15th of November Square: Did Capoeira in Rio began here?

Largo do Paço (detail). Engraving by Fredrich Salathé (1793-1858), from the album Souvenirs de Rio de Janeiro (1834), based on a watercolour by Johann Steinmann (1800-1844)


Piaçaba Beach

Indigenous people, invaders, colonizers and hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans arrived over the waters of the Guanabara Bay. During the first centuries of colonization, many enslaved Africans were disembarked next to the square then called Largo do Paço. According to some chroniclers, capoeira in Rio de Janeiro was born here, on the former Piaçaba beach, among the slaves for hire, the dockers, the fishermen and sellers of fish and shellfish.

The land next to the beach was occupied by Carmelite monks and became the square of their monastery. The monks, according to the chronicler Vivaldo Coaracy, had a reputation for being “turbulent, trouble-makers, and unruly”, always provoking the intervention of authorities. For example, they did not allow funeral processions to pass in front of their cloister. They would send their slaves with cudgels to break up the cortege.

The capital of de colonial Brazil

The monks bestowed part of the land to the colonial government, which built the governor’s palace on it. The building was finished in 1743, and later became the seat of the viceroys of Brazil. A street market called Quitanda dos Negros was behind that building, where the Tiradentes palace is located today. In that passage black women from the Mina Coast, generally freed, sold their food. Colonial Rio de Janeiro developed from this area, where the harbour, commerce, government and Church converged. Port workers, traders, administrators; enslaved, freed and free people, the nobles and the rabble all lived next to each other and disputed every inch of the square.

The Fountain (chafariz), detail from Debret, 1934.

The viceroy once complained about the noise coming from the Quitanda, but the black women from the Mina Coast were in possession of their licence issued by the municipal council and managed to remain. In other words, popular groups tried to defend their place in the centre of the city, and the most densely populated space was the Paço Square.

Mestre Valentim, son of a Creole black woman and a Portuguese aristocrat, designed the fountain (chafariz), which provided ships with water from the Carioca river, and was inaugurated in 1770. At the time the chafariz was located next to the quay, as appears in contemporary paintings.

The pillories (Pelourinho) were another monument that embodied colonial power and justice, standing in the middle of the square during the colonial period (it does no longer exist today). With the migration of the Portuguese Court, in 1808, the palace on the square became the official residence of the king and the Portuguese government. The king, however, preferred to live on the Quinta da Boa Vista estate, quieter and more peaceable, and so did the two Brazilian emperors after him.

The Paço Square constituted an important space of sociability for all inhabitants, described by many travellers and chroniclers. The engraving by Friedrich Salathé (1834), based on a water­colour by his friend Johann Jacob Steinmann, depicts the various social groups occupying the square. Among them, two black boys (moleques) engaged in what seems an acrobatic game, which reminds us of some of the movements of capoeira:

Detail of the engraving Largo do Paço by Friedrich Salathé

This detail is similar to one in another watercolour, also depicting two men, with raised arms, in a street scene in Mercês street, in Salvador. Frederico José de Abreu found this picture in a book of photos by Gilberto Ferrez. Frede highlighted the similarities of the movements with 20th-century capoeira, even if in both cases we cannot assert with certainty what practice it was. (See Capoeiras, Bahia, século XIX, Salvador: Instituto Jair Moura, 2005, p. 14-18).

In other words, the 15th of November Square possibly is the place of origin of capoeira in Rio de Janeiro, as was already argued by Adolpho de Los Rios, in 1946, even if we do not yet have hard evidence to prove it. In addition, the square played a role during the period of the capoeira maltas (capoeira gangs that were prominent during the Second Empire, 1840-89). And last not least the Teles Arch provided refuge for African-derived cultural expressions.

To know more:

Vivaldo Coaracy, Memórias da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro. Belo Horizonte e São Paulo: Itatiaia e EdUSP, 1988.

Antonio Colchete Filho, Praça XV. Projetos do espaço público. Rio de Janeiro: Sete Letras, 2008.

De los Rios Filho, Alfonso Morales. O Rio de Janeiro Imperial. 2a ed., Rio: Topbooks, 2000 (1a ed. 1946).