The Era of General Faustino Ablen

By Advanced Escrimador Gerald Busch

The era in which Faustino Ablen lived was unimaginably different from the world we live in today. Even when Grandmaster Carlton Kramer accompanied GGM Braulio Pedoy to his boyhood home of Ormoc, he noted how different the town was in 1989 vs when he left the Philippines in 1927. Thus, it is important to understand and document the history and culture surrounding the man known as “General Faustino Ablen.”

The Treaty of Paris of 1898 was signed by Spain and the US on December 10, 1898. This officially ended the Spanish – American War. Under the treaty, Spain gave up all sovereignty to “the island of Puerto Rico and other islands now under Spanish sovereignty in the West Indies, and the island of Guam in the Marianas, the archipelago known as the Philippine Islands.  The US did pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines. After the Spanish–American War, the US was riding high. They were now a world power, having just taken over the strategic countries of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

At that time, the United States held a belief called “Manifest Destiny,” that Americans were divinely ordained to take over the continent of North America and beyond, grounded in the belief of its leaders and citizens. Unfortunately, the transition of America governing the Philippines did not go well, and war soon broke out. The Americans engaged the Philippine forces in the Battle of Manila in 1899. Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in 1901, and the Americans declared a victory on July 2, 1902.

However, many people in the Philippines refused to accept the new Filipino-American treaty. For example, the Katipunan, or Kataastaasang (Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan), a secret society with initiation rites adopted from the Freemasons in Spain, had already fought against the Spanish. Members of the Katipunan were trained with the utmost secrecy. This secret society had battled the Spaniards for decades for self-rule and turned its forces against the Americans.

In addition to the Katipunan, the Moros of the southern Philippines mounted their resistance to the American invaders. But of all the groups that did not share the enthusiasm of Manifest Destiny with the Americans, the most fearsome were the Pulanhanes, a militant group of freedom fighters whose spiritual foundation was a fusion of Catholicism and the folk beliefs of the Visayans and one of their most prominent leaders was General Fastino Ablen.

“Believing that they would be reincarnated within three days of their deaths, the Pulahanes fought with courage and ferocity, which impressed the veteran American troops. With almost a decade of campaign experience in the archipelago, the American Army officers concluded that ‘no people in the Philippines, not excepting the Moros, have shown more deadly work with the bolo than the mountaineers of Samar. One US veteran witnessed a Pulahan split from a soldier from his shoulder to his buttocks with a single bolo stroke.”

We know that this deadly single bolo stroke was a “1” or a “2” in the Derobio Escrima strikes. Yet in hundreds and hundreds of pages of information about the history of the times, no word referring to escrima, arnis, kali, or any other terminology for Filipino martial arts is mentioned. Nothing about military training is mentioned. No consideration is given to what sort of discipline and instruction might be needed to be able to cut a man in half diagonally. What does this tell us? This has occurred because most of the historical writing about the Pulahanes is based on American military records, court records, and US journalism.

When General Ablen was captured, all the major newspapers in the US proudly wrote that the conflict with the Pulahanes in Leyte had ended. The media acknowledged that Pulahanes were outstanding warriors by never mentioning anything about their bolo escrima training. The fact that there is no mention of Filipino martial arts tells us that all military training remains a secret. No outsider foreigner ever witnessed it. Historical records show that the Spaniards outlawed teaching or practicing escrima, with the penalty of death, for over three centuries. The Katipunan was a secret organization. We see the deep commitment to secrecy passed down, as even some of our documents indicate that they should not be posted publicly and remain secrets for our school. We see the incredible power of the traditions that we have become stewards, to be shared and passed down only to the students learning this martial art. One could understand there would be a reluctance and objection to including outsiders such as “haoles” in escrima training in Hawaii. It had nothing to do with a dislike or disdain for other races. It had to do with a tradition and centuries-old commitment to secrecy. It was the courage of GGM Braulio Pedoy to determine that this art could safely be passed to outsiders so that it would not become extinct and disappear as he had seen with other escrima styles.

The origin of the name for the Pulahanes is said to relate to the practice of dressing in pula (red) uniforms, according to historian Vic Hurley. Some aspects of their religion were borrowed from Christianity: the leader was designated “Pope.” And other elements of Christianity were used in their practices. The Pulahans did not necessarily respect organized religion, especially if thought to be aiding the Americans. They relied more on traditional Visayan animism and traditional folk beliefs, particularly a dependence on priests who could intercede with a malign spirit world. Pulahan spiritual leaders appeared to be more of a shaman than a priest.

General Ablen was reputed to be in direct contact with a divine being and to bestow magical power, known asanting-anting, which would render the bearer invulnerable. The Pulahanes’ long hair, emphasis on magic and spells, and belief in reincarnation further parallels local folk beliefs. Pulahan leaders, including several women, had military and religious functions and could perform marriages and dispense protective amulets. The few observers who visited Pulahan communities noted that divine services were presided over by these warrior priests.

In the book “Jungle Patrol: The Story of the Philippine Constabulary,” by Vic Hurley, a more sarcastic and degrading tone is taken toward the Pulahanes. The American invaders were surprised that there was organized military resistance on many islands to their efforts to take over the Philippines. They did not understand that each community and Island had taken charge of its security and protection for centuries. These skills had been in place for centuries of Spanish occupation, which now the Americans had to learn to deal with. The Spanish and Americans controlled most of the major cities, but the freedom fighters and escrimadors ruled in the jungles and most of the villages.

“In Leyte, the Constabulary had to contend with “Papa” Faustino Ablen, who had a stronghold in the mountains near Ormoc, with thousands of freedom fighters under his command. He had a fearless reputation for fighting the Spanish for over 20 years before he was arrested in 1887 for organizing the Dios-Dios organization and was sentenced to a prison term in San Ramon at Zamboanga.

According to Vic Hurley, after his release from prison by the Americans, the General returned to Leyte, and FaustinoAblen saw the opportunity for “Popehood” and “invested himself with an aura of the supernatural” to take advantage of the “credulous people.” He would sign himself “Senor Jesus y Maria” and began to “distribute charms, love potions, and religious trumperies with a tone of paganism.”

General Faustino Ablen fought the Americans for another four years after the Filipino-American War ended and was fifty-three years old when captured.

Great Grand Master Braulio Pedoy felt that General Ablen was one of the best escrimadors on Leyte and was a born leader. He led his freedom fighters on Leyte against the Spanish for 20 years and then the Americans for seven years. He trained his army in his escrima style called Derobio. This unique Escrima style was easy to teach because there are only 12 offensive strikes using one or two bolos. They would use their opponent’s rifles in future battles upon defeating the enemy. Between the army’sEscrima training and the lucky charms they got from the General, his freedom fighters felt they were invincible,

Information in this article is from The Pulahan Campaign: a Study In US Pacification by Brian McAllister Linn.

McAllister, B. (1999). The Pulahan Campaign: A study in US pacification. War in History, 6(1), 45–71. P47

 In the next section, we will focus on the writings of George Emmanual Borrinaga, an associate professor of history in the Department of Anthropology, Sociology, and History at the University of San Carlos (Cebu City, Philippines). He completed his PhD in History at the University of Hull (United Kingdom) in 2019 with a dissertation entitled “Solidarity and Crisis-Derived Identities in Samar and Leyte, Philippines, 1565 to Present.” A lifetime member of the Philippine National Historical Society (PNHS), he was awarded the Young Historian’s Prize 2014 by the National Committee on Historical Research of the Philippines’ National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 2015 and the 9th Virginia A. Miralao Excellence in Research Award by the Philippine Social Science Council (PSSC) in 2021. His research interests include local history, social movements, environmental history, and community resilience. He has extensively researched the life of Faustino Ablen and the Pulahanes.



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