Military service of Filipinos under Spain
It is highly probable that the influence of the Spanish way of combat started to make its way to the indigenous martial arts of the Philippines through the recruitment of some of the natives for Spanish military service. Deployed as auxiliary forces both in local and foreign campaigns of Spain, it is certain that Filipinos drafted for military service during colonial times received some form of combat training from their Spanish masters.
A group of Spaniards with Visayan men. (Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)
A dispatch by one official dated June 13, 1636 commends the Filipinos’ military service to Spain during that period, it reads, “Don Juan Grau y Monfalcon, procurator-general of the Philipinas Islands, desirous of your Majesty’s service and the welfare and conservation of those islands, and that the Indians who are under your Majesty’s protection and pay you homage be preserved therein, represents that the Indian natives of the provinces of Pampanga, Camarinas, and Tagalos have served and are serving your Majesty with great love and fidelity, since the time of the conquest of those islands. Not one of those Indians has ever been found in rebellion, or has wrought any treachery, or deserted to the enemy. Those Indians, mingled with Spaniards, serve as soldiers in war, and have proved excellent therein. Especially are the Pampangos valiant soldiers, who have performed and are daily performing valiant exploits at the side of the Spanish. They were at the taking of Terrenate; and, whenever occasion offers, they with other companies come to guard the city of Manila.” (The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, Volume 25, 1635-36)
Being the most modern weapon at that time, the natives received firearms training from the Spaniards. But having traded with the Chinese centuries before Spain, this was not the natives’ first exposure to guns. The following is an English translation of the account of Antonio de Morga on how early Filipinos fared with gun training, it reads, “Since they have seen the Spaniards use their weapons, many of the natives handle the arquebuses and muskets quite skilfully. Before the arrival of the Spaniards they had bronze culverins and other pieces of cast iron, with which they defended their forts and settlements, although their powder is not so well refined as that of the Spaniards.”
Another weapon that may have been taught to Filipino recruits was the sable or sabre – the common long blade used by Spanish cavalrymen. The cinco teros (five strikes) system of escrima, endemic in the island of Luzon was believed to be greatly influenced by Spanish sabre fencing.
The Filipino warriors then, accustomed to performing ambushes using bow and arrow, spears and swords may also have been given an introduction to the classic Spanish military formation of the tercio.
The tercio, also known as the Spanish Square is a mixed infantry formation consisting of 3,000 pikemen, swordsmen and arquebusiers (musketeers). Mutual support is the tactical concept behind the tercio.
Experts in military history approximate that in a classic tercio, about 1,500 were equipped with pikes, 1,000 were armed with swords and javelins while the remaining 500 were musketeers. In battle, the pikemen formed squares (hence the term Spanish Square) providing cover to the swordsmen and javelin throwers. The musketeers usually position with the field artillery on the best vantage point to shoot at enemies approaching the tercio.
The core of the classic Spanish tercio was composed of professional soldiers but given the proclivity of Spain to using mercenaries, native warriors, in the case of the Philippines, always came in handy in fortifying its ranks.
In his book Importing the European Army, David B. Ralston wrote of the strength and weakness of the tercio, “By the end of the sixteenth century, portable firearms had been in general use for over three generations. They may have been undergoing steady, incremental improvements, but they were still inaccurate and slow-firing. Because the men so armed were vulnerable to enemy cavalry during the long, complicated process of loading and priming their pieces, in battle they had to be protected by men carrying pikes. The tactical formation in which pikes and portable firearms were most efficaciously combined was the Spanish tercio, a massive square of some 3000 men. For all its formidable qualities – it was seldom bested in combat over a period of one hundred years – the tercio was clumsy and overly rigid, incapable of maneuvering once a battle had begun.”
While the Spanish tercios were converted into regiments come 1704 to adapt to changing methods of warfare, there is sufficient reason to believe that its principles were taught in Spanish military schools for a long period of time.
The island of Luzon where the heart of the Spanish government rested was the first and practical choice of location to recruit natives for military service. This tradition lingered even unto the end of Spanish colonial rule particularly among the Macabebes of Pampanga. Being comrades in arms for long, a bond of loyalty developed between the Spaniards and some of the natives. This is evident in the case of Colonel Eugenio Blanco, a mestizo who headed the Guardia Civil of the town of Macabebe in Pampanga. Perhaps in an effort to show his sympathy to the cause of the natives, it was said that Blanco initially sided with the Filipino revolutionary forces allowing them to take over the town. Prof. Lino Dizon, chair of the Center for Tarlaqueño Studies of the Tarlac State University wrote of the incident in his article titled Macabebes: 1571 – 1901 More than a footnote in history, “A unique episode in the Philippine revolutionary struggle was what transpired in the town of Macabebe itself. It centered on the activities of Colonel Eugenio Blanco, a mestizo who headed the Guardia Civil of the town. A known Mason, he initially supported the revolutionary cause in Pampanga. He did this, according to Rafaelita Hilario-Soriano, by letting the revolutionary forces take over Macabebe on June 24, 1898 while his loyal Macabebes joined the remaining Spaniards to help rescue Augustinian priests in Angeles. Disgruntled with Gen. Aguinaldo, however, after the Caviteño leader refused his request for a safe passage for the wife of the Spanish general, Ricardo Monet, Blanco decided to retake Macabebe from the revolucionarios.
A Spanish prisoner and witness, Carlos Ria-baja, had an altogether different story to tell, though never questioning the loyalty of the Macabebes to the Spanish cause. Writing in 1899, he had this to tell: On the 16th of June, the (remaining Spanish) column disembarked in Macabebe, including a company under Captain Alcaina, the 4th Cazadores Battalion , and the Battalion of Macabebe Volunteers under Colonel Eugenio Blanco, the force that has excellently defended the town, most especially the said Colonel with his volunteers who brought to immeasurable height the town’s name where they belong.
Hail to Blanco and his Volunteers! The Blanco Batallion was the only one, which supported the Spanish campaign in the Philippines.
It is said that a street in Madrid was named “Voluntarios de Macabebe.”