By Tony Wolf
The HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) blogosphere and social media networks have recently caught the edge of the prevailing cultural debates about political correctness, social justice, cultural appropriation, racism and related issues. Inevitably, Bartitsu (as a fringe-of-a-fringe interest) has now been referenced in that context, so I hope you’ll indulge this “editorial” commentary from one who has been, it’s fair to say, closely involved in Bartitsu revivalism from the outset.
Nearly ten years ago – well before the “Bartitsu boom” generated by the recent Sherlock Holmes craze, at a time when any online reference to Bartitsu by “outsiders” was noteworthy to those very few of us who were paying attention – I came across a discussion on a martial arts message board in which one of the correspondents had described E.W. Barton-Wright as a “racist”. I was curious because I couldn’t recall anything in B-W’s own writings that might justify such a description, so I contacted that person and asked for proof.
There was none, as it happened – the writer had simply bought into the modern stereotype of “Victorian Englishmen” as being irredeemably imperialistic and racist, and then assumed that to have been a historical fact in the case of E.W. Barton-Wright. Similar assumptions have occasionally been made by others in subsequent discussions, most recently just a few days ago, when a short mainstream media video item on Bartitsu re-surfaced on a message board and was met with an anonymous comment charging cultural appropriation.
(So far, so much a tiny tempest in a very slightly larger teapot.)
In fact, the accusation that Barton-Wright had “misappropriated” jiujitsu was first made by one of his close contemporaries. That case is instructive, so here’s the gist of it; Herman Ten Kate was a Dutch anthropologist who had trained at the same Kobe Shinden Fudo-ryu jiujitsu dojo as Barton-Wright and who later came across B-W’s New Art of Self Defence articles, in which B-W first referred to “Bartitsu” by name.
Because Ten Kate apparently had not, however, seen any of Barton-Wright’s other articles, which demonstrated that Bartitsu was a “new” art because it combined jiujitsu with other systems, the anthropologist believed that B-W had simply had the gall to re-name jiujitsu after himself. Thus, lacking crucial context, Ten Kate had jumped to a mistaken and unfair conclusion, which he published in his own article for De Gids, a popular Dutch magazine, during 1905.
Back to the present day and to more immediate concerns; there is an individual who has, periodically over the past several years, offered a series of Bartitsu-related posts on the Stormfront “white power” forum. These posts have obviously been calculated to encourage an interest in Bartitsu among white supremacists, although they have failed in that attempt.
Recently, a screen capture of one of those posts has appeared on a Tumblr page dedicated to exposing racism within the HEMA community. That particular post quotes the introductory text from the Wikipedia page on Bartitsu and then ends with the words “the Bartitsu Society”, the latter taken out of context.
At worst, this juxtaposition may leave casual visitors to the Tumblr page with the impression that the Society somehow endorses a racist point of view. That impression is itself encouraged by the Tumblr author’s comment that “The white supremacists of Storm Front include fans & practitioners of Bartitsu and wider HEMA”, which allows the casual reader to imagine any number of “fans and practitioners” as opposed to the one individual who has, in fact, been responsible for those threads.
In a similar vein, there have been recent “incursions” into Bartitsu-oriented social media by a few proud bigots; people whose religious, racial and cultural prejudices are clear to anyone who bothers to look. And here we must be very careful. Obviously, the fact that someone is, for example, a virulent anti-Semite, or that they may indiscriminately hate and fear members of the Muslim faith, has no intrinsic bearing on their interest in/contributions to martial arts, history nor other subjects. The same person may also be congenial company over dinner.
We who are fortunate enough to live in intellectually free societies regularly navigate these tricky waters – hence the conventions that certain contentious topics are best not broached in “polite company”. But as social media are changing those conventions, at a certain point, it pays to do the contextual homework and, if so moved by one’s own conscience, to draw a line in the ethical sand.
With that in mind:
Bartitsu was originally, and now is again, an ongoing experiment in inter-cultural martial arts cross-training. At least one third of the art is of eclectic Japanese heritage via the jiujitsu styles of Barton-Wright, Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi; another third is Swiss/French via Pierre Vigny’s stick fighting system; the remaining pot-pourri of European boxing, kicking and wrestling techniques exist mostly in the “neo” realms of modern revivalism because they weren’t detailed in the canonical sources.
Thus, in the racialist language of the late 19th century, Bartitsu itself could be described as “miscegenated”; it is, incontrovertably, the product of deliberate inter-cultural blending. English boxing and Vigny stick fighting are strengthened by tests against, as well as amalgamation with Japanese jiujitsu, and vice-versa. This is necessary progress towards the utopian ideal of martial arts cross-training pioneered by Barton-Wright and his Japanese and Swiss colleagues at the turn of the 20th century, later taken up by many others (famously including Bruce Lee) and most recently proven in the MMA arena, in Dog Brothers gatherings and in many other venues.
As such, Bartitsu intrinsically refutes both the PC notion of “cultural appropriation” and the segregationist stance beloved of racial supremacists.
Further, although we know precious little about the private life of Edward Barton-Wright, the scattered evidence of his social and political leanings indicate a decidedly progressive direction. Notably, at a time when it was common for fighters and promoters to refuse challengers based on race, Barton-Wright’s challenges were specifically open to “all comers – big or little, black or white, no-one is barred.”
The original Bartitsu Club offered classes for women and children at a time when it was extraordinary for “antagonistics” training to be given to anyone other than adult males. All of the politicians who were members and supporters of the Bartitsu Club were affiliated with the Liberal Party. By his own example and by the ethos of his Club and system, E. W. Barton-Wright encouraged an approach to martial arts training that rewarded curiosity, rational skepticism and a willingness to think (and fight) “outside the box”.
Therefore, far from the “fear of the foreign” stereotypically assumed to characterise the people and institutions of Edwardian England, the Bartitsu Club was a melting pot of intensive competition, experimentation and collaboration between wildly diverse individuals and martial arts styles.
For the past fifteen years, the Bartitsu Society has succeeded as an exemplar of individualistic, “open-source”, grass-roots martial arts revivalism within an informal “community of colleagues”. We have consistently resisted the temptation to create a bureaucratic, hierarchical organisation, in favour of offering the fruits of our research to everyone who has an interest in this (still) rather obscure martial art. The result is that there are as many different “Bartitsu” approaches as there are clubs and study groups that have taken up the revivalist challenge – about fifty groups, at present.
Fortunately there is, to date, no evidence of any serious attempt to co-opt Bartitsu by misogynists, racial supremacists, religious bigots nor any other xenophobes on the wrong side of history. I’m very confident that the vast majority of Bartitsu revivalists would be repelled by any such attempt.
Bartitsu is for everyone.