Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne


We in England have many sports, such as hunting, shooting, fishing, racing, cricket, football, and countless other games and pastimes. In Portugal, beyond a very little shooting, there is only one real sport, and that is bull-fighting.

It is very exciting indeed, and the Portuguese take great delight in watching it.

Most of us think of bull-fighting as terribly cruel, and as degrading to those who witness it, and so it is in Spain. The audience there expect to see bulls killed, horses gored to death by cruel horns, and many other horrors too revolting to think of.

In Portugal, however, it is altogether different, although it is still such a dangerous amusement that a slip or a false move may cause a man's death. The main object is to show great skill and agility in teasing and playing with the infuriated bull, without giving him the chance of retaliating. Anyone who gets either himself or his horse injured is looked on as a very clumsy fellow.

I will try to tell you all that Pedro, a little bullet-headed Portuguese boy saw, one fine Sunday afternoon, when his father and mother took him for the first time to see a bull-fight.

It was at Lisbon, where there is an enormous bull-ring, a great round building standing on a hill to the north of the city, and big enough to hold

10,000 or 12,000 people. Large crowds were trooping towards it, some in carriages, some on foot.

Pedro was all excitement, and was quite bewildered when he got inside at seeing so many faces, row upon row, and the boxes and stalls packed with gaily-dressed ladies.

The building had no roof, and was divided into two parts called sol and sombra—"sun" and "shade." Those who could afford it sat in the shade, those who had less of this world's goods took cheaper seats in the sun, which beat down fiercely on them, and until the commencement of the sport, the sunny side was one vast sea of parasols and umbrellas. Water-sellers with glasses and large red earthenware jars plied a busy trade, as they passed up and down crying with shrill voices: "Water, cold water!"

Pedro was one of the lucky ones who sat on the shady side. He was quite cool and comfortable, so he had nothing to distract his attention from all that was going on. A band played some preliminary music, but the little boy could hardly listen to this, so anxious was he for the show to begin.

At last a flourish of trumpets and the applause of the company proclaimed that the Director of the Corrida had entered the tribune, just below the royal box, which was empty on this occasion, though royalty may often be seen at the bull-fights.

A bell rang, and Pedro could have screamed with delight as a gateway facing the tribune was thrown open for a horseman and twelve men on foot to enter. The horse was a beautiful animal, caparisoned in silk and gold. The rider, or cavalheiro, was young and handsome, with powdered hair, and dressed in a most becoming costume, such as might have been worn by Dick Turpin or Claude Duval. He had on a dark green coat, richly laced with gold, and with deep cuffs, broad lapels, and ruffles at the wrists; a frilled shirt, lace cravat, a three-cornered hat with feathers, white breeches, and high boots up to the knees. The stirrups were of the old-fashioned, square, box-like variety common to the country, and were of shining silver.

On either side of him stood three banderilheiros—men who attack the bull on foot. They, too, had three-cornered hats, and wore tightly-fitting jackets and breeches of bright-coloured silk, embroidered with gold or silver lace, and gaudy coloured scarves were wound round their waists.

Behind these were six other men, called mocos de forcado, or fork-men, so named from the pole, with a small blunt iron fork at one end, which they sometimes carry. They were peasants from the plains of Alemtejo, where the bulls are bred, and on this occasion were clad in gay-flowered chintz jackets, drab breeches, bright sashes, white stockings, and long green bag caps.

Whilst all these remained standing, the cavalheiro  rode round the ring. He was a most finished horseman, and as he bowed gracefully, hat in hand, making his horse caracole and amble, little Pedro quite lost his heart to him, and thought he was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

After this all withdrew, and then the cavalheiro  returned, accompanied by two of the banderilheiros  carrying red cloaks, with which to irritate the bull. They were all provided with darts—sticks about a foot long, with very fine barbed points, and ornamented with floating ribbons. These have to be stuck in the upper part of the bull's neck, about 6 inches behind the horns, and on a spot less than 4 inches square. It is the one part of the sport that might be considered cruel, but the skin in that place is about 2 inches thick, and very hard and callous, and it is said (let us hope with truth) that the bulls hardly feel the prick.

As the feat of placing the darts is generally performed while the animal is actually charging, it demands the utmost daring, agility, and sureness of eye.

At a given signal a door was thrown open, and while Pedro held his breath with excitement and terror, a fierce black bull rushed bellowing in, and charged straight at the bold cavalheiro. Galloping past it, he plunged his little dart into the animal's neck, at the very moment when the small spectator felt that nothing on earth could prevent both horse and rider being thrown to the ground. For an instant the bull turned aside, only to renew its mad rushes again and again. The rider flew before it, or galloping alongside, and forcing his now terrified horse to close quarters, placed his darts and wheeled away once more with marvellous quickness to escape the horns of the enraged beast.

The performance lasted for ten minutes, and then eight or nine tame oxen, with bells round their necks, were driven in through a large doorway. They surrounded the wild bull, and got him to trot quietly out with them.

All this time Pedro had been held spellbound, but the moment had now come when his hero was to receive the reward of his prowess in the shape of applause, clapping of hands, shouting and stamping. Caps and hats were thrown in the air, ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and Pedro joined with the others till he had shouted himself hoarse. After this another bull was let in, and this time he was tackled by two banderilheiros. He tossed his head, pawed up the ground, and bellowed so loudly that it sent a cold shiver down poor little Pedro's back. How was it possible, he thought, for unarmed men on foot to escape?

The bull charged straight at one of them, who stood like a statue, holding his scarlet silk cloak in front of him. As the bull seemed almost in the act of tossing him, he bounded lightly to one side, striking with his dart at the same moment, and throwing the cloak into the animal's face. It was torn to ribbons in a few seconds, for the enraged beast lowered his great muscular neck, and gored and tossed it, trampling and stamping on it as though he were killing some living thing. The next moment he was once more charging his enemy, who escaped this time by leaping nimbly over one of the barriers which separated the audience from the ring.

Later on a great commotion was caused by the bull himself jumping the first barrier in pursuit of his tormentor—no mean feat, for it was five and a half feet high. The people in the front seats were terrified lest he might take it into his head to clear the second also, and get in among them, and the relief was great when he was safely back in the ring.

Another item of the programme consisted of what might almost be called a romp with the bull, carried out by the mocos de forcado.

One of them walked boldly forward shouting, hooting, whistling, and throwing his arms about to attract the animal's attention, and, finally, leaning down with his hands on his knees, stared him straight in the face. A furious charge followed, and quick as lightning the man leapt upwards right between the lowered horns, which he grasped firmly with both hands, resisting every effort made to toss him. Loud was the applause as the maddened beast tore round the ring with his enemy borne aloft and unhurt.

His companions now rushed forward to rescue him. With foolhardy daring they seized the bull by the tail, the horns, the legs; pushed against his sides, and so bewildered and overpowered him, that the man was able to jump down in safety from his dangerous position.

The performance was divided into two parts, and there were ten bulls in all. Several times the whole audience went, what we placid English people would call quite "off their heads "with enthusiasm over some special act of skill or daring, and on one occasion, not content with shouting, stamping, and clapping, they flung gloves and handkerchiefs, flowers and cigars into the ring at the hero's feet.

Pedro joined in the applause, feeling quite hurt at not being allowed to throw something himself, not even his mother's fan, which he wanted to do very badly indeed. He was determined that when he grew up, he, too, would be a handsome cavalheiro  on a beautiful prancing horse, and would receive the plaudits of the multitude with becoming grace. In this happy frame of mind let us say "Good-bye" to him, and to Portugal.