“The Origins of Eskrima”
by Dr. Ned Nepangue
We can only make a guess as to the origin of eskrima/arnis/estocada since there are no conclusive written records available in the archives to assist us in our research (that is, if we are really serious about this). Earlier writings did mentioned in passing, something regarding pre-Hispanic martial arts in the islands. But we should remember this, that the earliest Europeans who visited the islands did not know the native languages, were not familiar about the native culture at the time, were ethno-centrists, and were in the Orient primarily to look for spices and not to do research on martial arts. Nobody can really say what kind of martial art these early travelers saw (if that was truly a martial art) when they first came that summer. We cannot even say that it was kali they saw, since they were not familiar about martial arts (like Draeger, Smith or Wiley). Let us also take note that during those times there was no unified form of government and people were not hooked in the Internet. People in the archipelago then (and this is still true until today) speak many languages, thus what was true in the island of Panay then, was not necessarily true in the nearby islands of Cebu or Samar. Forcing ourselves to believe that eskrima/arnis/estocada is something pre-Hispanic even without enough proof to support the theory is not advisable.
We only have the following objective facts to help us prove or disprove the current theory of the origin of the eskrima or arnis.
Fact #1 No written records available, which describes what this allegedly pre-Hispanic martial art of kali really was and there is no evidence to prove that eskrima/arnis/estocada martial arts are related to the art of kali. Earlier writings mentioned how good those early natives were in hand-to-hand combat. These early European adventurers were maybe accurate in their appraisals since they were soldiers/fighters themselves and knew what was good form and what was not. But still the same, these available literatures do not give us details as to what kali really was. So kali can be everything, it can be stone throwing, wild boar hunting, yo-yo playing etc.
Fact #2 Research found out that the natives in the islands before the Europeans came used shields and spears, weapons that are no longer visible in the majority of the contemporary eskrima/arnis/estocada schools. If it is true that kali is the martial art practice by the ancient warriors in the islands then it must have included the use of the tameng or shield and the bangkaw spear. Since the art of eskrima/arnis is derived from kali as some suggested then it must have these weapons included in the curriculum. Tameng is still useful even in the modern times; in fact riot police are still using this contraption to control angry crowds. Spears on the other hand are still found in many other martial arts.
Fact #3 The claims that historical personalities like Lapulapu, Tupas and others were really into kali or eskrima remained unproven. Some so-called authorities of FMA always associate names like that of Lapulapu to eskrima, as if they were around already in 1500s. The funny fact is they could not even provide name(s) of whos who? in the latter years (in the 1600s, 1700, 1800s) to strengthened their claims. How one could claim he is the great-great grandson of the great Mr. So-and-so if he does not even know who his biological father is?
Fact #4 All eskrima/arnis share more common traits than differences. The Filipino stick fighting in many ways is really different compared to other stick fighting systems in the region. The eskrima styles as practiced by many Ilocanos in the far north of the archipelago are basically familiar to the styles found in the south, in the Visayas. There maybe differences in some expressions but generally speaking they are the same.
Fact #5 Practically all eskrima systems/styles are practiced only in the Christianized groups (or those who are under the direct influence of the Spanish conquistadors for 333 years), and that no known eskrima system/style is found among those peoples in the hinterlands of Luzon, among the Lumad and the Muslims in Mindanao. The Spanish colonized the islands for 333
years, but they were not able to convert the entire population to the Christian faith. There were many ethnic groups left who were not directly controlled and influenced by them. Many of these groups are slowly assimilated still retain many of their pre-Hispanic practices. But if the theory is true that eskrima and the like is something originally pre-Hispanic, then at least one of these many tribal groups could show us sampling of a functional eskrima-like stick fighting art, but there is none.
Fact #6 A link between kali and silat styles is yet to be proven, both are really different in form and substance. Many creative eskrimadors want to have this Moro motif integrated to their styles. In actuality eskrima/arnis has nothing to do with the Muslims groups in the south who have their own very beautiful and lethal martial art of silat. Many people foolishly attempted to establish link between the two, but until now they could not provide us enough evidence. In books and articles on eskrima they always include stories about juramentado just to add dramatic effect, but in reality all of these, has nothing to do with eskrima/arnis. Some insist that some of these Muslim tribes do practice some form of kali art. But if we inquire what tribe is that, they could not readily give answer. Some say it is in Sulu, but if we ask further which part of Sulu? Again there is no clear answer. Since the 70s when this claim first appeared, and until now nobody can really give the correct answer. Why? Well, the truth of the matter is, there is no kali in the Moroland. Just a pure fantasy. Is it possible to invent stories and fool the martial arts community? You bet! If you are familiar with the story of the Neolithic tribe they reportedly found in Mindanao called Tasaday, you will easily understand how/why. In eskrima/arnis, emphasis is on weaponry first then unarmed fighting later, but in silat they have the weapons training only later.
Fact #7 About 65% of technical terms used in all eskrima/arnis/estocada developed and propagated by many linguistically diverse ethnic groups are of Spanish origin. The Spanish language was never totally adapted by the Filipinos unlike those in other former colonies of the North and South America. This was because the colonial authorities in the Philippines did
not encourage the natives to learn the language. For three centuries, only the elite and the educated could speak and write the Spanish language. A strange fact is, a great percentage of technical terms used in eskrima/arnis/estocada (and even the supposedly pre-Hispanic kali styles) are in Spanish, the language most Filipinos then (and now) did not speak. This is also the language used by the authorities who outlawed the practice and propagation of this native martial art. If the practitioners at that time were forced to practice in hiding, then why did they not use their own respective languages and dialects instead of using Spanish?
Fact #8 The connection between kali and Indonesian martial art of tjakalele is not yet proven. Tjakalele is practically just a war dance originated in the Mollucas. It uses spears and shields, the weapons, which are not found in 99% of kali schools. Words like kali and tjakalele may sound familiar and related but this not proves anything that both are actually related.
Fact #9 The suggestion that kali is the root word of some words found in different Filipino languages and dialects is not based on linguistics, in fact a study on this claim is yet to be made. Important pre-Hispanic household words like diwata, Bathala, datu, ulipon are still understood by many and this same is also true with words associated with the warriors,
like bangkaw, baraw, tameng. So what is supposed to be the ancient name for the Filipino martial art? Kali? If it is kali then, why cant we find this word in dictionaries of the different Filipino languages and dialects? In fact this particular word was just re-introduced? years ago. Kali is never a traditional name for the native martial art. If one goes to a secluded place in Cebu for example and ask those eskrima old-timers there if they know what is kali, they will probably say they dont know. And these people are supposed to know better.
Fact #10 The earliest technical description about eskrima/arnis was available only lately. The very first known book available in public was Yambao's book in 1957
Fact #11 Many modalities in eskrima/arnis/estocada like espada y daga are also found in European fencing arts.
Fact #12 The once Spanish colony of Venezuela in far away South America also have their own form of stick fighting. The Garrote Larense stick fighting art of Venezuela reminds one of eskrima. There must be a connection between these two martial arts somewhere and further research is needed.
Fact #13 It is baseless to say that eskrima or arnis are just phases of the natural evolution of kali, that is kali being the original form, eskrima and arnis the modern and diluted equivalents. Kali that we can see today do not differ from eskrima/arnis. Some say that kali is on blades while eskrima/arnis more on sticks implying that kali is more combative, realistic and original form while eskrima/arnis as sanitized intended for sports. But in places where the word kali is not the traditional term used, the eskrima/arnis also included the practice of the bladed weapons. In fact many of those who categorize their styles as kali were actually derived from
Fact #14 There is no lack of good blacksmiths and is not the reason why many eskrima/arnis fighters use sticks now instead of real blades. Many good eskrimadors are not found in areas known for their machete making skills. Many panday or sword smiths do not know eskrima and it is never mentioned in the Philippine history that Philippines were running out of bolos.
Fact #15 That the theory proposed is actually not corroborated in the works of the experts of the Philippine history, anthropology and sociology. Intertribal war was a reality especially before the islands became a colony of Spain. When there is war, there are warriors, weapons and military arts. If kali was a military art then history books in high school and college must mention it. I do not remember reading a word kali in our history books when I was still in high school and college, instead in our world history I read words like samurai, katana etc. Books of anthropology must also provide details about it. It is not mentioned, not because historians are not interested, it is simply because there is no sufficient information about it.
So basing on the aforementioned facts, we can only offer logical comments as to the possible origin of the contemporary Filipino Martial Arts (a bigger portion of which is the eskrima/ arnis/estocada/kali). It is basically a product of Filipino creativity and no doubt whatsoever, it is very Filipino. The bulk of its repertoire was developed during Spanish colonial times, and plausibly it got its inspiration from European fencing concepts and practices. It was greatly developed and refined (and the evolution still continues) only here in the islands of the Philippines.