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Saturday 25 October 2014 (booking now)
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Academic Staff

Professor Matthias Röhrig Assunção

Position in departmentEmployability Development Director
Staff positionReader
Telephone01206 872308
Office hoursOn leave

I studied History (BA, MA) at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes) and Paris VII (Diderot), and specialized in Latin American Studies at the Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique Latine at Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle). After some years spent carrying out field research in Brazil I completed my PhD at the Freie Universität (FU) in Berlin; the thesis was awarded the Ernst-Reuter-Prize (1991).

From 1985 to 1992 I taught History at the Latin American Institute of the FU Berlin, before coming to Essex in 1993. I have been a visiting lecturer or research fellow in Costa Rica, Venezuela and at various Brazilian universities (UFMA, USP, UFRJ & UFF). Since 2007 I am an associate researcher of the Laboratory of Oral History and Image (LABHOI) and the Research Centre for Cultural History (NUPEHC), both located at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro state in Niteroí (UFF).

Currently I serve on the editorial boards of the journals Bulletin of Latin American Research (since 2001) and Iberoamericana (since 2004). I am also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Current research

Following my work on the history of capoeira I’m trying to understand the development of combat games in the ‘Black Atlantic’ and how it relates to the construction of masculinity in popular culture. I’m currently working on two projects:

The Angolan Roots of Capoeira

The DVD of the documentary Body Games - Capoeria and Ancestry that was produced as part of The Angolan Roots of Capoeira project will be released during the autumn of 2014 and can then be purchased from the Department of History through Belinda Waterman.

Jogo do pau

The practice of ‘playing stick’ (jogo do pau) and poetic challenges in the black communities living on the land of the former coffee plantations in the Paraíba Valley.

This project was funded by Petrobrás through the Programme Capoeira Viva and has resulted in a documentary film I directed with Profesoor Hebe Mattos and a team linked to the Laboratory of Oral History and Image (LABHOI) at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF) in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, in 2009.

Watch the film Verses and cudgels online:

Research interests

History of slavery and post-emancipation societies

My first research project tried to understand the reasons for a huge rural uprising that took place during the years 1838-1841 in the province of Maranhão, Brazil. About 3,000 of the rebels were enslaved Africans and Creoles which escaped into the woods and became ‘maroons’. Others were free people of ‘colour’ (meaning in the language of that time, with some degree of African or Native American ancestry). The enquiry into regional plantation society triggered my interest into the wider field of slavery and the resistance against it. Teaching courses on slavery have further developed my curiosity in the comparative aspects of slavery.


Agrarian and peasant history

Plantations in Maranhão specialized in export crops such as cotton and rice, but also produced some food. More was produced by peasants that lived on or around plantations in subsistence agriculture. Much of my work on Maranhão has focussed on how this mosaic of export and subsistence agriculture and cattle ranches developed. Cotton plantations dominated the best lands formerly occupied by rain forests along the rivers, while peasants settled on sandier soils, drier zones or in more isolated locations. In my view peasants mainly came from three origins: Enslaved Africans, coerced Indians and mainly mestiço migrants from the drought-plagued Northeast. Because peasants lived longer and had more children than the enslaved plantation workers, their weight in the population of the province became increasingly important. Today Maranhão is still one of the regions with the highest percentage of peasants within Brazil.


Political history of nineteenth and twentieth century Brazil

The Balaiada insurrection was one of several movements that challenged the central government of the Brazilian empire during the 1830s and 1840s. Liberals all over Brazil rebelled against the authoritarian centralism of the government in Rio de Janeiro, which did not take into account regional interests and grievances. Peasants and other free poor men in Maranhão particularly resented the harsh and arbitrary draft into the army and navy, and the mistreatments by the powerful local strongmen and the conservative big landowners. They elected the Bem-te-vi bird as their symbol because it is a very common bird in Maranhão and because when it sings it seems to say Bem-te-vi (meaning ‘I see what you are doing’).


Latin American popular culture

The interest in peasant societies and an oral history project have led me to recognize the importance of popular culture for historians. Popular art forms allow unique insights into the ways history is seen ‘from below’. It also permits a better understanding of popular intervention in politics and society. Hence my current interest in popular dances, carnival, tricksters & clowns, and the celebrations of patron saints. Some of these forms (such as the samba de roda, tambor de crioula or capoeira) are now recognized as part of the immaterial heritage of Brazil. They also contribute to strengthen communities that took over former plantation lands in their fight for communal property rights or environmental protection for the lands on which they live.


Capoeira - combat games and martial arts in the 'Black Atlantic'

For many people the resistance against slavery is best expressed in the combat game capoeira. African and Creole slaves in Brazilian port cities such as Recife, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro developed it to a complex martial art, which combined percussive music, singing, dance and fight.



Recommended capoeira websites

Selected capoeira groups in London

Teaching responsibilities

Undergraduate modules

Postgraduate modules

Please note: not all courses run every academic year.

PublicationsLink to publications for Matthias Röhrig Assunção
Study areas

Graduate supervision areas

I’d like to supervise postgraduate research in any of the following areas:

  • History of slavery and post-emancipation societies
  • Social history of Brazil, Venezuela and the Caribbean
  • Political history of nineteenth and twentieth century Latin America
  • Latin American popular culture & cultural history
  • History of capoeira, and combat games and martial arts in the Atlantic world

Current research students

  • Ben Fuggle - Disputed Frontiers. Entangled territories between Spanish and British rule in colonial Central America
  • Eric Brasil Nepomuceno
  • Kayleigh Page - A study of the experience of women as the owners, users and often abusers of slaves in the Caribbean, c.1700-1825
  • Michael Garland - The English Morris Traditions

Previous supervision topics include:

  • Daniel Granada Ferreira - The transnationalization of capoeira in France and the UK. (Joint supervision with Stefania Capone, Directrice de Recherche CNRS, Department of Ethnology & Comparative Sociology, University of Paris X-Nanterre )
  • Franka Welz - The Portuguese Discourse on Race during the Transatlantic Slave Trade between the 15th and 19th Centuries. (Joint supervision with Professor Robin Blackburn, Department of Sociology)
  • Official propaganda during the military regime, Brazil, 1968-1979 - Nina Schneider, University of Konstanz
  • Slave Resistance on Cuban Plantations - Manuel Barcia, University of Leeds

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