The most comprehensive work regarding the origin and dispersion of Sama-Bajau language groups is Culture Contact and Language Convergence (Pallesen 1985). Based on linguistic evidence, Pallesen suggested a point of origin in what is now the southern Philippines. Around the beginning of the ninth century, speakers of Proto-Sama-Bajau dialects lived in the area of the Basilan Strait between the Zamboanga area of South Mindanao and Basilan Island in the southeastern part of the Sulu Sea (Pallesen 1985: 117). A number of groups split off during this early period. By the eleventh century further dispersion began with a major group moving southwest through the Sulu Archipelago and then along the northeastern coastal areas of Borneo (Kalimantan). Here communities again split into the North Borneo and Jama Mapun groups with the ‘forward wave’ of the Indonesian Bajau moving further down the eastern Borneo coastline via Tawau and Tarakan (ibid.: 121). The southward movement of Sama speakers into the southern Sulu and Borneo regions was ‘accelerated’ by the expansion of maritime trade after the founding of the Sulu Sultanate in the fifteenth century (Sather 1993a: 218). From the eastern coasts of Borneo, or perhaps directly from southern Sulu, Sama speakers spread 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 (Pallesen 1985: 121; Sather 1997: 15).
Origin myths, stories and legends found among the Bajo in Sulawesi (and among other Sama-Bajau in Sabah and Sulu) cite Johore in Peninsula Malaysia as an original homeland from where the Bajo dispersed, bringing them to South Sulawesi and hence into relations with the kingdoms of Luwu, Gowa and Bone (Pelras 1972: 157; Sopher 1977: 141; Zacot 1978: 26; Reid 1983: 125; Pallesen 1985: 5; Sather 1993b: 31, 1997: 17). The Tukang Besi Bajo have versions of similar stories. One concerns a Bajo princess, or heavenly girl, from Johore, who, after being separated from her family, was washed up in South Sulawesi and later married the Prince of Makassar. She gave birth to four sons who ruled the regions of Gowa, Bone, Luwu and Soppeng. By linking their origins with a centre of power, Johore, ‘the most prestigious of all Malay kingdoms’, and one which preceded the powerful Sulu Sultanate, this gave legitimacy to the kingdoms of Luwu, Gowa and Bone. These myths, according to Sather, ‘have more to do with political ideologies and the subordination of maritime peoples in a succession of sea-orientated trading states than they do with actual migrations or literal origins’ (Sather 1997: 17–18).
The earliest evidence of the presence of Bajo in Sulawesi is the mention of a people called Bajo Sereng (Moluccan Bajo) in the major narrative epic from South Sulawesi — the La Galigo cycle (Pelras 1996: 74). This reference apparently relates to the role Bajo may have played in relations between the maritime powers of South Sulawesi and the Moluccas (ibid.: 74). According to Pelras (ibid.: 56), this text probably dates from the fourteenth century, at the time of the dominant kingdom of Luwu.
European historical records document the presence of Bajo in South Sulawesi from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In an early record from 1511, the Portuguese, Tomé Pires, documented the likely presence of Bajo in the kingdom of Gowa around the city of Makassar (Pires 1944 in Reid 1983: 127; Pelras 1996: 17). The Dutch Admiral Speelman, the ‘conqueror of Makassar’ (1666–67) remarked that the Bajo lived on small islands off the coast of Makassar and there they collected turtle shell which they paid as tribute to the King of Makassar and ‘must always be ready to go with their vessels in any direction they are sent’ (Speelman 1670, quoted in Reid 1983: 126). By the late 1670s, the Bajo were reported in northeastern Sulawesi in the Manado area (Valentijn 1724–26, cited in Sopher 1977: 300).
As skilled sailors and maritime specialists, the Bajo played an important role in the rise of the State of Gowa to a political and economic power in eastern Indonesia during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and later with the powerful Bugis kingdom of Bone to the east of Makassar. In these dominant maritime states, the Bajo were useful as explorers, messengers, sailors, and harvesters of sea products that were traded to other centres in East and Southeast Asia (Reid 1983: 124–9; Collins 1995: 14).
The eastward and southward dispersion of Sama-speaking boat nomads from the southern areas of Sulawesi over the last three centuries appears to have been closely linked to Bugis and Makassarese political and commercial expansion and migration in the region, and to the development of an archipelago-wide trading network in marine products — particularly trepang and turtle shell — which spread as far as the northern coasts of Australia (Fox 1977a; Sopher 1977: 144; Sather 1993a: 218; Velthoen and Acciaioli 1993). Although boat dwelling declined after the nineteenth century, having given way to a more shore-based existence, the trade in trepang and turtle shell in eastern Indonesia was an important factor in the distribution of Bajo through the region (Sopher 1977: 144).
Sama speakers are now distributed from eastern Kalimantan and Sulawesi across to Maluku and south along the Lesser Sunda Islands. The majority of Sama-speaking communities are found in scattered settlements along the coast of Sulawesi and on its offshore islands. In South Sulawesi, settlements are found around Ujung Pandang (Makassar) and on the Spermonde Islands, along the coast of the Gulf of Bone and offshore on the Sembilan Islands (Pelras 1972), as well as on small islands in the Flores Sea such as Selayar, Tanah Jampea, Bonerate and Karompa. In Southeast Sulawesi, settlements exist on Kabaena, Muna, Buton and the Tukang Besi Islands, on islands in the Tiworo Straits, along the shores of Kendari Bay, on the island of Wowonii and to the north at La Solo. In Central Sulawesi, Bajo settlements exist along the east coast and on the Salabanka Islands (Tomascik et al. 1997: 1221), as well as on the islands of the Banggai and Togian archipelagoes. In North Sulawesi, scattered communities exist around the Gulf of Tomini and in the Gorontalo and Manado districts (Zacot 1978). It is also reported that there are communities of Sama speakers near Balikpapan in eastern Kalimantan and on islands off the east coast of Kalimantan (Sather 1997: 4; Tomascik et al. 1997: 1219). In North Maluku, Bajo communities exist on the Sula islands of Taliabo, Senana and Sular, on islands in southern Halmahera, at Gala and on Jo Ronga, Kubi, Katinawe and Dowora islands (Teljeur 1990: 204), as well as in the Bacam Archipelago, on Obit Island and the Kayoa Islands (Collins 1995: 16). In East and West Nusa Tenggara, communities can be found on the islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Adonara, Lomblem, Pantar, Timor, and Roti, and on small offshore islands located near to these larger islands (Verheijen 1986). These communities are linked by strong bonds of kinship, marriage and language. Sama-Bajau-speaking communities are widely dispersed geographically but the Bajo people are a united ethnic minority in eastern Indonesia.
The majority of these Sama speakers in eastern Indonesia now live in pile house settlements built over the water in coastal areas, the littoral zone and on the land. Only small numbers of boat dwellers remain along the coast of eastern Sulawesi, most particularly to the north of Kendari at La Solo and around island groups in Central Sulawesi. The number of nomadic boat-dwelling people in Indonesia is unknown, but it is estimated that only a few hundred families remain (personal communication, Alimaturahim, 1994). Despite the abandonment of permanent boat dwelling and a more sedentary lifestyle, some Bajo still spend short or long periods of time at sea, living on boats while engaged in fishing activities. The degree of engagement in maritime lifestyles and pursuits varies between Bajo communities. As well as fishing and aquaculture, Bajo engage in boat building, trading, collection of forest products, and some land-based farming.
While the Sama language is the main language spoken by the Tukang Besi Island Bajo among themselves, many also speak Bahasa Indonesia with varying degrees of competency. Indonesian language reading and writing are important skills for a boat captain, who must be able to complete administrative papers such as surat jalan (travel passes) and other sailing papers for himself and his crew. Many Bajo speak the local Tukang Besi language (in which local market transactions are normally carried) and some speak other Muna-Buton languages, Bugis, Makassarese and trade-Malay languages. This multilingualism reflects the wide variety of people with whom they come into contact through maritime and trading activities, and also the extent of their kinship ties.
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