Kali and the Migrant Filipino

Kali and the Migrant Filipino
By Grandmaster Ben Largusa

The history of any fighting art is a reflection of the society and culture from which it was formed. The Filipino martial arts are no different. To fully understand this unique martial art, it is best to take a brief look at the history of the Filipino people.

Historians and anthropologists could not find an answer to the migratory mystery of the multi-racial Filipinos over the last several thousand years, despite decades of research and study.

One theory postulates that the ancient Filipinos came from India and Persia and worked their way down through the Indonesia Islands into the Philippines. Another theory claims that the earliest inhabitants migrated from ancient Egypt in reed boats.

One of the most interesting theories however contends that the beautiful and sprawling island chain was once a part of the Asian Mainland. The anthropologists from this school of thought claim an early pygmy tribe called Negritos journeyed west in search of food and game and eventually settled in the Philippines before the Pacific Ocean swallowed up the earthen umbilical cord that tied the islands to the mainland.

The next group of people who found a home in the lush mountain slopes were called the Proto Malay. Their origins are unclear but their features were said to have tied them to the Mongol race. Their preference for mountain living would seem to add credence to that belief.

The tall, burly and sea-loving Indonesians were said to be the next group of people to settle and they are believed to be the first to arrive by boat. The forerunners of the various Polynesia tribes (People of many islands) the Indonesians were fearless sailors who took wives and interbred with the cultures already established.

The next immigrants were also Indonesians but they were shorter and darker skinned than the Indo-Aryan group that preceded them. They too, interbred with the established cultured and relied on farming and fishing for their existence.

Around the 5th Century, one of the earliest of the great Asian empires began to form. A group called the Brahins came from India to Sumatra and created the famous Hindu-Malayan Empire of Sri Vishaya. They conquered and colonized many lands, and their fame and influence were felt all over Asia and the Pacific.

After Colonizing Borneo, the Sri Vishayan invaded the Philippines. Superior weaponry and organization enabled them to conquer the early Filipinos and many of the fled to more distant islands. Others moved deeper into the mountains and forests to escape the invaders. Yet many stayed, made friends with their new rulers and eventually the two cultures merged.

The Sri Vishaya had a great impact on the development of the Filipino culture. Aside from being skilled warriors, farmers and seamen, they brought a more advanced civilization to the islands by introducing new laws, the calendar, a written alphabet, a new religion and the use of weights and measures. The people from Sri Vishaya became the Visayan people of central Philippines.

Still another great empire, called the Majapahit empire formed in Java around the 12th century . Influenced by Arab missionaries who were spreading the Moslem faith and who conquered them in the latter part of the 15th century, the Majapahit empire took over the Sri Vishaya empire and spread the Moslem religion into the Philippines. They settled most heavily in the southern part of the islands and became known as the Moro ( Muslim) Filipinos. Fiercely independent and proud, they still exist as a distinct culture.

In the early 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadors invaded the Philippines. The first famous foreigner to encounter Filipino sticks was Ferdinand Magellan. According to Philippine history, Magellan was a pirate. He burned their homes and tried to enslave their people as part of the Great Spanish Conquest. It was on the small island of Mactan, Cebu, several hundred south of Manila, where Magellan was stopped by a fiery chieftain Lapu Lapu and his men. Villagers in cotton cloth fought the armored Spaniards to the beach. They battled Spain’s finest steel with pieces of rattan, homemade lances and fire-hardened sticks with points. Magellan died there and the statue of Lapu Lapu on Mactan credits Lapu Lapu for Magellan’s death.

The old Filipinos who made stick fighting an art preferred to hit the bone and preferred a stick to a blade. Instead of a clean cut, the stick left shattered bone. The business end of a stick can travel many times the speed of the empty hand and feels nothing, whether it hits hard bone or soft flesh.

The islanders seldom crossed the boundaries of their own regions and often fought civil battles with neighboring regions. The large Spanish forces found this weakness and conquered each small area as individual nations. With such tactics, the Spaniards used Filipinos from one region to quell uprising in another, pitting the fighting skills of the Filipinos against each other. The Filipinos eventually conquered themselves and elements of the Spanish language, arts and religion crept into their culture. It took the Spaniards only 11 years to conquer two-thirds of the Philippines, but for the remaining 389 years, they were not able to conquer Southern Philippines, home of the fiercely independent and proud Moros who fought and kept the Spaniards away with the art of Kali.

Kali continued to be alive and active with the Filipinos in World War I and World War II. Following World War I, adventurous Filipinos migrated to the pineapple and sugar cane fields of Hawaii where they displayed their skill and talent in the manufacture and use of cane knives. Others migrated to the farm fields of California. Alone in a strange land, they tended to group together and soon became a major source of farm laborers. Digging potatoes, hoeing fields, the warriors of the Philippines resigned themselves to domestic labor. Even their children knew little of their fathers’ arts. The clack, clack of sticks or the ring of steel near sunrise and late at night invited curious youngsters, but they were sent away. The new generations had to live peacefully. Yet, the elders couldn’t forget the arts that had helped them survive.

Finally it happened.  Some of the children found out. Young, strong youths bred of hot Malayan blood were captured by the excitement of flashing weapons. In ways only their fathers could understand, they demanded what was rightfully theirs and the Art began to flourish again in the United States mainland and Hawaii.