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Stick 'Em Up

Monday January 30, 2012

Stick 'Em Up

Enter The Rabbit

If you thought that martial arts were just the sole preserve of Bruce Lee and Shaolin monks then think again. As the Canary Islanders have their very own systems of self-defence.

Juego del Palo - which translates literally as game of the stick - is basically a form of combat with long, thin wooden staves. Similar to other martial arts, there are numerous different fighting styles, often named after the families who developed them or indigenous animals, such as the Estilo Conejero or rabbit style favoured by Lanzaroteños.

And whilst today stick fighting has become more of a folklore tradition, with proponents simply marking or indicating where they could hit their opponent as opposed to delivering actual blows, Juego del Palos roots originate from real and deadly combat situations.

History and Development

The pre-Spanish Guanche inhabitants of the Canaries were apparently master stick fighters - as the conquistadors found out to their expense during the first invasions of the islands in the early 1400´s.

These former Saharan nomads arrived some time during the first millennium BC and established a reputation as both excellent sheepherders and skilled warriors. This was well justified. In parts of the Canarian archipelago they offered fierce resistance to the Spanish colonialists.

Reflecting the relatively primitive development of Guanche culture the indigenous defenders often fought with the same sharpened sticks and staves they used to herd their sheep, often to deadly effect against their better-armed opponents.

The first record of stick combat among the Guanches is to be found in the Spanish Bethencouriana Chronicles, written in 1402. This document makes reference to the Bimbaches - inhabitants of the island of El Hierro - and their skill in fighting with long spears, or lances, “made without the use of iron”.

Two further historical references illustrate early Juego del Palo. In 1478, Antonio Cedeno wrote;

... on the day of the wedding, the women went into the house and there were feasts and games and a contest of sparring with short sticks, coloured with the sap of the drago tree (dragon tree)

And a Spanish engineer named Leonardo Torriani wrote a history of the Canary Islands in 1590, and included a valuable record of early Juego del Palo, accompanied by an illustration of two Guanche warriors performing a type of ritual combat with short staves in a small arena.

Banned Practice

Certainly the prowess of the Guanche was such that, once subdued by the Spanish, they were forbidden from carrying sticks and staves by law. Forcing the practice of stick fighting underground.

For centuries it remained a rural tradition, becoming an integral part of Canarian culture. The practice was passed down via family dynasties each favouring and evolving their own style of combat. Some specialized in close quarter techniques. Others in fighting at distance. Often styles developed to combat specific weapons, such as swords and knives.

Farmers would settle disputes or defend their property with the stick. Young men would fight over women. Parties could even end in stick-fights.

Outlawed Again

In fact the practice became so engrained that it was even banned for a second time. This time by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Once again Juego del Palo was forced underground, only enjoying a renaissance in the 1970´s as the Dictator's grip weakened.

University Of Stick Fighting

This resurgence in interest emanated from Tenerife, orchestrated by a recognized fighting master Tomas Deniz, who founded numerous schools across the islands. Interest is such that there is even now a University del Palo Canario in La Laguna, Tenerife.

Master Deniz developed his own particular fighting style where combatants switch frequently between close range and long range fighting. The guard is kept high and circular strikes and linear thrusts are made towards target areas such as the eyes, groin and ears.

Fighters have to be skilled in defensive tactics as well, as much of the art is dependent upon deflecting an opponents blows and turning these into attacking opportunities.

Rabbit Run

On Lanzarote the Rabbit style was kept alive by Master Feo, of Haria with the help and support of the island government. As a result, new generations of Lanzaroteños have learnt this unique close quarters fighting style, which incorporates attacking and defending moves from a low, often crouched guard.

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