Bajau - History and Cultural Relations

A variety of local legends traces the original dispersal of the Bajau to the loss or abduction of a princess, a mythic event variously associated with the different early sultanates of the region: Johore, Malacca, Brunei, Sulu, Luwu, or Bone. In more prosaic terms, linguistic evidence suggests that the Proto-Sama-Bajau-speaking ancestors of the present Bajau began to spread from an original homeland located in the northeastern islands of Sulu, southwest of Mindanao, sometime early in the first millennium A.D. The principal movement was southwestward, through the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines, to the eastern Borneo coast. From Sulu and eastern Borneo, subsequent migrations carried Bajau speakers eastward through the Straits of Makassar to coastal Sulawesi and from there southeastward into the Moluccas. By the early seventeenth century, Dutch accounts of Sulawesi record the presence of large numbers of Bajau around Makassar. Following Makassar's defeat by Dutch and Bugis forces in 1669, many of these communities are said to have dispersed to other islands in eastern Indonesia. By the early eighteenth century, fleets of Bajau were voyaging on fishing and trepang -collecting expeditions as far south as Roti and Timor. Some of our fullest descriptions of the Indonesian Bajau come from this period. Most are described as strongly maritime people, sea-going dependents of either Bugis or Makassarese patrons. The outward spread of the Bajau from Sulawesi appears to have been closely linked to the development of a maritime trade in trepang (sea slug or bêche-demer ), a Chinese culinary delicacy, and to the associated expansion of Bugis and Makassarese political and commercial influence. For almost 200 years the Bajau acted as the principal gatherers of trepang throughout the eastern islands of Indonesia. In northern Borneo, the Bajau were already well established when Captain Thomas Forrest first visited the western and northern coasts of what is now Sabah in 1773. In western Sabah, the Bajau were under the loose suzerainty of the Brunei sultanate and in some areas, notably Tempasuk, maintained close ties with small Illanun enclaves; some of them, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, staged settlements for slave-raiding voyages into other parts of Southeast Asia. On the southeastern coast of Sabah, the Bajau were historically part of the Sulu zone, a maritime sphere of political and commercial interests dominated by the Sulu sultanate and its Tausug rulers. Here the principal seat of power was at Jolo, in the central islands of the Sulu Archipelago. In 1878 the territory now comprising Sabah was ceded by the sultans of Sulu and Brunei to the British North Borneo Chartered Company, while in 1915 the Sultan of Sulu relinquished all secular power over his former territories to American colonial authorities in Manila. The subsequent colonial period saw the breakdown of traditional patterns of administered trade and formal hierarchy, the abolition of slavery, the emergence of Chinese and European commercial interests, and the partial suppression of traditional forms of piracy and raiding. In Sabah, the Mat Salleh Revolt (1894-1900), which was the first major uprising against European rule, was led by a leader of Bajau-Sulu ancestry. Since 1963, when Sabah gained independence within Malaysia, and throughout most of the postcolonial period, the Bajau, as the largest Muslim minority, have played a decisive role in state politics, disproportionate to their numbers. In Indonesia change has been equally rapid since independence. Here Bajau communities have been under official pressure to abandon boat-nomadism and nearly all are now shore-based, living in coastal villages, characteristically dependent on fishing, trade, and other maritime pursuits for their livelihood.

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