Although it is not often recognized or acknowledged, the various Filipino martial arts such as Escrima/Arnis are said to contain many elements of Spanish Renaissance swordsmanship. Frequently, when this is acknowledged, it is often done in a misconceived manner that apparently allows followers of modern Filipino weapon arts to dismiss this influence as either inconsequential or even irrelevant. If there is influence from Spanish Renaissance swordsmanship, it would likely be from methods of military cut & thrust swords, not the style of civilian thrusting rapiers. Just what these techniques might be, and how they are known to be 16th century Spanish in origin (and not something introduced from 19th century epee fencing) would certainly be interesting for today’s student of Renaissance martial arts to discover.
In a work put out some years back entitled “Filipino Martial Arts” (which received mixed reviews among the Filipino martial arts community), one of the very first chapters labeled “Historical Background”, display in its final paragraphs typical misconceptions about Renaissance swordsmanship and Western fighting arts1. This particular author (by no means atypical) made the usual points concerning Filipino cultural pride (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and stated that in 1521 the great explorer Ferdinand Magellan, first one to circumnavigate the globe (almost), died in battle off of a small island he had attacked in order to gain favor with another local ruler. In this famous battle of Filipino history, Magellan’s 49 men with pikes, swords, halberds, a little armor, and a few firearms, were attacked by the now legendary warrior king Lapu Lapu and over 1100 fellow islanders. Magellan’s force was outnumbered on the beach by more than twenty to one. So, not surprisingly he died in the waves amid a hail of arrows and spears (note plural, not singular).
What the author fails to mention, is that the very reason we know of the battle’s outcome is because Magellan’s ship actually escapes (surely not the most decisive victory on the part of the locals). Anyway, the book cites this incident of local historical pride to emphasize how formidable the native fighting skills were/are. But wait. The very next statement is how in 1571, another Spanish explorer under orders to colonize, attacks a native force on another island and faces the “even more formidable” Kali warriors with their (and this is not being made up) fire-hardened rattan sticks. It also says (to quote) that “the native fighting skills far exceeded those of the Spanish”. Indeed?
Of course, this author then acknowledges that the Spanish/Portuguese actually go on to win the battle, but suggests that this was “due to their firearms.” However, a few light-calibre shipboard cannon and inaccurate, slow firing arquebuses in a tropical climate are not about to win a battle over overwhelming odds (back in Europe at the time, they had a lot more guns and still they had to rely on massed pikes and cavalry).
Notice also how no credit is given the Spanish/Portuguese’s clear military superiority in training, discipline, armaments, tactics, organization, leadership, morale, etc.? The very fact they had high-carbon steel tipped halberds and carefuly tempered chest plates was in itself a big factor, a very formidable one (in fact a generation earlier, Spanish sword & buckler men were trashing the vaunted Swiss pikemen all up and down Europe’s battlefields and over-running Italy). What is more remarkable is how a few hundred sailors and men (not even first class Renaissance soldiers in their prime), thousands of miles from their homes and families, continually outfought supposedly “superior” warriors in a hostile and unfamiliar land.
The most astounding thing in this revisionist-like view of military history lies in the final paragraph of this particular work. Immediately after all this it goes on to say that “following the Spanish conquest of the islands” (did we miss something here?) and after many skirmishes with (quoting again) “Spanish fencing exponents”, the native fighting arts were found wanting. Notice how the Spanish are not called “swordsmen” or even referred to as “warriors” (and certainly not skilled Masters of Arms), but merely “exponents” of “fencing”. It’s as if they were just going around on the lecture circuit suggesting everyone consider their opinions, rather than defeating native opponents outright. Not surprisingly, this is a good example of the attitude toward historical European martial culture that can be found in many areas of the Asian martial arts community today.
The work then goes on to say the native Filipino fighting arts adopted many techniques and dropped others. Excuse me? Now then, we must ask, if the native fighting arts were so formidable, and the Spanish won by merely having firearms, why then were their techniques seen as so useful and effective as to be incorporated? What was supposedly deficient within native fighting talents (especially seeing as how developed they are)? What exactly were these Spanish “skills” they were borrowing from? They certainly could not have had anything to do with firearms.
As with others like it, not only did the book miss all this, but it went on to make the inaccurate and misleading statement that “the Spanish rapier and dagger system of fighting has had a great influence on Filipino arts”. Sorry, wrong. The Spanish at the time of Magellan and even later, would not have been fighting with civilian rapiers. The rapier, as we know was a personal weapon of urban self-defense, not a battlefield one. The Spanish/Portuguese sailors and soldiers would have been using military “cut & thrust” swords and fighting in the well-documented style of the Spanish and Italian Masters of the time such as Manciolino, Marozzo, Altoni, Agrippa, and Di Grassi, as well as the highly regarded styles of the Spanish Master Carranza and de Narvaez. The later civilian rapier style simply had not progressed to the point yet where it would likely have been common in the Philippine Islands even during the 1570’s let alone earlier.
Additionally, for the Spanish/Portuguese the rapier was very much a weapon of the upper classes, not the common men and sailors who would have been the vast majority of fighters the natives would have encountered. These men would have trusted in the sturdier, quick slashing cut & thrust blades which were far better suited for shipboard fighting than the lighter, thrusting rapier would ever have been (Hollywood pirate movies notwithstanding). Additionaly, swords were not the favored or most common weapon of such Renaissance warriors, that would have been left to spears, halberds, falchions and long-knives (an interesting thought…).
Apparently though, rather than do accurate research when it comes to European weaponry and fighting arts, the author relied instead on familiar myth and observations of irrelevant epee and foil fencing. Sadly, what many Asian martial-art stylists apparently know of European swordsmanship seems invariably to come from Hollywood films, modern sport fencing, and Renaissance-fair stage shows. So, you can’t really blame them completely.
Anyway, the material makes the usual mistake that many proponents of admirable Filipino arts seemingly do. It assumes it was the rapier, instead of the Renaissance cut & thrust sword, that had influence on their arts (without really knowing exactly what either weapon is or how they’re actually used). Not only this, but the obvious techniques of Filipino stick fighting utilize little thrusting comparative to the rapier and instead rely predominately on shorter, close-in strikes. These are clearly techniques completely inappropriate for the extra long, virtually edgeless rapier favored by the Spanish. Thus, Filipino techniques are not reminiscent of the vicious and elegant European rapier, but only perhaps of the sophisticated and highly effective Renaissance sword & dagger form2 . Just what any of this influence may be has yet to be substantially identified or documented by anyone. However, that there were leading proponents of Filipino who arts in the early 20th century did study modern sport fencing is a fact. What effect this sport exposure may have had on their methods of teaching is another matter for speculation, but certainly it is no evidence of “Renaissance” skills. After all, modern sport fencing (i.e., foil, epee, sabre) is far removed from its martial origins in Renaissance swordplay and for more than 150 years has not been about self-defense or been taught as a killing art.
Anyway, this is the kind of historical inaccuracy and ignorance of Western martial history that permeates much of the prejudice found in a great deal of the practice of Asian martial arts today. For some Filipinos it has now become a matter of cultural pride to explain why they were colonized, their weapons confiscated, and their native fighting skills forced to hide under the disguise of presumably harmless stick dances (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It would seem they have had the final laugh though. Westerners are victims of our own military success (and excess). For it is the splendid Asian traditional fighting arts that have survived and prospered while we struggle to reconstruct and interpret what documented information survives of ours.
But for too long a good many false assumptions and assertions made by promoters of Asian styles in regard to our Western martial heritage have gone unchallenged. In this age of cultural sensitivity, renewed ethnic pride, and political correctness, we must give credit whenever it’s do and clear up misconceptions when possible. Not to cause offense, but we must treat historical facts as facts even if they make us uncomfortable or damage our pride.
The Spanish essentially conquered much of the Philippines islands militarily, and to a lesser extent culturally. They did not do it through shady deals and corporate take-overs of “noble savages” who were somehow their martial superiors. The very reason the Filipino martial arts today primarily utilize sticks is essentially because of both their ancestors’ lack of a widespread advanced metallurgical technology and because their Spanish overlords, as an occupying force, confiscated their weapons3 as victorious powers have been known to do (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Plus, its just far wiser to practice fighting techniques with safe sticks than with metal blades.
The diverse Filipino martial arts are very adaptive and pragmatic. They are said to contain elements of many cultures which had contact with them over centuries; Chinese, Indian, Malay, etc. So likely, there is some European in there as well. But if any influence that elements of Filipino arts owe to Renaissance Spanish sword forms is going to be determined and acknowledged, then it demands that exactly what such Western forms and weapons were, and what practitioners today are capable of still, also be correctly understood. For today’s practitioners of Medieval & Renaissance fighting systems who are familiar and experienced with the technological and martial significance of group combat and armored battle, including shields, bucklers, spears, bills, pikes, and longbows, the naivetÃ© of most comments regarding European arts is astounding. Further, if one wants to argue the validity or effectiveness of modern Arnis/Escrima (or any Asian sword form, for that matter) against a sword & buckler or a rapier & dagger, then they very much need to arrange some serious cross-training and friendly sparring sessions with qualified proponents. Otherwise, everything else is myth and useless conjecture.
Article written by John Clements, author of “Medieval Combat : A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat” and “Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated methods and techniques”. Permission to repost his article in full kindly granted by the Historical Armed Combat Association.
1 The book the author refers to is most likely Filipino martial culture, written by Mark V. Wiley in 1997.
2 The sword and dagger form that was eventually incorporated into the Arnis/Escrima Filipino martial arts is still referred to by its Spanish name: Espada y Daga.
3 The banning of weapons was an extension of the Cognomen (latin for surname) decree, issued in 1849, forcing all Filipinos to adopt a Spanish surname. It was later extended to place a ban on all native fighting arts.