Another kali rant


I’ve been thinking of the Philippines this weekend for obvious reasons – my heart goes out to those suffering, weather patterns created by humanity’s greed and ignorance. But my thinking of the Philippines brings me back to kali whether I want to or not; and so here we are with another kali rant that actually has a point, and is a continuation of my previous post. Much of it is a translation of an earlier article of mine in Greek.

To be honest, this rant came up because my wife was right. We bought a new TV, so we moved the old one to another place in the house and hooked it up to a satellite receiver. My wife wanted the TV to go into a specific nook in the kitchen. I measured everything very carefully, and said no, it wouldn’t fit. She insisted. I complained. She insisted. I whined. She insisted. I GROWLED. She insisted. I capitulated and put the TV into the nook.

The damn thing fit perfectly. I was wrong. See, no matter how much something looks good in the lab, you never know if it really works until it works in the field.


Proponents of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) typically base the superiority of their art on the amazing victory of chief Lapu – Lapu against the Spanish conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. This has always driven me crazy. The Philippine government has even erected a statue in his honour on Mactan Island that fans of Filipino kali never fail to visit (they have also renamed the town of Opon in Cebu to Lapu-Lapu City). I would like to provide a description of this battle, based on the autobiography of naval officer Antonio Pigafetta, who was present, so that the reader can see for himself that things were not the way they are presented at all.

Magellan left Spain on 20 September 1520 with five ships. Before passing through the eponymous straits, he previously had to deal with a mutiny that began under Commander Juan Sebastian del Cano (who was convinced that Magellan was leading them to certain death), sparing the rebels’ lives in the process. In March 1521 Magellan arrived in the Philippines, and the following travesty was enacted.

Magellan was a fanatical Catholic and was convinced that God had chosen him to bring His True Message to all mankind. On the island of Cebu, Magellan was able to convince Rajah Humabon (note the title, which tells us his true culture) that the Catholic Faith was the One and Only. Humabon was christened Carlos in honor of Charles I of Spain, while his chief consort Hara Humamay was given the name Juana, after Charles’ mother, Joanna of Castile. Humabon also made a blood compact with Magellan, as a sign of friendship; according to Pigafetta, Humabon requested that Magellan kill his rival Lapu Lapu, the Datu (chieftain) of nearby Mactan Island. Magellan accepted the task with pleasure (being such a good Christian).

Now, Magellan’s most experienced Marine officers had no desire to traipse off into the jungle on an island where there were thousands of natives armed with bows, bamboo spears, and iron swords. The Marines expressed their objections, unwilling to engage the rival chieftain on his home turf – their expedition had been chartered to purchase spices after all, and not to fight bloody battles so that the natives could be baptized as quasi-Christians. After the Marines refused combat, Magellan recruited all the untrained deckhands, cooks, and carpenters he could finagle, confirmed to them that God’s hand was upon them, and readied them for battle.

On April 27, 1521, Magellan’s motley crew disembarked on the island, where circa 1500 natives were waiting for them on the beach. The total number of Spanish “troops” were 49 men, of which 11 decided to stay behind to guard the boats when they understood the odds. The original plan was for the armada to bomb the shores (a good plan), allowing the armored Spaniards to sift through the wreckage and kill the wounded. But the ships could not approach the coast because of coral reefs, so the natives were out of range and the bombardment didn’t take place. However, with faith in his destiny, Magellan surged forward with his deckhands, convinced that God’s blessing would protect them.

It’s worth reading the translation of Pigafetta’s original account:

“When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, the islanders had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred men. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries, two divisions on our flanks and the other on our front.

When the captain saw that, he formed us into two divisions, and thus did we began to fight. The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, “Cease firing cease firing!” but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides pointed sticks hardened with fire, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves.

Seeing that, the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to fight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain.

The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away.

So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others.

Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

Magellan actually fought with worse odds than Thermopylae, and was able to hold his opponents off for an hour of hand to hand combat with untrained personnel at this back. Delightful. There are 19th century engravings of the scene, drawn at a time when people were still encountering natives who were outside what we term as modern civilization:

It is obvious that anyone who uses the case outlined above to demonstrate the superiority of FMA is intellectually challenged. The irony of the situation is that, following Magellan’s death, Humabon and his warriors plotted to poison the remaining Spanish soldiers in Cebu during a feast. Several men were in fact killed, including the then-leaders of the expedition, Duarte Barbosa and Joao Serrao. Leadership of the expedition fell to the rebel Juan Sebastian del Cano, who returned to Madrid with a ship full of spices and became rich. Indeed, for 200 years, historians believed that del Cano was the one who had made the first circumnavigation of the globe, until Pigafetta’s hidden diary was unearthed.

One could question whether there were any indigenous Filipino martial arts in the first place; when I first read Pigafetta’s account, I discounted modern interpretations because of the obvious references to shields and spears. But there is that intriguing mention of iron cutlasses. Rajah Humabon’s title suggests a Majapahit influence. On the other hand, the word kali is Malaysian. The word escrima is Spanish. Arnis also comes from the Spanish arnes. So? Can a martial art exist without having a local name?

Apparently yes, it can, if it is so ingrained in local tradition it does not need a name. I’ll explain as we go on.

I did look for kali, and even my detractors at this point have been forced to admit I’m a bit above the cut as a martial arts historian. I mean, I liked kali back in the day when I had a Filipino girlfriend – I even have an original Jody Samson butterfly knife. So I reckoned that if kali existed, it would be evident in 19th century records in duels. I mean, Greece has thousands of 19th century knife duels on file as court cases because, well, people died or got hurt, and so other people went to court, and the government said, bad boy, which meant that somewhere somehow a clerk filed a record. So we know that knife fighting and dueling was pervasive in 19th century Greece, just like it was in the States (all those records of Bowie duels, right?). Come to think of it, just like dueling was all over Europe. AH, but the Filipinos were Asians, you say, and did not keep records. Sorry guys. The Spanish were in the business of being in business – and so kept records on everything. Just like the Turks did in Greece. Just like any colonial power did everywhere.

So. No 19th century Filipino knife duels. And yet, their reputation pervades the islands. I mean, bolo duels were supposedly prominent in the North and Central Philippines, common to Spanish-influenced areas, farmlands, and places where machete-like bolo knives are commonly used. But darn, a duel occurred on 14 April 1920 which was reported internationally by Prescott Journal Miner as “The First Bolo Duel in Manila since the American Occupation” (the US occupied the Philippines in 1898). The duel happened when Angel Umali and Tranquilino Paglinawan met with friends in a vacant lot near the city centre before dusk to settle a feud; Paglinawan lost his left hand. With no law against bolo fights, Umali was charged for a petty crime. Now this is important – if knife fighting had been so pervasive, there would have been laws against it, just like there were all over Europe. No, the Spanish didn’t care, you cry! Sure they did. Lost workers meant lost income. They cared. No laws against knife dueling simply meant there was not enough knife dueling to matter to the bosses. Sorry guys, common sense must overrule desire, even if desire is more fun.

Bolo fights have become part of Filipino rural culture, however. On 7 January 2012, two middle-aged farmers were wounded after a bolo duel over the harvest of rice in a village in Zamboanga City. Geronimo Alvarez and Jesus Guerrero, were drinking, and at the height of their arguing, Alvarez allegedly pulled out his bolo and hacked Guerrero. Guerrero also pulled his bolo and repeatedly hacked Alvarez, and their relatives immediately intervened and rushed them to hospital. So we have a record of it, you see? Just like we have a record of most of the duels fought with bowies in the US. Dueling is all about making a name for yourself, young ones – people WANT a record to be kept. Who be da baddest MMA fighter, homes? Dat’s right.

Sadly, we must ponder reality, because lack of same has gotten many a young man killed. So let’s look at “kali”. Does it exist? Yep, right in front of our eyes. Dan Inosanto actually pointed it out years ago.

Southeast Asia is filled with dances of Indian origin and influence, the legacy of their empire in the region in ages passed. The keris derives from them. The dances derive from them. The music derives from them. Hell, there is even a Greek influence in some regions – in Java, the word for city-state is “kraton” (it’s kratos in Greek, hence pankration), while Pegasus and Medusa have been the symbols of kings.

Inosanto pointed out repeatedly that martial movements are retained in traditional Filiipino dances. He’s 100% right. Are they Filipino? Is MMA American? If you ask a Brazilian, he will say we created it with BJJ and vale tudo. But it grew and prospered in the US. I have talked about “trade-ition” before, and it is time people understood it.

The Philippines have been trading with India as far back as the 10th century, while in the 13th century actual kingdoms based on Indian culture were founded. With this trade came influence in language, music, dance, and writing (Baybayin is based on Sanskrit; a quarter of Tagalog is of Sanskrit origin). Some common words such as guro/guru (teacher), mukha (face), likhain (to write), and putong (turban) are Indian. Could weapons use have been left out?

So, kali has been in the Philippines since the 13th century – BUT NOT THE WAY IT HAS BEEN PORTRAYED TO THE PUBLIC. It was present as traditional Indian dances and movements. It was present as the effect of Indian martial arts and weapons on the local populace. It was present in many other forms. But “kali” the martial art DID NOT EXIST until the 20th century, when it was formed for political reasons, just like taekwondo. There is no history of knife dueling in the Philippines evident before the 20th century. What does this mean? It means that what is taught within kali’s syllabus must be placed under careful scrutiny and not taken for granted; look at US Army Combatives. Everything seemed like a good idea at the time – until it was tried in the field. Ten years later, the US Army was forced to announce it would be “revising” its syllabus.

You can accept my viewpoint or reject it; my obligation is to put it in print, so that lives can be saved whenever possible. I mean, there are still people out there looking for Shinryuken Masamitsu Toda, so I don’t expect many people to listen at this time. But the words will remain as part of the record, and who knows? Maybe 200 years from now someone will find these diaries, and like Pigafetta’s, say, hey look at this! Way cool!  But for now, please remember that, don’t make comments on whether a TV screen will fit into a specific nook until you’ve tried it – you’re wife may turn out to be right….


2 Responses

  1. Andrew Reddick  •  November 25, 2013 @6:06 pm

    Hello Kostas, first of all I want to thank you for everything you have done. Your books were both great. I also would like to ask if you know that their are some students who claim to be taught by you posting in

    They like to inform people on YOUR opinions, and speak as if they were sanctioned by you to speak on behalf of you. I would greatly appreciate your input on their authority to speak.

    I also was interested in interviewing you, is there anyway you would have time for short interview? Thank you again Kostas, peace be with you.

  2. dervenis  •  November 25, 2013 @6:27 pm

    Dear Andrew,

    Thank you for your comment. I don’t know if there (not their) are students who claim to be taught by me posting on (not in) thetaobums because when I click on the link you provided what I see is:

    You do not have permission to view this topic.

    most likely because I am not a member of the taobums.

    There was an Andrew Reddick who was CEO of Acura Pharmaceuticals, but he died a few years back, which would have made it truly something if you had been he. That not being the case, I’m happy to be interviewed by 1. People I know and like and/or respect, or 2. People my publisher tells me I have to talk to. If you want to interview me, I would try to fit into one of the two categories.

    All kidding aside, Andrew, I am not responsible for what other people write and think or teach or say, except in those cases where I have authority, because responsibilty and authority go hand in hand. Since I have both authority and responsibility regarding pammachon, I can answer any questions on that subject matter. Regarding the Mo Pai, since I bear neither authority nor responsibility, all I ask is that people treat me as an author who wrote a book and whose job is finished – please address all your questions to the real Mo Pai in Indonesia. There is no, and never has been a, Western Mo Pai.

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