The bolo

AH, the humble bolo.

This foot-long farming tool has been the mainstay of agricultural life in the Philippine Islands for centuries. Normally used to cut tall grass, coconuts and bamboo, the bolo may also be used to harvest small, knee-high crops like rice, monggo, soybeans, and peanuts.

They usually have wooden handles and have a curved blade that widens as it reaches the top.

However, this weapon that started out as a farming tool was once used to cut people instead of rice. The bolo was originally intended to be a farming implement, unlike the warrior’s kris or kampilan, but when the Philippine Revolution began, farmers turned to warriors and converted their bolos to weapons of war.

Blacksmiths started making bolos that were specifically designed for combat. These were slightly longer and had narrower tips. Andres Bonifacio famously held a revolver in one hand and a bolo in the other.

During the Revolution in Negros, there was a battle at the Matab-ang River where a force composed of several thousand bolo-men drove away a group of Spanish light infantry armed with modern bolt-action rifles (to be fair, it was a very small group of 25 men, but still – they were routed).

When the Americans took over a few years after the revolt against Spain, the Filipino again took up the bolo to fight for his freedom. In fact, the United States military was so annoyed with the bolo-wielding “ladrones” (Filipino militia; ladron is Spanish for “thief”) that they even composed a song about how much they hated us:

In that land of dopy dreams, happy peaceful Philippines,
Where the bolo-man is hiking night and day;
Where Tagalogs steal and lie, where Americanos die,
There you hear the soldiers sing this evening lay:

Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos, cross-eyed kakiack ladrones,
Underneath our starry flag, civilize 'em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.

During World War II, the bolo proved its effectiveness yet again against the Japanese. At some point during that war, there must have been a fight between a Filipino with a bolo and a Japanese officer with a katana. It had to have happened. When the Americans trained Filipino guerillas, they gave bolos instead of firearms to Filipinos who failed to qualify during rifle training, in order not to waste scarce ammunition.

Former first lady Imelda Marcos was once the victim of a bolo attack. On December 7th, 1972, a man with the rather appropriate name of Dimahilig took a swing at the first lady, but injured only her arms. She still bears the scars today.

In modern times, however, American outdoors enthusiasts have learned to respect the cutting power of the bolo, and have started manufacturing it in the United States. These days, there are even carbon steel “tactical bolos” that are meant to be used by survivalists or Special Forces.

The bolo continues to remain a relevant symbol to the Filipino people as a symbol of hard agricultural labor and as a weapon of war in time of need.
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