Fighting for Honor
The history of African martial arts traditions in the Atlantic world
by T.J. Desch Obi
University of South Carolina Press, 2008
346 pages, including 124 pages of notes and bibliography
Reviewed by Chet Richards
Kum yali, kum buba tambe! (He is tricky, so I will win by being tricky, too!)
As a southerner of European ancestry, I had long wondered how slave owners kept control over their victims. On many plantations, slaves vastly outnumbered owners and overseers, and because of the hard nature of their work, many slaves were in much better physical conditions than their owners. Why didn’t the slaves revolt or simply leave?
It turns out that many did. Most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad and may even recall the Nat Turner Rebellion (1831), the Fugitive Slave Acts (1793 and 1850) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857). But there are a couple of other ways slaves used to preserve their honor and sometimes even their freedom. One of these was “maroonage,” where they would abandon their plantations and settle in the swamps, rugged hills and dense forests of the South. It has been estimated, for example, that the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina may have harbored maroon communities totaling perhaps 2,000 escaped slaves.
The other was simply to resist. As T. J. Obi meticulously documents in this study, Africans and their descendents brought with them an arsenal of well developed martial arts styles. These provided the basis for preserving honor withing the slave communities and even, on occasion, to resist vicious beatings by overseers.
There were two keys to making this work: deception, because an unarmed defender had to close with his attacker, and agility, to avoid weapons and complete the attack. Obi includes these under the label “tricknology.”
When fighting a white oppressor, the ideal was to strike a butting-style head blow and finish the fight before it even developed. … As such butts had to be delivered at close range to be effective, a fighter had to use trickery to close the distance under some innocuous disguise. (p. 109)
Readers familiar with Boyd will immediately recognize the concept of “operating inside the OODA loop.”
The book itself is quite academic and heavily footnoted, reflecting its origins in doctoral research. That said, however, it’s not a heavy read and is packed with interesting tidbits. Did you know that maroon communities survive to this day in the mountains of Jamaica, where they won their freedom by successful resistance some 50 years before the official abolition of slavery in that colony? And slave societies developed all manner of methods to conceal their existence from their owners. In one area, for example, the message “weevils in the wheat” meant that overseers had discovered that a meeting was planned and so it was being postponed.
Perhaps the most fascinating conclusion of the book is that African martial arts techniques still survive in the Americas. Perhaps the best known example is the Brazilian capoiera, but Dr. Obi’s research on site in the low country of the Carolinas documents their existence in the Gullah communities and their descendents into the 21st century.
[You want agility? Check out this YouTube video of a capoiera demo. The kicks and sweeps from inverted positions are typical of Angolan fighting styles.]
I recently read “Why Nations Fail” with theme that is focused on inclusive/exclusive … including looking at the slave issue both in Africa and the US … but in broader context. It points out that the English first attempted to emulate the Spanish model (used in other parts of the America) with Jamestown (enslave the local population and then live off the slaves). It turns out that the native population around Jamestown wasn’t large enough and/or organized enough and the colony almost starved the first two years. They then changed the strategy in Virginia, Maryland, and Carolina with sending over large numbers of enslaved British … where escaping “leet-man” were punished by death and “All the children of leet-men shall be leet-men, and so to all generations”. However, a lot of the “leet-men” did successfully escape, in part because the region was still wilderness. It also somewhat contrasts the Scottish much more democratic and inclusive society with the elitist and exclusive English society. It somewhat has progression (from enslaved British) to importing slaves from Africa (all because the native situation in North America wasn’t conducive to emulating the Spanish model enslaving natives).
I’m just finished Webb’s “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America” … which overlaps quite a bit with “Why Nations Fail” but focused specifically on Scots … where much of the Scots culture is much more Boyd. I’ve referenced it recently in (linkedin) Boyd discussion “Did they apply Boyd’s concepts?”