Much of capoeira’s philosophy and history is recorded between the lines of its songs, not forgetting that part of this history is linked with that of Brazil. This is why it’s important to research and question the meaning of some songs, since their main purpose is to pass on a message, whether immediately or for later reflection.
So we are going to talk a little bit about the historical content within one of capoeira’s most popular songs: Paraná ê. It refers to the War of Paraguay, but what was this war?
It began in 1865 and lasted five years. At the time, Paraguay was the only country in Latin America that could be considered independent, and it found itself in full industrial development, with weapons and gunpowder factories. Unproductive land was being transformed into state plantations, generating employment for the whole population.
Impeding the process of Paraguay was a big challenge for England, because Paraguay became a big competitor in productivity. Brazil and Argentina, on the other hand, were interested in taking possession of parts of Paraguayan land.
The spark that initiated the war occurred on November 24, 1864, when Paraguayan president Solano López cut ties with Brazil, captured the Brazilian ship Marques de Olinda, and invaded the state of Mato Grosso (which, together with Paraná, are the only states that border Paraguay).
At the end of all the battles, the Paraguayans took the worst casualties. 75% of the country’s population was killed; of 800,000 inhabitants, only 194,000 were left. With this victory, England once again returned to economic domination of the region, and Brazil and Argentina managed to take 140,000 kilometers of the land they wanted.
But what about the slaves? How did they enter the War?
The whites “logically” didn’t want to be on the front line of battle, so they created a law saying that blacks who entered the war and returned alive would win their liberty. What the whites didn’t anticipate was that the majority of the blacks who went… actually returned!!
The slaves had an advantage thanks to capoeira, because at the time, battles depended more on hand-to-hand fighting than on weapons. So, on their way back, on the margins of the Paraná River, the now ex-slaves sang:
Vou dizer à minha mulher, Paraná
Capoeira que venceu, Paraná… [Venceu a guerra]
Paraná ê, Paraná ê, Paraná.
Ela quis bater pé firme, Paraná [Ela = a guerra]
Isso não aconteceu, Paraná…
I will tell my wife, Paraná
That capoeira won [the war],
Paraná Paraná ê, Paraná ê, Paraná.
It [the war] wanted to stamp its foot hard, Paraná
This did not happen, Paraná
Despite the tragedy for Paraguay, the war was an important milestone in the life of slaves in Brazil. Because of this, it is commemorated to this day in ladainhas and corridos throughout the country.
From Manuel de Querino’s “Bahia of the Old Days,” written in 1916
During the war with Paraguay, the government made use of a large number of capoeiristas – many by free and spontaneous choice and a great number voluntarily constrained. And the efforts of these defenders of the Country were useful in the battlefield, mainly in the bayonet assaults. The proof of this is in the brilliant weapons work practiced by the platoon called “Zuavos Bahianos” during the assault on the fort of Curuzú, where they disbanded the Paraguayans and bravely drove in the national flag.
Cezario Alvaro da Costa, a capricious and well-behaved man, was not a professional, but a competent lover of capoeira. He marched from Bahia to the south as a corporal in the squadron of the seventh battalion of army hunters. He began to distinguish himself during the first encounters with the enemy, and was recognized by his superiors. He gradually rose until he reached a high rank.
One day, after combat, Cezario da Costa found two Paraguayans and faced them bravely. After fierce battle, helped by what he knew of bayonet fencing, he managed to defeat the adversaries. This act of bravery, together with others he had previously shown, led him to be promoted and given special honors. This officer passed away in Bage, Rio Grande do Sul, in the rank of captain.
Antonio Francisco de Mello, a native of Pernambuco, followed the campaign in the position of first cadet sergeant assistant in the ninth battalion of army hunters. He was not just a simple lover of capoeira; he also possessed a pronounced tendency towards a professional fearlessness. This definitely harmed him, delaying his promotion despite possessing certain personal importance and training. The opinions written by the commanders in the biannual records, the book that evaluated the behavior of lower officers, were not favorable to him. Cadet Mello used loose pants, a flashy hat with a band, and had that ambiguous manner of those who understand mandinga. Francisco de Mello was part of the contingent on board the warship Parnaíba, in the memorable battle of Riachuelo, about which the commander of the ship stated:
“The contingent of the ninth battalion acted as expected of Brazilian soldiers. Enthusiasm in the act of boarding, valor and brave effort in the hand-to-hand fighting engaged in with the enemy, exceed the highest praise.”
After this action, cadet Mello was promoted and received awards. He remained in the campaign until the year 1869, when he returned to Brazil and was added to the fifth battalion in Rio de Janeiro. He used to keep watch at night, making a review every hour. Whoever was lacking in the review marched for two hours on the next day. He was the only official who could restrain the wild soldiers on payday. He was promoted to captain, and passed away in one of the Northern States. I bring these two examples to prove that capoeira is useful in certain occasions.