The Kali Controversy: Public History in Unusual Places… Must Know Facts About The Bolo Knife – History, Development And Use Of An Iconic Weapon

“Knives… Big fuck off shiney ones”

THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR! Machetes… The Bolo Knife in the Philippines.

I’ve been practicing my first single handed ‘numerado’ today! 😃 Strikes and defences… Both hands (open chamber and closed chamber)… Both with a stick and with a plastic machete.

…. About eight hours! 😆 Had a break for lunch, a break to do some weights, then a break for tea.

Music? The Dark Knight soundtrack, Kill Bill soundtrack… And… Game Of Thrones! 😂🤣

The Kali Controversy: Public History in Unusual Places

Die Kali-Kontroverse: Public History an ungewöhnlichen Orten

BY PARKES, ROBERT ON Public Domain (WPUser Alpapito, 2012)

Kali. Many of the debates we have over public history deal with “serious” topics related to the politics of official historiography, representations of the past in the public press, or the teaching and learning of history in schools. Public history has a much wider ambit than this of course, and sometimes appears in unusual places. One such unusual venue for public history debate and inquiry is the martial arts, where heated struggles emerge in which history is the weapon of choice.

Tradition and Authenticity

In the martial arts, history is often an obsession, and lineage disputes are common, as even a cursory look at online martial arts forums will reveal.[1] In the Japanese context, for example, documentation of one’s lineage is essential if an instructor wishes to be taken seriously, and is often more important than the instructor’s actual level of skill.[2] In the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) context a different problem has arisen, one that relates to what the arts are properly called, and which stands in for a dispute over origins. At the heart of these lineage and origin controversies, history seems inextricably linked with notions of authenticity and identity. It is this question of history, identity, and authenticity that makes the uses of history in the martial arts world interesting to explore.

The Emergence of Kali

KaliEskrima and Arnis are three common terms used today to refer to FMA. Kali is the most controversial of the three terms, but arguably the most popular in the English-speaking world. Kali gained popularity as a name for FMA among Filipino expats living in the post-WWII United States. Its use first appears in a book published in 1957.[3] It was then adopted and popularised by notable Filipino-American FMA practitioners such as Ben Largusa and Dan Inosanto (a friend and student of Bruce Lee).[4] That it is largely ex-patriot Filipinos who adopted the usage of the term Kali, suggests history was being used to assert an ethnic identity, by encouraging the view that FMA pre-dated the Spanish colonial period.

The Death of Magellan

There are many stories about the origins of FMA. Those looking for a pre-Hispanic origin for the arts say they developed in the Visayas under the influence of the legendary ten Datu (chieftains) who fled Borneo and the tyranny of its Sultan in the thirteenth century.[5] Others will point to the heorism of Lapulapu, a Mactan chieftain, who stood up against the Spanish conquistadors led by the ill-fated Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The successful defeat of the Spanish forces (and the death of Magellan at the Kampilan blade of Lapulapu celebrated in “folk history”) is often used by those with ethnic Filipino sympathies to suggest an effective fighting art was in existence before the Spanish conquest.

The Conquistador Connection

In the Philippines, until very recently, the term Kali was very rare. Locally, FMA is better known by the term Eskrima, the Filipino adaptation of esgrima, the Spanish word for fencing, itself related to the English word skirmish; or Arnis, the local pronounciation of arnés, the Spanish term for the harness or armour worn by Christianised indigenous “warriors” in popular Moro Moro stage plays.

Such stage plays were themselves a form of public history, in which the Christianised Visayan warriors would inevitably triumph over their Muslim adversaries from Mindinao (a conflict with resonances today). Practitioners of Eskrima and Arnis are known respectively as Eskrimadors and Arnisadors (both of which translate as “swordsmen”). According to the research of Celestino C. Macachor and Ned R. Nepangue,[6] after the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, local warriors were converted to Christianity and recruited into the colonial army to assist the conquistadors to repulse the Moro (i.e. Moor or Muslim) pirate threat from the South.

As a consequence, it is thought that the Spanish language became the lingua franca when identifying or discussing indigenous martial arts techniques and tactics, and that many of the fighting forms were influenced by the “geometric” Spanish fencing practices of the day, particularly the system articulated in La Verdadera Destreza[7] which was in vogue at the time. Although there can be significant differences in regional systems of FMA, many of the common fighting methods and drills are described using Spanish influenced terminology (i.e. sumbrada, contradas, numerada, abecedario, etc.), and what we know as the art of Kali, Eskrima, or Arnis today is clearly an outcome of this melting pot of Eastern and Western “fencing” styles and ideas.

The Kali Controversy Today

Recent research by Lorenz Lasco seems to confirm that there was a fighting art called Kalis witnessed by the Spanish on their arrival in the Visayas.[8] According to Lasco’s investigations, the use of the term Calis (the Spanish spelling of Kalis), a pre-Hispanic term for blades and fencing, is found in old Spanish-to-Filipino dictionaries dating from 1612 to the late 1800s. However, as a term for FMA, Kali was supplanted in the Philippines during the colonial period by the Spanish influenced terms of Eskrima and Arnis. This confirmation of the legitimacy of the term obviously does not diminish the politics at work in the return to the term Kali in the USA during the post-war period, or the undeniable Spanish influence on FMA as we know it today, but it does point to something interesting in terms of public memory and its complex workings.

The online journal Martial Arts Studies published its first edition in 2015, marking the emergence of “martial arts studies” as a field of interdisciplinary scholarship. While tangential to the “mainstream” discussions of public history, the martial arts offer a rich field of investigation for the public historian, in which historical debate is often at the heart of controversy.

Further Reading

  • Nepangue, Ned R., and Celestine Macachor. Cebuano Eskrima: Beyond the Myth. USA: Xlibris, 2007.
  • Wiley, Mark V. Filipino Martial Culture. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 1996.

Web Resources


[1] See for example the debates on “The Art of Fighting. Bullshido”, http://www.bullshido.net (last accessed 15 September 2016).
[2] This story, still rehearsed today and tied up with ethnic pride, was originally circulated by Jose Marco, whose research was proven fraudulent in 1968 by historian William Henry Scott. See Celestino C. Macachor and Ned R. Nepangue,  “Cebuano Eskrima. Beyond the Myth,” FMA Informative 187 (2015): http://www.fmainformative.info/Informative_Issues/2015/FMA_Informative-Issue187.pdf (last accessed 15 September 2016).
[3] Placido Yambao and Buenaventura Mirafuente, Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis. Manila: Univerisy of the Philippines Press, 1957.
[4] George Foon  and Dan Inosanto, The Filipino Martial Arts as Taught by Dan Inosanto. Los Angeles: Know How Publishing, 1980.
[5] Ellis Amdur. “The Importance of Paper in Japanese martial Traditions,” KogenBudo (2015): http://kogenbudo.org/the-importance-of-paper-in-japanese-martial-traditions/ (last accessed 15 September 2016).
[6] Celestino C. Macachor and Ned R. Nepangue, “Cebuano Eskrima. Beyond the Myth,” FMA Informative 187 (2015): http://www.fmainformative.info/Informative_Issues/2015/FMA_Informative-Issue187.pdf (last accessed 15 September 2016).
[7] For a quick introduction to the La Verdadera Destreza (“the True Art”), see the article in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destreza (last accessed 15 September 2016).
[8] Lorenzo Lasco, “Kalis: Ang Pilipinong Sining Ng Pakikipaglaban Noong Dating Panahon,” Dalumat Ejournal 2, No. 2 (2011), http://ejournals.ph/article.php?id=6207 (last accessed 15 September 2016).

A Bolo (Tagalog: iták; Cebuano: sundáng; Hiligaynon: binangon) is a large cutting tool of Filipino origin similar to the machete. It is used particularly in the Philippines, the jungles of Indonesia, and in the sugar fields of Cuba.

The primary use for the bolo is clearing vegetation, whether for agriculture or during trail blazing. Because of its availability, the bolo became a common choice of improvised weaponry to the everyday peasant. The bolo is used in the Filipino martial art Kali as part of training. Bolos are characterized by having a native hardwood or animal horn handle (such as from the carabao), a full tang, and by a steel blade that both curves and widens, often considerably so, at its tip. This moves the centre of gravity as far forward as possible, giving the knife extra momentum for chopping.

So-called “jungle bolos”, intended for combat rather than agricultural work, tend to be longer and less wide at the tip. Bolos for gardening usually have rounded tips. The bolo was the primary weapon used by the Katipunan during the Philippine Revolution. It was also used by the Filipino guerrillas and bolomen during the Philippine-American War.

During World War II, the 1st Filipino Regiment was called the Bolo Battalion and used bolos for close quarters combat.

On 7 December 1972, would-be assassin Carlito Dimahilig used a bolo to attack former First Lady Imelda Marcos as she appeared onstage at a live televised awards ceremony. Dimahilig stabbed Marcos in the abdomen several times, and she parried the blows with her arms. He was shot dead by security forces while she was taken to hospital. The bolo serves as a symbol for the Katipunan and the Philippine Revolution, particularly the Cry of Pugad Lawin. Several monuments of Andres Bonifacio, as with other notable Katipuneros, depict him holding a bolo in one hand and the Katipunan flag in the other. Filipino martial artists are noted for their ability to fight with weapons or empty hands interchangeably and their ability to turn ordinary household items into lethal weapons. Weapons-training takes precedent because they give an edge in real fights, gears students to psychologically face armed opponents, and any object that can be picked up can be used as a weapon using FMA techniques. Empty hands training is then taught as the stick is merely an extension of the hand.

Another thing to note is that the Philippines is a blade culture. The Southern Philippines with the Moros were never really conquered by the Spaniards and the Americans; nor the Northern mountains of Luzon with their feared headhunter tribes so they kept their weapons and their fighting skills. For the more “civilized” provinces and the towns where citizens had been “disarmed”, bolos and other knife variants are still commonly used for general work. Even when fighting systems were outlawed by the Spaniards, Filipinos still maintained their centuries-old relationships with blades and blade fighting techniques that survive from ancient times and are still much alive as they have been adapted and evolved to stay relevant and practical in colonial and modern times.

What separates Filipino Martial Arts from other weapon-based martial arts like Japanese Kendo & Kenjutsu, European Fencing and traditional Chinese Martial arts that teach the usage of classical Chinese weapons is that FMA teaches weapon use that is practical today: how to use and deal with weapons that one can actually encounter in the streets and how to turn ordinary items into improvised weapons. No one walks around with sabers, katanas or jians anymore, but knives, machetes and clubs are still among commonly encountered weapons on the street and in the field, thus making FMA very practical and geared towards military and street fighting.

Must-Know Facts About The Bolo Knife – History, Development And Use Of An Iconic Weapon

Imperial forces around the world, whether they came to the battle with muskets and cannons or machine guns and fighter planes, have come to fear the bolo knife. From the Spanish colonial occupation of the Philippines to the Mexican Revolution – not to mention the battlefields of World War I and II – the bolo knife has become legendary for its utility and lethality.

In the Philippines alone, where it has its origins, there are many names and variations of the bolo knife for a wide range of uses—almost a different bolo for any different situation and person. To get a handle on the history and importance of this tool and weapon, here are five must-know facts about the bolo knife.

The Bolo knife comes from the Philippines

The bolo knife (also called iták in Tagalog, sundáng in Cebuano, and binangon in Hiligaynon, to cover a few of the more prevalent languages/dialects of the Philippines) has long been a tool used for clearing jungle brush and for various agricultural purposes. To this day, bolo knives are forged in villages across the archipelago.

Though it has spread to other countries and continents, the bolo knife is still a symbol of the Filipino people. On some of the islands in the Philippines, people walk around with their bolo knives as a symbol of pride or even just employment, signifying that they work with it in the fields or jungles. The island nation of Palau, to the east of the Philippines, call Filipinos Chad Ra Oles, which translates to “people of the knife.”

Bolo knives are crafty and resourceful creations

In recent history, bolo knives have been made out of whatever high-carbon steel could be found that was suitable for the blade and either indigenous hardwood or animal horn for the handle. The blade usually curves and widens towards the end. The tang extends to the bottom of the handle.

Since the empires fighting over the Philippines started bringing in Jeeps and other vehicles, bolo knives have often been made out of leaf springs. Many in the 1950s and ’60s were made from the leaf springs of U.S. Army Jeeps still left over from World War II. These hand-forged blades are very durable and can hold quite the edge.

Bolos (as well as other knives) are a key element of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA)

FMA, also called Arnis, Eskrima, and Kali, are the native martial arts forms of the Philippines and comes in many different styles. The origins of FMA go deep into history, to kingdoms and tribes long before the written record, and it has grown to influence fighting styles around the word. Not born out of a warrior or noble class, but rather from that of the common people, FMA focuses a lot of attention on forms with items such as knives, sticks, other blades, and many improvised weapons.

FMA and especially knife skills are living arts in the Philippines and have proven a challenge to conquering forces from Spain, the U.S., and Japan.

The Bolo Knife is an important symbol

The bolo knife stands out in Filipino culture. Artful bolo knives are given as important gifts to military officers and others. Like the Kris daggers or swords of the Moro people (the Muslim population in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao), Malaysia, and Indonesia, bolo knives hold powerful meaning.Related Post

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During World War II and Japan’s attempted occupation of the Philippines, there were many guerrilla and underground forces fighting this latest imperial force, often in coordination with Allied armies and U.S. soldiers still on the archipelago since the invasion. Down on Mindanao are the historically more autonomous Moro areas, home to some of the most resilient resistance to the Japanese. One of the many units fighting was called the Moro-bolo battalion. It was made up of some 20,000 Christians and Muslims who were easily identifiable by their Kris and bolo knives, their weapons a symbol of cooperation and unity in the face of the Japanese.

The bolo knife has become popular around the world and influenced modern warfare, particularly in the U.S. military

The U.S. military first encountered the bolo knife during the Spanish-American War, fighting to take control of the Philippines. The Cincinnati Courier reported on the small Battle of Manila after much of the war was done, in which Filipino revolutionary forces working together with some U.S. soldiers, claimed the city from the remaining Spanish in 1898:

“The Mauser rifle, too, in hard work is found to be a mistake…Perhaps it may be the fault of the men, or their misfortune in being undrilled, but they are often knifed while in the act of reloading their rifles. Whatever be the explanation there is something wrong in troops with rifles and bayonets being driven steadily back by natives armed with knives. The insurgents have some guns, but most of the wounded Spanish soldiers seen in the streets have knife wounds.” (Source: wikipedia.org)

By 1904, the U.S. Army was equipping their own troops with bolo knives, specifically medical corps. During Word War I, the bolo knife became infamous to Germans going up against U.S. troops wielding these blades.

Before fighting with bolo knives, however, the U.S. had to fight against Filipinos carrying them in the Philippine-American War, which lasted from 1899 until 1902. After beating the Spanish colonials, the Filipinos wanted self-rule, but the U.S. wanted to form their own colony.

As the new colonials fought the First Philippine Republic, which was poorly armed against a modern U.S. army, they were still getting knifed by Filipinos, even ones who had been shot several times. This led to the development of the .45 ACL cartridge and thus the Colt M1911 Pistol, which had more stopping power than previous standard issue small arms.

The Spanish had introduced the bolo knife to Mexico and after the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, many fighters carried them. The most famous of these was the rebel leader Pancho Villa.

By Colin Fraser for War History Online

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