BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Bajan artform of stick licking
THIS MONTH, the NATION will be bringing a number of articles in celebration of Black History Month, written by students from the Visual And Performing Arts Division of the Barbados Community College. They will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in February.
STICK LICKING is the Barbadian form of the martial art of stick fighting, the origin of which can be traced back to Africa. Two fighters use fire-hardened sticks of varying lengths and sizes as weapons to perform the fighting techniques.
This art form arrived in Barbados in the 16th century during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. This research paper will focus on the origins of stick fighting and assess ways in which these origins have developed into what we know to be Bajan stick licking.
THE TRADITIONAL ART of stick fighting was developed among the West African ethnic groups of Kongo and Asante. Both ethnic groups were notable for being aggressive in nature and developers of weapons in pre-colonised Africa.
The Asante and Igbo, among other ethnic groups, were especially known for their stick fighting. The art comprised mainly two elements – the stick and the fighting technique. The stick varied between ethnic groups and even within a single group. Overall, these sticks were highly decorative.
Across many African countries, stick fighting systems could be found. These stick fighting traditions were passed down and spread and transformed into unique styles in each country the exponents settled in.
Countries along with the name of the stick fighting art form practised there include: Egypt – Tahtib, traced back to c. 2500 BC; Nigeria, Chad and Niger – Dambe; South Africa – Nguni; Sudan – Nuba; and Ethiopia – Surma peoples.
Central Africa (Zaire and Angola) has always had a big tradition of stick fighting. Considering the fact that about half of the slave population brought to the Caribbean was from central Africa, it is no wonder this martial art form was found throughout the region.
Angola is a central African country where stick fighting played an essential role in the culture. It must be noted that sticks were used only for practising the techniques. In the event of war, blades were added to the sticks or machetes were used as weapons.
The transatlantic slave trade refers to the passage between Africa and the Caribbean that was responsible for transporting enslaved Africans to the new world. This trade not only transferred people, but also brought a whole new culture, including the traditions, mannerisms and knowledge to the region. In this transaction, the ritual of stick fighting came to the Caribbean.
During the first months of arrival, the enslaved Africans were put through a process of deculturalisation where all elements of the Africans’ original culture was stripped away in an attempt to creolise or mentally adapt the slaves. Naturally, resistance to the deculturalisation process occurred. This form of passive resistance included the learning of the adapted African culture by the following creole generation.
THE ADAPTATION of stick fighting first influenced the shape of the weapon. Overall, the weapon changed from the once tapered, carved form and became more naturally formed and lacking the highly decorative carvings of the predecessors. Additionally, the wood from which these sticks were made changed due to availability.
Moreover, the techniques used in stick fights changed from a movement to a more physically taxing style that required less training and skill.
All of the adaptations were due to the generational gap between the fully African slaves and the Creoles, unavailability of supplies and training such as traditional Igbo carving methods, and a lack of time due to the strenuous requirements of plantation life.
Many Africans brought their traditions, cultures and fighting styles to the Caribbean, which, paired with other factors in their new environment, led to an evolution of each art form.
A factor that seemed to remain constant upon arrival in the Caribbean was the aggressiveness of the stick fighters, as Bajan stick lickers were said to have a reputation for being aggressive in the art form (Elombe Mottley).
In terms of the preparation of sticks, they were made from specific wood including black willow, wild guava, rad and bay. The wood was selected based on weight and length. The sticks were cured and prepared using linseed oil to increase their sturdiness and flexibility.