“A Fight with a Capoeira” (1904)

This article, which first appeared in the Wide World Magazine of October, 1904, represents a curious sub-genre of 19th and early 20th century literature that might be described as the “exotic fighting styles travelogue”.  Writers in this tradition describe their adventures learning from, or occasionally fending off, local masters of esoteric martial arts in some far-flung locale, frequently while in the company of comely young ladies.  Minus the young ladies (as far as we know), Bartitsu founder Edward Barton-Wright had his own share of similar tales, including some rather hair-raising descriptions of the various weapons he’d had to contend against during his long travels abroad.

In this case, the Englishman Bernard St. Lawrence – whose other articles for Wide World included a piece on “The Serpent Garden of Butantan” – apparently chanced to cross paths with an exponent of Brazilian capoeira.  Strictly truthful or otherwise, St. Lawrence’s story is notable in that capoeira was almost entirely unknown outside of Brazil during the early 20th century, aside from occasional references in French media and an allusion by the English self-defence writer Percy Longhurst.

Noting for the sake of clarity that while the art of capoeira is now world-famous as an acrobatic dance/ritual/fight, the word was traditionally also used to describe the class of “ruffians” who were skilled in that art, as is noted here by the editor of this unusual and interesting story:

Wide World Magazine editor’s note:

“Capoeiras” are the Brazilian equivalent of the class of ruffians known in London as “hooligans,” in America as “bad men” or “hoodlums,” in Australia as “larrikins,” and in Paris as “Apaches,” save that they are probably even more formidable. Trained in a most peculiar method of fighting, having small razors fixed in their hair, and often carrying others, they can inflict terrible wounds by charging an adversary with head down. They are so agile that it is almost impossible to aim a revolver at them. In this story the author narrates his thrilling experience with one of these miscreants whose jealousy he had unwittingly aroused.

AS we rode up the Itatiaia Mountains I began to realize what a large country Brazil is, with its vast solitudes still so little frequented by man. A sense of loneliness came upon me as I looked back upon the last village we had left, the little white houses of which stood out like big mushrooms against the red earth. There was something desolate and yet fascinating in the expanse of mountains as I climbed higher: they looked like a world as yet unfashioned.

No incident particularly worthy of mention happened on the journey, and I reached the hacienda for which I was bound in safety. It was a large, tumbledown old house, seldom used, and far from the plantations, so that we took up our abode in a “barraca” — a house built of wood, of the kind used by the work-people on the estate, whose habitations formed a small colony around us.

Though life is dull upon a farm in the interior of Brazil, there is much of interest to a stranger, and I tried to learn all I could. I must confess, however, that I did not receive much help from anyone, save from a girl who happened to know a few words of English, which she loved to air on every possible occasion. Being an Englishman, I seemed to possess a great attraction for her, and we came much into each other’s company. I was very fortunate in this, for she was one of the most intelligent persons in the district, and had become quite a person of authority on account of the many good deeds she had done there. She worked hard to keep her mother and sisters, who were good-for-nothing and lazy. Her name was Chica — short for Francesca.

It was to this girl that I was always referred when in any difficulty, because of her knowledge of English, which the people thought to be much greater than it really was; and thus I saw more of her than would otherwise have been the case, going on several occasions to her “barraca,” where her mother sat near the door eternally spinning cotton or drying tobacco on little sticks.

I think these occasional visits pleased the girl’s vanity, for she took me quite under her protection, pointed out all the interesting sights, and gave me much information.

Soon the day drew near for my return to more civilized parts. It had been a quiet, uneventful sojourn; in fact, on the last day but one before my departure I was thinking how humdrum my trip into the interior had been, when there occurred the exciting incidents which it is my intention to relate and which quite changed my opinion of the trip.

On the day in question a great “batugue” was given. This dance — of Indian origin — is not such as would be popular in very refined circles. Nevertheless, from its peculiarity it merits some description.

You must not look for graceful movements in a “batugue.” An insinuating but rather monotonous tune is played upon a guitar, and the men, beating time with their naked feet, make up a couplet — comic, sentimental, or satirical, as the fancy takes them — which they sing to the women, who thereupon make suitable reply.  All then clap their hands in time to the music, and each man in turn capers more or less wildly before his partner, after which they dance together for awhile. This is repeated by each couple one after the other, while those not dancing sing and clap their hands. The dance is common all over Brazil, and particularly so up-country, though it is only affected by the lower classes.

I had often seen the people dancing it, but had never been to a regular big “batugue,” so I looked forward to the function with no small interest. There was to be a beautiful Spanish girl there too, who lived near the plantation, and who interested me much, for I had often seen her and wondered why she stayed in such an out-of-the-way and lonely place. It was said she would perform some of the dances of her own country that night, for she would not take part in the “batugue” and was looked upon as insufferably high-minded for that reason.

When the night came round I went early to the place where the “batugue” was to be held, and had not long taken up a position whence I could see what was going forward, when a voice close to my ear said, in surprised tones: “Is the son of bif come batatas (beef and potatoes) come here to dance?”

I turned and saw my little friend Chica. It was now my turn to be surprised, for Chica never attended these dances, which, as I have said, are not of a very elevating character. My answer to her question, therefore, took the form of stolid silence, while I looked askance at her. This had the desired effect, for Chica immediately began to explain her presence. It was to see the Spanish girl Nita, she said, and last, though not least, because her betrothed had come to see her, and she wanted to prevent him from joining in the dance, of which she much disapproved.

Brazilians, whether good or bad, are very jealous, and Chica, though a good girl, was fond of admiration, so I guessed that she looked upon the beautiful Nita with no favourable eye, fearing that she might attract the roving eye of Domingo, her betrothed. It was for these reasons, Chica explained at length, that she was present at the “batugue” that evening.

We looked on at the scene for awhile in silence, waiting to see if Nita would begin her performance; but though she was there she did nothing, but talked rather listlessly to a little man I had never seen before. Presently Chica said, “Let us go, senhor: she’ll never begin, and I can make as pretty music as this for you under the palm-trees yonder.”

She pointed to a clump of trees with one hand, and with the other showed me a little guitar she had with her. There was a shadow of displeasure on her face as she spoke, but I took little notice of it, and we moved away.

The “batugue ” was held in the open air, the weather being warm. The people were strolling about or sitting here or there chatting, smoking, singing, or playing, as the fancy took them.   Chica and I sat down beneath a tree, and she began to talk of her country — a favourite theme with her — telling me of the days when the culture of sugar-cane was a flourishing industry, and exulting in the fact that cotton was daily increasing in importance.

Presently, detaching a string from her waist, Chica fastened it on her wrist. At the end of this string dangled a paper manikin, so that as Chica sat to play his feet just touched the ground, and he stood, as it were, upon it, following the action of her hand and thus producing faithfully the movements of a dance she played. This performance soon restored Chica’s gaiety, and was, indeed, so grotesque as to cause the onlookers great merriment.

It was during a hearty burst of laughter caused by the antics of the doll that a thin little man whom I had previously observed, and who looked as if he had the agility of twenty monkeys in him, came along and spoke to Chica. She did not seem pleased at the interruption, and he was evidently annoyed with her. The interview, however, was short, for she sent him away with a curt remark. As he went the girl began to make her manikin jump furiously, exclaiming loudly, “It’s so like him !”

The man heard her, for he turned his head, though he said nothing. When he had gone Chica told me his name was Domingo, and that she was destined to be his wife. “He is a Capoeira,” she added, in a lower tone.

“What is that ?” I asked.

“Didn’t you see any in Rio?” said the girl.  “They are men trained to move so quickly that when fighting they are impossible to catch.  They are not generally strong, but light, and so active. They do evil things. In their woolly hair they fix a little razor, and, ducking their heads, they run with all their might at a man, killing him if they choose; and all the time they move so quickly that it is most difficult even to take aim at them with a pistol.”

I had heard of something of the kind, and asked Chica many questions concerning these men.

She told me their method of attack was to circle round and round a man, suddenly making furious thrusts at him with the head. If there is a razor in the head — or in the hand, as happens rather often — it is a serious matter. Even without these weapons they can do much damage, and have been known to kill a man with a well-placed kick.

I had heard vague stories before about these ruffians, and listened to Chica’s recital with interest, idly wishing I might see a real Capoeira in action. I was about to utter the wish aloud, when I heard, in many different tones, the long-drawn “Oh! oh!” with which Brazilians call attention to anything worth seeing.

Rising to look, I saw that Nita, the Spanish girl, was dancing; so bidding, I fear, a rather hasty good-bye to Chica, I went in among the people to watch what was going on.

There was always something inexplicably fascinating to me in the sound of the castanets, and when Nita held them and danced it was a veritable poem of motion. Her tiny feet hardly seemed to touch the ground, so lightly and gracefully they moved. Presently she ran forward with bewitching grace, inviting one amongst us to stand before her and be her partner. All the men struggled for the honour, and I found myself side by side with the ill-favoured Domingo.

Half to please myself, and half because I thought little Chica would be glad if I danced with this siren instead of her betrothed, I pushed Domingo aside rather unceremoniously, but in one bound he stood before me, trying to assume the haughty grace of a Spanish cavalier. With a laugh at my momentary folly I was turning away, when I saw Nita shake her forefinger in the air at Domingo, which amongst Spaniards and Brazilians means “No,” and at the same time — no doubt through some caprice — she beckoned me to take his place. I lost no time in going forward, and we danced awhile together, Domingo throwing an angry glance my way ere he disappeared in the crowd.

Soon after this Nita left the scene of her triumph, and I wandered about looking idly at the various groups, exchanging a word here and there with those I knew amongst them.

I was just about to leave the place when I heard Chica asking Domingo, in angry terms, why he had stayed so long at the dance.

“Why did you leave us to play and sing to the Englishman?” he replied, viciously.

“You didn’t come near me,” cried Chica, rapidly. “Why did you stay with Nita? What do you see in her?”

Domingo spoke slowly and insultingly, saying that Nita was beautiful, graceful, and amiable, and all the rest of it. So the dispute went on, till at last Chica left him with angry words, and flung up against me as I stood there astonished that I had, though quite unwittingly, anything to do with this lovers’ quarrel.

She begged my pardon in some confusion, and then asked me to guide her through the throng of people until she should be safe. I guessed this was meant to annoy Domingo, for Chica wore that night a longish knife with a curious handle, so that she could have gone alone, if necessary, and, besides, she was so much respected that it was not likely she would suffer at the hands of anyone. Therefore I asked why Domingo did not perform this duty, but Chica, still smarting from the quarrel, declared that she would not allow it. Thinking it wiser to put an end to the matter, therefore, I complied with her request.

Once clear of the crowd I left her, and went musing to bed. There my thoughts went back over the events of the evening, and I saw that I had unwittingly made an enemy of Domingo the Capoeira. It was clear from his point of view that there was much to complain of in my conduct, for Chica had spoken to me at the beginning of the evening and had sung to me, sending Domingo away from her, and, though I had nothing to reproach myself with, I knew it would be futile to try and explain things to the angry lover, for Brazilians are intensely jealous.

Finally I dismissed the matter from my mind, listened awhile to the faint sounds of music and singing that floated in, and then fell asleep.

It must have been very late when I was awakened by a slight noise from the outside of the house, and through the crevices which occurred here and there in the frail woodwork that framed its sides I saw what seemed to be a figure peering. I judged it wise to have a look round, though there were many people abroad that night in the “barraca” who were not generally there, and this might well be one among them or only a belated reveller desirous of laying his weary limbs to rest somewhere or other.

Rising, therefore, and feeling for the revolver I had been warned always to carry about with me, I picked my way over the prostrate forms that lay across my path, opened the door, and went out.

Not a sound disturbed the stillness of the night, and, finding no one near the spot whence the sounds had proceeded, I moved some yards away from the shelter of the house, the better to admire the glorious moon and stars blazing above my head.

Then I heard distinctly the soft tread of naked feet, and an odd sensation as of some evil thing approaching came over me. There was something awe-inspiring in that quiet, stealthy sound breaking in on the calm beauty of the night. Turning quickly I beheld a weird object — a small, thin man, who began to wheel round me in rapid circles. Too amazed at first to reason, I thought he must be drunk or mad, until I saw something upon his head that gleamed blue in the moonlight, and which helped me to realize my peril. It was Domingo the Capoeira, and I was to be the object of one of the terrible onslaughts of which Chica had told me.

Guessing that he meant to give me a “cabecada” (thrust with the head) I at once pulled out my revolver and tried to take a steady aim at him. This was no easy task, however, for he shifted his position continually with quick, lightning-like movements. Just as I was about to fire, unable to bear the tension any longer, Chica appeared from somewhere and ran up against him. I never knew how it happened, but she was knocked over, with the blood pouring from a slight wound in her arm.

Hearing her cry as she fell heavily to the ground, I rushed headlong at Domingo, hoping to secure him while he was not moving, but went with too much impetus, and we both rolled over in a heap, my revolver going off in the struggle.

The report disturbed the heavy sleepers in the houses, and in the twinkling of an eye there was a curious group of men and women on the spot. Picturesque, too, they looked in the soft light, many with their various coloured night coverings still hanging about them. All talked and asked questions excitedly.

Domingo said something in a low tone, the purport of which I did not understand, but there began to be ominous murmurs against the “Inglez.” I do not know what might have happened had not the owner of the plantation opportunely appeared upon the scene, and between commands and threats he restored some order. To my astonishment he told me that it would be advisable for me to leave the place next day, as my presence there might cause serious disturbances.

After consideration I made no objection, and set out for the coast the following morning.

I never set eyes upon poor little Chica again, for during the conference with mine host she disappeared, and to all my inquiries as to where she was and how she fared a stolid “nao soi” (don’t know) was returned.

I sincerely hope that she suffered no further harm at the hands of her ruffianly suitor.

I made good progress on my journey, and as I approached Rio Janeiro I felt heartily glad to think that I should soon be in regions where dangerous and unpleasant adventures do not happen so frequently as on a Brazilian plantation in the interior, and where I should be tolerably safe from the jealous hatred of Domingo the Capoeira.


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