Masters magazine has just released a free special issue that I think will be of great interest to the readers of Kung Fu Tea. Late last year Prof. T.J. Desch-Obi and Dr. Michael J. Ryan, both friends and fellow Martial Arts Studies researchers from New York State, headed to the island of Barbados to take part in a special research expedition. Their goal was to gather information on the unique forms of stick, knife, machete and whip fighting that still exist within the region. They were part of a larger team that included other researchers and professional martial artists from both North America and the Caribbean.
To say that they collected important information would be an understatement. I expect that the connections that they forged in the area will continue to facilitate fieldwork and martial exchange for many years to come. In an attempt to begin to get some of this information out, the members of the research expedition partnered with Masters magazine to release a free electronic special issue describing their expereinces. Even though I did not participate in this fieldwork, I was invited to act as a special guest editor for the project, helping to present the many unique voices that this expedition brought together.
Any reader with an internet connection is free to download and read the entire issue at their leisure. What they will find is an attempt by both academic and para-scholarly researchers to reach out and communicate their findings to a broader audience in a popular medium. Inevitably the meeting of two different worlds always results in a certain tension. The demands of academic and popular publications could not be more different. Yet the merging of these two spheres also seemed to be an ideal way to popularize, and hopefully preserve, the various fighting arts of the Caribbean as living traditions.
I have included a copy of my introductory editorial essay which lays out both the mission and contents of this special issue. Students of Martial Arts Studies will likely find the discussions of the “New Hoplology” to be interesting. But the in-depth discussions of a variety of Afro-Caribbean fighting arts also demands careful consideration. It is my hope that this project inspires many new and important discussions for years to come.
A Special Issue: Caribbean Combat and the New Hoplology
by Benjamin N. Judkins
Have you ever wanted to discover the origins of a little-known martial art, or practice machete and stick fighting on a distant shore? This special issue of Masters magazine will introduce you to a group of individuals who combine the practical and scholarly study of global fighting systems in new and innovative ways. Each of the hand combat systems which they describe in the coming pages was developed here, in the Western hemisphere, and reflects the complicated social history of the Caribbean.
We have all heard stories of adventurers who set out on a quest only to discover much more than they had bargained for. The accounts of pioneering martial artists are full of such tales as it is impossible to gain a detailed understanding of how individuals fight without also coming to appreciate the cultural values that they seek to uphold. Nothing reveals the ways in which a community functions quite as clearly as how its members fight, play, spar and train for combat.
This is not a particularly new insight, but it is one that is frequently neglected. Late 19th and early 20th century social scientists undertook a number of studies of combative behavior in their quest to understand human culture. Some of these studies contributed to the creation of “Hoplology.” That banner was again taken up by Donn F. Draeger and his followers in the post-WWII period as they sought to explore and catalogue the fighting systems of East Asia (often with a special emphasis on feudal Japan).
Yet Hoplology, most simply defined as the study of human combative behavior, has a knack for being forgotten. After a brief flowering of interest in the early 20th century, most Western readers lost interest in the subject following the First World War. While Donn F. Draeger’s attempted revival generated a fair degree of popular interest, he died before his dream of establishing Hoplology as a legitimate field of academic study could be accomplished. Despite some ongoing popular interest, the project never found a foothold in the university. There are no academic institutes for the study of Hoplology or scholarly, peer-reviewed, journals dedicated to its research.
Instead, we have recently seen the birth of a much wider interdisciplinary project termed “Martial Arts Studies.” It has brought together scholars from fields like history, anthropology, sociology and media studies, all of whom are united by a common interest in understanding the role that the martial arts play within society. Within the last decade we have seen the creation of conferences, peer reviewed journals and even the awarding of research grants seeking to advance the field. More scholarly books on the martial arts are being published now than ever before. Increasingly young scholars are discovering innovative ways of bringing together the time that they spend in the library and training hall. In a very real sense, the growth of Martial Arts Studies is the fulfillment of Draeger’s dream, even if it is not the sort of field that he initially envisioned.
This new literature is much broader in scope than the experiments in Hoplology that came earlier in the 20th century. Studies are being published examining fighting systems from many regions and time periods. Further, researchers are bringing a wide variety of theoretical perspectives to these questions. Yet while most of this work is inspired by actual martial arts practice, it tends to focus on the interaction of these fighting systems with other social, cultural, economic or political factors. Detailed explorations, or comparative studies, of actual techniques, or even the material culture that surrounds a martial art (e.g., weapons, training gear) are much rarer. This led me, in a recent essay, to wonder if perhaps there might be space for a “New Hoplology” within the growing Martial Arts Studies literature?
It seems likely that the moment has arrived. Yet we must also frankly acknowledge that much has changed since Draeger’s time. Any attempt to create a New Hoplology will have to be grounded in the most recent theoretical and methodological innova- tions. It must also move beyond simple attempts to catalogue “traditional” practices, or a single-minded focus on only one area of the world. While studies of the recent or distant past are valuable, it should be obvious to all that interpersonal combative be- havior shows no sign of becoming obsolete. Rather, it evolves and changes as the global system bring together new ideas, technologies and groups of people. We are enriched by this process, but it also generates new sources of identity and therefore social tensions. Indeed, the social history of the Caribbean, and the fighting systems it gave rise to, is an almost ideal case study of this process.
One might be tempted to dismiss Hoplology as a quaint 19th century term. And it is all too easy see the ways in which its earliest incarnations were deeply rooted in the colonialism of that century. Yet the rise of new identities, tensions and conflicts in the current moment make the systematic study of combative behavior, understood within a specific cultural context, more relevant than ever.
A recent research expedition to the island of Barbados, undertaken by the Immersion Labs Foundation (ILF), has brought back not only exciting accounts of the region’s little-known styles of machete, stick and whip fighting, but also important insights as to what the New Hoplology may have to offer all students of the martial arts. Within the pages of this special issue you will read about the experiences of nine individuals as they traveled from across North America and the Caribbean to meet the masters of several styles, some never before documented. This culminated in an exchange of information geared towards preserving the region’s intangible cultural heritage. The ILF expedition called upon local practitioners, professional martial arts instructors and academics in an attempt to both document these practices and discover the underlying social conditions that led to their rise, fall and transformation within the modern era.
What follows are a few of the articles, accounts and interviews generated during the course of this expeditions. Each of these items was selected because it introduces readers to a new set of practices, concepts and historical narratives which, when combined, paint a remarkable picture of the traditional Caribbean fighting arts. Yet this picture is still not complete. The expedition is best understood as a pilot project meant to pave the way for additional, long-term, fieldwork in the coming years.
Still, the research presented here suggests fruitful directions for future research. Much of the initial work conducted to date has focused on questions of masculinity and martial performance in the Caribbean. Yet some of these systems were also practiced by women, and all of them required the support of female community members to survive for as long as they did. Future research is necessary to recover the perspectives of both female participants and spectators alike.
It should also be noted that the exploratory research conducted to date has focused almost exclusively on describing the oldest layers of “traditional” practice that are still available to researchers. Sadly, many of these practices are in decline, hence efforts must be made to preserve this cultural heritage and make it more widely available to the next generation. Still, several questions remain as to why local forms of combat declined in popularity at exactly the same time that other knife and stick methods (such as the Filipino martial arts) began to thrive in the region. Many aspects of the modern practice, transformation and hybridization of these fighting systems are touched on in the interviews below, but these questions require much more research. Lastly, some of these fighting systems, much like their better known cousin Capoeira, are associated with unique musical traditions which would benefit from additional detailed study. Future field-work in the area (especially in Trinidad and Tobago) might benefit from the presence of an ethnomusicologist. Yet the ILF’s research in the area is clearly off to a strong start.
The following issue begins with two important articles by Dr. Michael J. Ryan. They set the stage for everything that follows by introducing the basic concepts and systems discussed throughout the rest of this issue. The first of these is a day-by-day account of the ILF’s investigation of Caribbean martial culture during their recent expedition to Barbados. This essay opens a window onto the process of conducting this sort of field- work and introduces readers to the practitioners and researchers who will reappear in subsequent interviews.
Equally important is his next essay titled “Hoplology: The Quest to Discover, Examine and Understand Martial Arts.” This piece provides readers with a basic introduction to the concept of Hoplology, as well as a historical review of its development from the late 19th century to the present. Ryan’s discussion is particularly important as it begins the work of establishing the New Hoplology’s mission within the quickly expanding field of Martial Arts Studies.
We are then introduced to Dr. Philip Forde, a local practitioner of stick fighting and a historical researcher who recently completed his doctoral training at the University of the West Indies. He provides a detailed introduction to “Sticklicking” as it developed on the island of Barbados and a review of the major styles of the art still practiced today. His discussion also provides important context which helps to situate some of the fol- lowing interviews with local practitioners.
Wayne Quintyne (a professional martial artist) has authored an autobiographical article titled “Going Away to Find One’s Roots.” This account traces Quintyne’s journey from being a student of various globally popular martial arts to a renewed focus on the unique forms of stick fighting that are indigenous to Barbados. Likewise, the follow- ing interview with Rondel Benjamin (who teaches at the Bois Academy) examines many similar themes, this time in relation to an entire family of fighting arts known as “Kalinda,” which are found only in Trinidad and Tobago. Benjamin’s account is particularly relevant to those attempting to understand the current practice of these arts as it touches on the importance of modern forms of social media, popular culture and community programs in the perpetuation of local culture.
Rondel Benjamin then provides readers with an interview of Keegan Taylor, one of his top students and another instructor of Kalinda. Taylor elaborates on a number of points which help us to further understand Trinidad and Tobago’s martial culture. His discussion of traditional music, and how his martial and musical training have influenced one another, are also significant.
Following these discussions readers return to “Memories of Old Time Barbados” with David “Biggard” Hinds. His family has been deeply involved with Sticklicking for gen- erations and he was originally instructed in the art by his grandfather. Biggard provides readers with vivid accounts of the stick fighting culture which dominated the area dur- ing the mid 20th century.
Next Ronald Alfred introduces readers to the world of “Jab Jab Devils.” This local tradition from Trinidad combines public performance, ritual practice and a whip-based combat system in what is probably the most unique, and least understood, martial system outlined in this issue. The account provided here is a stark reminder of the diversity of human combative behavior, and what might be lost if steps are not taken to document and preserve these practices now.
The issue then concludes with pieces by a number of the ILF’s core expedition mem- bers. In the first Vincent Tamer, who served as both the cameraman and site coordinator for the expedition, reflects on his journey of personal discovery and the ways in which it has been enriched by both the martial arts and his recent involvement with Hoplologi- cal research. Dr. Michael J. Ryan then introduces readers to the unique forms of stick and machete fighting that have developed in Venezuela. This discussion begins to pull together the pieces necessary for a true comparative study.
Prof. T. J. Desch-Obi, a noted historian of African and Afro-Caribbean martial arts, takes readers on a detailed journey through the complex systems of “Grima,” or machete and stick fighting, that have become deeply entwined with Columbia’s political and social history. Readers may be surprised by the size and complexity of the martial culture which he describes. Finally, Mahipal Lunia, the expedition’s leader, reflects on his experiences within the martial arts and those factors that led him to develop a passion for the comparative study of traditional fighting systems.
This special issue hopes to share with readers a genuine journey of discovery. The research of the ILF team, while still in its preliminary stages, is revealing important information about a little-known group of traditional combat practices that arose within the Western hemisphere. Just as importantly, they are illustrating what can be accomplished when the technical and scholarly study of the martial arts are brought together.
Table of Contents