Sea Nomads of the Andaman

ETHNONYMS: Chaolay, Moken, Sea Gypsies

Bands of hunter-gatherers of the sea once ranged freely through the many tiny isles and reefy shoals strewn across the eastern Andaman Sea. These Sea Nomads now inhabit an oceanic fringe extending from the seas off southern Myanmar (Burma) southward along the Malay Peninsula past Thailand to Malaysia. After World War II, many of the islands among which they roamed were settled by mainland peoples moving out to escape a spate of onshore epidemics. From that contact the Sea Nomads began to change, although not extensively at first. It was in the 1980s that their transformation drastically accelerated as mainland entrepreneurs built and staffed tourist industries linking many of the pristine islands off Thailand and Malaysia.

From north to south, from the multitudes of tiny islands along Myanmar's coast down past Thailand to Malaysia, there is today a spectrum of adaptation. Off Myanmar the Sea Nomads are fully animistic and nomadic. To the south there are varying degrees of seminomadism and Islamic influence. The most nomadic of the shore-settling groups build rude temporary shelters close to the tide line on one island after another, inhabiting each for several weeks or months before moving on. The least nomadic have permanent home communities stretching into their islands, from which they go out to sea. Between these poles are those who have central sites they prefer and consider their "home," but who spend much time in temporary shelters on different isles. On a few large islands near the mainland, some groups live and work among mainland people and have abodes in separate zones within alien communities.

The most widespread term applied to these "people of the sea," both by themselves and by others, is "Chaolay." In English they are usually referred to as "Sea Nomads" or "Sea Gypsies." They retain this designation as long as they live within their own groups. Individuals who integrate with mainland-style communities, sometimes by marriage, are no longer called "Chaolay," and are no longer thought of as "people of the sea." The Sea Nomads of the Andaman are related to similar Sea Nomads in the Sulu and South China seas.

Athough it is possible to discern subgroupings within the Sea Nomads of the Andaman, they are essentially a single people. Despite their dispersal and differentiations among them, they have overlapping legends and matching practices. They all speak mutually intelligible dialects of Malay, to which they have added terms from languages they have encountered. They raise their children in similar ways. They seek their livelihood in much the same ways, by freely taking from the abundant mélange of seafood offered by the various shoals and reefs among which they circulate.

The northernmost, those off Myanmar, still live, love, marry, and raise children roaming on handmade outrigger boats. They have no dwellings ashore. They are fully nomadic hunter-gatherers, and call themselves "Moken." Whatever they might gain by luck or labor is shared spontaneously with everyone at hand, including nearby strangers, a practice that slowly fades when they settle down. No mental ledger sheets are kept. They have a sensual sense of unity extending to the sea, to the life in it, and to nature's forces. The sea produces all the things they like, in diverse profusion. Those in the north say: "We have a good life." Those further south say: "We had a good life with few worries in the past."

Traditional Sea Nomads eschew personal ownership. They do not store largesse, nor do they hoard: accumulated goods impede a nomadic way of life. Among the Sea Nomads keeping goods for oneself undermines the subtle social impulse that infuses them with joy, an experience they value deeply. The sociality that is the basis of their way of living engenders a rapport that is not easy to reconcile with the practice of private ownership. To have more of anything than does another, or to domineer by wealth (or in any other way) is a crassness, an atavism, a behavior incompatible with and destructive of their cultivated system and of their collective sense. Where anger, selfishness, deceit, or fraud enter Nomad life, as they do when entrepreneurs come to settle, traditional Sea Nomad bands must depart or suffer a traumatic collapse of their basic way of being.

The boats they live on, together with their simple seafood-gathering tools, are held in common by those who live and work together. As subsistence hunter-gatherers, not commercial fishers, they take from the sea just what they need for their daily livelihood. They do not catch to sell, have no use for nets, and take no joy in a large catch.

Underlying their adaptive and consensual way of life is their deep social impulse. This basic feature of their culture emerges from a neonatal milieu of profuse and communicative tactile stimulation, which forestalls many of the usual kinds of child frustration. Trust and fondness follow from it as the youngsters grow.

Growing up in such a milieu, children seize on patterns of behavior that increase collective joy. To do this effectively they must first assimilate the desires and states of mind of those around them. The rapport thus cultivated deepens and solidifies during adolescence. The sharpened state of feeling that suffuses Nomad teenage groups creates a deep but subtle intuitive rapport that fosters behavioral and economic consonance.

This social impulse is also a measure of their kinship. Because the impulse was expansive, traditional kinship was accretive, or extendable to outsiders. Spontaneous appreciation of a member of a group by an outsider, followed by continuing joint endeavors, was enough for the outsider to become an accepted member of that group. Such incomers, even temporary ones, were welcomed, thought to be desirable, and usually looked upon with favor.

This type of system is stable in isolation. Faced with predatory commerce and formal law, or even just bad manners, it withers and ultimately collapses. Traditional Sea Nomad bands typically recoil when touched by unkind social forces. When challenged steadily, their deep sociality gives way, collapses irrevocably, sometimes abruptly. Western manners had a ravaging impact, including transient cognitive paralysis and a blanking of intuitive response.

As befits a segmenting, roving people, Sea Nomad legends recount many origins. Because they did not marry within their economic group, Nomad youths made boats to sail beyond, often with an age-mate friend, or several—in part to experience more of the world, in part to find a woman to marry.

When money first came in, the Sea Nomads avoided it. To their way of thinking it could not bring a life half as good as what they had. To avoid it, they formed client-patron relationships with friendly merchants and interposed these patrons between themselves and encroaching commerce. They gave prized seafoods and rare seashells to their merchant patrons. The merchants gave friendship and protection, rice and other foods, alcohol, motors, and fuel. The Nomads rarely counted what they gave and got. They preferred "trust barter" with a friend. The merchants also liked the system, since the commercial value of what they took substantially outweighed what they gave back. In the early phase of adaptation, some Sea Nomads became plunderers of the sea, not for their own commercial gain but for that of patrons. After cultural collapse, they started to exchange larger catches for larger dispensations of alcohol, and, later, money.

When domineering peoples first settled in their regions, the Nomads fled. When there was no longer any place to hide, most turned to Islam for protection. Egalitarian in philosophy, it struck a chord. More important, it offered political protection. Conversion was simple and nominal. Islamic practices were introduced gradually by Muslim teachers who later established mosques.

Nomad legends also speak of animistic groups fleeing Islam to sustain traditional animistic lives in remote regions to the north. Their descendants still follow their traditional life-style off the coast of Myanmar, thanks in part to the isolationistic policies of that country, but also to the pirates ranging there. Pirates long discouraged commerce in the eastern Andaman Sea by their continual predations, but they ignored the Nomads because they had no wealth. Piracy bestowed on the Sea Nomads an additional century of isolated freedom.

Further south, government and commerce began pressing in after World War IL Thailand and Malaysia slowly squelched the pirates off their coasts (though not effectively near Burma). Mainland administrators began insisting that the Nomads join some nation or another, cease their random roaming in seas and isles of other lands, obey national laws, settle down, and be "civilized." By the law mainlanders brought and enforced, the once free islands of the Nomad range became the property of various claimants, people who knew the laws on claiming. Nomads were allowed to live on sites the new owners had no use for—until those sites were also wanted. Eventually they became an underclass on unwanted fringes of their previous domain. Some built shelters on the tide line, the open side facing toward the sea, a land-bound replica of how they had once lived on boats.

In these situations their collective sociality sometimes collapsed. It could not meld with the social forces pushing out among them with deceit and selfishness, anger and contempt. Where such pressure increased, the traditional Nomad mentality gave way, sometimes suddenly, in a catastrophic spate of intense epidemic mental anguish, after which it did not reappear.

Following such collapse, the Nomads turned to massive alcoholic intake (in some places a bit of opium, more recently marijuana); the birth rate increased. Temperaments akin to those of pirates began emerging. Where Islam had been adopted, Muslim social concepts filled some of the existential void. More recently government schools, especially in Thailand, brought a different kind of structure, one still more attuned to twentieth-century commerce.

As fringe destitutes on the disappearing edges of a once prolific range, many Sea Nomads took up low-wage day labor to obtain alcohol. Diseases rarely seen started breaking out—epidemic dysentery, urinary failure, rampant funguses and parasites, and viral epidemics. Half of those Sea Nomads who had been caught by invasive social change were soon dying before the age of 2. Elders all agree that there was very little of such sicknesses in the old days.

Seemingly impelled by imprints from the past, young teenage boys, spurred in part by the venturesomeness of youth, began going off in boats, sometimes for weeks. They would say "We're going off to snare a catch," but it was just an excuse to get away, to be nomads for a while, to live solely from the sea in close-knit harmony. The catches they brought back were usually very small, often none at all. As old ways kept fading and money started catching on, they began increasing the size of their catches. Many of today's modern Sea Nomads are commercial fishermen.

Economic style and the deep sociality changed together. As traditional hunting-gathering gave way to the "new-world" economic order, the deep social impulse was replaced by other behavioral patterns.

As communities became more clearly Islamized, females were increasingly protected by Islamic mores and isolated from maturing boys. Pubescent boys could no longer sleep within their family houses. They went off with older boys to whom they were attracted, joined their ad hoc gangs of friends, and often moved through several such groups. They found and ate their food in these teenage clusters; they slept together on boats, in "boy houses" on the shore, on the pier or in vacant buildings, and sometimes under houses. Such teenage groups became part of the structure of the Sea Nomad communities in this phase of change.

A parallel rapport united teenage girls within extended family households. Such households turned into wealth-accumulating economic units to which boys began contributing after marriage. The bonds forged in the teenage peer groups were transformed into business and political associations after marriage. The male associations linked extended family groups, provided for a new type of cooperation based on in-group self-interest. Catching fish to sell became an accepted practice. Some families started getting wealthy.

In the last stage of conversion, schools and media came in, and then tourists. Mores, traditional and Islamic, started fading. When television comes to an island, the fading drastically accelerates.

"Modern" youths then emulate boy/girl social styles and dress seen on television, adopt brusque offhand manners, deliberately misunderstand, and espouse callousness. Traditional Muslims begin marrying 14-year-old girls to be certain of their purity. These modernizing youths become exploitative entrepreneurs, make sharp deals, and explore techniques of cheating in league with their gang, often with great verve. They take what they can squeeze from strangers, with a sense of triumph and without pity.

See also Bajau ; Samal ; Selung/Moken ; Tausug


Sorenson, E. R. (1991). Psychosexual Transformation in the Eastern Andaman, manuscript.

Sorenson, E. R. (1979). "Early Tactile Communication and the Patterning of Human Organization: A New Guinea Case Study." In Before Speech: The Beginning of Interpersonal Communication, edited by Margaret Bullowa, 289-305. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: