The imprisonment of capoeiras on Ilha Grande

The imprisonment of capoeiras on Ilha Grande

By Myrian Sepúlveda dos Santos and Gabriel da Silva Vidal Cid.


The history of the Dois Rios Correctional Colony, established in 1894 on the island of Ilha Grande, reveal the presence of capoeiras on its premises.
Repression and imprisonment of capoeiras have been brutal since the days of the Empire.

After the Proclamation of the Republic (1889), Campos Sales was appointed Minister of Justice and João de Sampaio Ferraz, Chief of Police. The latter became notorious for his persecution of the so-called “contraventores” (offenders), many of which, like the capoeiras, were suspected of supporting the previous regime.

This repression had the support and collaboration of the press and of some residents of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Capoeira gangs (known as maltas) were practically extinguished during the first two years of the republican government, even though the crime of capoeira was not defined as such. After passing through the House of Detention, dozens of capoeiras, especially leaders, crossed Guanabara Bay, sometimes in secret, on their way to Fortaleza de Santa Cruz, and from there they were sent to the prison in Fernando de Noronha. The purpose of the deportation was to dismantle the gangs’ organisation.

Agostini_Rev Ilustrada_1890_n 575
Revista Illustrada, year 1890, n. 575. Cover. National Library Digital Hemeroteca collection..

The new Penal Code was passed in 1890. The aim was to modernise the criminal law and the prison system. The deprivation of liberty and the rehabilitation of prisoners gained prominence. The Code abolished penalties of flogging and gallows, perpetual and collective sentences, death sentences, and reduced those such as banishment, deportation and exile. Interdiction, suspicion, loss of public employment and fines remained part of the code. The following penalties restricting individual liberty were stipulated, which were temporary and were not to exceed thirty years: cellular imprisonment, reclusion, imprisonment with compulsory labour and disciplinary imprisonment. In the early republican years, laws were created that punished the misdemeanants, i.e., those who had no income and no work. Among the offenders were the capoeiras. In Chapter XII, “On Beggars and Drunks”, the articles defined beggars as those who were fit to work, feigned illness and got drunk. Penalties ranged from five days to three months. In Chapter XIII, “On Vagrants and Capoeiras”, vagrants were described as those who did not work, had no fixed domicile and lived by occupations offensive to morals and good manners. The penalty was imprisonment for fifteen to thirty days. Capoeiras (Article 402) were described as those who practiced in the streets and public squares “exercises in agility and bodily dexterity known as capoeiragem,” who “ran around with weapons or instruments capable of causing bodily harm, provoking riots or disorder, threatening a specific or unidentified person, or instilling fear of harm,” and were sentenced to two to six months in prison. The repression was greater against repeat offenders (article 403), who could be imprisoned for one to three years in penal colonies, on maritime islands or at the borders of the territory. This classification was fluid, since under the category of “vagrants” beggars, alcoholics, and capoeiras were imprisoned.

According to the Penal Code, individuals opted for a way of life or a way of being that did not conform to the established norms and, therefore, needed to be repressed. Begging and lack of resources were not associated with the social conditions of the individuals who inhabited the streets, but were acts of transgression. The law put those who wandered about and had no “means of subsistence” in prison, but did not penalise those who were wealthy. The so-called “beggars, drunkards and vagrants” were guilty of having chosen poverty and vice, that is, an affront to morals and good manners. Capoeiras, on the other hand, were those who chose rebellion and served slightly longer sentences. Although the new Penal Code brought greater protection to the integrity of the physical body, torture and ill-treatment continued to be the rule in penal establishments. Although the text of the law pointed to the rehabilitating role of prison, the treatment of prisoners reproduced that of the slavery period. The capoeiras were subjected to corporal punishment, being beaten with wooden sticks and lashed, forced to do menial work and transported in ship holds, without hygiene or privacy. In Fernando de Noronha, due to the distance, there was no control over the violence of the arbitrary and inhumane treatment imposed on them, which was far from the ideals of prisoner rehabilitation.

The Creation of the Corrective Labour Colony of Dois Rios

As there were no prisons that allowed rehabilitation through labour, the Brazilian government authorised, in 1894, the creation of the Colônia Correcional de Dois Rios (CCDR) on Ilha Grande. Unlike the other correctional facilities, this one was intended to rehabilitate through labor, the so-called “contraventores”. The penal authorities of the time believed in the scientific nature of the recovery process and in the existence of biological marks that would facilitate the process.

The CCDR was created according to extensive regulations, which detailed the treatment to be given to prisoners. Other similar experiments were created, such as the Bom Destino Correctional Colony, in Sabará, Minas Gerais, in 1896, extinguished in 1901, and the Porto das Almas Correctional Colony, on Ilha dos Porcos, São Paulo, in 1908, transferred to Taubaté in 1914.

The CCDR, when it was created, received men, women and children, processed as offenders. In the Colony’s regulations, there was no rule regarding the separation of men, women and children, or the separation of convicts according to offense, only a clause that proposed the avoidance of promiscuity of sexes and ages.

Fotografia Aérea da Vila de Dois Rios. Apud Santos (2018, p. 26)
Aerial photograph of the village of Dois Rios. Apud Santos (2018, p. 26)

In 1895 there were only 12 women and 5 men in the Colony, all receiving precarious treatment. The Colony had difficulty functioning due to the distance from the urban centres and was closed two years after its inauguration. In 1903, however, the prison was reopened, with new facilities and the transfer of 90 inmates, becoming the main destination for offenders. In 1907, 139 men and 110 women doubled the anticipated capacity, occupying precarious, collective and humid lodgings, without any hygienic conditions. Diseases derived from respiratory, gastric, venereal and infectious problems were added to the hard labour in the fields and the whippings that remained as punishment.

Among those sent to Dois Rios, many were left in the correctional colonies until they died. Between 1903 and 1907 there was a small majority of men, mostly adults, single and of colour (pardos). Practically half of the prisoners could not read. Women were a marked presence in this period, branded as “tramps”, and the reforms, supported by scientistic ideals, increased the stigma on blacks and the poor, who were considered more prone to crime. These two aspects guaranteed incarceration that was capable of violently repressing the less privileged and less well-off.

After two decades of activity, the Colony continued to treat offenders brutally, with overcrowding, humiliating and degrading conditions. The frequent death certificates showed that many prisoners died within a few months of internment. People died of beriberi, dysentery, tuberculosis, syphilis, diseases resulting from poor diet, lack of hygiene and mistreatment. In 1917, the Colony, occupying the same precarious buildings rebuilt in 1908, housed, for the first time in its history, more than a thousand prisoners. Its importance for the government assumed great proportions. The increase in the number of inmates coincided with the increase in social and political demonstrations on the streets of the federal capital. As the decades went by, miscreants coexisted with criminals of all kinds. The isolation that Ilha Grande represented was destined for those considered the most dangerous to order and those with the longest sentences to serve. The extremely violent treatment ensured the name Ilha da Maldição (Island of Damnation).

Capoeira as practice of resistance

Given the scarcity of sources, criminalization, and stigmatization of capoeira, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of capoeiras in the CCDR. The decrease in the number of capoeiras arrested over the first decades in the 20th century leads us to assume that capoeiragem, as organized in the 19th century, was lost. However, integrated into other modes of expression, as tough guys (bamba) or rogues (malandro), it remains stigmatized as a form of vagrancy. It is possible to know a little more about the repression of those considered “vagrants” through the criminal processes of those sentenced to imprisonment in the CCDR. Pires (2010) provides some examples: Guilherme Henrique Mendes and Péricles Francisco, sentenced, in 1909, to two years; and Alfredo dos Santos Barbosa and Silviano de Barros, sentenced to 15 months, in 1915. Evaluating some of the most recent cases based on articles 402 and 403 of the Criminal Code, we see a case from 1933, where Rubem Lydio dos Santos served a sentence of 15 months. Similar cases are those of Ivan de Almeida Bastos and João Bittencourt, sentenced to 15 months in 1935 in the CCDR.

Survival inside the prisons was difficult, and it was necessary to develop leadership among the prisoners and to be respected by the guards. Well-known characters such as Madame Satã or Seu Júlio, who were imprisoned for many years at Ilha Grande, had knowledge of capoeira. Although Madame Satã did not consider himself a capoeira practitioner, in his memoirs he mentions some capoeira rogues who were imprisoned in Dois Rios, such as Sete Coroas (who was from Bahia), Edgard and Americano. Mestre Celso Carvalho do Nascimento, in an interview, told us about a cousin called Americano, who was in the Colony and knew how to do tiririca, which had movements similar to capoeira. Could he be the same Americano? While in the Central Penitentiary, Madame Satã mentions Viola, considered the king of capoeira in the port area of Rio.

Cartola_Sata marca
Satã, Cartola, Natalino and an unknown inhabitant. Vila do Abraão. Photograph by unknown author. Private archive of the Orestes Ribeiro family. Image from the book Quatro histórias, duas vilas, uma ilha, by Myrian Sepúlveda dos Santos.

At different times, Madame Satã responded to 26 processes, sentenced in 10 of them to 27 years and 8 months in prison, serving almost the entire sentence, interspersed, in Dois Rios. After his freedom, he continued to live on Ilha Grande, died and was buried in Vila do Abraão, in 1976.

Julio de Almeida arrived in Dois Rios in 1958, remaining on the island until his death in 2018, even after finishing his sentence in 2014. In 2012, Seu Julio, as he was known, was 82 years old and recounted his contact with capoeira in Rio de Janeiro, in the barracks and the House of Correction. When he lived in the Catacumba slum, he practiced capoeira, running and boxing with “nortistas” (Bahians) at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, especially with a friend known as Boa Viagem, who also served time in Dois Rios. Seu Julio said that in the Colony there was the tiririca: “capoeira and tiririca mean one thing only, it depends a lot on the teacher and (…) the lightness, the instruction (…) that was different from capoeira”. His account tells us that there were older prisoners who knew the fighting moves and passed them on to the younger ones, but they avoided calling it capoeira.

Julio de Almeida arrived at the Agricultural Colony of the Federal District (CADF)/IG aged 27. In 1963, he returned with a sentence of over 60 years. In 1994, the Cândido Mendes Penal Institute was deactivated and Julio continued to live in Vila Dois Rios, with the commitment of periodic trips to the judge.

Myrian Sepúlveda dos Santos is a sociologist, full professor at ICS/UERJ. Lattes:
Gabriel da Silva Vidal Cid is a sociologist, FAPERJ postdoctoral fellow at PPICIS/UERJ. Lattes:
Myrian and Gabriel are coordinators of the research group Arte, Cultura e Poder. Link:

To know more:

Bretas, Marcos Luís. “What eyes can’t see”. In. The birth of the penitentiary in Latin America: essays on criminology, prison reform, and social control, 1830-1940, Austin: University of Texas; Press: Institute of Latin American Studies, 1996, p.104

Cid, Gabriel da Silva Vidal. A capoeira no Rio de Janeiro 1910 – 1950 : narrativas de Mestre Celso. Mopheus, Ano 02 – número 03, Número especial Memória Hoje, 2003.

Dias, Luiz Sérgio. Da “Turma da Lira” ao Cafajeste. A sobrevivência da capoeira no Rio de Janeiro na Primeira República. Tese, UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, 2000.

Holloway, Thomas H. Polícia no Rio de Janeiro; repressão e resistência numa cidade do século XIX. Rio de Janeiro: Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 1997.

Lussac. Ricardo Martins Porto. Entre o crime e o esporte: a capoeira em impressos no Rio de Janeiro, 1890-1960. Tese. UERJ, 2016.

Mattos, Romulo Costa. A construção da memória sobre Sete Coroas, o “criminoso” mais famoso da Primeira República. Anais do XV Encontro Regional de História da ANPUH-RIO. 2012.

Memórias de Madame Satã. Rio de Janeiro: Lidador, 1972.

Pires, Antônio Liberac Cardoso Simões. Culturas Circulares: A Formação Histórica da Capoeira Contemporânea no Rio de Janeiro. Salvador: Fundação Jair Moura, 2010.

Santos, Myrian Sepúlveda dos. Nos porões da República: A barbárie nas Prisões da Ilha Grande: 1894-1945. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2009.

Santos, Myrian Sepúlveda dos. Quatro histórias, duas vilas, uma ilha. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2018.


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