Week 40: Bullfight

It began with a trumpet fanfare to herald the entrance into the ring of a young man got up in eighteenth century finery, complete with pelisse and plumed hat, and mounted on a sturdy grey steed. The crowd applauded his entrance, applauded again as he brought his horse to a standstill in the ring’s centre, and once again after he saluted the trumpeter’s box. Indeed, it seemed our noble cavalier had but to twitch a facial muscle to have the crowd in congratulatory raptures.

Such a finely-clothed, popularly-acclaimed cavalier must, I assumed on sighting him, be the star of the show. But no: his purpose was simply to serve as an over-demonstrative, over-dressed secretary, and summon forth one after another the contingents that would constitute the pre-slaughter parade. Time and again the cavalier would leave his designated spot beneath the trumpeter’s box to gallop through the centre of the ring and (with the crowd applauding him all the while) beckon through the opposing gate the next group that was to squeeze into the fast filling arena.

First there was a file of eight boys dressed (one assumes) as eighteenth-century pages, clutching feathered hats beneath their arms. Then there was a rather unsteady looking mounted band, who treated us to less-than-perfectly synchronised trumpet blasts while their horses threatened to meander apart beneath them. Following them were a troop of grown men with standards, followed by a troop of not-quite-so grown men with more feathered hats. Finally, and most bafflingly, two ornate, cumbersome carriages carrying a full load of barely visible (but undoubtedly extravagantly dressed) passengers, which lurched in for a quick loop of the arena before lurching out again, followed in reverse order by all the men, almost-men, boys and horses who had all since walking in done nothing to entertain us but stand on the spot and be applauded, a fact which did not stop the crowd heartily clapping them again as they exited. Perhaps the Portuguese are simply generously indulgent of amateur performers’ aspirations; or perhaps the standard of modern theatre in Portugal is in a pitiable state, if this sorry parade genuinely passes for a high-quality show.

100_8940Do not ask me the symbolic or practical function of the parade; for if one exists, I do not know it. The best I have surmised from my research is that the traditional dress is in honour of a son of the 4th Marquis of Marialva, who was killed by a bull in the late eighteenth century. This incident seems to be a touchstone in Portuguese bullfighting culture and so forms part of the narrative which argues for the preservation of this ancient tradition. The poor bulls; not only are they therefore the unwitting victims of a nation’s (or rather: several nations) conviction of the vital importance of tradition to their people’s identity, but their suffering is justified with reference to an incident hundreds of bull-generations ago. Bulls, like women, bear the burden of original sin; perhaps that is why I felt so much sympathy for them.

For sympathy was one of my overriding emotions once the bullfighting actually started. Sympathy, mingled with disgust, horror, hypocritical repugnance of the people around me, and not a small degree of self-loathing for implicitly supporting the blood sport simply by turning up.

The fight in brief proceeds thus: a fine, strong bull is released into the ring. This bull is taunted by a horseman (a cavaleiros) with the occasional assistance of pink-cape carrying matadors on the ground, until the animal is goaded into a charge. The horse narrowly evades the charge thanks to its rider’s dextrous skill, but remains close enough for the rider to plunge a javelin into the bull’s back. This taunt, charge and stab routine is repeated a number of times, and each time a javelin is thrust into the animal’s flesh the crowd cheers; each time the horseman misses, he is jeered.

The ardour of some in the crowd was such that one would be forgiven for thinking they had a personal grudge against the bull. They responded as though this were a clash between good and evil, between a sworn enemy and their heroic saviour, between George and the dragon; rather than what it really was: the torture of a once proud and magnificent creature, bred and trained to be maimed for our entertainment.

In Lisbon, bulls are not actually killed in the ring. They are speared half-a-dozen times or so by the cavaleiros until the poor beast is exhausted by pain and the futile chase and the blood pouring down his shoulder is thick enough to be seen from the highest seats in the stadium. Then the victorious rider departs and his place is taken by a line of eight unarmed men (the forcados), the foremost of which provokes the bull into charging him head on. Rather than jumping clear, the man actually jumps onto the bull’s head and is quickly reinforced by the other men in an effort to subdue the animal by brute strength. Only after this final ritual subjugation is the bull herded out of the ring, to be slaughtered out of sight.

Regular readers of my blog will know I have endeavoured when describing previous challenges to identify the humour in my situation, whatever that situation may be. With bullfighting though I cannot. There is nothing funny in the torture of an innocent creature. Nor is it entertaining, which a sport ought to be if it is not competitive. And competitive a bullfight most decidedly is not. If a bullfight were a fair fight it would not be fought: more than 4,000 bulls are killed a year in Portugal’s bullfights and more than 40,000 worldwide. By comparison, no matador has died in the ring since 1985 and only 52 have been killed since 1700. The most harm that probably comes to humans at bullfights these days is blistered fingers from excessive applauding.

I did not applaud at any point during the parading or fighting, and I left after the first of the six scheduled fights for the evening, feeling physically sick from the spectacle. Admittedly, neither of these minute acts of protest are sufficient to wipe away the guilt I feel for actually attending in the first place, nor does the fact that I have invested a considerable amount of my time since that evening researching into the anti-bullfighting campaigns of animal rights groups. Arguably however, by going to a bullfight I did get a more rounded view of Portuguese culture than I had otherwise acquired through a week’s happy ambling through cobbled streets, sumptuous palaces, wonderful art collections, and romantic Moorish ruins. I loved Portugal for its beauty, its friendliness and its rich cultural heritage; which qualities make the perpetuation of this ‘sport’ not only barbaric but almost illogical. This grand, new stadium in the heart of Lisbon; the ceremony of foppery and claptrap; the horsemanship and skill of many years’ refinement; these thousands of people gathered, all the money they give, all their baying and jeering; all this, just to kill a bull?

To support anti-bullfighting campaigns and for campaign news, see CAS International and the League Against Cruel Sports.

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About georgina2013

I work in digital humanities publishing and when not setting myself silly challenges am the sort of person who loves good books, good coffee, new places, historic places, old comedy, jazz & Radio 4.
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2 Responses to Week 40: Bullfight

  1. Natasha V says:

    It’s a fascinating thing really – fascinating in that it still exists, is still entertainment, and yet is surely so OBVIOUSLY morally repugnant and inhumane. It’s interesting to explore the reasons why it is still here. I went to the bull run in Pamplona for the San Fermin fiesta (probably the most well known bull run in the world – you know, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and all that) last year, as my Dad is fascinated by Spanish culture. The bull run, I have to say, I found (against my pre-conceived ideas) exhilarating and pretty extraordinary. However, before we went, he told me that I needed to seriously consider whether I would go to a bullfight, as although he was curious for the experience, he stressed that it is not ‘entertainment’ and I shouldn’t presume I would like to see it.

    So, I didn’t go, but watched it on screen, and that was bad enough; I felt repulsed – and not even so much by the act of stabbing the bull and so on: repulsed that what I had previously understood to be some kind of ‘competition’ (as you put it) or at least some kind of demonstration of bravery was actually just a pathetic, pre-staged, highly controlled affair, where there was absolutely no chance of the matador being hurt, and what’s more – that the matador himself, this celebrated figure of masculinity was therefore actually a TOTAL coward – all the hard work is done by those dudes on the horse who can basically gallop away if anything gets dodgy and make the bull so disabled that it’s never going to hurt the dude in the weird sparkly jacket anyway!

    I could go on a gender rant about pathetic reinforcements of ‘triumphant’ masculinities, “bravery” big man defeat animal beats his chest in victory and rolls around in the BLOOD kind of imagery type of thing, but I think what I found the most interesting about it all came from the conversation with my Dad afterwards. I was shocked – blabbering “but HOW can this be allowed!” indignantly at him, that kind of thing…stressing it was clear that the animal was in pain, that it’s horrible to watch an animal in pain, little children are there…how how how, etc….

    His analysis rested on the involvement of something else: the church! Of course, Spain has a huge Catholic heritage and still a strong religious presence and context. Of course, in the wonders of the Old Testament, there have been plenty of interpretations of the idea that humans as ‘stewards’ of the earth or the ‘rulers of the kingdom of nature’ etc means that basically humans are boss and we get to do whatever we need to do to animals/nature in order to make sure we are ok, you know, God placed animals here for our use, so yeah, whatever. Also, bulls look a bit like devils, apparently. Have horns, are black, scare people and stuff. In short: morality doesn’t extend to animals – animals are just here to serve us, they’re not ‘thinking’ creatures, the morality of MAN is what is important. So yeah, basically, take your kids, take your popcorn, and go watch it get slayed.

    Jeez, this turned in to a long comment!I just wanted to write it in case it helps to make some sense of what is actually quite a traumatic and confusing thing to watch, I remember how I felt after and that was just on the telly.

    there’s a disturbing set of comments on this weird website about the same; you know, “everyone talks about the bulls, what about the men” thing..

    “The CE hits it on the head in another area as well. All considerations of the morality of the bull fight are in light of the risk to human persons, not whether it is moral to kill the bull (I think that’s assumed). What an important distinction. All too often the focus is on the animal or nature or the environment, but never on the true nature and dignity of man.”

  2. georgina2013 says:

    Thank you for the comment Tash! I love your comments on my blogs, you are able to get to the heart of the matter and express it in a much clearer way than I manage!

    I’m interested that you enjoyed the bull run even though the bull fight is obviously repulsive; it was actually a bull run that I had meant to go to, I heard about one in a town near Lisbon, but annoyingly was scheduled for the day after my flight home. So I thought “oh well, second best: a bull fight. How bad can it possibly be?”. I should have had your dad there to advise me! Most definitely not entertainment, even the parade wasn’t entertaining, it was one of the worst evenings I have ever spent.

    And gosh, that it should be excused through church teachings? What happened to ‘love all God’s creatures’? Then again, given what man has done to man in the name of gods, that they do this to animals shouldn’t be surprising. But it is as you say a very misguided masculine display. I can almost understand how bull fights might have been useful in the middle ages, if the human combatants were soldiers needing to practice their skill and strength, but today, when they are just performers in a staged fight, getting money and adulation for wounding a confused creature… it is as you say inexcusable and utterly, utterly indefensible (though the church aside, the real defence given, as for most things in life is: it makes money).

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