22 October 2008

The Bajo: Sea nomads of Malaysia and Indonesia

A glimpse into the history of sea nomads of Sulawesi who are believed to have originated from Johor.

Tracing the origins of Bone's sea nomads
Jakarta Post 22 Oct 08;
The Bajo community in Bone, South Sulawesi, has thrived in the area for more than a century. According to Bajo oral history, they lived aboard boats anchored along the shore of Bone bay. Their boats served at the same time as a means of fishing for their livelihood, earning them the nickname "sea nomads".

In their early years in Bone, the Bajo, known also as members of the Sama or Same tribe, moored their boats along the bay to form a line about five kilometers long.

The numerous boats served as a bastion of defense, protecting the shoreline for the Bone kingdom whenever Dutch troops tried to attack. During the reign of La Pawawoi Karaeng Segeri, the kingdom was finally subdued but it was done through other means.

As Roso, a Bajo community leader, recounted, the Bone administration allowed Bajo nomads to settle near the bay following the Bone war in 1904-1905 to show appreciation for their resistance against Dutch colonial forces.

"Based on stories from our elders, when Bajos first settled on land, they built small homes with single pillars. Gradually the model was changed to adapt to today's Bone community dwellings. The shift was especially noticeable after the 1950s," Roso said.

The Bajo settlement later became Bajoe subdistrict. A port in the area was named Bajoe port. This village has become a tourist destination for Bone regency.

Nobody knows for sure the origins of the Bajos.

Roso said one tale affirmed the Bajo in Bone came from Ussu, Luwu regency, in South Sulawesi.

As described in the South Sulawesi epic La Galigo, the Bajos first appeared in Bone after a flood hit Ussu, causing a boat to come unmoored from a tree and drift away.

Sitti Manurung, a young woman from Ussu, got washed ashore in Gowa, south of Bone. Owing to her beauty, Gowa community chief Manurungnga promptly married her.

Another narrative maintains the Bajo came from Johor, Malaysia. That origin story is backed up by shipwrecks found on one of the islands in the region, estimated to be 300 years old and believed to be linked with Bajo heritage. Some Malaysian parliamentarians claiming to be of Bajo descent once visited Bone to meet with Bajo leaders in the regency.

"We have no idea which story is correct about Bajo origins, either Ussu or Johor. But the early Bajo language combined four tongues: Buginese, Makassarese, Javanese and Malay," Roso said.

The Bajo are in fact not found only in several parts of Indonesia but are spread out as far as Malaysia and several other countries.

The Bajo population in Bone has drawn the attention of overseas researchers. A number of experts from Germany, Malaysia and Singapore have conducted research in Bone.

Bajo seamanship, which helps them survive under adverse conditions for many days at sea, is their unique cultural capacity that researchers come to study.

Though they no longer live aboard their boats, their fishing skills are incomparable. Equipped only with simple boats with outboard motors, they face high waves and strong winds, sometimes diving without modern equipment. Some of them use spears to catch fish; others set off homemade bombs.

Roso talked about how they picked up bomb-making skills during the Japanese occupation.

"But we only use explosives under certain circumstances. For daily use, we fish with lines, spears and trawl nets. But now it's getting even more difficult to fish, so we've got to sail a long way out to sea," he said.

Unlike the Bajo living in other countries, the Bone Bajo have not completely modernized. Their children are apparently destined to continue living as seafarers.

Bajo children are taught to sail and fish at an early age. For Bajo parents, teaching their kids fishing skills is more important than sending them to school.

No wonder Bajo descendants have so far remained tied to the sea. Only a few Bajo children enjoy formal education, and only a smattering of them finish high school. In comparison, some Malaysian Bajo have become members of parliament.
-- JP/Andi Hajramurni

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