Arnis is originally an art that was practiced by the commoner or peasant class. Because of this, most practitioners of the system lacked the necessary education to create any form of written record or documentation. While the same can be stated of numerous martial arts, this is particularly true for Arnis martial arts since nearly all of its Arnis history is merely anecdotal, promotional, or oral.
Arnis can be originally traced back to native combat techniques during battles among the different pre-Hispanic Filipino kingdoms or tribes, though the present form has some Spanish influence from fencing which originally was practiced in Spain.
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Influence of other Martial Arts Styles in Arnis History
It also has other influences, as traders and settlers travelling through the Malay Region brought the silat as well as Arab, Indian, and Chinese martial arts. A few of the people still localized Chinese combat methods called the kuntaw.
Moreover, it has been theorized that Arnis Kali Eskrima may have Indian roots and came to the Philippines through the people who traveled through Malaysia and Indonesia to the Philippines. Silambam, a stick-staff-based, ancient, Indian martial art influenced numerous martial arts in Asia such as silat. Arnis may share ancestry with the said systems – several Arnis movements resemble the short stick (kaji or kali) and other weapon-based combat styles techniques of silambam.
When the Spanish colonizers first came to the Philippines, they observed weapons-based combat arts practiced by the Filipino natives, which are likely not related to the modern-day Arnis. The earliest written records of the Philippines and the Filipino life and culture were documented by the first Spanish explorers.
A few early expeditions fought tribesmen armed with knives and sticks. In 1521, the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, was slain in Cebu at the legendary “Battle of Mactan” by the Datu Lapu-Lapu’s forces. Several Arnisadors claim that these natives killed the explorer in a sword fight, but historical evidence does not prove so.
Antonio Pigafetta, a chronicler, was the only person who could account for the battle. Pigafetta stated that Magellan was stabbed in the arm and face using spears and overwhelmed with numerous warriors who stabbed and cut at him. Here is the account:
The natives continued to pursue us and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain's face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian's body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.
Opinions differ based on the degree to which Spanish colonization in the Philippines impacted Arnis training. A huge number of styles, techniques, and names of the system themselves have major Spanish influence on them – arnis or arnes, eskrima or esgrima, estoque, garrote, etc., though some argue that the Spanish names just reflect the fact that the lingua franca of the Philippines at that time was Spanish, and there was limited Spanish martial influence.
What’s certain though is that the Spanish brought with them and utilized their weapon arts when they began colonizing the Philippines in the 1500s. Moreover, that’s known is that they recruited and trained soldiers and mercenaries from the locality; these are the Kapampangans, Pangasinenses, Tagalogs, Ilonggos, Warays, and Cebuanos in order to pacify the regions and stop revolts.
Did you know that Spanish fencing influenced Eskrima? Find out more in our post – Filipino Martial Arts History – Influence of Spanish Swordsmanship on FMA
The first Filipinos who decided to attempt to revolt were the Pampangos – the most prominent and warlike folks of the Philippines. It was all the worse since these Filipinos had trained in the military art in school in the fortified outposts of the Caraga, Zamboanga, Jolo, Ternate, and other areas where their bravery and valor was recognized.
However, this is essential for our protection, and so they always say that a Spaniard and three Pampangos is equivalent to four Spaniards.
Logic tells us that these native mercenaries and soldiers would have transferred these newly acquired skills to family members and very close friends to improve the efficient and already existing native ones. Moreover, they would have shared methods and tactics with each other when put in a similar military group and combatting the foreign side like the Marianas, the Moluccas, and Formosa.
Spanish Influence on Arnis History
One prominent feature of Arnis that may point to Spanish influence is Espada y Daga (sword and dagger) method, which is a term utilized in fencing. The Filipino version of the Espada y daga is quite different from the European rapier and dagger styles; the stances are not the same as weapons utilized in are normally shorter that European-made swords.
Following the Spanish colonization in the Philippines, a decree was established that banned the common people from carrying weapons such as the Kampilan and Kris. Regardless, the practitioners constantly found ways to keep and maintain the system alive, using rattan-made sticks rather than actual swords. Several arts were passed down from generation to generation.
Occasionally, the arts took the form of rituals or choreographed dances like the Sakuting stick dance. Furthermore, as a result, an intricate and unique stick-based style evolved in the Luzon and Visayas regions. Mindanao, on the other hand, retained exclusive blade-oriented methods because the Spaniards and even Americans never entirely conquered the southern regions of the Philippines.
Filipino Martial Arts is a Unique Style
Though Arnis history integrates native combat styles with old Spanish fencing, a systematization degree was ultimately achieved, resulting in the unique, distinguishable, and exceptional Filipino martial art. With time, the system for training and teaching the essentials evolved as well.
But except a few older, more established systems, it was a common practice to pass down the art from one generation to the next in an informal way, making the attempts to trace its lineage difficult. For instance, besides learning from family members such as his uncle Regino Ilustrisimo, practitioner Antonio Ilustrisimo appeared to have learned the fighting techniques while sailing across the Philippines.
His student and cousin Floro Villabrille claimed to have learned the art from a blind Moro princess – which was later invalidated by the older Ilustrisimo.
Modern Arnis History
The Philippines has a blade culture. Unlike in Europe where Renaissance and Medieval fighting and self-defence blade or weapon arts have gone nearly extinct, Filipino blade fighting is still a living art. The local persons in the Philippines are considered more likely to carry bolos or knives than guns.
Filipino Martial Arts Weapons Can Be Found at Home
These weapons are usually carried as tools by farmers to cut vegetation, street vendors to cut open pineapples, watermelons, coconuts, other fruits and animal meats. Also, balisongs are very easy to procure and are easily hidden. In fact, in a few rural areas, carrying a knife such as the itak was a sign that that person is making a living due to the area’s nature of work.
In Palau, they call Filipinos as “chad a oles” meaning “people of the knife” due to their reputation for carrying blades and utilizing them in fights.
Contrary to the statements of some historians today that it was just guns that helped the Philippines achieved victory against the Spanish colonizers, blades played a huge part as well.
During the Battle of Manila in 1898, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that:
The Philippine native, like all the kindred Malay races, cannot do any fighting as a rule except at close quarters, slashing with his heavy knife. The weapon is called machete, or bolo, or kampilan, or parang, or kris. The plan of action is the same – to rush in unexpectedly and hack about swiftly, without the slightest attempt at self-preservation.
Furthermore, the Mauser rifle in hard work is discovered to be an error. It has a five-cartridges case, which needs to be all used prior to inserting others. Now if a soldier fires three cartridges, then he ought to go one and waste the remaining two.
The Filipino Balde Culture
It may likely be the men’s fault, or they are just unlucky in being undrilled, but they’re frequently knifed as they reload their rifles. Whatever the explanation may be, there is certainly something wrong in soldiers with bayonets and rifles being attacked by knife-wielding natives. The insurgents have guns, but many Spanish are injured with knife wounds.
The Philippine–American War
The Americans first witnessed Arnis in the Philippine–American War in such events as the “Balangiga massacre” where the majority of a US company was cut to death or severely injured by knife-wielding guerillas in Eastern Samar, as well as in Mindanao battles, where an American soldier was beheaded by a Moro warrior.
World War II
During World War II, many Filipinos fought the Japanese hand to hand with their blades as guerilla fighters or as military units under the USAFFE like the Bolo Battalion (now known as the Tabak Division).
Some of the grandmasters in arnis history who are known to have used their skills in World War II are Antonio Ilustrisimo, Leo Giron, Teodoro “Doring” Saavedra, brothers Eulogio and Cacoy Cañete, Timoteo “Timor” Maranga, Sr, Jesus Bayas and Balbino Tortal Bonganciso.
During the Second World War, numerous Filipinos fought the Japanese troops hand-to-hand using their blades as freedom fighters or as military men under the USAFFE such as the Bolo Battalion or the Tabak Division. A few of the GMS who are known today to have utilized their skills and expertise in WW2 are Leo Giron, Antonio Ilustrisimo, brothers Cacoy and Eulogio Cañete, Teodoro “Doring” Saavedra, Timoteo “Timor” Maranga, Sr, Balbino Tortal Bonganciso, and Jesus Bayas.
Different styles of arnis are now being practiced all over the world. It also now considered as the national sport of the Philippines. Although not as popular as other oriental martial arts or MMA, it is highly respected for its practicality and effectiveness in terms of self-defence and combat.
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