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The sea gypsies of Sulu

Rahul Goswami (Cochinchina)
Filed on December 13, 2014

Among a host of seafaring peoples of South-east Asia, the Sama-Bajau made their ‘gardens’ betwixt the far archipelagos


The pirates of the Celebes Sea. From the mid-nineteenth century until well into our era, this has been a pejorative applied reflexively to the boat people of the marine region, and it is a vast one, which includes the Celebes Sea. In the eyes of the representatives of the western colonial powers which ventured into these seas - bringing cannon and gunpowder while in search of spices, gold and sandalwood - the boat people of the Celebes were seaborne marauders. That is one kind of narration.

Here is another. There is an ethno-linguistic group of people who are possibly the most widely dispersed in archipelagic South-East Asia. These are the Sama-Bajau, sea-nomadic, who call ‘home’ many watery spaces within a vast maritime zone 3.25 million square kilometres in extent, stretching from eastern Palawan, Samar, and coastal Mindanao in the north, through the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines, to the northern and eastern coasts of Borneo, southward through the Straits of Makassar to Sulawesi, and from there over widely scattered areas of eastern Indonesia.

These are the people generally referred to in literature as ‘sea nomads’, ‘sea people’ or ‘sea gypsies’. Their broad ethno-linguistic groups generally include the Moken, the Orang Laut and the Sama-Bajau. Each group is geographically, linguistically and culturally distinct and has adapted to the rich maritime environment and island ecosystems of South-East Asia. Not surprisingly, political boundaries were absent from the collective memory of the Sama-Bajau and those who have met them and been hosted by this remarkable seafaring people have noted, perhaps with admiration, that their identity is themselves and their way of life. They prefer no flag to their own.

The Sama-Bajau of the Philippines always refer to the Sulu archipelago as their place of origin. The academic evidence is that these people had inhabited the archipelago with the Tausugs and other indigenous people for many generations before the arrival of Islam in the fourteenth century. On both sides of the Sulu and Sulawesi seas, these people are separated not only by the sea but also by the internationally recognised political boundaries of Malaysia and the Philippines. The scanty research that has been done so far on the great seafaring groups of South-East Asia has shown that the Sama-Bajau travelled and migrated to various places of the far-flung archipelagos and even beyond; they followed the sea routes for economic and social purposes and guarded the passages through straits and past bights.

In archipelagic South-East Asia, the number of distinct ethnic groups which rely on both land and sea for their livelihoods, for natural resources and to fulfil their spiritual needs are outnumbered only by the number of habitable islands. And so it is with the Sama-Bajau, a landless folk who live in a physical landscape dominated by wide seas and bountiful islands. The marine environment also constitutes ‘living spaces’ for the Sama-Bajau since they spend their entire life in the vicinity of the sea, living either in pile houses built over the water or on boats. The several worthy anthropological inquiries into their way of life and knowledge systems have all recorded them as saying, in one way or another, that “our garden is the sea”. Hence their knowledge of the maritime zones and coastal ecosystems is encyclopaedic, they are superbly versed in the seasons, winds, currents and tides, the lunar cycle, stars and navigation. They have specialised boat building knowledge and skills, and different types of types of watercraft are essential to the ways in which they interact with the marine environment.

Where did the Sama-Bajau come from? Thanks to the careful work of ethno-linguists such as A Kemp Pallesen, their point of origin is thought to be the southern Philippines. It is likely that around the beginning of the ninth century of the common era, speakers of dialects from which the language of the sea gypsies evolved lived in the area of the Basilan Strait between the Zamboanga area of South Mindanao and Basilan Island in the south-eastern part of the Sulu Sea. They grew in number and as they grew, and as their sea-faring technologies waxed, so did their ambitions, and these mariners nonpareil looked for new theatres. Groups sailed away from this early period to look for and colonise, so to speak, new seas and by the eleventh century the Sama-Bajau were moving south-west through the Sulu Archipelago and then along the north-eastern coastal areas of Borneo (Kalimantan).

From the eastern coasts of Borneo, they spread farther southward into the Makassar Straits, arriving along the coasts of Sulawesi and spreading outward into other parts of eastern Indonesia some time before the beginning of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is when they met, perhaps with stories and a smoking pipe, the first schooners of the colonial powers, only to be greeted with muskets, fear and greed. And from that unhappy encounter was the tale of the pirates of the Celebes Sea born.

Rahul Goswami is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia





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