~From history to legend, and back again~
To tell about Besouro, the legendary capoeirista, we must go back it to time, back to the end of the 19th century. There we find a time much different from ours. Those were the days of the introduction of a new law in Brazil. A law that prohibited Afro-Brazilian expressions like: capoeira. Those who were caught practising or playing capoeira would face severe punishment. It was also the time were the slavery had just ended “officially”, and a lot of people of black origin were on the road looking for work.
One of them was João Matos Pereira who lived in Santo Amaro da Purificação (Bahia), nicknamed João Grosso. Who had a relationship with a woman named Maria Auta Pereira or Maria Haifa according to many. She became pregnant and so it was that in 1895 a son, Manoel Henrique Pereira was born. When Manoel Henrique was still a young boy he received his first lessons in capoeira from an African and ex-slave named Tio Alípio. These took place in Trapiche de Baixo, the poorest neighbourhood of Santo Amaro. Since capoeira was forbidden, this training had to be done in secret. As time went by Manoel Henrique grew, in length and capoeira as well. He received the nickname “Besouro”, “Besouro Mangangá” to be exact.
Besouro means beetle in Portuguese. That name was chosen because he became known to be able to escape out of difficult situations. Just like a black beetle, spreading its wings at the top of a branch and taking flight. And just like a beetle he would be always on the move.
According to the tales passed on by generations, Besouro had a great sense of justice. This sense was often awakened through the great injustice the black people in Santo Amaro were suffering from by the local authorities. The majority of the population were Besouro lived was black. Although slavery was abolished officially in 1888, they had virtually no rights. After the abolition a punishment law was made in 1890 which enabled the police to pursue not only people playing capoeira but also people practising their African religion, candomblé. Next to that a large quantity of black people were not paid with money for their labour, but only with food in combination with a place to stay. It meant that they could not finance themselves and build something on their own for the future. Things would go even worse if some landlords would refuse to pay anything and the black people, having no rights at all, were left with nothing. This last situation also happened to Besouro according to the many tales about him. Only Besouro didn’t silently accept not being paid. He didn’t fear the land lord’s power and threatened him, forcing him to pay him what he owed. If someone was done injustice he would also come to aid.
There are stories about Besouro intervening during mistreatment of the local people by the police. He would face several policemen at once, beat them and disarm them without even being hit. Afterwards he would go with the arms to the police station and throw them in front of the door. There’s another story about Besouro forcing a police officer to drink a large quantity of cachaça (alcoholic beverage). Afterwards he let the drunken man walk through the town towards the police station. This was done to demoralise the often corrupt police force. In this way he dared to do things the black oppressed people wished they could do but didn’t have the courage or means to. He became feared because of his reputation of being unbeatable and at the same time was admired and loved for maintaining justice. Thus he also created many connections that could help him in terms as place to stay or testify in his favour towards the police.
The reason that Besouro was able to oppose the local police so successfully wasn’t only because he was a good fighter and knew the police methods quite well. He was said to have a “corpo fechado” which literally means: closed body. It is a term well known in certain African religions. Through special rites and rituals one would be able to have a “corpo fechado” where no knife or bullet could penetrate. It is said that Besouro was brought up with knowledge of these rituals en had a “corpo fechado” himself. There are stories about police shooting at him, without being able to hit him or Besouro fainting being hit and taking advantage of the situation when the police let their guard down. According to people with knowledge of candomblé, an African religion that was vast spread through Bahia by enslaved Africans, one would have to make certain preparations to create such a body, including implanting fava beans under the skin. In Africa this is used as a preparation for battle, creating an ultimate preventive medicine from harm. The full name “Besouro Mangangá” also relates to this.Mangangá can be translated in African language as medicine that functions to close the body, protecting the carrier from harm.In a way Besouro himself was a medicine to the oppressed minds of the black community in Bahia, by showing them another way was possible and giving them more courage and self respect. The name Besouro Mangangá is used by people of Santo Amaro to describe a beetle who can pierce through very hard pieces of wood and which bite hurts a lot. Perhaps this was demonstrating the way Manoel Henrique Pereira was unstoppable and impact he had on places and people wherever he went.
During his turbulent life Besouro had various jobs He was a soldier in the army posted in Bahia at a time where the army and the police were separate forces and sometimes had conflicts about decisions. Benefiting from this, Besouro was also a man that never stayed at one place for long. He roamed around the areas working here and there to make a living. He worked for instance on ships that transported sugar cane that was cut in the fields in Santo Amaro, travelling to Salvador, Cachoeira, Maragogipe (all in Bahia) and back again . He also worked on several lands of landlords.
Besouro had a group of friends which often accompanied him and which he met on Sundays and holidays to play capoeira with. It was a group of people that helped him when he was in trouble and that he could trust. You could call it his gang and together they were more successful in succeeding what they wanted. Amongst the people in this group were: Paulo Barroquinha, Canário Pardo, Siri de Mangue and Doze Homens.* Some could describe Besouro as a Robin Hood of black Bahia in the 20th century. Rebelling with his gang to the regime and disliking injustice. But this comparison is too superficial. This is first of all because he was feared by a big part of the local population. Maybe because it became clear that Besouro could afford to do a lot without anyone being able to catch him. “When people took notice that he was in town, they would close all windows and doors” (According to Dona Dormelinda, a resident of Santo Amaro).
Going against the exploiting local government, had made Besouro an enemy of many, including landlords. According to the tales told through generations an assault was arranged to kill him. One of his enemies was the son of an influential landlord, named Doutor Zeca who called for Besouro and asked him to deliver a message to an acquaintance of his in Maracangalha. In this letter there was a request to kill the one delivering the message: Besouro. It was said that Besouro Mangangá was illiterate and therefore he himself carried his own death sentence unknowingly. Besouro still had a “corpo fechado” that couldn’t be harmed normally, but in the African religion candomblé there are spells and counter spells.
Besouro was forbidden to do a few things in able to keep his “corpo fechado”: not passing under barbed wire, not sleeping with a woman the night before a fight and not loosing his patuá (protection amulet). In order to penetrate and break the sorcery of candomblé, called mandinga, a knife made of: ticum (tucum) was prepared. It’s a dark type of wood also called Mané Velho, known to be very strong. There was no mandinga to protect Besouro against this attack. When Besouro delivered the letter, he was asked to wait for the night so that tomorrow he could get an answer. He would be compensated for his waiting and so Besouro stayed. They hired a woman to have sex with him who after that stole his patuá and left. In the night the order was spread to bring many men in order to slay Besouro. The next day when Besouro awoke, forty men were gathered waiting for him. It is said that a man called Eusébio Quibaca sneaked up on Besouro while he was fighting and stabbed him with a knife of ticum in de abdomen, breaking the protection of Besouro.
This was said to take place in 1924. A time before the names of Mestres Pastinha and Mestre Bimba were well known in Bahia. Only… there was no evidence of this story. In fact there was no evidence that the man nicknamed Besouro Mangangá ever existed. And while the stories about his legendary actions grew like claiming that he could turn himself into a black beetle to escape, others were beginning to look sceptically towards the name Besouro. Wasn’t it all just a story made up a long time ago based on various occasions of less heroic proportions, gathered and assigned to one person? Didn’t the older capoeiristas wish there was someone like this, a hero they wanted to be? And then… a discovery was made by Antônio Liberac Cardoso Simões Pires, who did an in-depth research about Besouro Mangangá. He actually found the name Manoel Henrique Pereira in juristic documents of Bahia that said he was known as Besouro and charged with assault. Thus the history which many thought to be a mere legend became official history. Not all the stories written about him and the exact way he died, but at least there was some evidence now that could function as a support to the stories. Like another document that told about a Manuel Henrique, dying on the eighth of July in 1924 because of a pierced abdomen in Maracangalha, found by Contra-Mestre Lampião.
Over time, many people told stories about Besouro. One who kept these stories alive was Mestre Cobrinha Verde, said to be his cousin and to have learned capoeira from a number of mestres, including Besouro who also gave him his apelido. He was one of the people spreading parts of the heritage of this legendary capoeirista. Besouro became over time, an icon in capoeira, resembling the power of capoeira against oppression and injustice.
The influence of Besouro in capoeira these days can be felt through the lineages of mestres that decent from him ** and through songs mentioning the name Besouro. To give a few lines within these songs and where they can be found:
“Era Besouro, era Besouro, era forte com um touro”LP Mestre Ezequiel
“ô Besouro Preto, ô Besouro Preto malvado” LP Eu Bahia
“Eu vou partir porque mataram o meu Besouro” CD Mestre Pastinha
“Quando eu morrer disse Besouro” CD Cordão de Ouro Volume I
“E todo mundo ouviu falar, de Besouro Mangangá” CD Mestre Paulo dos Anjos
“Zum, zum, zum, Besouro Mangangá“ CD M. Toni e M. Nestor Capoeira
“Do Besouro preto, eu sempre ouvi falar” CD Mestre Di Mola Volume III
“Faca de tucum matou Besouro Mangangá” CD Abadá Volume II
"Quando eu morrer não quero grito nem mistério" LP Mestres Traíra e Cobrinha Verde
I like to end this article with a song, telling about Besouro and things that are universal to us capoeiristas in life.
Reze uma prece e deixe acontecer Autores: Mestre Di Mola e Baiano Ritmo: Angola CD: Capoeira Guanabara – Mestre Di Mola – Volume III
Do Besouro Preto, do Besouro Preto eu sempre ouvi falar Do Besouro Preto, do Besouro Preto eu sempre ouvi falar Nascido em Maracangalha Vê se a mandinga não falha Pois a morte vai chegar. É triste, mas é pura verdade A força da falsidade Faz um cabra se enganar E o tempo jamais apagou A história de um guerreiro danado, chamado seu Besouro Corre lá patrão, faça o seu sinal Escreve uma carta e mostre seu ideal Corre vai lá ver, vai logo capataz Entregue a seu Besouro, Que a morte já chega é por trás Êêê Capoeira é assim, você tem que aceitar Capoeira acontece só reze uma prece pra jogar Capoeira é assim, você tem que aceitar (Coro) Capoeira acontece só reze uma prece pra jogar (Coro)
If you have any questions or comments you can e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
* The names mentioned here are quite interesting in terms of lineage in capoeira, but have also been misinterpreted by many. To some there was another person belonging to this group who had the name Cordão de Ouro, namely the brother of Canário Pardo (Mestre Atenilo). But others disagree and say that the name Cordão de Ouro was another name for Besouro Mangangá (Mestre Waldemar). According to Mestre Atenilo, the group members trained together and had students themselves. Maria Doze Homens for example, one of the most famous women in capoeira of the past had a student named Maria Salomé. The song “Adão, Adão, oi cadê Salomé, Adão” (Adão, Adão, o where is Salomé, Adão), on the LP of Mestre Pastinha is said to be referring to her.
** To give an example of a lineage leading to current days: One of the students of Besouro was Siri de Mangue who also taught capoeira to Cobrinha Verde. Siri de Mangue and Canário Pardo were also two of the teachers of Mestre Waldemar, who passed away in 1990 and had students who are still alive today like Mestre Bigodinho. On a further note: It is said that Besouro had no children, but that he had a younger brother who passed away long ago, called Caetano Cabeleiro.
Another example of a line stemming from Besouro is that of his student Dendê who taught José Bidel who taught Mestre Mario Santos who taught Mestre Deraldo who taught Mestre Manoel Gato Preto, who taught Mestre Gigante, who taught Mestre Mão Branca, who taught Mestre Ray. References For more information about Besouro I can recommend the following sources:
– The book “Capoeira e mandingas” by Marcelino dos Santos – Mestre Mau – The book “Atenilo, o relâmpago da Regional” by Raimundo Cesar Alves de Almeida – Mestre Itapoan – The book “Bimba, Pastinha e Besouro Mangangá, três personagens da Bahia” by Antônio Liberac Cardoso Simões Pires – The documentary “Black Beetle” by Salim Rollins – The magazine “Praticando Capoeira” nr. 04 by Letícia Cardoso de Carvalho – Contra Mestre Lampião
An authority about Besouro Mangangá. Currently living in Santo Amaro da Purificação. He has done a vast study about Besouro, discovering a lot of interesting facts. Like: proof of his existence and the exact whereabouts of Besouro in the past. I owe him and Dengosa for receiving me so well and taking the time to tell about Besouro and introducing me to important people of Santo Amaro like: Mestre Felipe, Mestre Adó and also Dona Dormelinda, the sister of Besouro.
This Article was written on the 20th of November 2006 and published in Agogo Magazine nr 33 from January 2008 and partially updated lateron. 2 More recent sources about Besouro are:
- Besouro Cordão de Ouro – O Capoeira Justiceiro by José Gerardo Vasconcelos 2009 - Memórias do Recôncavo – Besouro e outros capoeiras
by Pedro Abib 2008 Also an action movie was made about Besouro: