Historical Fencing

Historical African Martial Arts: Introductions and Issues

When people talk about Martial Arts, they will typically look to Asia and point to various Martial Arts like karate, Jujitsu, Kung Fu and Taekwondo. If one were to diverge from the cliché’s, they could venture further to find Martial Arts like Savate (French Kickboxing) or Sambo (Russian Wrestling) which are more in-tune to people who pursue Martial Arts as a passion. It’s not surprising, these are embedded in our culture and synonymous with various forms of traditional systems that became popular from the 19th Century.

Even now, a person has their Martial Art like a consumer choice, they can opt for Muay Thai followed by a coarse of Judo and then if they’re daring, escrima stick fighting. Indeed, it is this state of being a society that has the leisure to pursue these interests which is why we have such a vast variety of combat forms that anyone can choose at any one time. At the moment, the current fashion which many Martial Arts are turning to are Historical; that is looking to the past and using source material to reconstruct how people used to fight in the past, from Chinese Long-Spear to the reconstruction of Kenjitsu in sparring. At the moment, there has been an explosion in people practising Historical European Martial Arts in the past 10 years, which focus on a wide variety of weaponised systems, such as long sword and rapier, to unarmed combat, such as German War Wrestling and Classical pugilism. With the dedication, one could learn the art of fighting that was recognisable to the Western Knight in the 15th Century and doing so brings a feeling of awe, wonder and giddiness that many have felt when they pretended to be knights or warriors when they were children. My point is there is a firm variety of Martial Arts in which to choose from, from any part of the world and, more importantly, there has been a recent effort to reconstruct systems that no longer exist.

Despite the youth of Historical Martial Arts, some are still blindingly absent in the public; one of those being the Historical Martial Arts of Africa. Indeed, recent developments in video games such as For Honor and Kingdom Come: Deliverance have shown an effort to reconstruct European, Asian and, in some cases, Middle Eastern Martial Arts. However, Africa still remains a blank unknown with little information for anyone seeking knowledge. Nevertheless if one was to do research or go to various countries on the continent, they would be able to find traditional forms of Martial Arts that have not only experienced relative isolation but have also survived since the Middle Ages or even Antiquity. If a person goes to Egypt, they can see Tahtib, a form of two handed stick-fighting that originates from Ancient Egypt and was used both as a sport to train the Pharaohs soldiers for combat, as later a traditional dance. On the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan, another form of this still exists through the Donga people who compete between villages, both as a show of masculinity and for ceremonial reasons. In the Sudan, the Nuba engage in wrestling that would have been recognisable to the Pharaohs as well. In Nigeria, Dambe boxing is a popular sport that dates back to the Medieval period; people compete for the purpose of representing their community or for prestige and the stance that’s used is reminiscent of sword and spear use that was prevalent in the region until West Africa was colonised. This is just the tip of a very large iceberg and like a buffet, there is a rich variety of different styles that are unknown and unheard of in most parts of the world. To me this is an absurdity, one that has gone on for a long period of time and still does so to the present day.

I would like to think that is where HAMA (Historical African Martial Arts) comes in. It is an organisation and more importantly, an effort to Historically reconstruct African Martial Arts on the continent and in the Diaspora (the Carribean, South America, the United States etc) where a large number of slaves were transported. I would say it’s one of the youngest Martial Arts that is coming to the fray but also it comes with its own difficulties that aren’t found elsewhere.

 

Historical issues

To reconstruct a Martial Art as it would have been seen at the time it was done is not easy. Let’s take HEMA for example. If we wanted to reconstruct longsword in the 1500’s, we would need to look at the sources that were written at the time, translate them if they’re not in English, understand the life that people lived at the time and test out what has been said to gain a better understanding. Luckily in many cases, there are various treatises (manuals on how to fight) written by fencing masters who instructed how a person can use, for example, a longsword. However, even this comes with issues. The language used in a completely different time period means translating is difficult and a lot of concepts can be lost in translation. More importantly, practicing longsword as either a Martial Art or past-time hasn’t existed properly since the 1700’s. Put simply, no one fights with swords anymore so that’s also a big problem because you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone who no longer exists, to understand a system that’s not easy to understand. Fortunately, the way we study history and a large number of dedicated Martial Artists and Academics means it has become easier both to understand and teach how, for example, a Medieval Knight would have fought in a duel. If a person doesn’t have manuals to deal with it, a lot of practitioners use experimental archaeology to reconstruct how warriors in the past would have fought; using the handling of weapons and source material like descriptions of combat and surviving injuries from those weapons to get an idea of how they were used. A good example of this is Roland Warzecha who has reconstructed Viking sword and shield combat by looking at manuals we do have and working backwards, as well as  looking at the handling of weapon and seeing how they can be applied. Another good example is Richard Marsden who has used various sources, such as descriptions of fights, to reconstruct Polish Sabre. This demonstrates using a martial system that is well documented enough that we can get an idea of how it was used.

In the majority of cases, HAMA finds itself in a sweet spot between both what HEMA is doing and also experimental archaeology. Compared to Europe, there are no standard treatises for African Martial Arts in the past apart from a scarce amount of North African Treatises, so there is no technical descriptions when it comes to techniques of weapon uses from the people who practised these Martial Arts. On the other hand, we do have technical descriptions of combat from onlookers and outside perspectives. This took place both in cases such as the Medieval Period, such as the Futuh Al Habasa (an account of the Adal invasion of the Ethiopian Empire) and accounts from European explorers, and later Colonial Accounts, of how warriors in different parts of Africa fought. As a result, these testimonies serve as double-edged blades (excuse the pun) because on the one hand they do have a systematic bias for their time, whereas on the other hand without these observations there would be a large gap in understanding African Martial Arts. This also includes the diaspora where most descriptions of Martial Arts, such as Capoeira which originates from today’s Angola, come from outside perspectives and in a rare case, you get a personal account from people such as Frederick Douglass; an ex-slave who became an abolitionist for slavery in the 19th Century who, like many slaves, practiced ‘knocking and kicking’ which originated from the same parent Martial Art as Capoeira. On top of this we have a vast array of illustrative depictions that survive today that provide technical details of the body mechanics that many African warriors. For example, on one of the famous tapestries at the Battle of Adwa between Ethiopia and Italy, there are various depictions of the Shotel, a famous type of Ethiopian double-edged curved sword, which show the way warriors used this weapon on their enemies. There is also the aspect of living traditions which still exist relatively similar to how they were in the past (which I will go into detail about in the next paragraph). In other words, on the one hand it lacks the technical manuals of places like Europe and China and on the other is too detailed to simply be experimental archaeology. HAMA finds itself in a sweet spot between both that doesn’t seem to be apparent elsewhere.

One part that seem to differ compared to other Martial Arts is the aspect of living traditions with very firm historical lineages or traditions that go back hundreds of years, which we have records and testimonies on. Through coherent social communities or simply isolation these have survived relatively untouched. Due to the vastness of Africa and the Diaspora, these are very contextual, though the intentions are very clear so it can be very clear cut. For example, the isolation of the Ethiopian Highlands and rural areas has meant Donga Stick Fighting has stayed untouched for hundreds of years. This also applies to other cases such as Nubian Wrestling which due to similar factors, is similar to what it would have been at the time of antiquity. These rural groups often mean that traditions are kept intact, devoid of social change or modernisation and therefore have no stride to change the context of these Martial Arts. Like 500 years ago, villages gather, or send their champions, to compete and gain both prestige and attract among women. However, in some parts like the Americas and Central/West Africa, different Martial Arts often synergised with each other due to the slave trade. For example, in Angola there are Martial Arts which are wholly non-lethal and don’t use weapons, such as slap-boxing, wrestling or pugilism or N’golo (the precursor to Capoeira) which utilises dodging, agility, kicks and headbutting and the brilliant thing is they can be applied in a non-lethal application today. In Central Africa, there’s stick fighting which translates to machete use, and shield and spear (depending on the region). These were all used in a Martial Context and arguably still are in some parts of Africa. In the Caribbean, people still have Machete duels and people do still get killed. I’d like to think that puts an interesting twist on things. HEMA no longer has that context because no one in Europe duels with sword anyone, however if I had the money (and courage) I could find someone in Trinidad and Tobago who has used their weapons in a Martial context and therefore can provide insights that would not have been evident to someone who hadn’t duelled.  In my mind, it brings a light to the martial arts and their use as well as tempo, bio-mechanics and rhythm (which is essential to some African Martial Arts). A good example is the fact there was one surviving person in Haiti (Alfred Avril, ‘Papa Machete) who knew about Machete use, and that has opened a whole opportunity of its own. If he wasn’t alive, the people researching the art wouldn’t have been able to keep the Martial Art as well informed as it is now. At the moment, HAMA also finds itself in a weird place because many of the practitioners who have a lineage to the past (with some Martial Arts) are either elderly or have recently died, such as with some stick fighting circles in Algeria. This illustrates the important point of both surviving lineage, records/ sources of those lineages and practical applications used today, often with lethal force.

With this in mind, HAMA has experienced issues that are similar to HEMA but at the same time, face wholly unique ones. Like HEMA there is always the difficulty of reconstructing, especially when there is few sources on a particular martial art or nothing because it still survives and simply no one has recorded it (such as Ashante war movements in Nigeria). What’s unique is often these Martial Arts never died and still survive. The issue is these are not set in stone and are often susceptible to change through time, so you get different things being applied and included at different times. For example with Capoeira, you get the adaptation of weapons, for example the razor, and then 100 years later it may look different to what it was before; on the other hand somewhere in the Caribbean, there’s another style which is closer to the original but has its own unique spin because it has a certain way of fighting that’s linked to a specific dance and that’s really important. Then you have Capoeira being turned into sport fighting after the 1930’s, so that brings issues of its own. With the ‘sportifying’ of Martial Arts comes the conversion of various moves into a competitive/ non-lethal environment and the disintegration of certain techniques due to that lethality. In other cases, some have stayed relatively the same but have changed to varying degrees with little change. For example, AL Matrag is a form of stick fighting in Algeria which used to be used as a way of teaching Berber warriors sword fighting and therefore many of the moves can be applied to Berber sword combat which is no longer prevalent. Nevertheless, the emphasis on it being a stick-fighting art  from the 1900’s rather than its original intention, and it’s gradual sportification in the 1980’s, means certain strikes with the wrist and footwork have become prevalent which are inconsistent and this is evident from both older footage of stick fighting in the Magreb and also written testimonies by observers.  In short, these Martial Arts aren’t set in stone and are constantly changing, and they’re still valid in their time period. It’s up to us to use what we can to reconstruct the Martial Art while respecting how it’s changed up to today. As a result, there’s no ‘standard’ which is evident in some aspects of Martial Arts. For example, there’s firm links to dancing that is still used today because it was a way of spiritually and martially desensitising the person to the rhythm of combat. That means things can be highly individualised but still retain a legitimate legacy. This is similar to what the Japanese call ‘Kata’, that whereas the technicalities change within the Martial Art, the spirit stays the same. What’s really surprising is how the tempo of fights aren’t also set in stone, especially with Martial Arts such as Damnye, a martial art in the Carribean, which is based on combat while dancing (to emphasise trickery and dodging). This is also based on how many of these Martial Arts were taught and, to an extent institutionalised. I would compare it to boxing: in today’s world the majority of people learn boxing orally. There are written manuals on how to box which you can buy but a lot of it is taught both by word of mouth (from a teacher) and through sparring. That is very much the form a lot of African Martial Arts have taken Historically and how they do today to an extent. There were really no formal institutions to teach these Martial Arts, both because they were so integral to the societies they are from but also because these traditions were orally taught and therefore there’s a lot of room for freedom and individualisation. This is because techniques were often passed down from parent to child and were closely knitted together in the community, so there would have been techniques that were recognisable to everyone but it allowed some liberty with those techniques.

There is also the factor of spirituality and  spirituality played a large part in African Martial Arts. For example, in N’golo in Angola and the Americas, there were secret societies which held large spiritual properties and the Art itself was linked to the Central African belief of manifesting spirits from the land of the dead. To do N’golo was to manifest these and a master was someone who was considered to be possessed by the spirit of someone who was really good at N’golo in the past (though you needed to come from Central Africa). To do a specific movement was to manifest a certain element from the afterlife. There is a deep spiritual element in some of the Martial Arts, though they don’t survive today, or do so in a completely different form.

 

Political issues

The political issues in HAMA are contentious for Historical, post-colonial and racial reasons which still echo today. It’s no coincidence that all these issues interlink with each other and provide a series of topics which are controversial. In a way, this has been a blessing as well as a curse. The lack of attention to African Martial Arts until now has meant the majority have continued in relative isolation and have remained untouched. This means there has been a lack of sportification of these forms, a lack of changes to suit the international community/tournaments and a little separation from their Historical element, as a result I can get a better idea of how various people from Africa fought in the past and their understanding of biomechanics due to the tradition of orally passing down techniques. Nevertheless, that comes with certain pitfalls.

Historically before and during the colonial period, the nature of the ‘dark continent’ has meant that information is scarce or it comes from only a few perspectives, who were fortunate enough to put their observations in detail. In some cases, there are rare exceptions such as the Futuh Al Habasa which details the Islamic conquest of Ethiopia in a heroic style similar to the Iliad. In other cases, descriptions boil down to very technical observations made by European explorers from the 18th Century onwards. Though very technical, these come with issues of their own. Explorers such as Sir Francis Richard Burton, whose work is monumental when understanding various African forms of combat, have an underlying bias; that any technical evidence portrayed is evidence that Africa is a place of savage barbarism that can only be saved if it were colonised by Europeans. With this, and other works such as Edmondo’s Marocco, the issue isn’t so much the evidence and source material but how they were used. As a result, a lot of terms, etymologies and definitions are coined at this time and this creates a lot of misconstrued information. For example, the name for the Ethiopian Sickle sword, Shotel, didn’t exist before being coined in the 19th Century. The name is both the name of a town in Ethiopia and also the Eritrean word for ‘big knife’, so there becomes a lot of misconstrued theories. In North Africa, the inhabitants are constantly stereotyped in a hyperbolic way as being hedonistic pirates who have a savage thirst for blood. The lack of information we have before the 18th Century makes this more difficult so we have to rely upon generalised European theories about where they thought the weapons and techniques they saw came from. For example, Edmondo describes Moroccan sword-play as being very wild but we don’t know if he means that literally or as a way of showing Moroccans to be barbarians. This creates various issues with interpreting what’s being described. Usually, this can be got around by understanding the context of the time and translating those prejudices as an indication of what Europeans had in mind. For Edmondo, describing the sword-play as ‘wild’ is backed up with descriptions of over-arching swings, jumping and kicking; so we can get a rough idea of what is meant.

A lot of these perspectives continue in the post-colonial period but in a different context, because it’s essentially abiding by the same discourse. With the post-colonial period, there’s the rise of the black panther movement and with that interpretations that go to the opposite end of the spectrum, many of which are still prevalent today when it comes to African History. This is understandable, especially in the context of the Cold-War era where African-Americans were seeking a tangible and new identity after the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, one which didn’t hearken back to the ethnocentric theories of those Europeans. However, this comes with issues of its own generalisations. For many, there is an extreme spectrum because of this; on the one hand, History from Africa is absent and non-existent until European exploration and on the other (especially with African American Communities), all of History came from Ancient Egypt and thus so did different European and Asian Martial Arts as a result. Indeed, within the internet community many of these people are nicknamed “Hoteps” because of the Egypt-origin theory. In short, in many cases it’s either one end of the spectrum or the other, for the intention of showing how one side is superior to the other. With this in mind, it’s obvious that reconstructing Historical African Martial Arts will come with a lot of controversy; both with these two sides and also those who keep the traditional African Martial Arts alive who do not want to share their information.

For many people who do practice African Martial Arts traditionally, there is some resilience with opening up to the public; both due to Historical Reasons and community. Racial issues in the Western World means many feel publicising these Martial Arts means a loss of identity and community in the name of profit (selling out) or being integrated into a system that once infringed upon their rights; it’s important to emphasise that these systems are still remembered by those who experienced that today. In other contexts, there’s a level of esotericism when it comes to Martial Arts that has a Historical Basis. This coincides with spirituality played a large part in African Martial Arts. For example, in N’golo in Angola and the Americas, there were secret societies which held large spiritual properties and the Art, for example in the United States, was linked to the Central African belief of manifesting spirits from the land of the dead. In many places, this survives in a social form.

I think these issues will be a large obstacle when it comes to reconstructing Martial Arts from the African Continent, and  Diaspora, but I also don’t think it means becoming discouraged. Everyone outside who I’ve talked to has expressed nothing but enthusiasm and solidarity over what is happening and, more importantly, want to learn these themselves. This reflects a context in the 21st Century which hasn’t been evident before; mainly the effect of the internet as well as globalisation. With almost instant communication and consumer choice for people, there will be the intrigue and stride to learn African Martial Arts, which has been happening with other Martial Arts around the world, whether it be Taekwondo or HEMA. It means there’s more of an effort to be inclusive as well as interested in learning and reconstructing, the prospect of learning the art of an Ethiopian Warrior that not only has existed but still exists provides a sense of giddiness for many people, the same kind of giddiness one would feel learning the Martial Arts of a Western European Knight in plate armour.

Being a Historian, I can only say that with a growing community and better inclusion; these issues will be overcome by both academic research (something which is severely lacking in this department) and the interest of people who want to participate and learn, promoting both the Martial Arts and a continent which in many places is still the ‘dark continent’. With this, I think African Martial Arts can find a place in the world that other Martial Arts have already found and, even better, provide new zest to the Martial Arts community.

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