Duelling was a colonial tradition that did not die with the birth of the Republic. On the contrary, duelling became less aristocratic and more popular. Politicians and journalists were especially attracted to it as yet another means to court publicity. In time even tradesmen resorted to the field of honor to settle real or perceived affronts, or, in the most literal sense, to settle accounts. Of course, duelling etiquette did not allow one to challenge or accept a challenge from a social inferior. This restriction probably saved many rich men from the predations of would-be assassins, while at the same time shielding poor rubes from having to fight duels with one-percenters who excelled in the gentleman’s sport of fencing and nothing else. (Cubans, it might be noted, won all the fencing gold medals at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, or, rather, one Cuban did, Ramón Fonst. Never before or since has one individual so completely dominated a sport).
Duelling in Cuba was more a matter of swordplay than gunplay, less OK Corral thanScaramouche. Pistols and revolvers were resorted to only when both parties really wanted to kill each other. This was rarely the case. The point of a duel was to make a point, and reconciliation more often than not was its objective and its outcome, for when both contenders had proved that they were men of honor, there was no longer an obstacle to reconciliation.
In order to draw first blood in a duel but not inflict a mortal or serious injury, you had to be an expert swordsman. It was a prudent policy, by the same token, to avoid duels with those who were not. The inexperienced swordsman was a menace whose technique was borrowed from a butcher’s. Such a neophyte was generally quarantined until he took fencing lessons and learned how to scratch and nick.
The biggest and most magnificent fencing facilities in Cuba, which would not have looked out of place at Versailles, was located in the Capitol building. Senators and Representatives, who enjoyed immunity from prosecution, were especially avid duellists. None was ever killed in a duel, which attests to their expertise and gives credence to the allegation that duelling in Cuba was just another sport, fencing revved up a notch, or bullfighting without the sacrifice of the bull.
Grandfather Alberto participated in a dozen duels. I would actually be able to enumerate each duel in the most minute detail if I had not committed 20 years ago one of the most regrettable mistakes in my experience as a bibliophile when I passed up the opportunity to acquire at what I thought then was an exorbitant price (I would pay many times that sum now) a very rare copy of Cuba’s Anuario de Duelos (Duelling Yearbook), an 800-page tome which chronicled all excursions on the field of honor and their results. This book (sociology in the raw) is not found at any public or university library in the world. It is rarer even than Martí’s first editions, all of which (save one) I have managed to acquire through the years.
Until I can track down another copy (or, more likely, that very copy), I can only relate the particulars of a duel which grandfather was able to avoid. On this occasion (or non-occasion) he was challenged to a duel by an idiot: the kind of menace that would imperil your life, which no man who was not himself an idiot would challenge to or fight in a duel. Getting killed in a duel was not an option for grandfather: he would have left too many widows and orphans. Still, he could not refuse the challenge without discredit to himself, or, worse yet, without polishing the idiot’s apple. What to do? Well, the only way to fight an idiot is to pose as an even bigger idiot. Since he was the one challenged, it was grandfather’s choice of weapons. His opponent naturally expected him to choose swords, as grandfather was an excellent swordsman. He did not.
Instead, he proposed that they fight with knives, naked in a locked room. “This man is a madman,” his opponent yelled when grandfather’s seconds made the proposal and immediately withdrew his challenge. The idiot knew, of course, that if he had agreed to a fight “al cuchillo,” grandfather would not have backed down. This ruse only works when there is no doubt an opponent is willing to carry it to its final consequences if necessary. Such, apparently, was grandfather’s reputation and the value of his word.