New copies of my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques are now available from Amazon at $24.95.
This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cloak and Dagger in Spain

"The Spaniard in Paris," by Evenepoel. His cape is not quite as long as those described below.

The cloak, or capa, worn by men in 19th-century Spain was an integral part of the Spanish knife-fighting system. It was a circle or three-quarter circle of cloth, custom fitted to the height of the wearer. It enabled a man to hold his knife out of sight while at the ready, and through skilfull manipulation it could block an incoming attack, screen his actions from view, or wrap around his opponent's arm or legs.

Here is a description of the garment, from A Tour With Cook Through Spain (1873), by Sir John Benjamin Stone:
We feel a strange distrust of Spaniards as they approach, pass, or follow us, enveloped as they are in their capas or cloaks. In England we occasionally see representations of brigands or robbers dressed in these capas, the ample folds of which seem contrived for the purpose of disguise or for the concealment of weapons. The capa is a national costume, and is worn by every Spaniard. The upper classes have them made usually of black cloth, lined with costly furs or silk; the middle and lower classes wear proportionately less costly materials. The more expensive the cloak the greater extent of cloth is used in the making; the circumference at the bottom of those of superior make measures about seven yards. The wearer, by a peculiar swing of the arm, cleverly flings the capa over the opposite shoulder in such a manner as to have a double covering into the middle of the back, thus his arms are totally enveloped, and at the same time his face is half-buried in its folds—to complete the suspicious garb, the true Spaniard draws down his slouching hat over his eyes. It may be added, our uncomfortable suspicions are not altogether groundless, for the dress is indeed a cloak for mischief. Bad characters have an opportunity of hiding designs, which they fully avail themselves of, and we are frequently cautioned to avoid people who do not uncloak when addressing you—an act of courtesy well understood by the Spaniards themselves. thus obtained are worth noticing.
In Along Spain's River of Romance, the Guadalquivir (1912), author Ernest Slater describes his journey through Spain and the lessons he learned of its culture from his friend and guide, Angel Pizarro. In the following passage, Angel explains how the capa, or cape, is used in conjunction with the knife when fighting:
"Though every capa should be of the same proportionate length, just failing to reach the ankles, just measuring seven yards round the hem, the wearer who wishes to avoid the least slip will carry his capa fully six months before claiming its obedience. It is much like a horse; its qualities must be thoroughly well known. For instance, bear witness--"

Here Angel gave a sort of light skip towards one edge of the bull-ring, swirling his skirts so that the hem of the capa flew up and encircled his waist, just as his hand went down to catch it by one corner. "You here see me, senores, prepared not to run, but to retreat strategically, having been caught in an unguarded moment by a bailiff anxious to draw me into his dark confidence. You will notice that, through my not knowing this particular capa, it has arranged itself one inch too low, thus cutting off one mile an hour from my velocity. No matter, there is a remedy. If Don Miguel yonder will stand just behind me, you shall see."

The gentleman named having taken up his position to the rear of the supposed fugitive, and representing the importunate alguacil [policeman], in a flash Angel unwound his capa, and it flew to coil itself, like an angry boa-constrictor, round the ankles of the pursuer. Had the latter attempted to move forward he would have fallen prone.

"That involves the loss of the capa!" objected a critic.

"According to the alguacil's manner of falling," replied Angel, "and, at the worst, I have time to draw his own capa from his shoulders before I continue my retreat."

"Then you have a strange capa to manipulate."

"So has the alguacil. In addition, he has lost his temper. And foul humour is the very worst condition for the skilled play that now ensues."

"He will leave the capa behind him."

"Pouf ! he is not such a fool, mine being better than his own. Besides, it is his turn to try the chances of a cast. Then if you, senor, have not gathered from my mastery of the capa that I am not a man to be challenged, the worst comes to the worst. We draw. Ah! The chief excellence of the capa is in quarrelling. To fight, one puts the garment over the left arm, so; one bends the body from the perpendicular - thus; one plants the feet just so, and draws back the right arm to the rear, with the carving-knife held level in this manner. The eye is fixed upon the adversary, the gathered-up capa serves as a shield upon the left, the feet ready to leap you to right or left, like a flea, to evade the coming message and to speed the return of post. You menace the face, and just as your opponent prepares to parry a neck blow, your capa passes before his eyes, and you make to bury your knife below the belt. Received in his capa! Now, indeed, you are undone  unless your own capa flies hither and thither like Satanic serpent, not a single movement at random, every coil threatening to entrap his hand. Even let him be best man with the knife, if you are still better with the capa, his mass is said.

"Your knife has fallen. Thus must you manipulate to recover it." So saying, Angel let fall behind him his knife -- which he had drawn from his belt and opened to illustrate the pass -- and retreated, eyes fixed upon his imaginary aggressor, capa now made ready and motionless, now suddenly flying to intercept a lunge or to threaten the enemy's wrist.

"You notice that, though in a sense in extremis, I have two hands to my capa and he has only one. He presses me hard. I cannot stoop to regain the knife at this point, and so -- Zas! I do this!" With that he kicked the knife a few paces to the left, skipped unexpectedly in the same direction as he did so, and swung his cloak towards his enemy in such a manner that the latter could not possibly have intercepted his quick recovery of the knife. His movements were rapid as those of a lizard, and the cloak hid them so well and caught the eye, that he was standing crouching again and armed before I quite realised what had happened. I resolved there and then never to quarrel with Angel.

"Or let us suppose you happen to know that some gringo has sworn your life and is waiting for you with a revolver in his pocket. It is his life or yours. Very well, if he has an ounce of curiosity he is lost. You approach him with all the friendliness in the world, pronouncing some lady's name which you know will catch his ear. His finger in his pocket pauses on the trigger; he wishes to make out what it is you alluded to before you die. Smiling, you draw nearer, your capa thus, your intentions dissembled beneath it, and zas! Good-bye! A dirty, cowardly artifice, and worthy only of a bandit. Still, I show you the capa's dark chapters along with its glorious ones, its mean vices with its heroic virtues. It partakes of the man.
It is invaluable in defence of every kind, from steel of Albacete to the salute expectorate from a balcony. You pass down the street and note that a certain window is awaiting you, that some base-born cochino is gathering up his lips. You arrange the capa in this manner, looking straight before you, but pricking up your ears. Phut! Senores, sound travels more rapidly than saliva. Your arm, swiftly but gracefully, moves upwards thus, and the capa receives the gift, which afterwards may be returned very urgently to the giver or not, according to his age and circumstances. The motto of the capa is semper paratus [always prepared]."


  1. Very interesting text , I recommend reading the handbook baratero , my name is Jorge Prina and dedicate myself to the teaching of esgrima Criolla figth with poncho and knife

  2. Just got your book, beyond all expectations it is well researched and incredibly well written!