The Cimarrones of Bicol

By | 2018-05-08T00:38:16+00:00 April 13th, 2010|FMA Corner|

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“Cimarron” in Spanish means untamed or wild. In the Philippines, the term “Cimarrones” pertains to an ethnic minority group inhabiting the mountainous parts of Bicol in the southern tip of Luzon. Living up to their name, the Cimarrones are known as a fierce mountain tribe and their raids on the lowlands were feared during colonial times.

In her book “Conquest and Pestilence in the Early Spanish Philippines,” Linda A. Newson wrote of the Spaniards’ documentation of the natives of Bicol, it reads, “In the nineteenth century the Franciscan José Castaño classified the inhabitants of Bicol into three “races” on the basis of differences in their character, language, and culture – Agta, Dumagat, and Cimarron.”

On the Cimmarones, Newton commented, “The Cimarrones inhabited the slopes of Mount Isarog and forested hills of Siruma and Camaroan. These groups were cultivators and hunters but were most renowned for the raids they conducted on those in the lowlands.

As their names suggests, they were probably fugitives from Spanish control, and as such emerged as a distinct group only in colonial times. By the end of the Spanish rule the Negritos and Cimarrones, among whom there was some intermarriage, probably accounted for 1 percent of the region’s population.”

The part of Newton’s statement that intrigued me most is the part saying that the Cimarrones could be “fugitives from Spanish control.” If that was the case, then there is a probability that the Cimarrones were once subjugated by the Spaniards and may have absorbed some influence from the latter.

The Cimarrones were labeled as bandits during colonial times. Accounts abound that the raids conducted by this tribe caused terror and displacements among lowland communities.

Greg Bankoff, author of “Crime, Society, and the State in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines,” wrote of the existence of brigandage in the stronghold of the Cimarrones, it says, “Whatever the claims of its governor, however, banditry did exist in Camarines Sur. It may not have been prevalent among the settled lowland communities of the central valley, but it was definitely a problem in the eastern Bicol Cordillera.”

Bicolano Blade

One bladed weapon unique to Bicol and often identified with the Cimarrones is the “minasbad.” Like the bolo of the Tagalog region, the minasbad has a dual purpose of being a weapon and a farm tool. The main features that distinguish the minasbad from other Philippine blades are its handle with an ornate animal figurehead often made of carabao horn and its wooden scabbard with exquisite engravings.

A graceful curve and a flat to rounded tip characterize the minasbad blade. The latter is an indication that the blade was also used for agricultural chores. Other minute attributes of the minasbad are the serrations near the base of its blade and an attachment of a tassel of hair on its sheath (presumably meant to wipe off the blood from the blade).

One important observation I made on the minasbad is that some of its variations have a hand guard similar to that of a western saber, an uncommon element on a Filipino blade. Again, remembering Newton’s comment on the possibility of the Cimarrones being “fugitives from Spanish control,” it is easy to postulate that this element was borrowed from the Spaniards.

The craft of forging minasbads is still preserved in the Bicol region today.


An illustration of the minasbad with its distinct ornate animal figurehead and sheath with detailed engravings

Style of Arnis

In 1999, Dionisio de Lima and the late Filipino martial arts scholar Pedro Reyes published an article in the Rapid Journal documenting a style of arnis that was said to have originated from the Cimarrones. Titled “Cimarron Arnis,” a portion of the story reads, “The Cimarrones have a fascinating custom of passing to one another a chew of betel nuts and leaves on the tips of their bolos.

Woe to the man who allows the chew to fall. A fight to the death could ensue then and there. For that reason, only a few lowlanders have learned the arnis of the Cimarrones. Among those few is Maestro Rodolfo Ilano, or Ka Ompong among his intimates.

Now in his sixties, he is a healing maestro as well. He taught when he was younger. Now he lives in retirement in the hills of Bicol, having lost all desire to teach.”

Being De Lima’s relative, Ilano granted the interview. For the Rapid article, he demonstrated the empty-hand aspect of Cimarron arnis. Ilano named some important principles for barehanded fighting, which includes trying to get on the side or at the back of your opponent, wrenching his arms into awkward positions and the use of the fingers to dig into vulnerable spots.

Underscoring the ferocity of the character of Cimarron arnis, the two authors concluded, “Ka Ompong is an arnis legend in Southern Luzon. Unlike many contemporary maestros whose exploits are confined to their gymnasia, he has used his arnis to save his life in several occasions. He continues to heal. That he no longer desires to teach is a great loss to arnis. ”

Conversion to Catholicism

While many Cimarrones retained their fierce autonomy, some were eventually converted to Catholicism. In an article titled, “Peñafrancia – A Love Story,” Catholic priest Rev. Jess B. Esplana wrote that the Cimarrones were indeed one of the original devotees of the Virgin of Peñafrancia. A part of his article reads, “Why fluvial, by water! One, because most of the devotees coming from neighboring towns, provinces, used “bancas” (small paddled boats) as their means of transportation and offered to tow the Virgin’s boat (Pagoda) back to her Shrine.

Two because the “cimarrones” (mountain people branded by the Spanish as “rebels”) who were the original devotees of the Ina [mother] were afraid to come near the seat of the Spanish government for fear of being arrested.”