What is Escrima?


Warriors of the Pre-Hispanic Philippines


The pre-Hispanic warrior class of the Philippine islands were called Maharlika in Tagalog, Timagua in the Visayan languages. The Maharlika pledged their allegiance and aligned themselves under Datu, the principal rulers of Barangay which encompassed a community and a corresponding territory. The Maharlika were primarily reponsible to the Datu in war. In defending the Barangay or leading military offensives on land and at sea, the Maharlika were highly esteemed for their prowess. Daragangan is the term applied to a warrior who demonstrates courage and strength in combat. The Maharlika, who were tested in battle, have the right to wear decorative red jackets or vests called pinayusan woven from intricately patterned abaca cloth. With additional merit the magalong or red head cloth would be worn or extra turns were made in the loin-cloth or bahag to signify valor. Warriors of the Visayas decorated their bodies with single-color tatoos. While Maharlika throughout the Philippines decorated teeth with gold inlay, filing and stains of black or red. Ornate gold jewelry was worn. The primary arms of Philippine warriors were kris and kampilan sword types, wide-bladed daggers called baladaw, and the bangkaw or spear with a pointed metal base and leaf shaped blades. The Maharlika also utilized the arquebus firearm, swivel cannon, crossbow, longbow, javelin, poisoned bagacay darts, and blowguns called sumpit. Many types of armor were made in the Philippines: Padded corselets, woven cord corselets, brass chainmail, and plate armor of carabao horn, hardwood, bamboo and even elephant skin. Helmets were also made of composite materials including shark or octopus skin, leather, hardwood, and brass chain. Large shields were called kalasag while the smaller buckler is known as the tamin. Warfare in the pre-Hispanic Philippines occurred on both land and sea where the primary purpose appears to be characterized by raids and ambush aimed at gathering slaves. Fortifications of this period served only to resist raiding activity not the protracted sieges commonplace in Europe. Historically, the Filipino warrior engaged in warfare primarily to obtain slaves and valor in combat and not territory as was the aim of the Spanish.

This class of warriors persisted in the Philippines until the effect of the Spanish reduccion was felt and the Barangay social system was diminished by the physical reorganization of Filipino communities in the colonial period. Many of these warriors came to augment the military forces of Spain in the Philippine islands. Notably, thousands of Visayan warriors from Panay and Cebu supported Miguel Lopez de Legazpi by capturing the city of Maynila from Rajah Sulayman and extending Spanish control throughout the Visayas and Luzon between 1565 and 1575. The earlier attempt by Magellan had failed when he and his war-party died at the hands of Lapu-Lapu in 1521. Now Spanish fortifications and garrisons began to appear in strategic locations across the Visayas and Luzon: Where the first Spanish construction was the triangular Fort San Miguel constructed after Legazpi in Cebu in 1565. Overall the combined successes of the Spanish Army in the Philippines augmented with Filipino warriors from 1560 to 1580 ultimately led to the formal recruitment and staffing of Spanish forts with Filipino warriors from many regions by the begiining of the 17th century. The formation of Filipino companies in the Spanish Army of the Philippines occurred through permissions granted by governors as well as by royal decree of the Spanish crown. Here, the Spanish art of war was taught by the ╘Docters of the Military Discipline╒ to Filipino soldiers in the military schools at various garrisons. These Filipino soldiers were fully incorporated into Spanish military organization, were accorded rank, and eventually came to officer both Filipino and Spanish soldiers. This conjunction between the Spanish school of war and the warfare of the Maharlika marks the genesis of syncretic martial systems in the Philippine islands which eventually make their way into the 20th century as the various systems of Eskrima, Arnis, and Kali. This moment in which the syncretic art of Eskrima is developed is also the period in which the Spanish seek to further their goals in the Philippine islands by reaching north into the tribal regions of the Cordillera mountains and south to the Moro or Islamic Filipinos of Mindanao and Sulu


Spain at the Moment of Colonization


The Spain of the New World was Castile. Thus, the hidalgo and conquistadores who ventured to Mexico, Peru, and later, the Philippines were descended from a culture that rose out of frontier life of Castile and 400 years of warfare with Spanish-Islamic forces during the Reconquista of Spain. A system of Church institutions, the militant Christianity of the great Spanish military-monastic orders Alacantara, Calatrava,and Santiago, the hermanguildas, cofradias, and mayordomias, all worked to shape the worldview of Castile, and, in turn, the perspective of the Philippines. The exemplary man of Castile was embodied in the notion of the hidalgo and the concomitant military virtues of courage and honor.


The Genesis of Eskrima


The term Eskrima is derived from the Spanish verb esgrima meaning ╘to fence.╒ It is extant in other Medieval and Rennaissance European langauges including Old Provencal, French, and Portuguese. The Provencal use is formed from the words escremida ╘a covering╒ and the verb escremir ╘to fight, defend╒ (Edward Adams. Word Formation in Provencal. Macmillan Company. New York: 1913). Adams notes that the meaning given to the word escremida ╥seems a peculiar meaning to be derived from the verb escremir, but the original meaning of the verb seems to have been ╥to defend╙ or protect, hence cover, whereas the meaning ╥to fight╙ also comes from the idea ╥to defend╙[ For source, see Korting, No. 8,788. See also Rom. Forsch., XXII, 214](Adams:28). These associated meanings are natural to the extent that the methods of warfare entail both attack and defense to be complete arts. The specific meaning ╘to cover╒ may refer to a specific form of defense or the use of the shield in defense. As noted above, the art of Eskrima in the Philippine Islands has its genesis in the the recruitment and full incorporation of Filipino warriors into the Spanish Army of the Philippines. The Filipino soldiers who were trained in Spanish warfare, officered miltary units on land and sea, and fought military campaigns for the Spanish in both the Philippines and abroad. The syncretic development of Spanish and Filipino methods of warfare occurred in the training regimen of the forts and garrisons of the Philippine Islands where skill in short arms was necessary to board ships, lay siege to fortifications, lay ambuscades and skirmish opposing forces, break enemy formations after polearms clash, and attack musketeers and arquebusiers reloading their weapons at close quarters.

The bell tolled for the Spanish Army in the Philippines in 1898 and the garrison communities of the Philippines saw their end with the disbanding of its soldiers to their homes across the archipelago. Thus, the early 20th century marks the beginning of the modern era of Eskrima and the perpetuation of the Filipino martial arts as we know them today conserved through the efforts of families, villages, and military-fraternity.