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.
Do 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?