This article will provide a brief summary on how this came to be and how the original tradition from Angola, Ngolo, arrived in the Americas and evolved into its new context.

Before I begin, for people who want more information, I highly recommend a book by Dr Desch-Obi called “Fighting for Honour: The History of African Martial Art in the Atlantic World” which this article will be based on, albeit in a shorter form. All quotations are from this book, and if you want to know more information, buy it. It’s a great book. Also, there is Moraingue on Madagascar; however there is not much information on it. It has strong similarities to both Damnye and Capoeira and may have been a result of a large amount of Angolan slaves being sent to the island.


Ngolo/Engolo/Ongolo (or however it is spelled) originally came from Central Africa and consists of a play/dance between two people that emphasises walking on the hands, kicks, grappling, palm strikes, slaps and head-butts. In this context the moves are playful and conducted in the circle of participants who observe the dance happening, which has religious reasons as well that is linked to Central and West African beliefs.  There are several factors of how Ngolo came to exist in a form that has been stated; it is difficult to trace the tradition to its date of origin however it’s believed to have begun with the introduction of cattle into the region, which began around 1000 AD. The reason for this is important because many moves committed in Ngolo such as head-butting were emulated from the type of cattle that was farmed; as cattle would head-butt each other when fighting. Kicks and aerobatic evasiveness was emulated from zebras (who were a symbol of nimbleness and were adept at speed, strength, reflexes and agility). Mainly, the development was due to Central African religious beliefs. Put simply, there is both the physical world which we inhabit and an inverted spiritual world which is inhabited by ancestors (the kalunga). This was represented by a bridge, in some cases physically such as the Atlantic Ocean, and it was possible for this bridge to manifest itself and direct contact made with ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago. To do so was to emulate the afterlife which, according to Central African beliefs, was inverted to the land of the living; to live in the afterlife was not to walk on one’s feet but on one’s hands, therefore it meant moving on one’s hands and emphasising kicks. In the ceremony where a person was imitated, they would be surrounded by others and perform in a circle with a more experienced person. If they were said to be very good, it was believed they became possessed by an ancestor who in the past was talented at Ngolo and therefore it would seem the person automatically became skilled at their dance, strikes and play, exhibiting moves they normally did not include in their repertoire. Deception, dodging, as well as cunning, also played a key role when it came to Central African beliefs and therefore the dance was also a means to express that. Being a dance, it was able to provide an environment where both people would dance and suddenly, one would strike the other and the other would have to react by dodging, using aerobic ability and transferring that to a reply.This is what was called a “question and answer”.  It provided a chance for the person throwing the hit to assess their opponent’s reaction and gauge the type of opponent they were facing.

Though Ngolo had martial elements, it’s important to emphasise it is a dance and a play between two opponents; the roughness of that play is can vary, often times being physically tough on both opponents. The people who practiced were most likely grown to be warriors and in a lot of cases, cattle farmers. While overseeing their cattle, to pass the time they would practice forms of Martial Arts, dodging out of the way of charging cattle and jumping over them. The types of fighting practiced were slap boxing, stick-fighting and stick throwing (all of these coined Kadenka) kicking, head-butting, wrestling, and Ngolo as past times between growing males. These provided a good foundation for a style of combat that was evident to Portuguese explorers and visitors, who visited Central Africa in the 1500’s called Nsanga, which was a termed for demonstrations of mock battles and combat. To the amazement of Portuguese observation, in combat warriors were able to spin, jump and dodge out of way of projectiles and strikes, against imaginary opponents, and to show loyalty to a lord to outshine their rivals in praise of a ruler, which was always done before going on campaign. Father Lorenzo, a Capuchin missionary in the late 18th Century comments:

“Then some of them commenced to ‘sangare’ that is, to make contortions to demonstrate their force and their dexterity….. The captains were covered with furs, armed with bows, swords and hatchets, In the middle of them, Nzinga herself, with sword and spears, made spectacular demonstrations of her ability, and when the priest complimented her on this, she responded saying ‘sorry father because I am already old. But when I was young I yielded nothing to any Jaga in agility and in the ability to wound, such that I was not afraid to confront even a group of twenty-five armed soldiers, except if they had muskets, against which nothing will stop the destruction. But when against other weapons, that is where one can demonstrate one’s courage, agility and valour.”

This was also called “sanguar” by missionaries as a European derivative or N’sanga. Pero Rodrigues, a missionary in Angola in the late sixteenth Century describes:

“They do not have defensive arms, all their defence tests in sanguar, which is to jump from one place to another with a thousand twists and such agility that they can dodge arrows and arms (pilouro) aimed at them.”

In the absence of defensive weapons, dodging was paramount to surviving the skirmishing phase in combat, where formations were very loose, and after the hand-to-hand phase.

The United States: Knocking and kicking

Many slaves transported to the United States were warriors who had been captured in combat and had been well versed in the traditions of Central and West African Martial Arts. With them came an amalgamation of Central and West African Martial Arts, such as Wolof laamb, Igbo ngba or Yoruba gidigbo and side-hold wrestling from like that of the Bight of Biafra region (identified by its leg-wrapping style), that became predominant in the United States for African Americans. By the third generation the Africans and their immediate descendants were outnumbered by the third generation. Up until the 1970’s, this style of wrestling was referred to “kicking a weap” or just “wrasslin”. On top of this, the Ngolo traditions survived in the United States under “knocking and kicking”, a composite art that carried the legacy of foot-fighting and head-butting practices from Central Africa (though the head-butting part was more emphasised). Nevertheless, kicking was still important and emulated Ngolo techniques which included foot sweeps, cross steps, cutting an opponent off his feet and standing foot sweeps. Both were trained separately though often integrated with other fighting styles like grappling. Due to the danger associated with these Martial Arts, slaves could often find themselves maroons (escaped slaves in hidden settlements), bodyguards/soldiers/gladiators and strongmen to slave owners. Sometimes the fighters would find themselves taking part in games organised by white land owners who would get slaves drunk and force them to fight each other. Slaves could also fight back against their masters if the punishment was seen as unjust and often after would be left alone. Many, such as Frederick Douglas who later won his freedom and toured Europe afterwards, commented on fighting a landowner who tried to beat him and getting better conditions as a result.

Like in Brazil with Capoeira, Knocking and Kicking would be within closed societies, linked to Biafran Africans and prototype societies before the slave trade. They formed closed societies among bondsmen, providing spiritual counselling, discussing relevant issues and community leadership. More importantly, they perpetuated the “Old Time Religion” and utilised knocking and kicking and root doctoring, linking Martial Arts with medicine as a means of attaining power, as well as physical protection of elder religious figures. In these societies, knocking and kicking was performed in clandestine meeting, referred to as “drum meetings”, which included ritual kicking contests and the continued inversion with the “crossing of the water” which continued the old beliefs of the kalunga. This also included “tricknology”, the art of trickery including knocking and kicking that contributed to the art of defence; which could also be a spiritual metaphor for overcoming obstacles of life in bondage. In knocking and kicking, the use of trickery was most evident in head-butting to overcome foes and often was distinguished by a mutual charge from a distance. When fighting from a physical disadvantage, it meant striking a butting-style head blow to finish the fight before it began. As such, head butts needed to be used at close range, trickery was used to get in close; succeeding in knocking out any white trouble-makers before their arms could be drawn.

The use of fighting skills was not only limited to men. Women were excluded from knocking and kicking, which was seen as a male activity, however participated fully in wrestling, African bondswomen carried a legacy of that linked womanhood to assertive action in the fields of agriculture, trade and combat, being able to protect themselves at the hands of white aggressors and rapists. It was the same fighting ability that exempted slaves from being beaten; in many situations shooting a slave was the only option of punishment (which was a not viable option because it would lead to a reduction in production) and that resistance led to many slaves having better conditions.

The French Caribbean: Damnye and Laija        

For the slaves who came to work on the sugar plantation in the Caribbean, life was often hard, labour intensive, and back-breaking.  Nevertheless, labour varied from midwifery, blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry etc.  A high mortality rate was the norm, in some cases 24 hour work day during harvest season, as sugar cane needed to be cut as soon as it was reaped. An alternative was military service in colonial militias or police forces. In this environment, in areas such as the French Lesser Antilles, the separation of open-handed and armed combat techniques coexisted. These were performed in the context of community performance rituals akin to plays of North America called Kalendas or bamboulas (which referred specifically to the small drum of these dance circles). The dance circle was often accompanied by two drums, whose purpose was to improvise and respond to the dancer’s/fighter’s movements. These were semiprivate rituals conducted by associations  which combined ethnic, religious and economic functions; serving purposes such as common funds for freedom of members and funerals and sponsoring community performance rituals (such as  on festival days). Within these performances, the dances had specific religious implications, particularly when connected with certain ethnic groups. For example, in Martinique, the covert rituals may have been associated with the pugilistic arts. In any case, within this event, people were divided into separate circles, representing a certain ethnic group as well as one for “mustees” (people of mixed European and African decent”).  This was also divided by sex lines, women would claim honour through a personal display of dancing “executed with taste and judgement” and the style of dress:

“…they added gracefulness to personal flexibility, and pliancy of limbs, which appeared to the greatest advantage, when performing the evolutions of the mazy dance, which, together with singing, constituted the whole of their instruments”

This may have had a role in edging men on in their performance.

In these circles, distinct “manly” exercises were given including grappling set to music, which was a way for different African groups to express their own form of wrestling such as Biafran ones with their mgba techniques; stick fighting competitions in which Angolan Kunene men would have recognised; head-butting duels. William Buttersworth, an English sailor who passed through Guadeloupe in 1787, described as “tupping” which was reminiscent of that done in Angola. He writes:

“Then they separate, withdrawing a few yards from each other, still dancing, jumping, and nodding the head: now stooping forwards, with hands clasped upon their backs, they advance towards each other……When within a yard and a half of each other, the music ceases; the tuppers pause for a moment, and eye each other with the steadfast gaze of scientific pugilists; when, as if by mutual impulse, both dart forwards, head against head, like two rams!”

Damnye and Ladja fall into a type of pugilistic game that was known in the French Lesser Antilles as well as kokoye (a form of pugilism based on round, haymaker-style swinging punches, taking on the form of a war of attrition with both combatants feet touching each other). This is also referenced in Cuba with combat styles such as mani and bernaden (slap-boxing contests like that of the open handed kandeka). Unlike kokoye, blows were marked by straight-line trajectories with the lips being a primary target.  Damnye was a form of kickboxing art which, according to Julian Gerstin, were “non-combat duels, in which the contestant attempted to demonstrate mastery without injury”. Previously, at least one strain of this tradition was predominantly foot-fights involving an exchange of acrobatic defences, sweeps and kicks, the latter often thrown from an inverted position; towards the twentieth century, the lines between itself and the composite arts became blurry as some punches were later introduced. The inverted kicks of the art were known as wolo and were linked to the kalunga (the aquatic link between the land of the living and the dead); kick would be delivered from a crouched position with the hands on the ground, in a ritual combat on land and an aquatic game involving a contest between two players in the ocean or river. According to Ed Powe, participants often attached weapons to their feet in contests and would flip themselves over to try and kick the opponent in the head or upper body with one or both feet in the aquatic context; as on land, the defense was to dodge or turn with the strike. This type of practice was done on many other islands, where it was known as libo.

A relative composite art called ladja was created in Martinique, purportedly as a human variant on cock fighting. According to popular stories, Africans were used as gladiators for entertainment and gambling akin to fighting cocks. Therefore, the destructive side of the Martial Arts may have been common in fights organised by planters, which was referred to as lan mo or ladja de la mort (ladja of death) because it was reported participants would fight to the death. Often these practitioners, who were bondsmen, were used as overseers and people to police other slaves like in the USA. Even after abolition, these masters of ladja were still referred to as majo (major). Perhaps it is this life-or-death situation that caused an amalgamation of damnye, kokoye, bernaden, the throws of sove vayan and the head butting or tupping; at times, it was not unknown for majos to hold razors in their feet to make their kicks more deadly. The result was a mixed martial art form used to overcome any opponent, which survived to the 20th century when Vidiadhar Naipaul visited Martinique who was taken to a put surrounded by seating for gambling and cock-fighting, where ladja fighters were brought in the evening. This style was practiced in the twentieth century in sites that may have previously been marked by damnye; taking place also at dance performances, on docks and at festivals.

In ritualistic contexts, ladja took place in a circle of singers and fighters; it started by the kouri lawon where the drums called a fighter to enter the circle in a styalised counter clockwise run; then came the monte tanbou, in which he danced to the drummer, saluted the instruments, drew energy from them, and tried to imitate his rival with the agility of the dance. After appraising the challenger’s skill level, another adept would emerge from the circle and do the same. The two then faced each other and engaged in ritual combat which included; dancing to music while attacking and countering with kicks, evasions, sweeps, swinging hand blows, head butts, throws and cartwheels; the fight itself continued until the musicians called for it to be stopped and then called another pair (starting with less experienced adepts, gradually increasing to the majo). Like Ngolo, it was believed that certain positions had Central-African derived religious ideas e.g. the opening pose, the parada (standing with the left arm akimbo and the right hand upwards) believed to throw the spiritual power of the fighter against the opponent. This also applied to certain aspects such as the counter-clockwise circle, which was used to evoke the ancestors who would watch over the ladja fighters and offer them power which could be tapped into by fighters. This separated true master from practitioner like in Ngolo. All the moves derived from a pugilistic base, which:

 “…lies not in the lust for combat, but in the finesse of approach and retreat; the tension which becomes almost a hypnosis, then the flash of the two bodies as they leap in to the air, fall into a crouch, and whirl at each other in simulated attacks, only to walk nonchalantly away, back to each other, showing utter indifference before falling again into the rocking motion which rests them physically but excites them emotionally.”

This quote from Katherine Dunham  “L’Ag’ya of Martinique” shows us a key aspect of Ladja, the theatrical breaks and feigning of disinterest in order to fool one’s opponent and gain the element of surprise. The practice fostered trickiness and highlighted an entertaining exchange of attacks and counters.

Though ladja was a hybrid of styles, there has been no need to amalgamate them in the 18th Century and multiple combat arts existed side by side, playing unique roles in the wake ceremonies in Guadelope known as veye boukousou ; and wake exercises.

Brazil: Capoeira

To the Southern Angolans and Biafrans who were bought as captives to Brazil, slaves worked on sugar plantations in the Bahia and Pernambuco regions but this was offset by the gold rush in Minas Gerais in 1690, which resulted in the growth of the port city Rio de Janeiro. A slave would find themselves in a thriving urban environment where the type of slavery differed to that of the chattel slavery in the USA and the Caribbean; though at times as oppressive. One could find themselves on sugar and coffee plantations which marked low life-expectancy, but in the city bondsmen constructed, cleaned houses, unloaded cargo, delivered goods, produced crafts and were factory workers. A household required the service of African bondsmen who would bring water and carry away human waste. However by the early 19th Century, two thirds of Rio de Janeiro’s population was of African descent, and this created new opportunities for finding new lineages in a place that  already had traditions from West African Bantu Culture. More importantly, like in the USA, many would have engaged in communal dances called batuques, based on Central African religious traditions of Kalundus (indeed, these were widespread in Rio). The Central African ritual specialists who directed these continued to invert themselves ritually in order to gain direct access to power across the kalunga. This, in concert with the cosmological system that linked physical inversion to spiritual power, seeded the Angolan martial art that rose in Brazil. By the second half the 18th Century, the tradition of Ngolo had entrenched itself in Rio as the foundation of the jogo (the game) de capoeira. The term described the art as a performance ritual and, like Ngolo, matches could be playful and grace like or rough and antagonistic; using circular kicks, push kicks (often inverted), sweeps and acrobatic evasions. Like in the USA, this was practiced in various social situations like maroon communities, called kilombos, the most famous being Palmares and police records show capoeira was used to rescue captured quilombolas (the Portuguese spelling of kilomos). Like in the French Antilles, performance circles were common in evenings of Sunday and the holidays, dances often being called batuques. Local planters allowed these to occur as a mixture of repression and support. On the one hand continuing the tradition and on the other, continuing divisions of African peoples in Brazil to keep the enslaves from uniting as a single force. In Rio dances could attract as many as 2000 bondsmen and each African people danced according to distinct aesthetic tastes but often had common features; with aspects such as undulating hips and the bumping of midsections (something still common in Moraingue in Madgascar).  A French journalist was eager to comment on the process:

“Here is the Capoeira, a species of combat dance, of daring and combative spins to the sound of Congolese drum. There is the batuque with its cold and lewd attituds, which the urucungo accelerates or slows. Beyond it is a crazy dance, with the provocation of the eyes, of breasts and hips; a species of intoxicating convulsion that is called lundu.”

In these circles, the adept exhibited demonstrations of inverted kicks, sweeps and acrobatic defences set to percussive instruments. As well as ritual, capoeira was performed in the city such as entertainment for sailors, tavern patrons and large crowds during public and religious processions; also in informal situations such as a temporary break from labour, as a way to pass the time in the day while waiting for work and as a form of combat in street fights. Like in the USA, there was the growth of closed societies however these are entirely urban and colonial authorities were occupied with exterminating these groups who had stood in defiance of the slave system.

Societies (coined names like maltas, confraria, badernas, ranchos or groupos de capoeira) may have grown out of ethnic-based associations in the city, with capoeiragem battles where different ethnic groups engaged in “feuds and combats, where one, or even two hundred of a nation on each side are engaged”. Identities were association with symbols e.g. Catholic brotherhoods would associate with particular saints, with an elected king and queen who sponsored dances and played crucial roles in African burials. The nature was of a closed society, and shared many of the functions brotherhoods and cantos‘ also faced, being referred to as “gangs” and , though there is often overlapping similarities, the nature was more along the line of “secret” societies in the sense members claimed mastery of a special knowledge, being Martial Arts; in many ways these were similar to paramilitary societies. For example, paramilitary leopard societies called ekpe were only open to those who had proven themselves in battle and included a graded society with levels of initiations that played various roles such as trade, artistic development and law enforcement. This included economic, judicial and political roles; tapping the leopard’s lethal grace for authority through artistic and paramilitary power; artistic power through emblems such as hats, combat and literacy; holding occasional public dances to entertain the community and display grace in ritual function; making and keeping of law, enforcing legal codes and enactment of secret vengeance through launched pre-emptive attacks against enemies, murder; collecting fines from people who transgressed social norms and punishing internal offenders and external enemies. Often, Biafra used knives to kill their victims in ways that mimicked leopard attacks.

James Wetherell, who visited Brazil in 1856, described Capoeira as a foot fight, “a kick on the shins is about the most powerful knock they give each other. They are full of action, capering and throwing their arms and legs about like monkeys during their quarrels”. Circular kicks, pushing kicks, sweeps and inverted kicks can be distinguished from the latter half of the 19th Century, with inverted kicks such as rabo d’arraia and pentana. For example, the rabo d’arraia was a kick launched, according to Filho in Festas as “one of the most rudimentary foundational movements”, which was launched by “turning over the body, rotating one of the legs to kick the enemy”.  The pentana involved “turning over the body applying both feet against the chest of the adversary”. Though these initially had religious connotations such as channelling spirits, they remained the aesthetic basis of capoeira. It is these aspects which drew crowds of observers, as well as the use of acrobatics to engage in defence against kicks. This was by keeping the body in constant motion with dance like steps, which became known as the ginga, which came from the Kongo and Njila languages of Angola, meaning to “to dance, sway or play.” With this as a deceptive form of footwork, these would set the basis for dodging techniques including: ducking low under an attack, simultaneously being defensive and counter-attacks (such as the cacador where the dancer would drop low on his hands to avoid a blow and extent one leg to sweep out the opponent’s support leg which would send him to the ground). Like in the USA with Knocking and Kicking, head butts may have played a role. Johann Moritz Rugendas who travelled to Brazil in the early 1820s, illustrates this:

“The Negros have another, much fiercer, war game, the Jogar Capoeria: two champions rush at each other, trying to strike with his head the chest of the opponent he is aiming to knock down. The attack is thwarted by leaping sideways or by equally skillfully parrying; but in springing at each other, pretty much like goats, they now and again butt each other’s heads very roughly; so no one often sees jesting give place to anger, with the result that the sport is made bloody with blows and even with knives”   

While these techniques were associated with rituals and in bloody street battles, it’s difficult to establish whether there was any integration with the jogo de capoeira. The possibility is that Rugendas conflated ritualized head duelling, mentioned in police records as jogo de cabecadas, as separate as it had been in the USA and the French Antilles.

Though the jogo de capoeira served as an exercise, in times of conflict capoeiristas called on capoeiragem, which is a form of fighting skills that was distinct from the jogo in its wider variety, relying on head-butts weapons and other injury-inflicting manoeuvres. Although kicks were frequently used, head-butts were the most widely mentioned technique in police registries, being noted as the “principle weapon of Capoeria”. An English visitor to Rio early in the 19th century noted:

“For the office of assassin, the very lowest order of Negroes are hired….Their manner of setting to work is worthy of remark. They need no stiletto, bird cage awl (ferro de gaiola), or any other weapon. In lieu of these, they use only the head; and with it they butt like bulls at the chest of their victim. I saw a field officer who had been murdered in this manner, and thrown over the wall into his garden, where his family found him in the morning: the upper part of the body had been flattened as if the implement of death had been a mallet.”

Kicking in Rio seemed to be the property of trained specialists while head-butting existed as a more widespread form of combat among the black population. The importance of the head butt also depended on the angle of the blow and target, for example the caveira no espelho (skull in a mirror) was a standing head butt to the face, while the cocada was an upward strike under the chin. The 19th Century included a wider variety of arsenal. In heated combat, other moves included punching and wrestling, which is where the origin of a few hand strikes may have came from, as well as anti-blade techniques of  espada, which used a circular kick to knock a knife from an opponent’s hand or suicidio which kicked an opponent’s legs out, causing him to cut himself with his own blade.

The use of weapons became a second skill though unarmed fighting remained the core of the jogo de capoeira, especially after the creation of the Royal Guard Police. Knives, sticks,razors and rocks were widely adopted in response to the arming of police carrying “shrimp dinners”; a reference to severe cudgelling of unarmed individuals with heavy clubs that had rawhide strips on them to act as a club and a whip. The easiest weapon to acquire was the stick, which was central to Central and West African traditions and expressed/practiced through ludic stick fighting dances. Rocks were also highly dangerous as arms, used to attack sentinels and targets of crowds. Knives and navalhas (folding knives and razors) were also the other main weapons; coming from Cimbebasian and Iberian blade work or even the tradition of knife fighting from the far northern region of Angola. There was the European style of cloak and dagger fighting, but the most common blade among African capoeiras in the first half of the 19th Century was a knife called a sovelao and was recorded to be hurled with tremendous effect, with irresistible force, and drove the blade through a thick board from a considerable distance.

It’s important to note that many sailors, Black, Portuguese or other, were exposed to African combat traditions, enticing many to live with them or unite with Africans in acts of militancy. In the Caribbean, sailors often sought out bondsmen in dances to observe and martial games. In Brazil and Trinidad, many of the same restaurants, taverns and brothels were frequented by sailors as they were by Trinidadian stick-fighters and Rio capoeiras. Many white sailors may have gained experience of African combat traditions in street fights with coloured people or as members of working class audiences who flocked to foot fights and other combative displays. Sailors indeed may have got private viewings as black dockworkers in Martinique and Brazil’s port areas were well known for entertaining themselves with damnye/ladja and jodo de capoeira matches.


-Nicholas Petrou, HAMA Association Chief Curator of Research

nick petrou


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close