Over the years, there have been so many versions of the origin and history of eskrima that the average practitioner doesn't
have any idea what is the truth and what is fiction. This article has been researched in the Philippines, on the islands of
Cebu and Negros. Hopefully, we can clear up some of the unknowns concerning the Art, and provide a basic framework for future
efforts in researching the Art.
The history of eskrima in Cebu begins with the cultural migrations that took place
in the past. The Philippines has had several invasions of different cultures, and each pushed the previous peoples farther
inland and onto less desirable land. The most relevant migrations to the discussion of eskrima were the arrival of the Sri
Visayan people, and the Majapahit Empire. Nearly every book that has been written recently about eskrima has talked about
this part of history.
The Sri Visayan culture conquered most of SE Asia, extending from the Indian sub-continent into
the Indonesian archipelago. They did not extend into the Philippine islands, at their cultural peak, although indiviuals did
come later when under pressure from other invading cultures. Their influences can still be seen today in the temples and other
monuments they erected. These influences also extended to the writing systems. Before the Spanish arrived in the islands,
the Filipino language was written in Sanskrit, a writing style common to India. They also spread their fighting styles all
over the area. It has been suggested that the various SE Asian systems, like silat, bersilat, and the many forms of eskrima
all evolved from the Indian systems of 1000 years ago. Even today, the word used in Negros for qi or ki is prana, a word with
Indian origins. There are many similarities among these Arts, far more than exist with the northern Asian systems of China
According to the book Isla De Los Delitos, written by Don Baltazar Gonzales in 1800, in Madrid, Spain,
the Sri Visayans came to the Philippines because they were pushed out of the rest of SE Asia by the arrival of the Majapahit
Empire. The Majapahit Empire emerged in the 14th century to defeat and overthrow the Sri Visayans. It was a culture that conquered
Malaysia and most of Indonesia. The Majapahit Empire never reached farther north than the island of Mindanao on the Philippine
island group, but its presence did have an influence on more northern areas.
The Muslim religion reached farther north.
A Muslim missionary, an Arab named Sharif Makdum, had arrived on the island of Sulu in 1380, quite a while before Christian
missionaries arrived. The Sri Visayans fled before the Majapahit to occupy the central part of the Philippines, what is known
as the Visayan Islands today. By the time of Magellan's arrival, only the central Visayans were still animists. All of Mindanao
and most of Luzon and Leyte were Muslim-dominated regions.
At that time, most weapons in the Philippines were fire-hardened
sticks, spears and the rare metal blade. It has been suggested that the Art came to the Philippines with the Sri Visayan people,
although there were a large number of peoples already there who were pushed back into the interiors and mountains by their
arrival. These indigenous groups were already expert users of spears, bows and other more exotic weapons, such as the blowgun
and the yo-yo, which was used by dropping it out of trees on animals, and could be drawn back up if the attack missed. The
various tribes were expert in the use of these weapons, but it does not appear that they had any type of a systematized fighting
system. The Sri Visayans changed that. They brought with them a warrior culture that was used to using metal blades and that
learned how to use them in a standardized manner. They would have also brought their blade designs, such as the kris.
There is the legend of the ten Datus of Borneo who came to the Philippines in front of the Majapahit advance. They all settled
in different areas of the island group. Datu means prince in the Sri Visayan language, and Datu Mangal settled on Mactan
Island, which is a small island off the coast of the larger island of Cebu. He is credited with bringing the art of stickfighting
to Mactan Island. Lapulapu was his son, and was the Datu of Mactan Island when Magellan arrived. Sri Bataugong and his son
Sri Bantug Lumay are the ones who brought the art to the island of Cebu, and Sri Humabon was the son of Bantug Lumay. Other
groups were the tribes of Datu Puti, and his wife Pinangpang, and Datu Sumakwei, with his wife Painangan (a.k.a. Aloyon),
who settled on the island of Panay. Datu Balensuela and his wife Dumangsil settled the farthest north, in Taal, Batangas,
and the Batangas style of eskrima still today more closely resembles the Cebu style than the other Luzon styles. The remaining
Datus and their wives were Bankaya (wife- Katurong), Paiburong (Pabulanan), Padohinog (Ribongsapaw), Dumangsol (Kabiling),
and Dumalogdog (Lubay, but she was not his wife). They settled in various places around the Visayan islands, including Limasawa
on Camiguin Island. It should be noted that many of the names seem Spanish in origin, and experts now discount the legend
altogether, but it makes a good story.
It must be remembered that a quality blade was probably the most valuable thing
a person could own in those days, and only the very rich or members of the upper classes could afford them. Also, since the
Art was almost certainly brought by the conquering Sri Visayans, they would not have willingly taught the conquered local
people. Even 150 years after the Sri Visayans came to the islands, it was probably true that most of the expert practitioners
were members of the upper classes, the conquerors. It is unlikely that the average farmer or commoner at that time had been
taught, or even had the time to try to learn on his own. The idea that every warrior in the Philippines was walking around
with his kris or kampilan is completely in error. While this has changed over the last 200 years, especially in Mindanao,
it was not so at that time. The arrival of the Spanish brought a large increase in the number and availability of bladed weapons
to the Philippines, and the Filipinos were quick to take advantage of this, but most fighters were still using sticks until
that time. The most likely scenario is that a Datu and his nobles would have carried blades, and the rest of his warband would
have been armed with the sticks and spears documented by Pigafetta. This same scenario was true in Europe during the time
when bladed weapons dominated fighting. The actual number of mounted, heavily armored knights was actually very small. The
majority of armed men was made up of spearmen or bowmen.
Sri Humabon was the Datu of Sugbu (Cebu) when Magellan arrived
in 1521, and was already involved in a dispute with Datu Lapulapu at that time, over land supposedly stolen from Lapulapus
father in the area of the sea channel between the two islands. Because of this dispute, Lapulapu was already training and
drilling his men for war with Humabon. At first, Humabon was quite happy to deal with Magellan, because Lapulapu was very
famous for his strength and fighting ability, and Humabon hoped to be able to use Magellan and his cannon to his advantage.
One legend about Lapulapus strength was that he could throw a pestle-sized stick through the trunk of a medium-sized coconut
When Magellan arrived in Cebu, he had his ships fire a cannonade to impress the locals. Humabon, upon meeting
Magellan, asked what was the meaning of the cannonade, and what did the strangers want? He told Magellan that if they came
for friendship and trade they were welcome, but they also had to pay him tribute as the ruler of Cebu. Magellan refused by
declaring that they could not pay tribute to any ruler less than the Emperor Charles, and that if the Cebuanos insisted, they
would have to fight. Humabon decided to be friendly and offered an exchange of gifts. Rajah Awi of Limasawa went to Magellans
ship to prepare the way for Humabons nephew, who was bringing the gifts from Humabon.
Humabon's nephew and a large delegation
arrived on board and Magellan immediately launched into a long speech about Christianity. He spoke of God, redemption and
of baptism. After his speech, he asked if the Cebuanos wanted to be baptized and they all agreed! At this, Magellan is said
to have wept and promised perpetual peace. The exchange of gifts followed, with the Cebu delegation giving swine, goats, fowl
and rice. The Spanish gave white linen cloth, a rich robe of yellow and purple silk made in the Turkish style, a red bonnet
and a rosary.
When the delegation returned to Humabon, Pigafetta (the chronicler of Magellans travels) and a delegation
of Spaniards accompanied them, and he described Humabon as "...short, fat and tattooed. He was naked except for a loin-cloth
and an embroidered cloth around his head. Gold earrings hung from his ears, and there was a gold chain about his neck."
After allowing the Spanish to dress him in the red robe and bonnet, Humabon provided some entertainment. This consisted
of naked girls singing and dancing, while food and drinks were served. Unfortunately, the Spaniards ruined the opportunity
by getting drunk and, in the course of the drunken party, attacked and raped some of the 50 dancers, who happened to be virgins.
The encounter ended with the Cebuanos chasing the Spanish back to their boats. It was after this event that Magellan attempted
to get Lapulapu to come to Cebu.
Lapulapu's fight with Magellan occurred because Magellan had landed on Cebu Island and
was dealing with Humabon. Magellan sent word that he wanted Lapulapu to come to Humabon's place to meet with him and Lapulapu
refused. It is unknown whether he refused because he did not want to talk to Magellan, whether he felt that a summons was
beneath him, or that he just did not want to go to the place of his enemy, Humabon. In any case, Magellan took his men to
bring him by force on April 27, 1521. Actually, the fight was extremely one-sided. Most of the soldiers did not make the trip
to fight Lapu-Lapu, because they did not want to row the boats all the way across the channel. The force was made up mainly
of religious types, cabin boys and cooks, and Magellan's syncophants. They were outnumbered at least 10-to-1, never even made
it fully onto the beach, and Magellan was killed.
After this disastrous battle, the remaining members of Magellan's
expedition returned to Cebu, where Humabon invited them ashore for a feast. Pigafetta was taken ill at that time, and so remained
on board with the men left to tend the ships. Because of his illness, he survived to return to Spain, because Humabon and
his men fell on the feasters and killed them. The survivors on the ships quickly weighed anchor and left for Spain.
Lopez de Legaspi arrived in Cebu in 1565 with 400 men, but met with firm resistance from the local ruler, named Tupas, who
was the son of Humabon. Tupas had been 5 years old when Magellan came to Cebu. De Legaspi stayed in Cebu for 3 years, but
since the local economy was subsistence-based, meaning the people just picked fruit and caught fish each day for their food,
there was nowhere near enough extra for 400 Spaniards. The Spaniards were forced to constantly travel to other islands to
trade for, gather or steal food. What finally forced the Spanish to leave Cebu was the arrival of a large force of Portuguese
from Malacca. Since the Philippines was in the Portuguese half of the world, as decided by the Pope, they did not take kindly
to the Spanish trying to settle there.
The Portuguese had made frequent trips to the Visayan Islands in the preceding
years, and the people were terrified of them. Just a couple years before, the Portuguese had sacked the island of Bohol, to
the south of Cebu, taking more than 1000 men, women and children as slaves. Because of this fear, the Spanish were able to
gain a small measure of trust from the Filipinos by guaranteeing that they were not involved in the slave trade.
left and went to what would become Manila in 1568 and found it under Muslim control, ruled by Rajah Sulayman and others. Legaspi
eventually established the first Spanish settlement in Leyte, and began spreading Christianity. At that time, the Spanish
were already very impressed with the local styles of fighting. They knew how Magellan had died, through the chronicles of
Pigafetta. De Legaspi told of having witnessed an exhibition in Abuyog on the island of Leyte by the local chief, named Malitik,
and his son, Kamutunan, in the local fighting arts.
In the beginning, the Spanish made good use of the locals fighting
abilities. Each conquered tribe or island group was then used to provide soldiers to attack the next. In the end, the Spanish
controlled nearly all of the central and northern Philippines, and only a relatively small number of troops had been needed
to do it. The Muslim tribes located on the southern island of Mindanao were never conquered by the Spanish, despite repeated
attempts over several hundred years. One history states that the Spanish made 38 separate attempts to conquer parts of the
south, and never won even an inch of soil!
The arrival of the Spanish also brought their styles of fighting, notably
the espada y daga fencing style, which the natives quickly adapted to their own styles. From the late 1500s into the 1700s,
blade fighting developed steadily along fencing lines, heavily influenced by the Spanish style of fighting. The Art as practised
in the Muslim south was not influenced so much by the Spanish, and today shows a much greater resemblance to forms of Indonesian
silat. The Spanish style kept the dagger back near the hip and, in fact, Filemon Momoy Canetes (of Doce Pares) style of
espada y daga has maintained this method to this day. By the 1700s, the Spanish were worrying more and more of the possibilities
of revolt. As a result, the display, the use or the carrying of blades by the local people was prohibited. This ban has been
mentioned as forcing the natives to return to using sticks, like kamagong, or a species of palm called bahi for their fighting
weapons, and rattan for their training weapons. These hardwoods are very dense, and a stick made out of them will resemble
a blade in its weight and handling characteristics. These weapons were usually flattened and shaped to imitate a blade, and
the actual fighting styles remained the same as when using the blades. Actually, the ban would have had little effect anywhere
except the big cities. Even today, the people out in the provinces do pretty much whatever they want. This is another of the
legends that is simply not true.
Blade styles of fighting were also maintained, to some degree, due to performing the
moro-moro (a Spanish morality play based on the expulsion of the Moors from Spain), which was introduced by Spanish priests
in 1637, or the native stage plays and dances, called sayaws. A type of broadsword called a kali was the weapon normally used
in these plays, and is still popular among the Filipino Muslims today. Later, even this blade was banned from the moro-moro
and the sayaw, although its name, kali, has recently become synonymous with eskrima in the United States. The term is not
used in the Philippines.
Another term, arnis, may have come from the Spanish word arnes, meaning defensive armor or trappings,
which were worn by the performers in the moro-moro plays. While the word may actually originate here, the use of the term
arnis to describe the Art is relatively recent, just since the 1960s. It can be attributed mostly to the Presas family and
their Modern Arnis organization. A Presidential Decree stated that the Philippine school system should adopt the Art, and
this name for it, as part of the physical education curriculum. Unfortunately, the Decree was never implemented on a national
The Art was called many other things as well: estokada, estoque, fraile or armas de mano. Even today, it has many
names: the Tagalog people call it pananandata, the Pangasinan people- kalirongan, the Ilocanos- didya or kabaraon, the Ibanag
- pagkalikali, the Pampaguenos - sinawali, and the Visayans- kaliradman or pagaradman and later, esgrima or eskrima. Eskrima
is either derived from the Spanish word esgrima , which means a game between two combatants with the use of blunt instruments,
or the word escrima which means fencing. The name of the stick is also different wherever you go, with names like garote,
baston, muton or olisi. The word olisi is actually just the name of a particular species of rattan, which has short sections
and is hard and of good quality for fighting.
The Philippine people have never really thought of eskrima as a system
of fighting. Rather it was a personal or family skill, passed down for use when necessary. It is only recently, with the increased
interest by westerners that the Art has come to be recognized for what it is. In the past, there were no styles or systems
as we think of them today. A father or uncle would pass on what he knew to sons or nephews, and then the students would refine
the knowledge to suit their own body-type, personality and necessity of use. A particular method of fighting might only last
one or two generations before it was adapted into something completely different. Since eskrima has no forms or any codified
methods or techniques, it has constantly changed to fit the needs of its practitioners. It has never tried to make the practitioners
fit the Art, as is required in most other styles of the martial arts. Because of this, it has been able to maintain its effectiveness
up to this time.
One of the things that makes the Art of eskrima unique is the personality of its practitioners, at least
of those up to the modern era. The eskrimador was likely to be a tough guy, who liked to drink, gamble and entertain his vices.
He was usually uneducated, or lacking in higher education, although probably intelligent (because great fighters cannot be
stupid!), but he had no chance or lacked the means to gain an education. It is very true that intense interest in something
outside of school interferes with schooling. The need to practice long hours, along with the need to feed themselves and their
families, resulted in schooling generally being neglected.
Aggressive personalities are generally risk takers, and if
you take a lot of risks, sooner or later you will suffer, either economically or physically. The Art generally appealed to
these types of people, and when you have no education or marketable skills, when you have a risk-taker type of personality
and you also have skills in fighting, then chances are that you will gravitate towards the wrong side of the tracks. Many
of the more famous eskrimadors became well-known enforcers in local political warlords private armies, or became underworld
The general philosophy of eskrima has also been affected by these facts. If we compare eskrima with
the Chinese or Japanese arts, we see a big difference. The northern Asian arts were generally reserved for the rich and powerful,
the nobility, monks or the well-educated. In China, a father might have hired a tutor to teach his son the arts, at the same
time as having other tutors for painting, poetry, political training, Zen or other religious dogma, etc. In Japan, most likely
the student was a samurai. The end result was that Chinese and Japanese arts, excepting perhaps the Okinawan, generally have
more of an upper class image. This is not true of the Filipino arts. The attitude in the past has been one of the macho, swaggering
gunfighter, with constant challenges given to anyone who was confident enough to claim himself an expert, with some of these
encounters ending in the death of one or both of the combatants. Anyone who claimed to be an expert in eskrima had to be prepared
to defend his claim at any time. One of the reasons the Art is in danger today is because this is no longer true. It seems
anyone can claim to be a master and get away with it. Also, the Philippines was not affected by the pacifist ideas of Buddhism.
Instead, the Spanish form of Christianity (one of the more brutal creeds on earth) and the Muslim religion, which glorifies
death in battle with the infidel, were the major influences on what was already an aggressive and war-like culture.