Perhaps the reason why blade fighting evolved into a very high science in the Philippines is that the ancient Filipinos rarely allowed their knives and spears to be dormant – if they were not fighting other men, they were fighting wild beasts in the jungles. Besides being formidable warriors, the pre-colonial Filipinos were also skilled hunters. They certainly discovered that whatever can kill a wild beast can also easily kill a man.
While the bow and arrow was the primary hunting weapon of the many ethnic tribes of the Philippines, there were animals that cannot be killed by arrows from afar. This is particularly true with large beasts that are covered with armor of scales and thick hide. Killing these animals is a great test of a warrior’s courage, strength and skill.
In the Philippines of yore, two wild animals that must be approached to be killed were the wild carabao and the crocodile.
The wild carabao, called Cimarron by the Spaniards was hunted primarily by the Igorots of northern Luzon. Carabaos were usually slaughtered for the marriage feasts of the rich.
On the method and extreme hazard of Igorot wild carabao hunting, Albert Ernest Jenks in his book “The Bontoc Igorot” (published in 1905) wrote, “The wild carabao is extremely vicious, and is killed only when forty or fifty men combine and hunt it with spears.
When wounded it charges any man in sight, and the hunter’s only safety is in a tree. The method of hunting is simple. The herd is located, and as cautiously as possible the hunters conceal themselves behind the trees near the runway and throw their spears as the desired animal passes.”
If wild carabao hunting is dangerous, crocodile hunting is suicidal.
A Benguet Igorot Hunter (Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan).
A perplexing thing about the crocodile is that it was both worshipped and hunted in pre-colonial Philippines. The reverence for this animal is reflected even in the design of handles of knives and swords. The kampilan for instance has a handle that resembles the open jaw of a crocodile.
Volume 1 of Dr. Antonio de Morga’s “History of the Philippine Islands” includes a substantial mention of crocodile worship among ancient Filipinos, it reads, “There are many very large scorpions in the rivers and creeks, and a great number of crocodiles, which are very bloodthirsty and cruel.
They quite commonly pull from their bancas the natives who go in those boats, and cause many injuries among the horned cattle and the horses of the stock-farms, when they go to drink. And although the people fish for them often and kill them, they are never diminished in number.
For that reason, the natives set closely-grated divisions and enclosures in the rivers and creeks of their settlements, where they bathe. There they enter the water to bathe, secure from those monsters, which they fear so greatly that they venerate and adore them, as if they were beings superior to themselves.
All their oaths and execrations, and those which are of any weight with them (even among the Christians) are, thus expressed: “So may the crocodile kill him!” They call the crocodile buhaya in their language. It has happened when someone has sworn falsely, or when he has broken his word, that then some accident has occurred to him with the crocodile, which God, whom he offends, has so permitted for the sake of the authority and purity of the truth, and the promise of it.
They generally worship and adore the crocodiles when they see them, by kneeling down and clasping their hands, because of the harm that they receive from those reptiles; they believe that by so doing the crocodiles will become appeased and leave them.
Their oaths, execrations, and promises are all as above mentioned, namely, “May buhayan [buwaya] eat thee, if thou dost not speak truth, or fulfil what thou hast promised,” and similar things.”
On the other hand, a detailed description of ancient Filipino crocodile hunting was included in an old Spanish document titled “Conquista de las Islas Malucas.”
The authorship of the account dated 1609 was attributed to Alonso Martin and published by the licentiate Bartolomé Leonardo de Argensola, Madrid. Describing the natives’ unique and incredible method of hunting, Martin wrote, “Indians are found so courageous that, notwithstanding the fierceness of those animals, they kill them with their hands.
They cover the left hand and arm with a glove made from buffalo hide, and hold therein a stake or peg, somewhat longer than a tercia, and about as thick as the wrist, and sharpened at both ends. Then they enter the river until the water reaches the waist.
The crocodile rushes upon the Indian with open mouth to devour him. The latter presents to it his protected arm and the hand with the stake, so that the beast may seize it, and runs it into the animal’s mouth in such a position that it cannot shut its mouth or make use of its strong teeth to attack its slayer.
Feeling the pain of the sharp stake the crocodile becomes so docile that it neither resists nor attacks, nor dares move, for the slightest movement causes it pain. Thereupon the barbarian, pulling strongly on the stake, wounds the beast repeatedly with a dagger (carried in the right hand) in the throat, until it bleeds to death.
Then it is drawn ashore with lines and ropes, with the aid of other Indians who unite to drag it in; and many are needed, because of the huge bodies of those crocodiles. They resemble lizards, but are furnished with scales so strong that scarce can an arquebus-shot dent them.
The only vulnerable spots are the throat and under parts of the legs [i.e., where they join the body], where nature has given them a certain sweet odor, which the Indians use.
The Filipinos are more courageous than their other neighbors. The Spaniards and creoles do not belie their high origin.”