Savate Batons of the Western Mediterranean

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In Western Europe the most famous two-handed held impact weapon is the Baton. Initially a medium length walking staff that was manageable within the confinements of village and city life. It provided peasants with stability in the fields and a serviceable means of self-protection against man and animal.

Whilst there are many batons of various lengths, this article will be dealing with a category three size impact weapon, or broomstick size Baton. For ease of reference the term Baton will be used to cover all those common stick weapons that fall into this category.

Although the stick fighting systems of the French have been well known for some time, the depth and variety of similar systems in and around the Mediterranean basin and in particular the Iberian peninsular containing Portugal and Spain, is quite amazing. Having lived in these areas and with a background in Savate and the stick arts, I was still unaware of this huge knowledge base until with a little guidance I actively sought them out.

This is due largely to the nature of stick practices in these areas, which still follow the ancient oral tradition of passing down this knowledge from family to family, village to village in each region. This knowledge is closely guarded and seen as an important cultural heritage and birthright to be protected.

With all the distractions of the modern world the importance of such traditions has declined, however it is hoped that with the resurgence of interest in such cultural pursuits across Europe and with the aid of tools like the Internet these ancient skills will be preserved.

The Masters and students of these arts are extremely passionate, with much competition between different styles in the same region. Also recently groups from different countries have started to meet, exchanging ideas and developing a collective vision aimed at recognising and preserving the rich stick heritage they share.

In examining some of the arts from these countries a clear commonality can be seen. While they all to some degree make use of sticks of varying sizes, the Baton seems to be the premier weapon. Also every group has its emphasis on combat, rather than sport with all targets permissible and all techniques allowable. This is because the stick has always been for defence in real life situations.

Used as a tool, walking aid and a weapon it was needed to protect oneself while travelling between villages, to help against rivals from other towns/regions and to sort out everyday disputes. It is no coincidence that in the areas that preserve these skills very few older men are ever seen without a stick of some sort, as they have been a vital tool and friend throughout their lives.

One of the better known of the Iberian stick arts is the Portuguese system of “Jogo de Pau”. This is an extremely strong and combat orientated system, well represented throughout Portugal. It has a large national Federation, “Federacao Nacional do Jogo Pau Portugues” with much contact between clubs, regions and with International groups. It mainly utilises a stick slightly larger than the French Baton, although it has single stick elements

It’s techniques cover single and multiple opponents, fighting from seated and grounded positions and they practice both with and without protection. The Portuguese government recognises that “Jogo do Pau” is an important cultural activity and provides support, with the art often on display during festivals, celebrations and events.

Another system, which shares many similarities, is the Spanish art of “Juego del Palo” that can be found in the Canary Islands. They have established their own federation, “Federacion del Garrote Canario”. There is a wealth of different stick systems unique to each island, with often several styles existing on the same island. Tenerife and Gran Canaria provide the two main styles, however Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gomera islands all have their own individual arts. The terms “Juego del Palo” and “Jogo do Pau”, both mean the “game of the stick.

Sticks of all sizes are utilised, even ones up to 5 meters in length, which are also used to traverse the many gorges on these volcanic islands. The varied environments of the islands have influenced the type of stick favoured, with truncheons (macanas), canes (palo corto) and quarterstaff size weapons (garrottes or latas) all represented.

However here also the most common stick is the baton (palo) or walking staff size. The emphasis is on combat applications with hits, thrusts, grabs, butt strokes and wresting (lucha) elements all blended into comprehensive systems. The range of the Canarian systems is much closer and while not as hard or forceful as the Portuguese method it is very quick and fluid with the goal to close rapidly and finish the job. While the skill base here is maintained very much at a village level, there is intense competition between different groups and islands and collective bodies have been established to preserve and promote the arts.

One such group is the” Encuento Internacional de Practicas con Baton”, which meets regularly in Gran Canaria and has representatives from the Canaries, Portugal and France. The Canarian authorities have recognised the importance of saving this heritage, encouraging its tuition at schools as apart of the curriculum and subsidising its teaching at sporting centres to make it accessible to all.

Many Canarian people have immigrated to South America and taken with them their stick arts. Cuba and in particular Venezuela have evolved their own systems, which are directly related to the Canarian methods. Called Garrote in Venezuela they utilise smaller truncheon sized sticks and sometimes canes and machetes, with unarmed elements in a no-nonsense, efficient style. While purely for combat elements of the art are also apparent in traditional dances, “la batalla venezolan” where the men use their sticks to politely lift the ladies skirts.

Also related to the Canarian systems are those found across the whole of North Africa. From Morocco to Egypt there exist numerous stick methods used by the local people and while there are minor regional variations they clearly come from a common root. There is a system in the Canaries passed on through the drivers of the camel trains and this same system is present in North Africa.

In France stick play has evolved into a tightly regulated sport for canne and baton. The “Comite National de Canne de Combat et Baton” (CNCCB) nationally regulates the rules, grading, competitions and only selective safe techniques are allowed. This has limited their overall combat effectiveness however they are very competitive sports.

Apart from the CNCCB there are several small but dedicated groups within France and in Australia the “Bridgeman Savate Association” who practice the stick arts as an integrated system of personal combat, utilising a variety of stick sizes. It is these groups whose systems bare many similarities to those of the Portuguese and Canarian arts, which points to an ancient and ongoing development and interaction between stick cultures in the entire region.

In fact the whole of the Mediterranean basin and the Iberian Peninsula has been a rich melting pot of cultures and techniques and the different stick systems found here should be looked upon as regional variations on a grand and common theme.

In Australia, the Baton style used by the Bridgeman Savate Association has its origins from Southern France and as such is classified as Mediterranean. The school has been around since 1969 and is one of the few groups outside this region. The method appears to be an Iberian/Gaul blend with a touch of Australian verve and has managed well in Europe and the Canary Islands. Practiced by the young and the old, they are certainly worthy weapons with which to be familiar. ~ By Colin Pestell