Wednesday, May 1, 2013


During one of his visits to Tenerife, quite close to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, James Young was invited to a cockfight. He had always been an intrepid traveller and explorer of different cultures and accepted the kind invitation with pleasure.

In fact it was the gardener at the English Library in Puerto de la Cruz who introduced him to a gentleman they called El Perico. He was a small, roundish and balding man with an inviting smile which turned into one of cunning when the conversation turned to cocks. He was considered the master in the world of cockfighting in the Orotava Valley. El Perico first took James to see his collection of champion gamecocks which were kept in the middle of a banana plantation and where they were conditioned for increased stamina and strength. James Young later discovered that the breeder was not the proud owner of the magnificent birds but the keeper of them for a local aristocrat.

It was believed, not so long ago, that the sport, if one can call it a sport, had been banned. However, Andalucía and the Canary Islands remain the only provinces in Spain where cockfighting is still permitted. The law allows it on the islands but tries to make it disappear "naturally" by blocking its expansion. But, as you can see from this poster, cockfights still manage to be well organised events.

But in the early years of the 20th century cockfighting even took place in the patio of the old San Francisco convent, just down from the Marquesa Hotel. It was often a distraction for dignitaries and aristocrats, like those in this painting of Emile Claus, "The Cock Fight in Flanders", which portrays men of means in Waregam collected around a small arena.

The charming old Marquesa Hotel still exists, but the convent was burned down in 1966 and only the chapel remains. By then the cockfighting had moved elsewhere, to a great extent because British visitors were very critical of them, forgetting perhaps that the sport once existed in the British Isles too. 
It was a hot and dusty Saturday afternoon when James Young was led on horseback to a circular earth arena surrounded by a low wall of volcanic stone specially prepared in the fields close to the Botanical Gardens. It did not seem to be a massive crowd-pulling event but James counted about sixty men gathered around the arena and there was a collection of important-looking cars parked at a safe enough distance from the dust raised by the fighting birds. Their chauffeurs waited obediently for an order.

More than a spectator sport James Young soon realised that it was organised as a betting event. He noticed a lot of money being handled by a couple of slim little men with anxious faces and sweating brows. The foreigner declined an offer to place a bet and his horse was taken away under the shade of some distant eucalyptus trees. Horses were known to become nervous by the sight of blood and by the roar of men driven to the brink of savagery or on the verge of winning or losing one hundred of the old pesetas.

The only things of beauty James Young saw were the big birds. They were like princes dressed for battle with magnificent arrays of red, purple, blue and green plumage glistening in the afternoon sun. They looked so proud and elegant. But that was before the contest. James Young had no idea some combatants often had their necks shaved for battle. That was his first warning and to start with he thought it made them look a little ridiculous. In fact they were shaved to allow the enemy’s sharp beaks and spurs to cut mortal gashes as near to the jugular as possible. Nevertheless, far from seeking a quick battle, the best contests were those that took longest for one bird to collapse or to die in a pool of blood.

Often the principal objective for a fighting cock was to peck out the opponent’s eyes. Once both its eyes had been destroyed a doomed bird could remain upright and at the mercy of the winner for a long time. It would wander about aimlessly while the other, an eager combatant at all times instead of merciful, would peck and peck and spring up to bring its spurs down over and over again until it too could do no more killing, while the victim’s blood squirted out in all directions like Spanish surreal paintings.

Some birds, usually the favourite and owned by the wealthiest landowners, were fitted with artificial and sharpened metal or bone spurs, like the best gladiators in ancient Rome.

The cockfight was the only thing James Young disliked about the Orotava valley. He had seen enough blood and savagery during his brief spell in France in the First World War. He hated cruelty. He thanked his host El Perico very warmly and rode away from the scene very soon, wondering why he had wanted to witness a cockfight at all. He didn't do anything to show any disrespect for the tradition of others. Nevertheless news quickly spread around the valley that el señor inglés preferred other amusements.

Some historians trace the origins of fighting cocks to 6,000 years ago in Persia, whilst others refer to cockfighting being religious or political institutions in Athens, "for preparing the seeds of valour in the minds of their youth". There is no doubt, however, that James Young had not read about the belief that the first fighting cocks in the Canary Islands arrived from England and might even have been traded in exchange for fine Malmsey wines by merchants whose ships anchored off towns like Garachico.
Opponents to the sport claim it isn’t a sport at all but a barbaric and cruel spectacle whose principal aim is to make money by betting. They insist cockfighting should, in the civilised world we Europeans claim to live in, be banned. Like bulls which are teased and stabbed to make them aggressive before a bullfight they suggest these magnificent birds are sometimes given strychnine or cafeine.
Supporters hang on to suspect virtues like history, tradition and the fact that fighting cocks will fight each other in the wild anyway, like deer in the forests, for territory and hens, and that they possess a congenial aggression towards all other males. They claim gamecocks are not necessarily trained for mortal combat. Yet breeders take their profession very seriously, possibly because of the growing anti-blood sport movements, so feeding, grooming and vaccination under proper veterinary conditions are of utmost importance.
In his diary James Young referred to the cockfight saying, “I have no doubt certain people of my class will always go to see one, but I doubt very much if they would enjoy what they witness, or wish to see one ever again. It is a sickening sight.”
By John Reid Young, author of "The Skipping Verger and Other Tales"