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Sea nomads in southeast asia


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Sea nomads in southeast asia

  1. 1. Research Trends on Southeast Asian Sea Nomads By Cynthia Chou
  2. 2. Research Trends on Southeast Asian Sea NomadsBy Cynthia Chou[Dr. Cynthia Chou is associate professor in the Department of Asian Studies, Institute ofCross-cultural and Regional Studies–Language, Religion and Society, University ofCopenhagen. She also serves as head of the Southeast Asian Studies Programme.] Sea Nomads in Southeast AsiaSoutheast Asia, a region encompassing an expanse of coasts and islands rich in variedmaritime resources, is known widely for its long-established maritime traditions. What isregrettably less known is the phenomenon of sea nomadism. The history and culture ofthe mobile boat-dwelling people, often known as sea nomads, dates back many centuries.Today, they continue to traverse the waters of the archipelago and to challenge theclassical idea of citizenship that is defined within bounded territories and guaranteed by asovereign state. Their continued widespread distribution throughout the area bearstestament to a very different indigenous perception and mapping of the region.Debates have broiled over the most appropriate term of reference for the boat-dwellingmariners, variously known as “sea folk,” “sea gypsies,” “sea people,” “boat people,” “searoaming groups,” “maritime mobile groups,” and “sea hunters and gatherers.” Theseterms have all proved lacking in scientific and ethnographic merit. In comparison, theterm “sea nomads” has steadfastly remained the term of preference by the general public,researchers, and officials. This is not to say that the term “nomad” has not been disputed.Opponents of this appellation maintain that it is etymologically derived from the Greekexpression nomás which means “moving around and living on pasturage.” Hence, theargument goes, the word is irrelevant for maritime communities. Proponents of the termnonetheless argue that contemporary anthropological usage has broadened its meaning toinclude all groups of people who practice spatial mobility to enhance their well being andsurvival.Communities of sea nomads are widely regarded by other inhabitants of the area as theorang asli of the region. This term has been translated variously as “indigenous peoples”(Chou 1997) or as “true,” “genuine,” and “real” inhabitants (Sather 1997:17, 20).Whichever translation one is inclined toward, the heart of the matter is that the spacewhich others have named “Southeast Asia,” comprising a number of bordered nation-states, is, in contrast, a space of deep emotional and personal meaning for the sea nomads.From the latter’s perspective, it is a space charted by the extent of their sea-faring skillsand postulated as a network of places connected by inter-related kinship ties to form what 1
  3. 3. they call tempat/tanah saya (my place or my territory). Based upon these premises, seanomads claim ownership of and sovereignty over this entire space, despite theinterference posed by current political borders.The existence of early and extensive trade and seafaring networks in the region (Sather1995) reflects the almost unhampered movement of sea nomads historically. In the past,they were vigorously involved in symbiotic relations with the early Malay states of thewestern Malay region and later with a succession of sultanates in coastal Borneo, thesouthern Philippines, and eastern Indonesia (Sather 1997:329-33). In the process, theygenerated great wealth by providing maritime commodities to facilitate trade, formed anaval force to secure and protect sea lanes that were absolutely vital to the developmentof maritime Southeast Asia, and served as “integrating information-carriers” connectingsubsidiary chiefs with a developing peasantry. These roles were central to the larger-scaleintegration of an increasingly centralized politics that shaped and developed maritimeSoutheast Asia (Benjamin 1986:16). Paradoxically, as states emerged, the sea nomadsbecame progressively peripheralized and impoverished. It has reached the point that theyare now defined as being on the margins of “otherness” for the culturally and politicallydominant populations of the region.My purpose in this essay is to relate briefly the study of sea nomads to currentdiscussions concerning flexible citizenships, borders, and borderlands. My discussion isbased on a selection of works representative of past and present writings, includingseveral recent, unpublished manuscripts—all of which contribute to a more refined,deeper, and coherent understanding of the sea nomads. Regrettably, there is still a dearthof ethnographic studies.Numerous widely scattered communities of sea nomads can be found all over SoutheastAsia. They consist of at least three major ethnolinguistic groups, each with their ownhistories, culture, and speech patterns. They are: (a) the Moken and related Moklen of theMergui Archipelago of Burma, with extensions southward into the islands of southwestThailand (Court 1971; Hogan 1972; Ivanoff 1985); (b) the Orang Suku Laut, literally the“Tribe of Sea People,” comprising diverse congeries of variously named groupsinhabiting the Riau-Lingga Archipelago, Batam, and the coastal waters of easternSumatra and southern Johor and, until recently, Singapore (Logan 1847; Carey 1970;Andaya 1975; Sandbukt 1982:17; Mariam Mohd. Ali 1984; Wee 1985; Chou 2003); and(c) the Bajau Laut, the largest and most widely dispersed of these groups living in theSulu Archipelago of the Philippines, eastern Borneo, Sulawesi, and the islands of easternIndonesia (Sather 1997:2). 2
  4. 4. The sea-faring activities of the sea nomads today create an endemic sense of anxiety andsocial instability in state officials. Their mobility and sense of multi-local belonging-nessgreatly strains all interpretations and conceptualizations of citizenship within boundedterritories. Until the middle of the last century, the sea nomads lived entirely afloat asboat-dwelling fishing communities. Since then, rapid change has occurred as politicalborders and boundaries have been drawn and re-drawn with the birth of new nations andthe question of citizenship.Unexpectedly, the recent catastrophic tsunami that shook the world brought internationalmedia attention to the sea nomads of Southeast Asia (see, for example, “The Wisdom ofthe Sea,” Bangkok Post, 17 January 2005:1, 8). Unfortunately, it has also given officialsan opportunity to pressure sea nomads to become sedentary. State developmentalprograms have caused an increasing number of families—willingly or unwillingly—toerect pile-houses over the shallow bays that had previously served as spots for boatanchorage. Revisiting Past and Present WorksA mish-mash of Chinese and Arab accounts are about the only sources of materialavailable for our understanding of the sea nomads before 1500. By putting together theimportant work of Chau Ju-kua as complied by Hirth and Rockhill (1911) with Ferrand’s(1913) invaluable collection of Arab and Persian documentation of this region, we seehow the sea-faring lifestyle and activities of the sea nomads were hastily interpreted andthe people themselves presented as “pirates and cruel; sailors dread them” (Chau Ju-kua1911:11).Gaps in information on the sea nomads speckle the time chart from the sixteenth to theeighteenth centuries. Piecing together European records of exploration, travelcommentaries, and passing comments sketchily fills the lacunae. Samples include thefollowing.• Portuguese references to the Celates or Orang Selat, sea nomads seen in the Strait of Malacca and the Riouw-Lingga Archipelago in the sixteenth to eighteenth century (Barros 1777; Pires 1944). There is also a scattered Dutch and English literature from this period on the sighting of sea nomads in the same area.• Spanish sources from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries focussing on the Sulu Seas. In particular, the Historia de las islas de Mindanao, Joló y sus adyacentes (1667) is a detailed and comprehensive description of the Spanish frontier by Francisco Combés, a clergyman with a deep interest in customs and languages. 3
  5. 5. • Portuguese reports compiled by the missionary François Valentijn (1724-1726) on the eastern Bajaus at the end of the seventeenth century.• English reports, especially the description by English captain and explorer Thomas Forrest (1780; 1792) of the Bajau at the close of the eighteenth century.The character of these writings was highly descriptive and oftentimes exaggerated. Verymuch based upon personal “enquiries and conjectures” (Forrest 1780: preface), thesenarratives were not necessarily based on scientific methods. From the Europeanperspective, the sea nomads were a novel ethnographic phenomenon. Often their habitatsremained unknown to the Europeans, who were only able to write about what theyoccasionally and fleetingly observed from a distance during exploratory voyages.Information about the sea nomads was also contingent on political changes in thearchipelago. When the Dutch displaced the Portuguese in Malacca at the dawn of theseventeenth century, Portuguese writers shifted their focus. This is why Valentijn makeslittle mention of Malacca and Sumatra in his Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën and, compared toearlier Portuguese writings, hardly mentions the Celates.From the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the study of sea nomads wasdone mostly by colonial administrators. Contributions such as Findlayson and Raffles(1826 in Gibson-Hill 1973:122) described the sea nomads as a “lower class of Malays.”In 1906, a two-volume compendium of Malayan ethnography by English ethnologistW.W. Skeat and C.O. Blagden was made available. It drew up a classification based onputative physical anthropological distinctions among what the authors regarded as theprimitive tribes of Malaya. They incorrectly classified the Orang Suku Laut as primitiveforest nomads of the interior of Batam Island and, even more confoundingly, describedthe “Orang Laut, Sambimba” as possessing no boats and fearing water. Thismisinformation resulted in a distorted understanding of the boat nomad culture andmisled later writers on Malaya such as Heine-Geldern (1923), who relied on this book asa guide to the little known sea nomads of the region.Skeat and Blagden (1906) also wrote within a political frame of mind that almostcompletely ignored the ethnographic continuum running from the mainland of Johorthrough the Riouw (Riau) Islands to the east coast of Sumatra. This led them and othersto miss out on a better-informed ethnographic understanding of cultures and histories thatdid not correlate with recently constructed political borders. Much of the narrativeunearthed from these early writings about the sea nomads is configured in encountersbetween mobile populations in fixed localities. Observing from a distance, the writers ofthis period did little to map out and understand the movements and migrations of mobilepopulations. Seen in this light, their understanding of sea nomads stood in a troubledrelationship with territorial boundedness. 4
  6. 6. A long period of silence followed the colonial administrative reports. It was almost fiftyyears later, in 1954, that the sea nomads were thoroughly analysed in a doctoraldissertation by David Sopher. Initially published in 1965 as Sea Nomads: A Study Basedon the Literature of the Maritime Boat People of Southeast Asia and reprinted in 1977with a postscript under a slightly revised title, The Sea Nomads: A Study of the MaritimeBoat People of Southeast Asia, the work has since become a classic. Based on secondarymaterial of published research and observations by other writers, Sopher’s study isconcerned with the cultural patterning and geography of the sea nomads. For the firsttime, we have a comprehensive study based on geographical methods of the mobile boat-dwelling people “over a very extensive area…stretching more than 2,000 miles.” Sopherlooked beyond the confines of political borders and boundaries to present an overview ofthe cultural geography, migratory movements, and environmental relationships of the seanomads.More systematic as well as more scientifically sound work, especially by historians andsocial scientists, on the society and culture of sea nomads also appeared around the timeof Sopher’s publication. Examples of other influential works were Hans Kähler’s 1960linguistic study, Ethnographische und linguistiche Studien über die Orang Darat, OrangAkit, Orang Laut und Orang Utan im Riau-Archipel und auf den Inseln an der Ostküstevon Sumatra, and Nicholas Tarling’s 1963 historical study, Piracy and Politics in theMalay World. Although scientifically better informed studies were now materializing, thetopic of boat-dwelling mariners continued to be understudied and published worksremained sporadic.Historical studies based on sound archival research and ethnographies derived fromfieldwork and close contact with the sea nomads only began to surface in the 1970s andthereafter. A selection of exciting books and monographs with their abbreviated titles inchronological order follows: The People of Sulu by H. Arlo Nimmo (1972), The Kingdomof Johor by Leonard Y. Andaya (1975), The Prince of Pirates by Carl A. Trocki (1979),Duano Littoral Fishing by Øyvind Sandbukt (1982), A History of Malaysia by BarbaraWatson Andaya and Leonard Andaya (1982), Ideology, Identity and Change by CarolWarren (1983), Celebrations with the Sun by Bruno Bottignolo (1995), The Bajau Lautby Clifford Sather (1997), The Moken by Jacques Ivanoff (1997), The Sulu Zone byJames Warren (1998), Fließende Grezen. Konstruktion, Oszillation und Wandelethnischer Identität der Orang Suku Laut im Riau-Archipel by Lioba Lenhart (2002), andIndonesian Sea Nomads by Cynthia Chou (2003).Journal articles have also proliferated. Examples include Carey (1970), Chou (1995, 1997,2004), Chou and Wee (2002), Lapian (1979), Lapian and Nagatsu (1996), Lenhart (1997, 5
  7. 7. 2002), Nimmo (1970, 1986, 1990), Pelras (1972), Sandbukt (1984), Sather (1995, 1998,1999), and Zacot (1978). The following are examples of unpublished manuscripts that arenot always easily accessible, but which provide important and up-to-date information:Normala Manap (1983), Mariam Mohd. Ali (1984), Morrison (1994), Nagatsu (1995),and Farwig (2002).The above listing of books, articles, and unpublished manuscripts is but a suggestive andnot a definitive list. There are scholars whose works are of the highest quality who couldnot be mentioned here. An invaluable project to compile a comprehensive bibliographyof works on the sea nomads was undertaken by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies,Kyoto University, in the early 1990s; their findings were published in the first two issuesof the Sama Bajau Studies Newsletter (1995, 1996).This body of work of the last forty years is of great value. Much of what has beendocumented pertains to issues concerning the socialization of time, space, and identity. Asubstantial amount of literature has also focussed on processes of change, modernization,and development. This interest is due very much to the quickening and broadeningprocesses of economic, social, political, and technological development that have had animpact on intercultural contact everywhere in the post-war decades. Sound researchtechniques and fieldwork participation have produced more accurate and refinedethnographic detail that integrates viewpoints and experiences both within and betweencore, semi-marginal, and marginal societies.For the first time, too, we see fundamental theoretical revisions about the prehistory andindigenous cultural history of the region. New approaches in linguistics and anthropology,including functionalism and structural-functionalism, Marxist and neo-Marxistperspectives, and interpretive and postmodernist approaches, have been tried, worked on,and debated. This has opened an understanding of the social organization and culturalpremises that structure the sea nomads’ daily life and led to new insights into identity,social hierarchy, and stigmatization at the local, transnational, and supranational scale ofsea nomad mobility.Two recent works can serve to illustrate some trends. The first is James Warren’s 1998monograph, The Sulu Zone: The World Capitalist Economy and the HistoricalImagination. This text focuses on the relationship between social groups like the SamaLaut, Iranun, Balangini Samal, and Taosug and their physical environment. It develops a“critical understanding and discussion of historiographical methods and models inproblematizing of economic and cultural ‘border zones’ in a changing global-localcontext” (9). This exciting piece of work involves “framing and re-presenting theethnohistory of the Sulu zone in its own terms… rather than merely as a corollary of the 6
  8. 8. history of Western [imperialist] expansion” in the region (13). Inspired by thehistoriographical formulations and debates of the neo-Marxist dependency theorists,particularly Andre Gunder Frank (1978) and Paul Baran (1957), by the World Systemapproach of Immanuel Wallerstein (1974), and by the theories and concepts of LatinAmerican economists and Annales historians, Warren demonstrates the evolution of areasand the concept of “periphery” as “a series of intersections, encounters or ‘historicalaccidents usually due to contact with foreign formations’ (Meillassoux 1972:101)”(Warren 1998: 14-15). Second, my own forthcoming essay (2005) looks at political andsocial tensions between fixed national boundaries with inflexible state requirements ofcitizenship, on the one hand, and the flexible requirements of the Orang Suku Laut ofRiau, Indonesia, on the other. This essay reflects attempts in recent research to captureand place the dynamics of sea nomads, well known for their mobility, within the widersocial science of borders, citizenship, and nation states. Closing ThoughtsAlthough great strides have been made in the study of sea nomads in Southeast Asia,much more research is required. This exercise of revisiting older writings and reviewingrecent works has adumbrated potential directions that could lead to new ranges ofknowledge in the field. In addition, much of the older ethnographic record—whichnarrowly looks at the organisation of sea nomads’ travel routes, their techniques forspatial production of locality, and the often humdrum preoccupations of small scalecommunities—can be reread from other points of view. These issues and ethnographicdetails can be reconceived as dynamic and exciting interstices of transnational mobilityand cultural belongingness. In them we can see how the ideas of community, citizenship,and legal rights are reconfigured, reinterpreted, and reconceptualized in the encounterbetween mobile populations and nation states.ReferencesAndaya, Leonard Y. 1975. The Kingdom of Johor, 1641-1728. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Andaya. 1982. A History of Malaysia. London: Macmillan Press.Baran, Paul. 1957. “The ‘Classical’ in Southeast Asia: The Present in the Past.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26, no. 1: 75-91.Barros, João de. 1777. Da Asia. Dos Feitos que os Portuguezes fizeram no descubrimento e conquista dos mares e terras do Oriente. Decade segunda, parte II. Lisbon.Benjamin, Geoffrey. 1986. “Achievements and Gaps in Orang Asli Research.” Akademika 35(July): 7-46. 7
  9. 9. Bottignolo, Bruno. 1995. Celebrations with the Sun: An Overview of Religious Phenomena among the Badjaos. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.Carey, Iskandar. 1970. “Some Notes on the Sea Nomads of Johor.” Federation Museum Journal 15: 181-184.Chau Ju-kua: His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, entitled Chu-fan-chï. Translated from the Chinese and annotated by Friedrich Hirth and W.W. Rockhill. Petersburg: Printing Office of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911.Chou, Cynthia. 1995. “Orang Laut Women in Riau: An Exploration of Difference and the Emblems of Status and Prestige.” In “Gender and the Sexes in the Indonesian Archipelago,” ed. Laura Summers and William D. Wilder, Indonesian Circle 67 (November): 175-98.——. 1997. “Contesting the Tenure of Territoriality: The Orang Suku Laut.” In “Riau in Transition,” eds. Cynthia Chou and Will Derks, Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land-en Vilkenkunde 153: 605-29.——. 2003. Indonesian Sea Nomads: Money, Magic, and Fear of the Orang Suku Laut. Leiden, London and New York: International Institute for Asian Studies and RoutledgeCurzon.——. 2004. “The Orang Suku Laut: Owners of or Strangers in the Riau Archipelago of Indonesia?” In Customary Strangers: New Perspectives on Peripatetic Peoples in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, ed. Joseph C. Berland and Aparna Rao, pp. 309-328. Westport, CT and London: Prager.——. 2005. “Borders and Multiple Realities: The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia.” In Centring the Margin: Agency and Narrative in Southeast Asian Borderlands, ed. Alexander Horstmann and Reed L. Wadley. Oxford: Berghahn Books.Chou, Cynthia and Vivienne Wee. 2002. “Tribality and Globalization: The Orang Suku Laut and the ‘Growth Triangle’ in a Contested Environment.” In Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perpectives, ed. Geoffrey Benjamin and Cynthia Chou, pp. 318-363. Leiden and Singapore: International Instittue for Asian Studies and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.Combes, Francisco. 1897 [1667]. Historia de las islas de Mindanao, Joló y sus adyacentes. Madrid: Retana W.E. and P. Pastells.Court, Christopher. 1971. “A Fleeting Encounter with the Moken (the Sea Gypsies) in Southern Thailand: Some Linguistic and General Notes.” Journal of the Siam Society 59: 83-95.Farwig, Victoria. 2002. “A Comparison of the Environmental Awareness and Perceptions of the Communities of Ambuea and Sampela. The Wakatobi Marine National Park, Sulawesi, Indonesia.” BSc (Honours) dissertation, The University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom. 8
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