Africa and African America (Martial Arts)

Although many of the societies of Africa developed in close proximity to Egyptian civilization, with its highly developed fighting arts and rivalry with other “superpowers” such as the Hittites, their martial systems developed in relative isolation from Middle Eastern combat disciplines. Rather, the martial arts, particularly those of the sub-Saharan Africans, belong to a world where (until the arrival of Europeans) the greatest martial threats came from the other sub-Saharan groups, rather than from another continent. Some of the African peoples did have contact with the Arabs, who brought Islam to the region and threatened the indigenous populations with enslavement. To the best of current knowledge, however, the technology and martial development of cultures relying on the same subsistence bases (for example, hunting and gathering and agriculture) were roughly the same for most of the civilizations of Africa, and they continued to be so until the arrival of the Europeans in the beginning of the fifteenth century. Even at this point, some groups resisted advanced weaponry when it became available because of cultural biases. For example, the Masai and Kikuyu viewed firearms as the weapons of cowards.

When one discusses the traditional African martial arts, it is important to note the wide variety and diversity of weapons that were available. Some groups had mastered the art of iron smithing. Although this knowledge probably crossed the Sahara in the fourth to fifth centuries b.c., the spread of iron occurred much later, and, in fact, the distribution patterns were irregular. For example, when the Portuguese entered southern Africa ca. 1500, the Khoisan pastoralists (“Hottentots”) and hunter-gatherers (“Bushmen”) did not have access to iron.

Those groups who did obtain iron were able to develop the usual variety of weapons that came from the art of iron smithing, such as swords, daggers, and metal spear points. For example, in Benin, Portuguese merchants encountered soldiers armed with iron swords and iron-tipped spears. Their shields, however, were wooden, and their anteater skin armor (Corbis) was of greater significance as magical than as practical protection. In fact, magical powers were attributed to most West African weapons and defenses. Even without metallurgy, other groups produced lethal clubs, staves, and spears with stone points. African societies, some of them small states with standing armies, were militarily formidable even without the trappings of their European and Middle Eastern contemporaries.

A picture of a Zulu warrior holding a large shield and a short spear (assagai) characteristic of their armed combat system. This illustration appeared in a British publication during the war between British settlers and the native population in Africa, 1851.

A picture of a Zulu warrior holding a large shield and a short spear (assagai) characteristic of their armed combat system. This illustration appeared in a British publication during the war between British settlers and the native population in Africa, 1851.

Among the armed combat systems that developed were the ones that were used by the Zulu peoples of South Africa. The Zulu were proficient in combat with club, spear, and shield. Because they lacked body armor, the shield became the protective device used by the Zulu warriors. They initiated combat by either throwing a spear at the opponent or using it for a charge. When spear combat became impractical because of the range, the club was used for close-quarters combat. The club-and-shield combination could be used in ways similar to the sword-and-shield combination of warriors in Europe.

This type of fighting gave the Zulu an advantage in combat, as they had all of their ranges covered. The spear could either be used as a pole-arm weapon that allowed the warrior to fight from a distance or as a short-range stabbing weapon. In fact, Shaka Zulu revolutionized indigenous warfare by the use of massed formations and of the assagai (a stabbing spear with a shortened shaft) in conjunction with a redesigned shield. Modern use of the spear in traditional Zulu ceremonies has demonstrated that they continue to be able to use the spear in conjunction with the shield effectively. If the spear was lost, then clubs were used for effective close-range combat.

Perhaps no weapon signifies African martial arts more than the throwing iron. These instruments had many names from the different peoples that used them. They have been known as mongwanga and hunga-munga. Many cultures have developed throwing weapons, from sticks to the famous shuriken of the Japanese Ninja. Similarly, many African societies placed a premium on these types of weapons. The throwing irons were multibladed instruments that, when thrown, would land with one of the blade points impaling its target. These weapons were reported effective at a range of up to 80 meters. The wounds inflicted at such a long range were not likely to be deadly. At distances of 20 to 30 meters the weapons could connect with lethal impact.

In addition, these bladed weapons were also effective for hand-to-hand combat. Most of them had a handle, and so the blade projections also served as parrying devices if needed. The iron from which the instruments were created was durable enough to stand the rigors of combat, even when one was struck against another throwing iron. Thus, the African warriors who wielded these weapons had not only a reliable projectile device that could be used for long-range combat, but also a handheld weapon for closing with the enemy. Therefore, it was not uncommon for a warrior to carry three or four of these implements, always being certain to keep one in reserve.

These throwing implements were also able to serve as the backbone of a system of armed combat. Given the absence of advanced forms of armor, African warriors were able to use these throwing irons to maximum effect. Once a practitioner was able to penetrate the shield defenses of an opponent, a lethal or incapacitating wound was likely to occur, unless the recipient was able to avoid the strike. The effectiveness of these weapons against an armored opponent is unknown.

Another unique weapon is found among the Nilotic peoples of the southern Sahara region. These groups fought with wrist bracelets that incorporated a sharpened edge. Known by some groups as bagussa (Shangun; things that cause fear), the bracelets were said to be used for defense against slavers. They were also used in ceremonial wrestling matches associated with agricultural festivals. These distinctive weapons continue to be utilized by the East African Nilotic groups of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. For example, contemporary Turkana women of Nigeria still utilize the bracelets in self-defense. The weapons are brought into play by holding the arms in a horizontal guard position in front of the body until the opportunity arises to attack in a sweeping arc across the same plane using the razor-sharp bracelets to slash an opponent.

Combat training was as essential to African martial arts as practice is for martial arts of other cultures. One of the more interesting features of African combat systems was the reliance in many systems on the rehearsal of combat movements through dances. Prearranged combat sequences are well known in various martial arts around the world, the most famous examples being the kata of Japanese and Okinawan karate. Such sequences were also practiced in ancient Greece, through the Pyrrhic war dances. The African systems used drums and stringed instruments to create a rhythmic beat for fighting. Warriors, either individually or in groups, practiced using weapons, both for attacking and defensive movements, in conjunction with the rhythm from the percussion instruments. The armies of the Angolan queen Nzinga Mbande, for example, trained in their combat techniques through dance accompanied by traditional percussion instruments.

From the evidence that survives, which, unfortunately, is scarce, many scholars now believe that this type of training was central to the development of African martial arts systems. The enforcement of learning martial arts through the rhythm created by percussion instruments developed an innate sense of timing and effective movement for the practitioner. In addition, these movements developed effective footwork for the warriors. Although these training patterns have been dismissed as “war dances,” expressive movement rather than martial drills, they actually played a central role in the training of African warriors. In a nonliterate culture, this type of direct transmission through music allowed for consistent and uniform training without the need for written communication. This type of training is replicated today in the most popular of the African/African American martial arts, capoeira (see below).

Among the weapons that were used extensively by the Africans, one of the most important was the stick. Stickfighting, which is practiced in many cultures the world over, has especially been practiced in sub-Saharan Africa. A variety of sticks continue to be used. For example, in addition to a knife and a spear, contemporary Nilotic men carry two sticks: a rungu (Swahili; a potentially deadly knobbed club) and a four-foot stick that is used for, among other things, fighting kin without causing serious injury.

Stickfighting has existed in Africa as both a fighting sport and a martial art. In the sporting variant, competitors met for matches, and a match concluded when a certain number of blows were registered against one of the combatants. The number ranged from one to three, and the match would be halted to avoid serious injury. Blows against vital points of the body or against the head were forbidden in most cases. For the Zulu, as well as the Mpondo, who staged intergroup as well as intravillage stick fights, matches with neighboring polities often took on a deadly earnest quality. The head is reported to have been the preferred target.

Thus, this type of martial arts activity fulfilled two functions for the African practitioners. First, this practice allowed participants to directly experience combat at a realistic level with weapons. Although the target areas were limited, the possibility of injury was very real. Participants had to have a high level of skill just to survive such a bout without injury. For this reason, this type of stickfighting was an excellent preparation for direct military combat.

In addition, stickfighting provided a sporting (although “sport” does not translate well in many non-Western contexts) outlet for the competitors and the societies involved. The contests were a test not only of the competitors’ ability, but also of the training mechanisms that were imparted to the competitors. In this respect, these matches were a point of pride for the villages themselves. The warriors were representatives of the village or society, and when intersociety or intervillage competitions were held, each competitor fought for the society’s as well as for his own honor. This type of nonlethal outlet for warrior instincts allowed for a cathartic release of energy that helped to avoid all-out warfare.

Stickfighting also gave warriors a foundation for armed combat. Learning how to strike, block, thrust, and move with the weapon is critical for any aspect of armed combat. Learning how to perform these basic moves with a stick can be a foundation for building the movements needed for different weapons. In the case of the Zulu, for example, two sticks were used. One was grasped in the middle and used to block and parry the opponent’s blows, while the other stick was used to deliver offensive blows. This practice served to develop skills similar to those needed for the combination of shield and offensive weapon typical of their warfare. For African military societies, this practice provided a method for training warriors that was both nonlethal and inexpensive, and the latter is a relevant consideration. Iron weapons in most cases were expensive and hard to produce. Moreover, in Africa iron weapons, like the smiths who produced them, were often thought to have supernatural properties. Therefore, their use entailed supernatural as well as practical sanctions.

African societies developed systems of unarmed combat as well. Perhaps the best-known type of unarmed combat was wrestling. From the oral accounts that survive, from Egyptian etchings and paintings of Sudanese Nuba wrestlers, and from the few remaining native wrestling traditions still practiced, African wrestling systems, beyond serving as a means of combat, fulfilled both a ceremonial and a sporting function. In most recorded cases, primarily from the Sudan and Nigeria, wrestling was associated with the agricultural cycle (e.g., harvest, yam-growing season) or the individual life cycle, as with the southern Nigerian Ibo, among whom wrestling was associated with male initiation.

Many African wrestling systems seem to have resembled modern freestyle methods, which is to say that the competitors were allowed to throw and to seize any part of the body, including the legs. The well-understood, though unwritten, rules of Nigerian traditional wrestling may be taken as representative: (1) opponents are matched by age; (2) contestants cannot use charms or drugs; (3) the genitals cannot be seized; (4) striking is prohibited; (5) attacks cannot take place before a signal to begin; (6) the match ends when one contestant is prone on the ground (Ojeme 1989, 251).

There are exceptions, however; the Senegalese style called laamb more closely resembles Greco-Roman than modern freestyle wrestling. Nevertheless, in sporting and ceremonial wrestling, as in modern amateur wrestling, the object was to pin the opponent. This meant forcing the opponent’s shoulders to touch the ground, thus placing the antagonist in a “danger” position. Once this was accomplished, the match was completed.

This way of ending the match was not always the case, however. A wide variety of cultural and regional styles existed. In southeast Africa, a tradition of wrestling from a kneeling (in the case of adult men) or seated (in the case of boys) position employing a single arm developed. As an adjunct to grappling skills, the Nilotic cultures just south of the Sahara (the Bambara of Mali among others) wore bagussa (mentioned above) during their ritual wrestling matches. In these sanguinary contests, one attempted to attack the opponent’s head and in the process shed as much of his blood as possible. The blood that was shed in this fashion was believed not only to make the crops grow, but also to heal the sick. The Khoikhoi of southwest Africa, although fighting unarmed, engaged in a type of no-holds-barred wrestling, which came closer to the Greek pankration than to the catch-as-catch-can amateur style. Nor was wrestling a uniformly male pursuit. There are traditions of women wrestling in various groups scattered throughout the continent: Nigeria (Ibo), Sudan (Nuba), Senegal, Cameroon, Benin (Fon), Gabon, Gambia. The reasons for doing so vary, of course. In some cases, as with the men, the grappling is connected with the annual round of agricultural ceremonies; in others, it is an aspect of the courtship process.

As with stickfighting, intervillage and even interstate competitions existed. The Bachama, for example, staged tournaments in conjunction with their agricultural festivals, which included their Nigerian neighbors. On these ceremonial occasions the Bata, Bwaza, Jen, and Mbula were invited to field teams of their best wrestlers. This martial tradition continues into the contemporary period, as evidenced by the 1990 Nigerian national wrestling championship of Julius Donald Ngbarato, a man of Bachama heritage. Similarly, the Luo of Kenya held competitions in which villages or districts were pitted against each other. Although the tournaments were organized, the actual matches seemed less so, for wrestling—like Luo stick-fighting—is reported as “having no rules at all” (Godia 1989, 68).

Given the fact that African wrestling champions have been regarded not only as superior athletes but also as superior warriors, it can be assumed that combat wrestling systems also existed. The matches reported among the Khoikhoi certainly sound combat effective. Therefore it is likely that, beyond the sporting repertoire reported in the literature, wrestlers learned the techniques of choking and joint locking (in which a joint is forced beyond its maximum range of mobility) appropriate to the battlefield. These systems were probably auxiliary training for warriors, to assist them if they lost their weapons in combat. Much of this must be left to speculation, however, given the paucity of written descriptions of these arts.

Beginning in 1415, after the Portuguese established their foothold in North Africa, Europeans introduced firearms in West Africa in exchange for slaves. Therefore, with the beginning of the slave trade, the nature of war in West Africa became Europeanized, although wrestling and stick-fighting persisted in local festivals.

European influence was not, however, the only threat to the traditional martial arts in Africa. Prior to the European incursions, most of sub-Saha-ran Africa had been infiltrated by Islam, which spread along trade routes both inland and on the coast. In exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves, the African kingdoms received goods from North Africa, many of whose rulers accepted Islam in order to improve trade relations with Muslim merchants. At first Islam’s influence on sub-Saharan Africa was limited. The nineteenth century, however, brought a wave of Islamic revitalization to non-Arab Africa. Calling for reform, the establishment of Islamic states, and the crushing of pagan practices through the agency of jihad (holy war against heretics and unbelievers), these revitalization movements sought to crush traditional martial arts such as wrestling and stickfighting, which were elements of the ceremonies of those religions the jihadists so vigorously opposed. These arts survived the movements that sought to crush them.

Ironically, the European colonialist policies that proved destructive to many African peoples provided an agency for preserving and spreading at least modified elements of African culture. During much of the sixteenth century (1530-1600) the Portuguese, who were the major European slave power at that time, transported over a thousand slaves from West Africa to the Americas monthly. Captured Africans brought many of their native traditions with them as they were forcibly relocated to the New World. Some of these traditions included martial arts, which were sometimes transported in a disguised or hidden version. Because of this dispersion, some of the martial traditions of Africa (particularly of sub-Saharan Africa, from which many of the slaves were drawn) still survive and live in altered form.

Given the Portuguese role in the transport of Africans to the New World, it should not be surprising that the Portuguese colony of Brazil became a focal point of African fighting arts (as well as for many other Africanisms, such as the religion of Candomble) in the Americas.

Brazilian capoeira is undoubtedly the most well known and widely disseminated of a complex of New World martial arts that rely primarily on kicks and head-butts as weapons and that are usually practiced to musical accompaniment. The origins of capoeira are recorded only in the traditional legends of the art, which invariably focus on African influence. Considerable debate exists among practitioners and historians as to whether capoeira is the New World development of an African martial art or a system originating in the New World with African influences ranging from terminology to the berimbau, the primary musical instrument used to provide accompaniment for the jogo (“match” or “game”).

Scholar and practitioner J. Lowell Lewis maintains that capoeira manifests an “undeniably African esthetic” by virtue of body mechanics and music among other features (Lewis 1992, 18). The customary label for the earliest form of the art, Capoeira Angola, pays homage to its legendary African origins, usually in dances whose movements were converted to martial applications. One candidate for the ancestor of capoeira is the ngolo (zebra dance) performed by young Mucupe men of southern Angola in conjunction with girls’ puberty rites. Robert Farris Thompson, perhaps the strongest advocate of the theory of African origins, notes the similarities between capoeira’s cabegada (head-butt) and the ngwmdulu mu-tu (striking with the head) of African Ki-Kongo. At any rate, some scholars argue that the similarity among the various New World arts is due to common origin, generally somewhere in Bantu Africa.

Capoeiristas practice to a beat that is set through various percussion instruments, the most important of which is a musical bow with a gourd resonator known as a berimbau. The rhythm that is developed by these instruments determines the cadence in the fight. There is a school of thought among capoeira practitioners that the use of these musical instruments developed to hide the martial function of the physical movements from the Portuguese overlords in Brazil. However, the historical foundations of African arts noted above seem to argue that the use of musical accompaniment for martial arts practice is a strong tradition. This would make the music used with capoeira part of a much older tradition.

Songs involving a leader and a response pattern are sung during play. The words of these songs embody, for example, comments on capoeira in general, insults directed toward various types of styles of play or types of players, or biographical allusions to famous capoeiristas. The sense of capoeira as a dance is established by this musical frame for the action and completed by the movements taking place within the roda (Portuguese; “wheel”—the circle of capoeira play). The basic stance of capoeira places one foot forward in a lunging move with the corresponding hand forward and the other back. There is, however, considerable variety in the execution of the stance (both between individual players and between the Regional and the Angola traditions), and stances rapidly shift, with feet alternating in time to the tempo of the musical accompaniment in a dancelike action called a ginga. The techniques of capoeira rely heavily on kicks, many of them embodied in spectacular cartwheels, somersaults, and handstands. Players move from aerial techniques to low squatting postures accompanied by sweeps or tripping moves. Evasion rather than blocking is used for defense. Head-butts and hand strikes (using the open hand) complete the

Many African combat systems relied heavily on the rehearsal of combat movements through dances. Here, game preserve guards in Ndumu, South Africa, practice a martial dance using rungu (knobbed sticks) in conjunction with the rhythm from percussion instruments, 1980.

Many African combat systems relied heavily on the rehearsal of combat movements through dances. Here, game preserve guards in Ndumu, South Africa, practice a martial dance using rungu (knobbed sticks) in conjunction with the rhythm from percussion instruments, 1980.

Unarmed arsenal of the capoeirista. Again, there is a distinction between Angola and Regional, with the former relying more on low kicks, sweeps, and trips “played” to a slower rhythm.

As an armed fighting art, capoeira has incorporated techniques for the use of paired short sticks and bladed weapons (particularly straight razors, knives, and machetes). Even in those cases in which the art has moved from the streets to the training hall, training in weapons remains in the curriculum in forms such as maculele, which entails a rhythmic clash of short sticks while performing a dancelike action. Stickfighting persists on the streets of Trinidad during Carnival as kalinda.

Though not as well known as capoeira, other similar martial arts have been noted throughout the African Americas.

In Martinique a particularly well-documented form exists, which is called ladjia in the south, damie in the north, and also ronpoin and kokoye. Like capoeira, ladjia is played to the accompaniment of percussion instruments (primarily drums, but also sticks that are clashed together) and leader-and-response songs, and it is characterized by vigorous acrobatic movements. The music controls the pace and character of the fight and therefore is of major importance to the event. Practitioners echo the sentiments of capoeiristas in claiming that without song there is no ladjia. With movements guided by the tempo of the music, the combatants maneuver in ways that are reminiscent of the ginga (Portuguese; from gingar, “to sway, to waddle”). When an opportunity develops, they kick, punch, and eye-gouge. When one lifts the other and throws him on his back, the winner is proclaimed. There are regional variants of the play, the most striking being the bloody ferocity of combative ladjia in the south versus the dancelike performance of damie in the north. The various regional forms of Martinique have been successfully compared to the kadjia of Benin, a similar ritualistic form of activity practiced in conjunction with agricultural ceremony, but one that emphasizes grappling and throwing actions rather than the striking, kicking, and gouging of the New World form. A combat form of kadjia, designed for use when a warrior loses his weapons, incorporates a wider range of techniques.

In Venezuela, broma (literally, “just joking”) is played among Venezuelans of African descent, particularly in the coastal city of Curiepe. Contemporary broma does not maintain a structured curriculum, accepting a variety of new influences at the whim of practitioners. The traditional essence of the style, however, consists of kicks, head-butts, and sweeps.

Other African Caribbean and South American fighting arts such as mam (Cuba), chat’ou (Guadeloupe), and susa (Surinam) may already be extinct. The same may be true of the last vestiges of a similar African American art that had at least one surviving master in the 1980s.

The art of “knocking and kicking” developed in the southern United States. According to Jackson Jordan Jr. of North Carolina, a master of the style, it was widely practiced by African Americans, particularly in the Car-olinas and the Georgia Sea Islands, during his youth at the turn of the twentieth century. One hundred and fifty years earlier, Henry Bibb, a runaway slave from Kentucky, reported that slaves were forced by their masters to fight. In these contests, “The blows are made by kicking, knocking, and butting with their heads; they grab each other by their ears, and jam their heads together like sheep” (1969, 68). Bibb may well be describing the core repertoire of knocking and kicking. His description also may be the best surviving description of this martial art.

Just as little is known regarding susa, an activity reported from Sara-makan Maroon groups in Suriname (Dutch Guyana) by Dutch sources in the late seventeenth century. The obviously martial activity was accompanied by percussive music (drumming and hand-clapping). The goal of the “game” was to knock down one’s opponent. The folk history of this group, whose members claim African and African Indian descent, remembers susa as a dance derived from an African martial art called nsunsa.

The African martial arts in the Americas obviously share a common set of characteristics. It has been suggested that similar features developed as a result of similar circumstances. There are equally strong arguments, however, that martial arts, like many other cultural traditions, survived the Middle Passage (the transport of Africans to slavery in the Americas) to be adapted to the changed cultural context of the Americas. Under less constrained circumstances, the process continues, as contemporary Senegalese immigrants compete in their traditional wrestling art of laamb in parks in Washington, D.C., on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski.

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