The Fighting Prowess of the Iranun and Balangingi Pirates of Mindanao

By | 2018-05-08T00:40:36+00:00 February 6th, 2010|FMA Corner|

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It was the Filipino martial arts (FMA) researcher and writer Celestino Macachor who postulated that the high level of development of Cebuano escrima could be attributed to the frequent maritime raids conducted by Muslim pirates in the area.

A practitioner of Eskrima De Campo-JDCIO, Macachor is the writer of the article “New Theories on the Origins of Escrima” published in the Rapid Journal and Ned Nepangue’s co-author of the book “Cebuano Eskrima: Beyond the Myth.”

A part of Macachor’s article reads, “The Province of Cebu stretching from Bantayan Islands in the North to Santander in the South became the focal point in the development of Eskrima and that its development and tactical use outlived the Moro raiders.”

Macachor’s theory of piratical raids affecting the development of escrima is sound considering the nature of Iranun (also known as “Ilanun) pirates that sowed terror in the seas of Southeast Asia centuries ago.

The Iranuns that originally hailed around Lake Lanao in southern Mindanao was once considered the fiercest pirates in the Malay world. Almost always mentioned next to the Iranuns are the Samal Balangingi, an ethnic group in Sulu-Mindanao region that were known for state-sanctioned maritime raiding. These marauders possessed combat skills of the highest caliber and defenders of the communities they were attacking must be armed with equal fighting prowess to stop them.

While Macachor’s treatise is focused mainly on the Visayan region, the fact is coastal communities all over to Philippines and Southeast Asia were once targets of Iranun maritime raids. The influence of these raids extended beyond the development of combative skills of the settlers of a threatened area. During the 1830s, houses in Zamboanga were built on posts with ladders that can be taken up at night as precautions against Iranun and Balangingi raids.

The fearsome portrait of these pirates were vividly captured in Francis James Warren’s book “Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity.” On the hierarchy in a pirate ship and the fighting prowess of these men he wrote, “In addition to the ordinary crew and oarsmen, every joanga [a raiding vessel] carried a large force of armed fighting men trained to serve on land or sea between 60 and 80 on the larger vessels.

These warriors, renowned for their martial skill, discipline and courage, played no part in sailing the long ships and complement carried on board was there simply to wage war on land and sea. The exception to this rule was the Iban and Alforean warriors whose extraordinary stamina made them ideal candidates to pull at the sweeps in an emergency.

These fighting men were armed with shields, spears, two-handed lanun swords, axes, and muskets, and pistols. Standing on the raised upper deck or fighting platform, 40 or 50 of these screaming warriors, dressed in bullet-proof, sleeveless scarlet jackets padded with kapok, or wearing various pieces of armor and chain mail, made a terrifying sight as their joanga swept alongside a merchant prahu or descended upon a hapless village.”

As previously mentioned, the scope of Iranun maritime raids was extensive. On the range of operations and business savvy of the Iranuns, Warren wrote, “The Iranun warriors, like the Vikings, were worldly raiders who traveled in search of slaves and work, sometimes for years on end, around the great ports of Manila, Makassar, Batavia, Penang, and Singapore.

They often spoke a variety of languages, and were familiar with the traditions and religions of all quarters of Southeast Asia. Some were literate, able to negotiate ransom, or unravel the intricacy of colonial legal system and they were knowledgeable in martial arts, weapons manufacture and seamanship.”

Besides knives, swords, spears, axes, guns and cannons, one interesting weapon that these pirates were adept in using were common stones, “When attacking walls the Iranun and Balangingi frequently made use of stones which they threw with great skill and accuracy,” Warren notes.

While fond of swords particularly the kampilan (often decorated with human hair), the Iranuns and Balangingis were also skilled in the use of the gun, which during that time were the most modern hand-held weapon. On these pirates’ preference on firearms Warren wrote, “Firearms were traided widely to the Iranun and Balangingi because they had no means of manufacturing them on a large scale.

The type of firearms the maritime raiders preferred were those suited for shipboard use that could be concealed, cocked and fired at close range – especially when boarding another vessel. Flintlock pistols and standard issue short firearms such as muskets and musketoons with brass and wood fittings were ideally suited for use by Iranun and Samal sharpshooters on board the joanga and garay.”

Another interesting topic that Warren discussed in his book was the existence of alternate peaceful economic pursuits of some of the pirates. Published in Warren’s book is a statement of Tala Goa, a pirate who was placed in charge of one of the vessels of a Balangingi squadron in 1830. His testimony to the judge who had sentenced him to life imprisonment, reads, “I live at Ballangninhin with my family. My occupation is diverse, occasionally mangoorap [slave raiding] at other times making salt, planting paddy, collecting tortoise shell etc. I am a follower of Orang Kaya Kullul and I am compelled to do and act as he may direct.” This is worth mentioning because having multiple occupations make the Iranuns and Balangingis difficult to identify and thus more dangerous. They may have appeared as docile farmers and fishermen one day and as feral marauders the next.

The fighting prowess of the Iranuns and Balangingis could be attributed to the fact that their training began at a very early age, some as young as 10 or 11. The nautical and martial skills of these young boys were honed in the pearl fishery of Sulu and by occasionally joining raids.

Though the reputation of the Iranun and Balangingi depicts them as bloodthirsty savages, Warren noted that these fighting men were bound by sophisticated code of conduct, which he describes with the following words, ”These special warriors were bound together by near total loyalty and strict discipline.

Their code of conduct meant that there was no place for shame and dishonor and they would never abandon their commander and companions in battle: an Iranun warrior never expected any quarter particularly from Europeans and hence were prepared to follow their commander to his death if called upon to do so.”