Olé! Santiago Robson – the Mackem matador!

SUNDERLAND-born Santiago Wealands Tapia Robson was the first Anglo-Spanish bullfighter in history – and the first to write a book on it too. Today SARAH STONER takes a look at the Mackem matador's life, from his family roots in Monkwearmouth to gory glory in the Spanish bull-ring.

SANTIAGO Wealands Tapia Robson was a little lad of eight when he watched his first Spanish bullfight.

The pomp and ceremony of the occasion immediately captured the boy's imagination and, just six years later, he was trying his own hand in the ring.

"A bullfighter is born, not made," Santiago explained in later life. "Just as Caruso was born a singer, and Edison and Marconi were born inventors.

"The bullfighter combines his obligation as a showman with the supreme need to protect his own life in this struggle between a man and a wild beast."

Santiago, the son of an English mother and Spanish father, was born into a prominent Sunderland family – the Wealands Robsons – in 1896.

Although little is known of his early life, it is believed one of his close relations was William Wealands Robson, a well-known Sunderland solicitor.

The Robson family had settled at the mouth of the Wear some 250 years before, but were originally members of the Robson clan of North Tynedale.

Douglas Smith, chairman of Sunderland Antiquarian Society, said: "The Robson clan were known for their moonlight raids across the border on cattle.

"It is quite ironic, really, that just a few hundred years later, someone in the family chooses to fight bulls, rather than steal them."

William Wealands Robson, an eccentric but popular town councillor, would never have known young Santiago, as the solicitor drowned in the River Wear in 1882.

But the little boy who carried on his name was to make it famous throughout the bullrings of Seville, Huelva, Valencia and Madrid within just a few years.

Santiago's father is known to have loved watching the "toros" – bullfighting – and it was a passion he passed on to his young son.

The little boy's first visit to a bullring ignited his matador ambitions, and at 14 he signed on as an apprentice with Francisco Sanchez.

"Every year about 3,000 young men seek to enter the bullfighting profession, anxious to earn both money and glory," said Santiago in the 1950s.

"But, unfortunately, even after years of serving a very dangerous apprenticeship, very few achieve their aim – perhaps only a mere half-a-dozen.

"Some get discouraged, others so badly hurt that they are physically unable to continue. The rest are either killed on the spot, or die outside the ring of wounds received there."

Sanchez, whose bullfighting deeds were documented by writer Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, obviously provided the young Santiago with expert tuition.

By 1912 he had become the world's first Anglo-Spanish bullfighter, and he pulled in the crowds at bullrings around Spain for the next two years.

"I classify the bull as the equal in character and nobility with the dog and the horse. But while the bull has the supreme quality of courage, he is also endowed with a special characteristic belonging to no other animal – for the bull is the only existing creature which kills for the pleasure of killing," he said.

"The bull is unique in that he seeks only to destroy life, attacking anything that moves, whether it is a coloured cloth, a horse, a man or even a scrap of smoking paper dropped from the walls of his pen."

But, just as he neared the peak of his profession, Santiago suddenly retired. The reason for this was his mother, who hated her son being in constant danger.

Young Santiago already bore the mark of a bull's horn deep in his thigh, and his mother could no longer bear the thought that he might be killed.

Although he made the decision out of loyalty, it is obvious the 18-year-old matador was left with many regrets about quitting his career so early.

Indeed, he later admitted to sneaking off occasionally to private ranches, where he would try his luck with local bulls without his mother knowing.

But despite his early retirement, Santiago never lost his love for bullfighting, spending his life involved in every aspect of the Spanish National "Fiesta."

And he was to make history yet again when, in the 1950s, he became the first English matador to write a book on the subject – The Art of Bullfighting.

The book, published in Spain but written in English, proved a huge success, and was re-printed at least four times.

Santiago, who retained a trace of his North East accent throughout his life despite living in Spain, revealed in the book: "I have often read and heard the opinion that bullfighting is either a brutal game or an unpardonably cruel amusement, because it involves the killings of bulls and, occasionally, of horses.

"To this charge I reply, 'Do not huntsmen kill deer?' I will not discuss the ethics of boxing and all-in wrestling, where two human beings seek to destroy each other, and I will not deny that bullfighting involves death."

What the book fails to reveal, however, is what happened to Santiago in later life. Searches of historical documents and the internet do not shed any further light either.

Today, therefore, we appeal to Echo readers for any information on Santiago. Do you know where/when he died, or are you related to him?

If you can help, please write to Sarah Stoner at: Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER. An update will be written if any information is passed on.

10 things you never knew about bull-fighting

1 The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete practised bull leaping as part of religious ritual. The Greeks and Romans also had rites involving the slaughter of bulls.

2 The Moors, who fought bulls from their horses and killed them with javelins, probably introduced the sport to Spain during the 11th century.

3 The first bullfighting "fiesta" took place in the Spanish province of Logrono in 1135, as a celebration of the coronation of King Alfonso VII.

4 Matadors originally fought on horseback, but it was developed it into "an art practised on foot" in the 1830s – when bullfighting colleges first opened.

5 The bullfighting season begins in February and ends in October, as it is "a spectacle requiring fine weather."

6 Bullfighting is known as "corrida de toros" in Spanish and takes places in a large outdoor arena known as the "plaza de toros." The object is for a bullfighter (torero) to kill a wild bull (toro) with a sword.

7 Spectators are called "aficionados." Those who come to admire the bull are known as "toristas," while those who follow fighters are called "istas."

8 British matador Frank Evans, 63, retired from bullfighting just last year on medical grounds. He was a popular fighter and known as El Ingles.

9 Matadors traditionally wear glittering "suits of lights," trimmed with gold embroidery. They also wear a black "montera" – a shirt of traditional design.

10 The Paso Doble, a Latin American dance, is based on the Spanish bullfight, with the male dancer acting the part of the bullfighter.