Born in the quilombo (Negro settlement) of Palmares, located in the Serra da Barriga, in what is now the state of Alagoas, Zumbi stands out as a great warrior, a fearless leader and also the last leader of the most important point of Negro resistance against slavery in Brazil. In 1662, while still a boy, he was captured by soldiers and handed over to Father Antônio Melo, who gave him the name of Francisco and taught him basic reading and writing in Portuguese and Latin.
At the age of 15, he escaped and returned to Palmares, taking on the moniker of Zumbi, from the African word dzumbi, which translates as warrior, corpse, God of War or even half-dead. In the quilombo, which at one point had 50 thousand people, he led the people in victorious battles against the Portuguese. In 1678, faced with an agreement between his uncle Ganga-Zumba, who was the leader of the quilombo, and the Governor of Pernambuco, Pedro de Almeida, granting freedom to everyone born in Palmares, Zumbi poisons Ganga-Zumba, takes over leadership and turns down the agreement. In his opinion, it was not enough to live in freedom, it was necessary to set the remaining slaves free.
Zumbi wanted the complete abolition of slavery and not just the partial freedom of his group. The attacks against Palmares get more intense, and the reply is given with extraordinary resistance. Zumbi fights and invites his men to die for freedom. In 1694, Domingos Jorge Velho, a bandeirante (hinterland explorer) from São Paulo known for his ruthlessness, was called up by the Governor to head the militia which had the mission of finding and destroying Palmares. With a total of two thousand men and the support of heavy artillery, Velho started his search. He actually got as far as fighting with Zumbi and shooting the quilombola leader. In 1695, however, Zumbi leads attacks on settlements in Pernambuco.
It is this same year that Velho started his final attack against the Cerca do Macaco, the most important mocambo (hideaway) in Palmares. A fierce battle ensued and the community held out for twenty-two days before finally being defeated. Zumbi was wounded but escaped and continued to fight with selfless resistance. However, betrayed by a former colleague, he is the subject of a tip-off, being denounced, arrested and beheaded on 20 November 1695. The great Brazilian hero was dead. This date now marks, on the Brazilian calendar, the National Day of Black Conscience (Dia Nacional de Consciência Negra), in memory of the story of a man who was born free and who died wishing to free his people.
Since he was a young boy, Manuel Henrique, son of Joao Grosso and Maria Haifa, learned the secrets of capoeira in the street, with Mestre Alipio, in Santa Amaro da Purificaçao. He was "baptized" into capoeira with the name "Besouro Mangangá", (a large and dark species of maybug), for his flexibility and the ability to disappear when the time called for it. Strong, black and with an adventurous spirit, he never worked in one place steadily, nor had a definitive profession. When the adversities were heavy and the advantage of the fight was with the opponent, Besouro would disappear "flying" without a trace. The belief that he had supernatural powers began to grow.
By train, by horse or on foot, depending on the circumstances, Besouro traveled from Santo Amaro to Maracangalha or vice versa, working on plantations, farms or mills.
Mestre Cobrinha Verde, Besouro's cousin and capoeira student tells a story about him. One day unemployed, Besouro went to Colonia Mill (now called Santa Elizia), in Santa Amaro to look for work. He was authorized to work and became an employee there. One week later, on payday, the boss told all of the employees, that the work contract was "quebrado para São Caetano" (closed or broken for Saint Caetano). This saying was used during this time period to say that no one was going to get paid. Those who dared to challenge the boss were tied to a trunk of a tree, whipped and left there for 24 hours, but with Besouro, it was different. When the boss told him he would not pay him, Besouro grabbed him by the shirt and violently forced him to pay the money he owed him.
Besouro was a revolutionary. He didn't like the police and was always involved in complications with them. More than once he used physical force to disarm policemen. Once armed with their guns, he would use them to lock the policemen up in jail cells meant for criminals.
One time, in Largo de Santa, one of the main squares of Santo Amaro, Besouro forced a soldier to drink such a large quantity of alcohol that he passed out on the ground. When the soldier woke up, he went to his commander, Capitan José Costal, who assigned 10 men to catch Besouro dead or alive. Besouro, hanging out in a local bar, had an intuition that the police were coming. He left the bar and went to the main square. When the police arrived, he walked up to the Christian cross that was in the square. He proceeded to spread his arms out like Jesus Christ and told the police he would not surrender to them. Violent shots were heard and the capoeirista fell to the ground. Capitan José Costa walked up to him and probed him with his gun, thinking the was dead. Besouro, who was very much alive, to the great surprise of the Captain, grabbed his rifle from him. He then ordered all the policemen to put down their guns and leave the square. They left unarmed and to the tune of Besouro singing a cheerful song.
Besouro's fights and revolts were successive and much of the time, he was in opposition with the police and owners of the farms and mill. While Besouro was working on Dr. Zeca's plantation, the father of a young man called Memeu, he was marked to die.
Dr. Zeca was an influential man, who wanted Besouro dead. He ordered Besouro, who didn't know how to read or write, to deliver a piece of mail to the administrator of Maracancalha mill, a friend of his. The piece of mail said, "Kill the man who is delivering this letter." Dr. Zeca's friend said very calmly to Besouro that he would stay the night and return to Dr. Zeca's with a response the following day. Early the next morning Besouro went to look for the man and was surrounded by a group of about 40 soldiers. They shot at him with a violent round of bullets. The capoeirista began to escape, dodging bullets by moving his body to the rhythm of the guns. At this moment, a man arrived called, Eusebio de Quisaba, who violently stabbed Besouro with a knife made out of a special wood called "turcum". This wooden knife has significance in the African tradition of Candomblé. Candomblé is a strong, religious tradition that was established in all Latin countries where there was commercial slave trade of Africans. The folklore says that this wood is the only way to kill a man whose body and spirit are "closed" to death. This idea that a person is unable to die was a characteristic associated with Besouro; a man that no bullet could enter.
Manuel Henrique, Besouro Mangangá, died in 1924, at the young age of 27, but lived on in two of his capoeira students Rafael Alves Franca, Mestre Cobrinha Verde and Siri de Mangue.
Today Besouro is a capoeira symbol throughout all of Bahia. He is well known for his bravery and loyalty. The support he gave to those who were persecuted and oppressed by the police and owners of plantations was not forgotten.
Jose Antonio do Nascimento was a capoeirista who was famed for his size and fighting prowess in the period. He was nicknamed Nascimento Grande (The Great Birth) and was a living legend in the state of Pernambuco, in Northeast Brazil.
He was a mild mannered man but although he never went looking for fights, he was challenged many times but always came out victorious. He was so prolific with his fighting skills that the supernatural power of 'corpo fechado', or 'closed body' was attributed to him meaning it was believed he was invincible; even when shot at he would come out of the altercation unscathed.
Nascimento Grande made many enemies along the way, partly because he liked to humiliate his opponents when he defeated them. One story tells of how he beat a challenger then made him dress as a woman in public. After the fight, the police arrived on the scene and surrounded the capoeira mestre, Nascimento was surrounded so he fought them, leaving them all with broken bones and made good his escape.
One of his most famous fights was with a local bully and capoeirista known as. João Sabe Tudo, (Joao knows everything). They met and both attacked the other simultaneously, Joao using a knife and Nascimento using his weapon of choice, his cane. The fight was a display of expert capoeira moves that attracted many people to watch. The two were an even match making the battle last longer than would be normal as their equal skills cancelled each other out.
They moved down a street each trying to hit the other with a finishing blow until they forced each other into a church. The vicar was furious and got in-between the two men, berating them for fighting in God's house. The two, reluctantly did as the vicar said out of respect, shook hands and left the church in peace; they never fought each other again.
Mestre Nascimento Grande was, like many capoeira fighters of his time, well respected in his community even though he was an outlaw. Despite his life being risked many times with battles against other capoeiristas and run-ins with the law, he lived to the ripe old age of 90. He had a great influence on the evolution of capoeira and today is seen as a legend in the history of the art.