The Horrors of the Bull Fight by Sidney Gowing


Do not believe it when you are told that bull-fighting is near its end. The great sport is as popular and deeply rooted in Spain as cricket is in Britain, and will last as long. To attempt to stop bull-fighting by law would cause a bigger revolution among the Spaniards than the most fearful disasters at home or abroad.

The great home of bull-fighting is Seville, and when the Seville fights are in their glory even Madrid takes second place. The Seville bull-ring is a little larger than that of Madrid, though it is not quite so gorgeously designed. Still, it holds over 14,000 people.

Nearly every Sunday throughout the year there is a bull-fight of sorts to be seen.

About 300,000 people go to the bull-fight every week in Spain, on an average. One must also count in an infinite number of little amateur fights in outlying villages of the provinces.


But at a pukka bull-fight in Seville, six of the finest bulls and at least forty horses are provided, to say nothing of the cortège of gold-clad operators drawing terrific salaries. Fashion and the masses turn out together to hoot and whistle and shout, and nothing on earth short of Armageddon could stop a fight half-way.


Half-past two in the afternoon is the usual time for commencement. Seats in the sun cost between eighteenpence and two shillings, and in the shade anything from three shillings to five pounds. The bulk of the seats are merely stone steps, like the face of a pyramid, and above them a double row of chairs fenced in by a balcony. It is only these last that are covered from the sky. Half the ring is protected by its own height from the heat of the sun, and the other half is open to its glare.

When the amphitheatre is full of sun-hatted Spaniards, with a sprinkling of girls wearing white mantillas (only at bull-fights are white mantillas the thing), the president takes his place in a little box by the side of the big white platform that is set apart for special visitors.

Then the door at the far end of the arena opens, and the suite comes forth. There are a couple of sombre-looking cloaked horsemen mounted on rather sorry nags, and these amble forward, salute the president, and request the key of the Toril, the great stable where the bulls wait to die. Then come the matadors—they who do the killing—from two to four of them, dressed in knickerbocker attire, with short jackets, after the fashion of an Eton coat. These are generally of light pink or blue silk, hung with infinite short tassels of spun gold or silver. The cloak, which is as fine a piece of embroidery as one could find anywhere, is lapped round the back and held tight in front. The hats are not of the inverted saucepan-lid type that are always depicted in bull-fight pictures, but big black furry structures, bulging at the sides. The men are short, but well made, and carry themselves with a lithe swing that at times savours distinctly of swagger.

In a double row the banderilleros come next—they whose duty it is to place the papered darts—and behind them a few chulos, who are in the first stages of the art, and whose duties are confined to agile exercises with the red cloak.

In the rear ride the picadors—heavily clad lancers—gaily dressed somewhat after the Mexican fashion, and carrying long wooden lances that bear nothing more hurtful than a short blade, the size of a flattened tea-spoon, at the end. These lancers would look still more impressive but for the fact that their steeds are aged and weary carriage hacks, such as would in Britain be sent to the knacker's yard.

Six picadors complete the cortège, with a hanger-on or two behind to help direct the horses. They, poor brutes, are bandaged over one eye—the eye that is to be nearest the bull.

The suite salutes the president, who is a Town Magnate of high degree, and he bows his stateliest in reply. The gorgeous cloaks are only for show, and they are thrown over the barrier into the little corridor that separates the ring from the tiers of seats, and held by an official. In return, the fighters receive their working cloaks—scarlet, blood-stained, and ragged—and range themselves round the walls of the ring. And here let us get rid of the word "toreador"—it is never used in Spain. All other nations seem to take kindly to it, but torero is the Spanish for bull-fighter.

The heralds at the far end of the arena lead off with a flourish of trumpets, and the great door with the iron bull's head over the top swings open and shows a gloomy cavity beyond. There is nothing to see for about ten seconds. There is a hush all round the tiers of waiting people, and presently a blurred shadow looms through the dark.


The bull trots out nimbly to the rim of the arena, glares aggressively at the empty space ahead of him, shakes his mighty head, and every line of his lithe frame says "Ready!" He is not like our British bulls, heavy and ponderous, but spry and agile as a terrier, twisting on his own axis like a small rater in stays. He was not goaded or tortured before the entry, to make him savage, as the historians of bull-fights would have us believe—there is no necessity. It is almost the finest part of the spectacle, this first entry, and those who cannot bring themselves to sit out the drama of blood and steel that comes later should witness it and then go. So the bull trots in and looks round for something to slay. This is a chance for a young and agile torero to show his skill.


The seeker of fame runs out to about the centre of the sandy arena and stands with his arms folded. His Majesty the bull waits for nothing farther, but puts all four hoofs to the ground and thunders towards the youngster at full gallop. Just as the great horns lash upwards for the toss, the boy twists himself round, and at that moment the space between the two is to be counted by inches. The bull usually puts so much vicious power into this first effort, that at the attempted toss he flings his forequarters clear of the ground, and his forefeet come down with a sounding crack on the hard floor. There is nothing left for the fighter to do but run, and he vaults the barrier into the corridor beyond. The bull frequently gathers so much impetus in following at the runner's heels, that he too must leap the fence—a goodly jump for a bull—about five feet. Then follows a wild scramble of corpulent policemen, sweetmeat-sellers, water-carriers, and so forth, and they scuffle heavily over the barrier into the deserted ring. But a door is soon opened, the bull turned back into the arena, and the herd of onlookers climb feverishly back into safety.

There are three picadors on their sorry mounts standing round the fence, but before these come a little knot of chulos, men with cloaks, inviting the bull to a species of game of "touch." The chances are largely in favour of the men here, for the cloaks are large, and can be fluttered in the bull's face while the holder is two or three yards away. Besides, a bull charges with closed eyes, and always attacks the cloak, not the man. There are exceptions to this, but such exceptions give a new turn to the fight, and moreover give work to the little surgeon in the whitewashed room beyond the stables, and to the priest who attends without for the peace of soul of those that may need him before the sixth bull is slain.

Here, again, a matador, he who kills, will often take a cloak and show the audience three or four artistic passes with it, as distinct from the go-as-you-please way in which cloaks are wielded by the chulo. These passes only allow the cloaker to miss the bull by a short breadth, and are well defined and recognised by all connoisseurs. The bull has now given up those wild rushes from a distance, and fences warily, evidently much annoyed at the fruitlessness of his charges, and the impossibility of driving his horns home in solid flesh. So out comes the picador on his halting steed, and plants himself well away from the barrier, so that he may not be thrown against it in the fall. His legs are cased beneath the yellow leggings with sheet iron, for he cannot shield them from the enemy's rush. Horsemanship is absent—there is no need for it. To plant his lance, and fall without hurting himself, is the whole art of a picador, and this part is the greatest blot on the performance. It is merely an act of deliberate slaughter, for the horse is intended to be killed, and will be kept there till it is killed.


The horse always seems vaguely conscious of something wrong, though it is not generally unmanageable. The other horses, while their comrade is being done to death, often grow restive and frightened, though they are unable to see what goes on. The bull seldom appears anxious to attack the horse, but it is pushed forward under his nose, and the big picador on top poises his lance aggressively. Then comes the short, plunging charge, the shock of the short lance-point in the bull's shoulder, and the awful home drive of the great horn into the tottering horse's body. In such a case the forequarters of the mount are lifted clear from the ground, and I have even seen a strong eight-year-old bull fling horse and rider over his back, as if they had been lightly stuffed museum specimens, instead of weighty flesh and blood. The breed of bulls called Miura—one of the most dangerous to fighters—generally strike home about the horse's chest, and thus death is rapid and sudden; but the famed Muruve bulls usually attack the flanks, and the scenes that follow this are too shudderingly horrid to put down on clean paper. Even then, if the wounds allow of the horse standing at all, the stricken beast is mounted again and led forward for another fall, though the populace resent this by whistles, as a rule. Whistling, by the way, is the Spanish method of expressing disapproval.

A bull that takes the stab of the lance without flinching is usually esteemed and applauded; but a young animal may be turned by the first chilling pain of the raw steel. If the horse is overthrown, the picador falls with a crash, and wriggles aside as best he can that the poor beast may not roll on him. In the nick of time a chulo flaunts his crimson rag in the bull's face and draws him away from the helpless lancer, who is hoisted to his feet by the assistants and given a lift on to his steed's back again—if the latter is still capable of bearing a man. If not, the dagger-man—"cachetero" he is called—arrives with a short arrow-headed knife, and severs the doomed beast's backbone at the neck with one short stab. There is no quicker death. The horse wilts like a rent air-balloon, and is dead without a quiver.


He is happier than the long line of his fellows that wait in the gloomy stables beyond.

On an average about three horses fall to a bull, but a single bull has often killed twenty. Some cattle seem to have a leaning towards horse-slaughter, but the majority appear not to relish it. They stand before the picador, and gaze as if considering whether it would be sportsmanlike to rend such a tottering beast. Still, three corpses usually lie about the sand, with the dark, raw pools around them, before the second trumpet-blare sounds.

This is the signal for the withdrawal of the horses. A bull must be allowed to kill as many as he likes, and then the banderilleros are rung on. One comes forward—dressed like the rest, but without any cloak as a protection—carrying a pair of gaily-papered wooden darts, pointed with a large iron barb at one end. He walks into the centre, places his feet together, and defies the bull by a rapid poise of the twin sticks, one in each hand.

If the bull charges at once it is touch and go with the holder, and he must plant his barbs exactly parallel either in the nape of the bull's neck or behind the shoulders—always well on top and within an inch or two of each other. A slight clumsiness is loudly hooted and whistled at by the audience, who are as keen critics of everything that transpires as our own crowds are of cricket.

It takes years to make a good banderillero. Three, or even four pairs of banderillas are planted in the shoulder of the bull, and they mislike him much. He tosses his head and roars angrily when the first pair are placed, but the pain of the inch-long barb, as it falls over and grips the flesh, generally bewilders the bull for a second, and allows the banderillero time to slip aside and run for the barriers.

It is one of the most perilous feats, this placing of darts, for they are never thrown, except in the accounts of bull-fights that occur in novels or newspapers, but thrust into the enemy's neck by hand.

Possibly the bull refuses to charge until the fighter runs towards him from an obtuse angle, and this is the easiest plan for the man. On the other hand, a daring matador will sometimes take a pair of darts and sit on a chair before his prey.

On the charge the slayer slips aside, plants the darts neatly, and the chair often flies twenty feet into the air. This is seldom practised, except at the great Easter fights during Holy Week.


The darts are about two feet six inches long, and merely round pieces of deal, more or less straight, with a wrought-iron semi-arrow at the extremity. The barb is thus single, like a fish-hook. There is not room on a bull for more than four pairs, if they are placed properly; so the banderilleros are rung out, and the trumpets sound the entry for the last act of the red drama.

The matador comes forward. He walks up to the bedizened and top-hatted president, doffs his cap, and makes a speech. He holds a red cloth in one hand, about four feet square, and in the other a straight Toledo sword with a slightly rounded end. There is a ceremony to go through here, and ceremony is the breath of life in the nostrils of a Spaniard. He dedicates the bull to the president, or to the chief lady visitor, and waves the sword and the sable cap impressively the while. Then, with a majestic sweep, he flings the cap to the audience to hold for him—a coveted honour—and walks out to face the bull.


This latter, by loss of blood and much chasing, is glum of aspect and foot-weary. The nerve-tearing barbs rattle their wooden holders about his back as he moves. He seems to recognise that the last part of the fight has come, for all the teasing chulos have withdrawn, and he is alone with one small, wiry man with a bright sword. The time for wild rushes is past; the bull plants himself gloomily and waits his chance. There is the faena to go through first—a series of passes with the scarlet flag. There may be a dozen or so to show, each well recognised by the schools of bull-fighting, and each with its own value and technique. Alto, de pecho, derecho, and so forth—they are too numerous and intricate to explain here; but when the bull has bravely charged the last of them, and passed under the flag into space again on the other side, then comes the preparation for the death-stroke. No other beast in the world would have fought so long. Tiger, wild boar, any of the most blood-thirsty tropical brutes, steeped in vicious savagery—none of them will stand up to the enemy after such bitter dole as is the portion of a bull in the arena, and fight to the end without once turning tail.

So the matador arranges the cloak in his left hand and the sword in his right. Teasing has been the form so far, but now one or the other has to die, and it is not as invariably the bull as most people suppose. There are many ways of making the last stroke.

A short aim, a wave of the flag, and with the last blind, lunging charge the swordsman slips aside, and his blade runs up to the hilt behind the bull's shoulder. The hammered steel feels the great tired heart within, and the enemy falls—the pluckiest beast of his day.


This is what should happen, and with a first-rate swordsman it does. But often half-a-dozen lunges are made, till at last the red, tottering brute kneels down peacefully from sheer inability to stand, and the puntillero comes up behind and writes the end with one short stab of his iron dagger behind the skull. The matador walks round the barriers bowing to the cheers of the people, and behind him stalks a chulo, who picks up for him the showers of cigars, hats, and so forth that are showered into the ring.

A big folding gate swings back, and two teams of gaily-ribboned mules canter in with smart teamsters running beside them. One is hitched to the bull, and with a shout and a long sweep round the reddened sand the bull is hauled out at full gallop, one horn drawing a wavy line in the yellow floor, and one stiff fore-leg wagging grimly to the long lope of the jingling mules. The dead horses are drawn out in the same way, with the same ringing whoop, and as the gates close on the slain the Toril looms open afresh, and the second bull comes forward to his death.

There are variations. Instead of receiving the charge upon the sword the matador may achieve the "volapie" (half-volley), by running towards the bull and driving the sword home as the two meet. Or, a favourite method, but a difficult one, is to sever the spinal cord behind the skull with the point of the sword as the great head goes down to toss. Yet another variation that I have seen more than once is the tinkling of the sword upon sand, a rapid leap, as it seems, of three feet into the air, by the matador, and his writhing collapse upon the floor. Then a hurried flash of red cloaks in the bull's face, to draw him from the fallen man. The fighters are vastly plucky about their mishaps, and generally manage to run out rather than be carried. Few of them, if they have seen much bull-fighting, but are scarred freely with old wounds. The horn generally enters the stomach or groin, and a terrible wound it makes. The photograph illustrating the "death-stroke" on this page shows Espartero, who was the most famous and most utterly reckless of toreros during his life. His sword is up to the hilt in the bull's left shoulder, the flag just passing over its forehead, and its right horn shaving the matador's right knee by a few inches, The upward toss, if the bull were just a little nearer, would bury the horn in Espartero's waist, but those four inches were the rim between life and death, and a second later the bull was stretched upon the sand.

Espartero was killed in the Madrid arena in July 1894. As he administered the death-stroke, the bull, a fierce and very hardy Miura called Perdigon, drove its horn home, and the two died together. Espartero was accorded by far the finest funeral that was ever seen in Spain, easily eclipsing that of any statesman or royal personage that ever died there. His loss was made almost a cause for recognised national mourning. He was an esparto-grass weaver by trade ere he took to the arena, and before his death was wont to receive between £300 and £500 for a single afternoon's work in the ring.


Bull-fighters begin as chulos, drawing about £3 a week, and when qualified as banderilleros they make from £5 to £30 a week. A first-class matador, such as Guerrita, draws about £300 or more for a single fight, and generally there are two first-class matadors in a good Seville or Madrid fight.

A really good bull-fight costs from £1,500 to £2,000 and more. Good bulls are worth between £30 and £50 apiece if full-grown and from the best flocks. The cattle are perfectly wild during their lifetime, and are allowed to run at large among the plains and marshes as they please.

The horses, poor beasts, are worn-out carriage-hacks, and cost about £2 apiece.

Without question bull-fighting is a truly loathsome sport, and the British traveller whose curiosity leads him to witness a performance is rarely tempted to repeat the experiment.