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Please note: Every attempt has been made to reference any claims or factual information. Like many historical articles, there are differing points of view, and in writing, we have ensured if something is stated without evidence, we make it known.

The History of the Philippines is a long one, with records stretching back to as far as 900 AD 1

In the case of the Filipino martial arts, when examining the history of the Philippines as a nation, it is clear that fighting arts have always been an integral part of the Filipino society. The fighting arts of the Philippines, like in many other places, were influenced by many different cultures and migrants.

Settled in about 200 B.C by the Malays in a first wave of migrations from the South-east, they brought with them the long knife. Although many weapons of different shapes and sizes were brought into the Philippines, the Kris, a wavy bladed knife from the island of Java, was the first foreign weapon to be transplanted into the Filipino fighting arts 2. Two more migrations followed  , one lasting from the Christian era to the thirteenth century and the second from the beginning of the 14th century until the middle of the fifteenth century. These people were effectively the ancestors of the present day muslim Filipinos of Mindanao and Sulu 3.

In 1518, Ferdinand Magellan convinced King Charles I of Spain that the Moluccas, then known as the spice island, could be reached by sailing west. Magellan told the king that the Moluccas belonged to the Spanish side of the demarcation line drawn according to the Treaty of Torsedillas 4. The king agreed to send an expedition to the Spice Islands under the command of Ferdinand Magellan. On September 20, 1519, the expedition sailed southward across the Atlantic Ocean. Magellan reached the southernmost tip of South America where he crossed the Pacific Ocean strait (now called the Magellan strait) and, in March of 1521, reached the Marianas. After resting his men and procuring provisions, Magellan continued his voyage and, on March 17th , 1521, sighted the mountains of Samar, marking their arrival in the Philippine Archipelago 5.

On April 28th, Ferdinand Magellan and his men waded assure in knee high water to do battle with Raja LapuLapu and his men. The methodical historian at his side, Antonio Pigafetta recorded that LapuLapu’s men were armed with fire-hardened sticks. In this battle, Magellan was slain by Raja (chief) LapuLapu with a Kampilan by a blow to the leg and then a thrust to the neck 6.

In 1542 the group of islands was officially named Las Philippinas in honor of Prince Philip who later became king Philip of Spain (Philip II, 1556-1598). An explorer named Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, one of Magellan’s predecessors takes credit for giving the place it’s name.

Spanish rule in the Philippines lasted until 1898 when Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American war. During this long period of colonisation, the Spanish had some important effects on the Filipino culture. Firstly, most of the population was converted to Roman Catholicism save for the Muslim Moros of the Sulu archipelago. Spanish fencing also had a direct effect on the fighting arts of the Philippines, with the introduction of angles of attack, and the use of Espada y daga (sword and dagger) 7. When the Spanish imposed a ban on the practice of all native fighting arts and the carrying of bladed weapons during their occupation of the islands, the Filipinos were forced to substitute the use of the sword with that of the rattan. In the beginning the rattan was used to deliver strikes in the same manner as the blade i.e. slashing and thrusting, and the knife (or short stick) was still held in reserve as a back up weapon in case the opponent closed the distance, typical of it’s use by the Spanish. Hardly ever was it used to block or parry an oncoming strike. However through time the Filipinos began to realise that because the stick had different handling qualities, certain lines of attack were open to them that were not available with the sword e.g. curved and snapping strikes. Once they began to appreciate the combat effectiveness of the stick the use of the knife also changed and began to be used more aggressively in terms of blocking, parrying, checking, scooping, thrusting and slashing. This in turn led to the creation of Olisi y baraw (stick and dagger).8

One of the other effects to have reportedly influenced the Filipino culture is the colourful costumes of the Spanish. The bright and at times tacky colours are said to be the basis of the colourful outfits worn by many Escrimadors today. However, there is no evidence to support this claim.

Filipino martial arts today are even more confusing. Arnis and Escrima are used to refer to the weapon arts of the Philippines today. Kali is actually used outside the Philippines to refer to the same art. The term Arnis de mano is especially misleading. The term Arnis is a bastardised form of the word Arnes which refers to the decorative harnesses used by the actors in moro-moro stage displays. De mano simply means hands, and so a literal translation of Arnis de mano turns into ‘harness of hand’. The manipulation of these harnesses during the stage plays impressed the Spanish who dubbed it Arnes de mano. The style Arnis, a Spanish term itself,  uses many Spanish terms to describe its techniques such as Espada y daga . 

The term Eskrima is another bastardised term derived from the word Escrima which is again derived from the Spanish term Esgrima (fencing). It is also believed to mean to skirmish but there is no evidence to suppor this.

The last term Kali is always the most controversial. Many martial arts schools and instructors believe the word Kali to be a combination of the words Kamut (hand) and Lihok (movement).  It is also believed to be the mother art of Arnis or Escrima but there is a lack of evidence to support this. Kali or Kahli as it is sometimes written, in Visayan is a type of stick, but not used to refer to the fighting art. Kali is also the Hindu Goddess of destruction, and the Moros of the Sulu archipelago would often go into battle dressed like the goddess of destruction. The more believable explanation is from the Tagalog word for a large bladed weapon, Kalis. This was shortened simply to Kali to refer to all bladed weapon. Its use in the West stems from the use of the word by  Floro Villabrille who used this term to describe his art, and this was eventually popularised by Dan Inosanto 9. An interview with Antonio Illustrisimo in 1993 revealed that he only used the word out of convenience because foreign students recognised it, although he preferred the term Escrima because this is what it was called when he was learning from his uncles.10

Whatever term is used to describe the Filipino fighting arts today it is clear that they offer deep and rewarding training for those involved.


1 Santos, Hector. “The Laguna Copperplate Inscription” in A Philippine
Leaf at US, October 26,1996.

Hurley, Victor. Swish of the Kris; the story of the Moros (New York, Dutton & co., 1936)

3 Agoncillo, Teodoro A. History of the Filipino people (Quezon City : Malaya Books, 1967)

4 The demarcation line, decided by Papal decree in 1494 split the continent into a Portuguese side and a Spanish side. The line drawn does not exactly follow the 50th meridian as it was intended. The line was respected until about the mid-1500’s.

5 Pigafetta, Antonio. Magellan’s voyage: a narrative account of the first navigation / translated and edited by R.A skelton from the manuscript in the Beinecke Rare book and Manuscript library of yale university.London: folio society, 1975

6 Quirino, Carlos. Filipinos at war (Manila : Vera-Reyes, 1981)

7 Draeger, Donn et al. Comprehensive Asian fighting arts.( New York : Kodansha International, 1980)

8 Tucker, Doug. Olisi y Baraw and Espada y daga from what is formerly known as Warriors Eskrima

9 Wiley, Mark. Filipino martial culture (Rutland: Charles Tuttle, 1997)

10 Interview with Antonio Illustrisimo was conducted by Pangulong Guro Krishna Godhania in 1993