A Brief History Of Arnis.
Before reading this, I think it would be remiss not to mention that the exact origin of the art of Arnis remains unknown. What is written here has been pieced together from various texts and engaging conversations about the style. As with all things in history, a lot can be misrepresented or even left out. Therefore, take this historical depiction with a grain of salt, and just know that this is a general understanding derived from various traditions taught around the Philippines. That being said, here is my understanding:
Initially employing sticks and bow and arrows for combat, the native Filipino were first introduced to the long bladed weapon by the migrating Malays in 200B.C. From this initial encounter, the Filipinos began utilizing the long blade not only for its effectiveness as a farming tool, but for combat as well. This devised method of knife fighting was known as kalis (later reduced to kali); a combative art specializing in all manners of bladed weaponry.
Passed down only to certain Filipino classes, similar to that of the Samurai in Japan, kali was a highly effective weaponized fighting system that helped aid the Filipino people in many defences against foreign invaders. Historically, it can be said that in 1521, during the landing of Ferdinand Magellan in Cebu, the greatest kali warrior of the time, Raja (chief) Lapu Lapu, displayed the true effectiveness of kali when he struck down Magellan with two fatal blows — one to the knee and one to the neck — warding off the impending Spanish invasion.
43 years later, in 1564, the Spanish returned to the Philippines; this time landing in Abuyog, Leyte. Led by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the conquistadors expected another violent encounter. However, they were met by the island chief, Malitik, and his son, Kamutunan, who excitedly welcomed the conquistadors with great hospitality, inviting Legaspi and his men to dine with them and witness a display of the might of kali. During this time, kali had transitioned from a purely martial system to becoming a performance art, complete with choreographed arrangement designed to impress royalty. However, these displays were often very dangerous, with most accidents resulting in death.
Building upon this relationship with the natives, the Spanish eventually colonized a large majority of the Philippines, leaving the art of kali to be mostly used for entertainment purposes; commonly referring to it as 'the sport of kings'. During Philippines' rule by the Spanish, the art of kali became highly influenced by its culture, taking on a more fencing-like style and expanding into a derivative known as Espada y daga (sword and dagger).
It should be noted, however, that although most of the Philippines was colonized and occupied by many different cultures (from the Japanese to the Americans) the people of Mindanao and Sulu in the Philippines have remained true experts in the original art of kali, able to ward off all attempts at invasion through the use of the art; alluding to why these two regions are the only areas of the Philippines still predominantly Muslim — the first religion spread throughout the Philippines by the migrating Malays who introduced the long bladed weapon to the Filipinos.
As time progressed, the Spanish became overly concerned with the potential for revolt by the Filipino people; resulting in the ban of all practice and performance of kali with bladed weapons in 1764. This was likely established as a measure to keep the majority of Filipino people unskilled in the art of combat, as kali had become a highly popularized pastime across the country. Due to this ban, Filipino people began trading in their bladed weapons for the rattan (a type of vine with a weight lighter than most wood and a density thicker than bone). Kali exhibitions were then performed with a stick and colourful armour was implemented to protect performers during shows. These colourful pieces of armour were known as arnes, the Spanish word for harness, which later became the new name for the style; marking its transition from kali (knife fighting) to arnes (stick fighting). Additionally, due to the widespread outlaw of bladed weapons for kali practice and performances, the Filipino people began carrying concealed weapons, mostly daggers, leading to the development of the style Olisi y baraw (stick and dagger).
Eventually, performers ended up doing away with the harness altogether, and by 1853 the word kali was completely replaced by the new term, Arnis (or Eskrima), a modification of the term arnes.
Many years afterward, during various attempts at propagating the new style while both losing and gaining favour within the Filipino community, it wasn’t until 1969 when Remy Amador Presas established Arnis within the physical education system of the Philippines as a viable means for military practice and maintaining cultural identity; leading to what is now known as Modern Arnis— a style more based on competition and performances. Typically, Modern Arnis is practiced with two rattan, one in each hand, and involves many intricate partner arrangements known as sinawali (weaving).
Though the style has flourished within the educational system of today's contemporary Philippines, many practitioners of the original art of Arnis have derived their own expressions of the style — from Balintawak, to Tapi Tapi, to Doce Pares — though made most-popular, combatively, by the Cañete family in Cebu. However, these are stories for another time…