Greetings, and welcome to the second part of Michael J. Ryan’s guest series on stick and knife fighting in the Caribbean region. If you missed the first installment of this series I would suggest clicking here to get caught up before going on. That said, the traditional combat schools of Colombia and Venezuela are unique and notable for their technical and social complexity. It is good that we are beginning to acknowledge these systems within the field of Martial Arts Studies, and hopefully laying the foundation for many future discussions as well. Enjoy!
Garrote in Venezuela
Separated by only ten miles of water making up the Gulf of Praia, Trinidad and eastern Venezuela have had a long history of trade and exchange. The links between the South American mainland and Trinidad go back to the pre-conquest days. One element shared by Trinidad, Venezuela, and Colombia was a lack of mineral deposits, or large urban Indigenous populations, that could be rapidly exploited. As a result, the area quickly became a backwater of the Spanish empire.
Unlike many other areas of the New World, such as the Valley of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard of the USA, Venezuela never suffered the horrific demographic decline of Indigenous peoples. This dynamic, in conjunction with a low population density, has always plagued colonial and post-independent Venezuelan authorities. Socially Venezuela was organized into strict racial hierarchies that the country continues to struggle with up until the present. The lack of wealth meant that only 120,000 African slaves were imported into the region and were used mainly in the cultivation of cacao along the coastal regions. Immigrants from the Canary Islands after the Spanish contributed most of the population after Indians while a much smaller but continual movement of free African from neighboring islands into Venezuela rounded out the population. The Segovia highlands of the Midwest, where most of the research on garrote has been conducted, was different from Barbados and Trinidad as the population was composed predominantly of de-tribalized and Hispanicized Indian populations. Economically Venezuela was, and still is, based on export-oriented raw materials. There was much geographic variation over time and across space in the country.
The province of Venezuela was governed from several towns in the Midwest before settling in Caracas. The geography of the region discouraged intra-regional trade and goods were usually shipped to local ports along the Caribbean coast for export. The regional economy was also reflected in the political sphere where from the time of the wars of Independent to the early 20th century there has been two major parties calling for a looser federated type of political state or a more unified centralized regime. For example, the old province of Barquisimeto once served as a dividing line between Royalists and Centralists forces to the North and Liberationist and the Federalist forces to the South and West. This political dividing line proved to a be garrote stronghold and was a prime battleground between competing factions for over a century.
Lacking a standing professional army until the early 20th century, regional power brokers working through ties of kinship and patronage would align themselves with current politicians or presidents in Caracas who could supply money and some arms. Supplies were directed downwards through social networks and kinship structures to hacienda foremen and local merchants. They would then rally local workers and relatives to arms. Drawing on these relationships of mutual support competing politicians could quickly mobilize large numbers of hastily organized rural laborers and farmers to attack each other to increase their holdings, or band together in larger groups to drive a regime change. The Federal Wars of the mid-19th century, for example, began as a fight over which political party was to take the presidency. Soon the violence spiraled out of control becoming a class/race war leading to the death of five percent of the population and the cessation of almost all organized economic activity and government rule. Coups by local warlords continued acting as a normal channel for regime change until the mid-20th century.
A military junta of Generals from the Andes took over in 1935 after the death of the dictator Gomez. Finally, a military coup in 1958 that turned the government over to civilians led to a degree of political stabilization. The installation of Hugo Chavez and then his successor Maduro led to the institution of a socialist state that as of this writing has resulted in the almost total collapse of the infrastructure which is held up solely by armed forces loyal to the ruling party.
What is Garrote
The definitive history of Garrote in Venezuela has yet to be written. Most research on garrote has focused on its development in the Segovia highlands. The research I conducted in 2005 and 2013 has shown there was, or still is, strong pockets of garrote throughout many regions of the country with some possible links to some styles of Colombian Grima. As garrote was or is still found in many pockets of Venezuela each with their unique ethnic history, the question arises whether garrote is one art or many?
My research suggests garrote came from Spain as a result of a ‘Civilizing Process’ in that country in which the merchant class and elites stopped carrying blades in favor of walking sticks and canes. The wooden goads of herding cultures in the south of Spain and military saber fencing brought over by soldiers were other lines of combative knowledge that existed parallel to garrote and had influenced many practitioners over the years. Other sources would include the Canary Islands and West Africa. In summary, instead of one origin, I suggest garrote was developed many times and, in many places, repeatedly as people continually reinvented and reconfigured the art according to their local needs. The innumerable styles of Garrote grew out of these tangled roots.
At its most basic, a garrote is a hardwood tapered and oiled walking-length stick used in the civilian sphere as a weapon and as an integral part of a man’s public dress. In the Midwest, a man would not appear in public without his garrote, regardless of his level of skill. By the early 20th century the disappearance of garrote seems to have taken place along the coast in big urban towns. In more rural regions of the far Midwest, the local government was finally able to enforce a ban on the carrying of garrote in the 1950’s and in the center mid – west by the 1970’s. Nowadays, I was told men keep their garrotes behind their front door, strapped to their mopeds or in the trunk of their cars for when the need arises.
One element shared in common by a number of the countries under consideration is that accounts of local stick arts emerged in the 19th century and were used in a wide range of different modalities such as civil self-defense, local forms of communal recreation and in religious festivities accompanied by music. Garrote was always seen as an art of the civil sphere although chroniclers write how certain individuals had studied Spanish military saber, and local Garrote styles or Canarian stick arts, suggesting that authors sought to keep the military and civil spheres separate. It was an often said that ‘Garrote was never meant to kill just gain respect’, signifying the stick was used in intracommunal disputes to reduce the outbreak of unrestrained violence and the spread of blood feuds in a place where state control was weak. If individuals sought to kill another person, they would turn to the blade and later increasingly firearms.
Some styles of garrote only trained with the stick or palo other styles trained with the palo, the machete and the knife. Policeman up until the 1950’s in the city of Barquisimeto were armed with machetes and learned to use different parts of the weapon to inflict pain, break bones without cutting, or slice open bodies depending on the severity of the offense of those they were dealing with suggesting another highly developed method of civil combat developed by local security forces.
Garrote was also treated as a rough brutal recreational past time where young men could while away the time between friends and create deep bonds of comraderies. The practice was also seen as a valuable method to teach young men physical toughness, mental resilience, and a set of quick reflexes and a sharp mind to set up and escape tricks, ambushes or other traps that might be set by those claiming to be your friends. Readers should bear in mind that during this time there were bands of roving militias crisscrossing the entire area. They might be found shooting at their political enemies or resisting the encroachment of large landowners against small Indian or mixed-blood farms. Of course these militias also survived by taking everything they could from the local farms and villages they came across.
Venezuela has been called Latin America’s least catholic county (Dineen 2001). Nevertheless, there are numerous traditions of the local worship of saints. Originally there were only six main towns and several smaller villages in the midwestern state of Lara, carved out of the larger province of Barquisimeto that celebrated the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. Sometime in the early 20th century, Garrote was incorporated into this religious ritual. Not long afterward, local scholars turning to popular cultural manifestation began to write about the beauty of these local festivities. Finally, in 1948 the newly elected civilian government of Venezuela, seeking to unite the diverse people that made up this country, (who had no broader identity beyond that of a city or province) co-opted this local festival and changed its name to the Tamunangue.
This rearrangement served as an example of how the three primary races that settled Venezuela have been perfectly harmonized in the Tamunangue, instilling in the people of Venezuela the notion that they all share the same blood and history of everybody else in the country. Another result of co-opting this local pastime as a national icon was the marginalizing of the violence associated with it. This was accomplished by substituting thin sticks, allowing women to participate and breaking up any impromptu fights. In the working-class neighborhoods and rural hamlets, real violence with sticks, and blades still breaks out on occasion, much to the embarrassment of the more ‘educated’ and ‘refined’ member of society. In other parts of Venezuela, this type of “Garrote” is now seen as a performance art while the styles of Garrote that they continue to practice are visualized as purely fighting arts.
Moving West across the Andes then down then across to where the Magdalena river empties into the Pacific Ocean, a unique local collection of stick and machete arts known as Grima emerged. The colonization of what was to become Colombia began in 1525. The growing importance of the colony to the Spanish crown can be seen in the way the province was soon raised to the status of the Viceroyalty of New Granada by the King of Spain. At this time New Granada encompassed the present-day countries of Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Independence came about in 1830 after years of hard-fought struggles. Victorious generals Simon Bolivar and Francisco Santander became the first president and vice-president respectively. Emerging from these two men’s political ideas arose the main political parties of the Liberals and Conservatives whose platforms have shaped every event occurring in Columbia up through the present. Although a democratic system has remained in place since independence, there have been three military coups as well two major civil wars, “The War of a Thousand Days” taking place from 1899-1902 took 100,000 lives and ‘La Violencia’ from 1948-1958 costing 300,000 lives. A truce resulting in the two parties alternating the presidency put an end to the violence lasting until the 1970’s, when ideologically leftist guerillas began building states within states in remote or marginal areas of the country. These groups at first found a sympathetic reception among peasants for opening up the new lands after having fled the large plantation owners and their hired gunmen who sought to reduce small farmers into landless wage laborers. The 1980’s marked the rise of drug cartel violence. The onset of the 21st century has seen a leveling of political and drug cartel violence. However, outside the major urban centers, state control is still weak, and low levels of violence are endemic, greatly compromising the functioning of civil society (Herrera 2016).
Economically, gold proved to be the primary source of wealth to the conquistadores and colonists, but as in other states in the region, it was soon replaced by sugar cane. Later tobacco took off as a major export crop in the 18thcentury, followed by coffee in the 19thcentury and bananas in the 20th.
Indigenous peoples provided the first pool of forced labor but they were soon replaced by enslaved African’s after the widespread deaths of numerous Native American communities. African slaves were brought into Colombia soon after the founding of its first city and in such numbers that at present Colombia has the second largest African descended community in South America after Brazil. Unlike the other countries where maroonage did not play a significant role in the country’s development (with parts of Venezuela being an example of this) there were several escaped or free-African colonies (or Palenques) that acted as strongholds of African cultures and traditions until recently (Herrera 2016). Within the Pacific coast Cauca region, El Palenque de El Castigo and El Palenque de Monte Oscuro were the most well-known. Men trained in Grima played a prominent role in every major conflict from the wars of Independence onward, fighting on any side that would promise them freedom. After slavery was abolished in 1851, due to the support of the Liberal party, Afrodecendeantes armed with lances and machetes, as well as some old rifles, fought valiantly in the War of Thousand Days, the Border wars with Peru in 1932, la Violencia, all the way up through the guerilla movements of the 1970’s-80’s. In the area occupied by Afro Colombians, community members often found themselves caught between the firing lines of the guerrillas and the Colombian armed forces exacerbating the already harsh and oppressive conditions (Desch 2009).
What is Grima
Grima, like Garrote, is best seen as an umbrella term for several predominantly Afro-Colombian armed combative systems done with a single stick, single machete or stick and a machete in each hand. Peinillas (a shorter thinner machete), double peinillas, lance, knife, whip and straight razors have also been employed. Like Venezuela, styles such as Sombra Caucana, Palo Negro, Cubano, Español, Frances, Relancino, Venezolano, el Costeño, Sombra Japonés, are some of the 35 styles known today (Desch 145). However, as T.J. Desch explains, all these styles were all related and shared a common core of eight strikes and fundamental defenses (146). What is unique in the history of Grima was that an economically driven out migration of people leaving Cauca early in the 20th century led to Grimadores teaching the art professionally in other parts of the country.
Grima and the Military
The contribution of Afro-Colombian Grimadores has been largely ignored in Colombian history. Both in the Wars of Independence and the War of a Thousand days squadrons of lancers and machetes provided the determining force in key clashes. Recruited to serve in the border war with Peru, Afro-Colombians comfortable with machete combat took part using the machete or the peinillas as their principal assault weapon because the single shot rifles issued to them were no match for the modern repeating rifles the Peruvian soldiery possessed. Waiting until nightfall squads of machete and peinillas wielding Afro-Colombians would assault Peruvian encampments where they could close the distance between combatants and use their blades with great effectiveness.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where face-to-face social interactions occurred, a relationship of reciprocity and mutual obligations held over weak state control. One’s social reputation was highly valued, easy to damage, and called for almost daily maintenance to uphold. Often acts of violence were accepted ways to increase, protect, or regain one’s social reputation or honor. Honor contest could occur throughout the regions under consideration in informal sites such as bars, parties’ dances, or other sites where young men would gather during their leisure time. At other times honor contest could occur in more formally during previously agreed upon dates. Skilled grimadores migrating out of the Cauca were able to provide a culturally valued, highly effective way of settling interpersonal contests in a way that was seen as culturall right, normal, and natural, i.e., through the blade, man to man.
A strong tradition of the professionalization of blade dueling teachers was also seen in Barbados and a lesser more scattered degree in Venezuela. What is interesting about these teachings in Colombia, Barbados and parts of Venezuela is the existence of a graduated progressively more difficult pedagogical system of learning that can take a beginner through moving his body alone, to wielding sticks and eventually a variety of blades and with weapons in both hands. The widespread embrace of dueling with blades became so popular that in the late 19thand early 20th century that schools developed specialized guards meant to draw an opponent to attack specific ways, leading to other schools developing counter-guard tactics designed to specifically overwhelm a particular guard and style of a competing school. For example, if one man was skilled in the Grenadino style, another man might find a school specializing in the Venezolano Moderno style to overcome their strengths. Colombian Grima also appears to be unique in the integral role women played in the development of this art, with many men freely acknowledging the high level of skill of some woman, a situation only rarely seen in the other traditions examined here (Desch 2009).
The insatiable demand for sugar by the West profoundly changed the ecology, political-economy, and cultures of the New World. Forests were cut down to make room for large plantations and to fuel the transformation of sap into molasses. Large pools of docile, cheap labor led to the destruction of several Indigenous communities. This was followed by the continual importation of forced and indentured laborers from African prisoners of war, and then South Asian and East Asian laborers replacing older labor pools which became unavailable. An emerging planter class arose throughout this region coming to possess great wealth and influence; ending up either acting with the state authority or acting as a state within a state, all in a drive to maintain or increase profits. The political and economic power of these North-Atlantic market was one of the principal drivers shaping the area and the cultures and everyday lives of the people.
There was, and still remains, a Mediterranean “culture of the blade” seen throughout Latin America. It valorizes the idea of two men facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, with a blade in their hand to resolve their disagreements. Among communities where honor is a highly sought after and ephemeral status marker, such contests can quickly spin out of control. In a harsh land where state rule is weak or nonexistent, and patron-client relations or kinship networks make-up up a community’s network, the death of an individual can unleash a cycle of blood shed leading to the destruction of a local community. However, the use of a stick came to be seen as almost equally valiant as the blade as proximity is required and the promise of pain is guaranteed, but the less lethal nature of the stick could act as a cultural brake on unrestrained violence.
The wide variety of stick lengths, sizes, grips, and targets inspired interesting question that drove the genesis of this article. Definitively tracing these arts back to their communities of origin can be an almost impossible task. How can one distinguish between a community bringing over their system, or borrowing and modifying it after looking at practices in other communities? This comparison can be a difficult task, but some amazing work has been done by Desch and Assunção linking the art of Brazilian Capoeira to Angolan Engola. Trinidadian Kalinda and some of the older styles of grima have strong African oriented traditions ranging from body-movement, spirituality, and language strongly suggesting African origins. Venezuelan garrote as seen in the Midwest is a site of a hispanicized Indian population, while the North has predominant Afro-Venezuelan the Central-West region has an Afro Venezuelan community in the hills and hispanicized Indians in the plains with a century-deep networks of exchange and trade.
The plethora of different ethnic communities push one to ask whether Garrote is one art or many arts? In the Midwest where a majority of the research has been done Garrote emerge out a strong Indian/European ethnic base which emerged secondary to the North Atlantic trade networks. Combined with a single-handed grip, and a much different set of body movements then those seen in Trinidad or parts of Colombia, it seems likely Garrote has strong Spanish and Canary Island influences.
Barbados is another unique example as it is a predominantly African-descended country. Oral interviews with older sticklickers suggest that there was a shift from holding the stick near both ends to a one-handed grip near one end, suggesting that in the mid-20th century a shift from older African to British saber tactics occurred (Forde 2018). Thus, martial arts are best seen as pragmatic living traditions that change over time in response to the needs, ideas, and representations of practitioners.
Finally, the Jab Jab whip master of Tobago claim deep roots back to India and Africa. A co-investigator on a Hoplological field trip to Barbados in 2018 who was raised in India, exclaimed the Jab Jab whip informant was more Indian than he was, and that he had a particularly Indian view of the universe going back to the time of his grandmother. At the same time, other members of the team from Trinidad made sure to also take note of their strong links to older spiritual traditions as well. Finally, the role of the church and western sports appears to have various levels of impacts among these arts.
In nominally Catholic or Catholic-influenced countries, local combative traditions were at one time incorporated in dominant religious celebrations resulting in changes as well as the persistence of these arts, both inside and out these religious circles of influence. Barbados and Venezuela provide alternative trajectories with Barbados social life being greatly influenced by the Angelicin church, which has a had less tolerance for heterodox cultural manifestations. In the case of Colombia, there is not enough information at the time to make any generalizations. Finally, it appears that the introduction and promotion of modern European and North American sports by elites caused the near disappearance of these arts. The shifts are especially seen in Barbados and Venezuela, where Cricket and Baseball respectively spread through both areas, capturing the hearts and minds of the younger generation who turned their back on older masculine pastimes. They came to be seen as simply the actions of an older, more brutal and hyper-masculine alcohol-fueled tradition of chaotic violence, warlordism and corruption that is better of left in the past.
Cowley, John 1996, “Carnival, Canboulay, and Calypso: Tradition in the making “. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.
Dineen, Mark 2001 “Culture And Customs of Venezuela”. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Desch-Obi T.J. 2009 “Peinillas and Popular Participation: Machete fighting in Haiti, Cuba and Colombia”. Memorias. Revista Digital de Historia y Arqueología desde el Caribe, núm. 11, noviembre, pp. 144-172 Universidad del Norte.
Mottely, ‘Elombe’ Elton 2014 “Cover Down Yuh Bucket: The Story of Sticklicking in Barbados”. Fat Pork 10 10 Productions. Kingston, Jamaica.
Forde, Phillip 2018 “Blocking Both Head And Foot: An examination of Bajan Sticklicking”. PhD The University of the West Indies.
Greenberg, Elan 2016 “Stick Man” Hemispheres. United Airlines In-Flight magazine.
Herrera, Sascha C. 2016 “A History of Violence and Exclusion: Afro-Colombians from slavery to displacement”. MA. Georgetown University.
Hill, Errol 1972 “The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate of a National Identity”. Austin: The University of Texas Press.
Ryan 2016 “Venezuelan Stickfighting: The civilizing process in martial arts”. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Michael J. Ryan is an Adjunct Professor at SUNY Oneonta. His research interest include embodiment, modernity, violence, and Hoplology. The author has pursued the formal study of martial art traditions since 1977. Recently, he has teamed up with other scholars to revive the discipline of Hoplology under the banner of the Immersion Labs Foundation (ILF). In addition intensive workshops devoted to knife and stick fighting, the ILF has conducted Hoplological expeditions to Barbados and Portugal.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Seeking Identity through the Martial Arts: The Case of Mexicanidad