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HISTORY OF ESKRIMA

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Filipino history has been largely lost after the Spanish colonists tried to eradicate the local culture. This is especially true for Eskrima since a significant amount of its history is anecdotal and oral. Being a martial art for the common folk, some of its practitioners lacked the scholarly education to create a written history. This confusion is further complicated by the fact that there are actually many different fighting systems with different histories that are called Eskrima (or Arnis de Mano). One explanation for the origin of Eskrima systems is that they were originally the fighting systems possessed by every tribe in the Philippines and used by them to fight and defend against each other. Archeological evidence as well as oral legends say that many influences were brought to the Philippines by people who travelled from Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo

It is historically recorded, though, that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, some tribes fought them, using native weapons and techniques. Magellan, portuguese, was killed in the battle of Mactan in 1521 by forces of the Mactan tribal chief Lapu-Lapu when Magellan landed in Cebu - From this point sources differ on the history of Eskrima. Certainly by the time the Spanish reached the Philippines, they were extremely challenged by how the natives had fought, when the natives of the Philippines only had simple weapons such as swords, spears and bows to protect themselves. The experienced conquistadors were able to invade Maharlika (now Philippines). The degree to which this affected the practice of the native fighting arts is a matter of debate, but it seems likely that the Filipinos kept what worked and discarded what didn't. Eskrima had to be hidden from the Spaniards -- they practiced it in their dancing, and pretended they were practicing the Spanish style of fencing to avoid being caught. For this reason, certain styles of Eskrima have some strong Spanish influences.

Most historians believe that Philippine fighting systems have strong historical roots from Indonesian martial arts that are Chinese influenced like Kuntao. Kun Tao (literally the way of the fist) of course finds its roots from Ch'uan Fa (which is a generic word for what westerners would call kung fu, it also literally means way of the fist). Other systems that have similar movements to many Filipino systems also find their roots from Ch'uan Fa. There are even counts of lost Ch'uan and Tai Chi double stick forms that many of the fleeing renegade monks would have trained for in that period. These Chinese-based influences to the martial arts are not as powerful as the direct links to the cultural and political ties found in the Philippines even today. Many even believe the systems are totally intact in the way profound Chinese arts once were before events like the Cultural Revolution. There are also those who propose that eskrima was influenced by Indian martial arts but most agree that the similarities are due to Indianized Silat forms being brought to the Philippines.

Others believe that since FMA is weapons-based, this suggests its roots and development are independent and autonomous of most foreign "fist" systems. In fact, it can be said that the inevitable similarities are due to the weaponry components of both Filipino, Indonesian and Chinese martial arts. Any exercises or similar hand movements to that of the Indonesian and Chinese arts were introduced only in recent years to augment the newer Eskrima groups - something which is less apparent in the more traditional and established authentic systems. Filipinos had their own empty hand systems, such as: sikaran (kicking art), Dumog (submission), and all the fist strikes come from weapon fighting techniques, because the Guro's (instructors) believe the hand can strike the same manner with or without a weapon.

Although the turbulent and conflict-wrought history and environment of the Philippines enabled the FMA to develop into an efficient, albeit violent art, this changed recently in the sense that some systematization allowed easier and quicker teaching of the basics. Except for a few older and established systems, before this change it was more common to pass the art from generation to generation in an informal approach. Regardless of teaching methodology, these arts are considered so effective and easy to learn with sufficient practice that the U.S. military teaches it to some varying degree in all of its branches, particularly U.S. groups like the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and Delta Force. Many special operations groups were stationed in the Philippines for some period of time during WWII - the period when these arts first became apparent to the America mainstream.

For the last century, the most important practice of Eskrima has been in dueling without any form of protection, which was common in the Philippines and among Filipinos elsewhere (Hawaii pre-annexation). The founders of most of the currently popular Eskrima systems were famous duelists; legends circulate about how many people so-and-so has killed. Certainly duels did happen and deaths did result. However, to reduce legal problems that arose from injury or death, most duels would later often be fought with hardwood sticks instead of blades. Public dueling has been all but eliminated from the Filipino society and is deemed illegal in the Philippines today. However, one can still find regular gathering of masters in major parks in the Philippines where at a drop of a hat one will not hesitate to prove his point through an unprotected "friendly match". Local folk in the Philippines are much more likely to carry knives than guns, and much more likely to use them when tempers rise, than people in North America or Europe. As a result, knife-fighting (and to a lesser extent, fighting with machetes) is still very much a living skill in the Philippines, particularly in rural areas and especially in areas where insurgents are based.

For a more precise history, one must distinguish between the different systems of Eskrima

Attempts to trace the lineage of a practitioner is often difficult. For example, Antonio Illustrisimo (duelist and grandmaster) seemed to have learned to fight while traveling around the Philippines (and the rest of the Pacific) as a sailor, while his nephew and student Floro Villabrille claimed to have been taught by a blind princess in the mountains - a claim later refuted by the older Illustrisimo. Both have since died.

Secrecy was also a large part of this art and the teaching of it outside of the Filipino community was considered taboo until the 1960s when Eskrima was first taught to the public in the U.S. by Filipinos living in Stockton, California, including Leo M. Giron and Angel Cabales. Still instructors of stick fighting classes in the 1960s and 1970s were reprimanded by Filipino elders for publicly teaching what had been traditionally kept secret, a practice which preserved a language and a culture, preventing watering down of the art.

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