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Old 17th August 2009, 05:41 PM   #1
TVV
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Default On the Origins of the so-called Berber Sabres

I just came across a photo from the Military Museum in Barcelona, which shows an interesting display, featuring two of the mysterious "Berber" sabres and some other weapons, one of which is an espada ancha and the other one is a sword associated with Brazil, if I rememebr correctly.

Does this grouping provide further evidence that those so-called Berber sabres are actually a Spanish Colonial weapon, which comes from the Americas, instead of from the Maghreb as previously believed?
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Old 17th August 2009, 09:49 PM   #2
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I have mentioned once that , while visiting Versailles, I saw a big oil painting in the Palace, depicting a battle between the French and the Arabs. In the right lower corner there was a figure of a Berber wielding the classical "berber" sabre, with a reverse point and a peculiar handle similar to what you show ( ## 2 and 3 from above in the grouping).
Regretfully, I did not have a camera with me but if any of you go there, please be better prepared:-)
Spain had colonies in N. Africa at the same time and waged war against the same Berbers as the French did. I am not surprised they lumped all the spoils of war in a single pile.
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Old 17th August 2009, 10:13 PM   #3
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I'm always wary of assigning too much import to what anonymous museum curators put together in a given exhibit. Too often I think someone took a bunch of things they thought would look good together and put them all in a case...
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Old 17th August 2009, 10:45 PM   #4
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Well, I have one of those sabres with the inscription "Para Los Valientes Dominicanos", which suggests a Caribbean, rather than a North African origin. And I remember that Jim has mentioned that these usually appear in groupings of weapons from Central America and Cuba.
I guess, unless we see a picture of someone wielding such a sabre, we will never know for certain.
I would prefer those to turn out to be from North Africa, but I am finding myself leaning entirely towards the New World.
Regards,
Teodor
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Old 17th August 2009, 10:51 PM   #5
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Thank you so much for posting this Teodor!!! The subject of these weapons has often been a topic over many years and remains, along with others, somewhat unresolved. Tirri suggests these sabres are of Spanish Morocco regions, and when these first came into the collecting community nearing two decades ago, they were typically represented as Berber and of regions of the Rif.
The blades seem to invariably have had the curiously profiled tip, that was usually on a British M1796 light cavalry sabre blade. The guardless grip of course recalls the similar form of the eastern cousins of these, the flyssa of the Kabyles and contiguous Berber groups.
On these blades I have seen markings that suggest Spanish provenance, and after the Napoleonic campaigns in the Peninsula, there were considerable numbers of these British blades present that could easily have been sent to Spanish colonies in Morocco. There were also considerable numbers of the British patterns sent to Portugal.

Of further note, is that many of these sabres have turned up in groupings of Spanish colonial weapons, in Mexican collections, and there are suggestions of these being of Cuban and provenance to the America's. I would point out that the shellguard weapon at the top is of a form recently discovered to be an interesting amalgam of espada ancha and these types of sabres, now revealed to be the Brazilian form of these weapons. Note the niche at the top of the grip reflecting this characteristic in the well known Moroccan sa'if known as 'nimcha'.

I have seen suggestions of even associations with the decor of these sabres
to Indonesian and possibly Phillipine archipelagos, which may be supported by the trade and colonial routes of Spain.

Ariel, excellent note on that painting reflecting presence of these swords in use! I would love to see that painting, and as you well point out, Spain and France both had profound presence in these regions. I think one of the most puzzling factors concerning these 'Berber sabres' is that they are notably absent from all the comprehensive collections and resources on the arms of Morocco or North Africa. Charles Buttin, the highly esteemed collector and authority of weapons of the end of the 19th century and into the 20th has no example of these in his incredibly comprehensive catalog, nor are these seen in Holstein, Alain, Moser or other prominent collections.

There is the mystery...why? and we really need to reach the museums of Morocco and others in these regions to see if provenanced examples can be found.

All best regards,
Jim

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Old 17th August 2009, 11:00 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Andrew
I'm always wary of assigning too much import to what anonymous museum curators put together in a given exhibit. Too often I think someone took a bunch of things they thought would look good together and put them all in a case...


Very well said Andrew!!
I have seen groupings of weapons lumped together completely incongruently by presumably responsible authorities, resulting in many of the unfortunate attributions that have plagued arms scholars for years. Case in point, the Calvert catalog "Spanish Arms and Armour" which perputuates these types of errors in a number of instances, especially the curious 'manople'.
Burton, in his "Book of the Sword" carries forth errors of Auguste Demmin (1877) and finally noted by Buttin in his work later published (1933).

The trophies/souveniers of one generation, often become grouped in estate sales by unknowledgable individuals and presumption, and classifications and provenance hopelessly lost. I have seen donations to European museums that piled African and even Asian weapons together, mostly in efforts at aesthetic or unusual groupings, leading more to identification travesties.

All the best,
Jim
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Old 18th August 2009, 02:14 AM   #7
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I don't have this sword any more, as I have traded it for another piece just a few days ago, but the hilt is quite like the one on the top photo.
I also have another one, also quite similar in style, which I am very fond of, even though this is not my bag.
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Old 18th August 2009, 03:01 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dmitry
I don't have this sword any more, as I have traded it for another piece just a few days ago, but the hilt is quite like the one on the top photo.
I also have another one, also quite similar in style, which I am very fond of, even though this is not my bag.


Thank you Dmitry, great photos. As indicated in my earlier post these have been determined to be Brazilian from probably earlier part of 19th century. I have one of these which has a British blade of about this period, again leaning toward the entrance of these British blades onto Spanish trade sphere. It seems earlier research also has suggested a number of these unusual weapons are included in the relatively obscure armouries of these parts of the America's and Caribbean.

I have always hoped for North Africa too Teodor, but remain somewhat appeased by the fact that the trade connections between the Spanish colonies in North Africa and the America's are the denominator that seems to link these unusual weapons.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 18th August 2009, 09:59 PM   #9
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i saw one for sale that was exactly like examples 2 and 3 in the first picture that was labeled a "corsican cavalry saber"......very strange....it had the "manuel" marks on it too...
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Old 18th August 2009, 10:12 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pallas
i saw one for sale that was exactly like examples 2 and 3 in the first picture that was labeled a "corsican cavalry saber"......very strange....it had the "manuel" marks on it too...


Pallas, now I remember that post! How completely strange to have that attribution and I wonder how they arrived at it?
Interesting , the blade on the one I referenced had the obscured stamped name (?) manu...suggesting manuel?

It seems that in Armi Bianchi Italiene I once found a blade with similarly profiled tip.....more mystery. Why would they duplicate a blade tip from Renaissance Italy ?

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 18th August 2009, 10:12 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pallas
i saw one for sale that was exactly like examples 2 and 3 in the first picture that was labeled a "corsican cavalry saber"......very strange....it had the "manuel" marks on it too...


Pallas, now I remember that post! How completely strange to have that attribution and I wonder how they arrived at it?
Interesting , the blade on the one I referenced had the obscured stamped name (?) manu...suggesting manuel?

It seems that in Armi Bianchi Italiene I once found a blade with similarly profiled tip.....more mystery. Why would they duplicate a blade tip from Renaissance Italy ?

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 18th August 2009, 10:53 PM   #12
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yes, the blade had "manuel" stamped or etched where the ricasso should have been (from what i remember, the blade dident have a ricasso) it also had a layer of rust on it
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Old 18th August 2009, 11:13 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pallas
yes, the blade had "manuel" stamped or etched where the ricasso should have been (from what i remember, the blade dident have a ricasso) it also had a layer of rust on it


That was the exact location on my example.
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Old 19th August 2009, 01:05 AM   #14
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Jim, what is the substantiation of attributing these pieces to Brazil?
{quote}

Dmitry,
I'll have to get out my notes, but there were some Spanish text articles as well as one of these sold with Imperial Auctions, identified and with Brazilian inscriptions on blade. I believe discussions with Juan Perez (?) as well...during espada ancha research when suggestions were made to a South American cousin to the northern frontier examples.

Do you have an interest in these? If you have other information I would really be interested to know, in the meantime I'll look into notes here.

all the best,
Jim

sorry I hit edit instead of respond.

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Old 19th August 2009, 06:02 AM   #15
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Hi Dmitry,
Actually I have been researching Spanish colonial for many years, and sometimes it seems it has taken forever to finally break through with some of these weapons which remain anomalies in collections.

One of these shellguard espadas was among holdings of Imperial Auctions in 2008 I believe. My notes show that the blade was inscribed with the Imperial monogram and crest of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (r.1831-1889). The hilt with the nock (cf. nimcha grip) the striated shellguard, and inner langet are virtually identical.

Years ago I was researching one of the strange munitions or blacksmith grade swords with exaggerated finger stalls, a reversed nock in the grip, which was cast brass, and an added espada ancha style shellguard and knuckleguard similar to this style but much smaller. I had been informed it had been found in Monterrey, Mexico, but found little to substantiate. Later examples were seen, also shown as Mexican, but in discussions with Pierce Chamberlain, he insisted these were from Cuba. Years later he called me and sent me photos of one from Spanish American war brought back from Cuba.

An article, "Machetes del Ejercito de Ultramar en Cuba y Puerto Rico" by Juan L. Calvo (Sept. 2006) shows one of these fabricated in Toledo in 1856 but attributed to Cuba as 'de Guanabacoa'. I believe subsequent discussions revealed that this referred to a location in Cuba if I recall.
While the first example shown has a coat of arms on the shell, another not in the article, but identical otherwise, has the same striations on its shellguard seen on these 'Brazilian' examples.

Another espada I researched, and looking for photos, has a shellguard with the same striations, but the guard is flat and perpandicular to blade, and the identical inner langet. The overall guard appears more in line with the espada ancha developed from early hangers, and the sword was represented as from the eastern Spanish colonies (Florida possibly Cuba), believed of probably late 18th century.

It seems that the striated patterns on these Spanish colonial shellguards occur from latter 18th, well into the 19th on these various forms of espada used in various ports of call on the Spanish Main of this period.
As always, more research to be done, but these are the results of well over twenty years done so far.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 19th August 2009, 11:29 PM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall

An article, "Machetes del Ejercito de Ultramar en Cuba y Puerto Rico" by Juan L. Calvo (Sept. 2006) shows one of these fabricated in Toledo in 1856 but attributed to Cuba as 'de Guanabacoa'. I believe subsequent discussions revealed that this referred to a location in Cuba if I recall.


Jim, I am still not sold on the Brazilian attribution; some photos would be nice to see. I've read Juan Calvo's article on the Guanabacoa and other machetes, and saw, but was too slow to buy, a wonderful example at a gun show a couple of years back. It was of similar construction as the ones in Calvo's article, except the hilt was done in sterling silver with mother of pearland gold incrustations. It was a really high end piece.

Here are the photos of the one I have in my collection. Even though, like I said, it's not my area of collecting, this particular piece just oozes Colonial Latn America, and is very expressive, so it's on my wall for now. I have not been successful in finding anything on the blade-maker Breffit in my literature. Could be an Englishman who set up shop in Havana [or Rio, for that matter].
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Old 20th August 2009, 12:27 AM   #17
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Hi Dmitry,
I agree on specifying Brazil for the type overall based on one example with sound provenance, but I think it must be accepted that these striated shellguards are of Spanish attribution in locations included in its trade centers in the Caribbean, Florida, Central America and South America. I will see if I can get the photos of the Brazilian example to post.

Thanks for the photos of yours, one of the nicer examples I've seen, great motif. The name of the maker on mine was 'Isaac' I think, cant recall now but definitely British and was not found in British registers either. These guys may well have been importers of blades in these areas?

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 20th August 2009, 11:44 PM   #18
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Back to the topic of the mystery sabres, this one finished today on eBay. Hoepfully the buyer is someone from this forum:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dl...e=STRK:MEWAX:IT

From the pictrues and the description, there appears to be a letter M on the hilt and the base of the blade, which I guess would be unusual for a Berber, wouldn't it?

Regards,
Teodor
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Old 21st August 2009, 12:18 AM   #19
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The scabbard appears to be very un-Spanish IMHO .
I can't think of a use for the terminal end ;it seems more tribally oriented .
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Old 21st August 2009, 04:15 AM   #20
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The scabbard on these are very unusual, and the perpandicular projection is very much like the shotel scabbards seen in Spring. I am unclear on the purpose of the projection, and this seems atypical for anything in the Moroccan regions of North Africa, but the scabbard style seems consistant.

I have seen the 'South Seas'; Indonesian and Caribbean suggestions along with the standing 'Berber' attribution, which remains unsubstantiated.
As I have mentioned many times over the years, I have yet to see these represented in any collective material on weapons of Morocco and North Africa...it is as if they came out of nowhere!

Why the 'Ethiopian' (?) style scabbard, what is the upright extension at the tip for, why are the blades always profiled in this manner, what is the stylized 'flyssa'(?) type grip supposed to represent.

In my opinion, the 'Spanish Main' of the 19th century, and its trade routes that continued through the independence of Mexico from Spain, The Mexican-American War, and into the period of the Spanish American War, account for a myriad of the mysterious weapons that have been appearing in collections in recent times. Many of these are 'bringbacks' from the Spanish American War.
The 'Main' was prevalent in early 19th century in the Caribbean, Florida, Cuba, Mexico's gulf ports, Central America and South America....the outermost extension, the Philippines. To the East, the connections to Spain and its North African colonies are of course part of this vast network.

Most of these unusual weapons I have seen seem to have either Mexican provenance as far as appearing in groups of these weapons, or as items stated with Cuban or South American provenance.
I have often considered that it would be most tempting to suggest this unusual profile to the tip of these British or European military blades reminds me of the tip of the kampilan, free association at best, but still, seems plausible.

Best regards,
Jim
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Old 21st August 2009, 04:51 PM   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TVV

From the pictrues and the description, there appears to be a letter M on the hilt and the base of the blade, which I guess would be unusual for a Berber, wouldn't it?

Regards,
Teodor


Hi Teodor,

Could the letters seen be part of the 'Spanish Motto'?

Jeff
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Old 21st August 2009, 05:55 PM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff D
Hi Teodor,

Could the letters seen be part of the 'Spanish Motto'?

Jeff



Whoa! Jeff you are amazing!!! Thats gotta be it, fits perfect as far as I can see. Never even thought of that, so once again the Spanish colonial presence is suggested.

All the best,
Jim
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Old 22nd August 2009, 01:15 AM   #23
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only a thought.......the Berber at the north coast of Morocco once are well known as formidable Riff pirates. For me this sword is a perfect pirate cutlass. Not so long as a Flyssa or Nimcha, which would not work in a close combat. Also perfect to cut ropes and last not least very similar to other pirate swords. I have also one of such swords and in my records I wrote "Riff Berber".
The last Riff pirates are massacred in 1898 by troops of the Sultan from Morocco.

Wolf

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Old 22nd August 2009, 02:29 AM   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff D
Hi Teodor,

Could the letters seen be part of the 'Spanish Motto'?

Jeff


Jeff,
I thought I saw the same thing, as there seems to be an O before the M, which fits nicely with the motto. Without having the sword at hand, I can only agree that this is most likely traces from the popular Spanish motto.
By now, there is plenty of evidence which suggests that these sabres are indeed Spanish colonial weapons, but as Jim keep pointing out, Spain had a lot of colonies.
I am uploading the auction pictures here for future reference.
Thank you Jeff, Jim and Wolf,
Teodor
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Old 22nd August 2009, 05:48 AM   #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Wodimi
only a thought.......the Berber at the north coast of Morocco once are well known as formidable Riff pirates. For me this sword is a perfect pirate cutlass. Not so long as a Flyssa or Nimcha, which would not work in a close combat. Also perfect to cut ropes and last not least very similar to other pirate swords. I have also one of such swords and in my records I wrote "Riff Berber".
The last Riff pirates are massacred in 1898 by troops of the Sultan from Morocco.

Wolf

www.spearcollector.com


Exactly Wolf, thats what these were once thought to be about when I got mine back c. 1995, and the Rif was the attribution. However as these began to turn up over the years, no substantiation for this could be found. I think what did it for me was a discussion with several colleagues, including Dominique Buttin (whose Grandfather Charles lived in Morocco, and whose weapon collections from these regions are quite comprehensive), and the consensus seemed to agree likely Spanish colonial regions.

Actually, these heavy blades and the guardless hilts, as well as the opening which may well be for lanyard or sword knot, seem to lend well to the idea of machetes, which were a utility weapon prevalent in many of the colonies.
The Spanish colonial espada ancha (= wide heavy blade) in Mexico's frontiers eventually developed into a machete type weapon as well, in areas of heavy desert vegetation. In northern regions of plains it became more of a hunting/Bowie knife.

It also would be hard to imagine that these might not have appealed to the famed Barbary Pirates in certain cases, as they were certainly present in those days of the Spanish Main, just as you have noted Wolf.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 22nd August 2009, 08:18 PM   #26
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i found another picture of the "corsican cavalry saber" and "manuel deje" was the entire inscription etched on the ricasso.
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Old 22nd August 2009, 08:48 PM   #27
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Thank you so much Pallas! I wonder if the 'deje' is a term , does not seem like a name or it would be capitalized right?
Any Spanish translators out there that can help?

Best regards,
Jim
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Old 13th September 2009, 12:42 AM   #28
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Here are some more pictures of the sword, which I have been lucky enough to acquire. These swords are on the shorter side, and this particular one is quite light as well, especially compared to my other mystery/berber sabre.
Now, onto the identification.
The blade most certainly has NO ME SAQUES SIN RAZON - worn off a bit, but still there. Interestingly, the second part of the popular Spanish motto is missing - it is not on the other side of the blade, just nowhere to be found.
The cloth baldric has faded, so I doubt anyone would be able to use it to point to the sword's origin.
The scabbard is of a peculiar construction - instead of two symmetric wooden halves, it has just one, from the decorated side. The side, which would press against the body has been left undecorated. Does anyone recognize the scabbard decoration?
Finally, it is a full tang construction, kind of like a machete. There is file work on the spine of the tang, which reminds me of something - I think of the brass spacers on the hilt of an Albacete dagger?
Hopefully, the pictures will help someone to come up with an idea based on the various elements and their decoration. Given how I now have two of these sabres with Spanish mottos, have I inadvertently crossed into Spanish colonial weapons?
Best regards,
Teodor
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Old 13th September 2009, 05:25 AM   #29
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Interesting speculations. As I recall, Jim, when I identified that hilt as belonging to a Machete de Guanabacoa and refered to the article from José Luis Calvó, I did not mention that the machete were from Toledo. It must be pointed that the spanish mottos do not imply a spanish manofacture of the blade, but a spanish colonial presence. José Luis Calvó very clearly states that those blades used in the machetes of Guanabacoa were originally made in Germany and USA with spanish inscriptions, and latter they were made in Toledo as a reglamentary weapons of the spanish colonial army, but I think they were mounted probably in Cuba anyway. Guanabacoa is a village near from La Habana, with a strong african presence those days. This ethnic element is the common feature among this hilts discussed here, since this type of sabres are characterized mainly by the hilt, though there can be found blades with a reverse tip. It must be mentioned that the african presence is also strong in Brazil, a lot more than the spanish commerce in that ex-portuguese colony in the 19th Century.

But there are some distinctive differences among the above swords. One of them, very obvious, is the presence or absence of a guard, the latter a feature alien to the spanish swords. My own speculation: those swords were made with european blades, but not exclusively, and mounted with handles in a style which has a strong african flavor. The presence of spanish mottos could mean blades imported from or taken to the spanish. Other blades in the same type of swords, or customized variations in the blades and hilts (in the machetes of Guanabacoa, for example), could mean personal preferences or availability of blades from a specific origin. The same style of weapon can have blades from different origins, customized or not latter by the owner. The important thing here is the style of hilt with it´s guard, and in the case of the so called berber swords, the presence of the reverse point, which must be explained in terms of style or in terms of availability of specific blades with this characteristic. I believe the sword from Teodor has an european blade with a history, but it came in some way to non european hands and mounted or remounted in the actual style. It could be made for the American market and at the end not sold, used or exported there, but elsewhere. The spanish inscription does not mean a spanish manofacture.

Ariel´s reference is important. It gives the first substancial proof that the sword is, or could more probably be, north african. Another point: the machete of Guanabacoa is a reglamentary spanish military weapon. There is no evidence that the´berber sword´is. This brings me the idea that the latter is an opportunistic use of whatever available sabre blade mounted in a special local style, not specifically ´colonial´, but during the colonial wars.

Regards
Gonzalo G
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Old 13th September 2009, 06:00 AM   #30
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Interesting points, Gonzalo, thank you for your response. I was hoping you will chime in, as your expertise on Central American and Spanish colonial weapons in general could be very helpful here.

If I understand your post correctly, you are saying that these swords, known until recently as "berber" due to a Tirri attribution, are not regimental. I fully agree, as they vary considerably in their shape and size. You also point out the African flavor of the hilt and scabbard decoration, which I also agree with, and this is not surprising considering the large African population in many of the New World colonies, especially in the Carribean.

I am wondering, could these sabres simply be sabres preferred by irregulars in the Spanish army, mostly of African descent, from the Carribean? My other sword with its motto obviously referring to the Dominican Republic would support this.

As for guard vs. no guard, I am not sure that the lack of a guard is necessarily unknown in Spanish long bladed weapons. For example, here is a Spanish colonial sword/machete from the sold section of Oriental Arms (I hope Artzi would not mind using his pictures as an example):

http://oriental-arms.com/photos.php?id=3052

Note the similarities in hilt construction and the pointed tip.

Now, the Riffian sword in the Versailles painting is most intriguing, and I have no doubt that Ariel knew what he saw. However, a painting is a work of art, and I would prefer to see a picture of Riffian warriors with such swords, before I am convinced that this is indeed a Riffian weapon.

Regards,
Teodor
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