What Is a Brief History of Arnis?

Arnis is a form of martial art that originated from the Philippine islands, which existed before the Spanish occupation in the 1500s. This martial art involves the use of sticks and bladed weapons for combat.

Roots There’s difficulty in establishing how arnis first came about. According to documents by Spanish colonists in the 1500s, the Filipino natives were already practicing some form of martial arts using bladed weapons such as large kampilans, swords, daggers, spears and other types of edged weaponry. Historians noted that the martial art skills of the natives using the weapons were fearsome. These skills may also have been in play when historian Antonio Pigafetta recounted the death of Ferdinand Magellan when the natives descended upon the famous explorers with swords, spears and daggers.

Spanish Occupation While the tribal warriors may have fearsome skills, but they’re still no match for the musket-bearing Spaniards who eventually colonized the Philippine islands in the 1500s. Still taking note of their skills with the blade, the Spanish colonists banned the natives from carrying bladed weapons except those whom they’ve hired as mercenaries in various areas in the Philippines to help quell and sniff out any fomenting ideas about rebelling against the colonizers.

To circumvent this decree by the Spaniards, the natives devised a way to disguise the martial art and they did so by using sticks instead of bladed weapons and pretending that the seeming ritualistic dancing with the sticks was a form of recreation. The natives thus found a way to practice their skills without alarming their Spanish overlords. Experts also suggest that this is also the time when the name “arnis” first came to be to refer to the practice of dancing with the sticks.

Since the Philippines is an archipelago, there are various forms of stick fighting styles that are endemic to different regions. The styles also go by different names, such as kali and escrima. However, the term arnis often encompasses all Filipino stick-fighting techniques.

To appease their Spanish overlords further, some of the styles took on Spanish terminologies, such as espada y daga, which means sword and dagger, as well as doce pares, which means 12 pairs. Other practitioners during the Spanish occupation, perhaps the mercenaries, even incorporated Spanish weapons, such as cutlasses, as well as European fencing techniques into the martial art.

American Occupation The arnis masters passed down their styles and techniques along their family line to keep their skills alive. The art of stick fighting lived through the centuries and it became very evident during the American occupation, particularly in the Balangiga incident in Eastern Samar.

According to historical documents Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry (“Manchus”) Regiment, were on station duty in Balangiga in 1901. To fraternize with the locals, they engaged with them through baseball games and drinking local wine. In return, the locals entertained their occupiers with arnis stick-fighting demonstrations.

The skills the locals displayed may have been the same techniques they used with bladed weapons when attacking the soldiers one night in September 1901. This resulted in the death of 48 American soldiers, which led to a retaliation by the Americans who ended up killing approximately 50,000 residents of Samar.