Agora sim, que mataram meu Besouro
Depois de morto, Besourinho cordão de ouro
If you’ve trained Capoeira for any length of time, you will have heard the name “Besouro” (Beetle), “Besouro Preto” (Black Beetle) or “Besouro Mangangá” (Magic Beetle – very loose translation, more later!).
His name crops up in many songs, names of groups and events, on t-shirts, and there’s even a feature film and a concept album devoted to him!
But who exactly is Besouro, and what’s his connection to Capoeira?
The Brazilian Robin Hood
The quick answer, is that Besouro is a semi-mythical character from Brazilian Folklore.
He is celebrated as a Bahian hero, who fought against corrupt police and injustice, using a combination of his unrivalled Capoeira skills, malicía, and mandinga.
Just like Robin Hood, though officially a wanted criminal and outlaw, he was really a champion of the people and a freedom fighter.
Man or Myth?
Manoel Henrique Pereira was born in Santo Amaro, Bahia in 1895, and died in 1924 from “a puncture wound”.
There are official records of his birth, death, plus arrest records which document that he was also known as Besouro, so we can be pretty certain that the man really existed.
Aside from these few official documents, however, there is very little we know for sure, only the stories which have been passed down from generation to generation, mainly via oral tradition.
Besouro is said to have trained capoeira in Santo Amaro with Mestre Alípio, during which time he was “batizado” (baptised) with the “apelido” (nick name) Besouro Mangangá .
Apelidos were used at this time to disguise a capoeirista’s identity, as its practice was outlawed, along with many other traditions, practices and religions of african origin such as Candomblé.
Much of the information we have regarding Besouro comes from Rafael Alvez França, better known as Mestre Cobrinha Verde, an apedlido he credits to Besouro, who he sites as his principal mestre, and also his cousin, as quoted in the book Capoeira e Mandingas by Marcelino dos Santos:
Besouro, my mestre, started to teach me capoeira when I was just 4 years old… Besouro’s mother was my aunt, making him my cousin by blood, but we were raised as brothers – it was my mother who raised him.
In that period, Besouro taught capoeira in secret, hidden from the police, as the police persecuted capoeira heavily. When the police did turn up, he’d send away his students and face the police singlehandedly.
Interview with Mestre Cobrinha Verde by Macelino dos Santos in Capoeira e Mandingas
(Find an English Translation of the book here at Capoeira Connections website)
Bearing in mind that according to the official records, Besouro died in 1924, and Mestre Cobrinha Verde was only born in 1921, one might be inclined to think that there’s some inaccuracy going on somewhere, or possibly some form of malicía or mandinga in play, but who knows!
It is also said that Besouro trained capoeira with Paulo Barroquinha, Canário Pardo, Siri de Mangue and Maria Doze Homens, all capoeira legends in their own right.
Together they formed a gang of capoeira resistance fighters who trained together on Sundays, and could always be relied upon to back one another up.
A Life of Legend
Besouro became a folk legend in Bahia in Brazil, as he became renowned for fighting injustice and standing up for the oppressed and impoverished black population in the area.
Although slavery was officially abolished, many poor black workers were only “paid” with accommodation and food: it was really still slavery, just under a different name. The “police” were the armed enforcers of the powerful landlords, ensuring the status quo.
The legends state that Besouro refused to accept these injustices, and would demand fair pay for his labour and that of the local people. When the plantation owners would call in the police in an attempt to quell the uprisings, he would use his amazing capoeira skills to fight for justice.
There are numerous stories where Besouro would be hugely outnumbered by police armed with weapons and guns, but would escape unharmed to fight another day.
His apelido “Besouro” referred to this ability to always escape these precarious situations: Like a beetle he could scurry away or take flight, evading capture.
“Mangangá” is a word of African origin, which refers to a type of magical spell, which is used to create a “closed body” (corpo fechado), making it invincible against attack, even from knives and bullets, providing that the person wears a “Patua” (magic amulet) and abstains from sex.
One such famous story goes as follows:
After defeating a police officer in combat, Besouro decided to humiliate the police force further by forcing him to drink a whole bottle of cachaça, then making him stagger down the street back to the police station.
When the police chief found out what had happened, he was furious, and sent 10 of his best men out to capture Besouro, dead or alive.
The posse found Besouro in the town square and opened fire – Besouro fell to the ground and lay motionless on the floor. One of the officers went over to the fallen figure and prodded his belly with his rifle to see if he was still alive.
At this instant, Besouro sprang up, snatched the gun, and turned it on the startled police officers, demanding that they drop their weapons and move away.
Terrified of his power, the shocked officers obeyed, and had to watch in disbelief as Besouro casually strolled away, singing as he went.
There are many stories like this from all across Bahia – It seems Besouro evaded capture by constantly moving around, working as a soldier in the army (separate from the “police” and often at odds with them), on ships and taking various casual jobs which allowed him keep moving around.
The Death of Besouro Mangangá
Perhaps the most famous legend of Besouro, is that of his death:
Besouro was working for the wealthy and influential owner of the
Maracangalha plantation, known as Dr Zeca.
Dr Zeca knew of Besouro’s history, and was scared he was going to cause trouble for him, so hatched a cunning plan to dispose of him.
Knowing Besouro was illiterate, Dr Zeca asked him to deliver a note to a friend of his, a fellow plantation owner a days ride away. Little did Besouro know that the message on the note was “Kill the man who is delivering this letter“!
The conspirators knew killing Besouro would be no easy task, as not only was he a great fighter, but he also had the “corpo fechado” thanks to the magic of Mandinga.
In order to break the spell, they paid a local prostitute to get him drunk and sleep with him, then steal his “patuá” as she left.
The next day, when Besouro set off back home, he was set upon by around 40 armed men.
In the midst of the fighting, one of the men, Eusebio de Quisaba, stabbed Besouro in the back with a wooden blade made from tucum.
A tucum blade was said to have magical properties, able to penetrate a “closed body”, should some of Besouro’s magical protection still remain.
Thus sadly, aged just 29, Besouro was mortally wounded, and died in the street killed by treachery and deceit.
We know from his death certificate, that Manoel Henrique Pereira died in 1924 from “a puncture wound”, which does to some extent corroborate the story.
Faca de tucum matou Besouro Mangangá
The Legend Lives On
So Besouro really did exist, and the evidence points to the fact that he was indeed a capoeirista, and sure enough was tragically murdered at a very young age.
Exactly how much of the rest of the stories are true? Could he really single-handedly fight large gangs of armed men? Was he really protected by magical spells? I guess we will never know.
Possibly there’s been some exaggeration along the way, but I’m sure there was a basis to the legends. He must have been at the very least, a brave and ferocious fighter, fighting on the side of justice, for the seeds of the stories to have been sown.