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The Bajau have been a nomadic, seafaring people for most of their history. Many Bajau still practice that same lifestyle to this day, which explains why they are still commonly called "sea gypsies." They chart particularly the waters of the Sulu Sea, off the southwestern coast of the Philippines, and the various seas that surround the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. These are among the most dangerous waters in the world with sporadic policing at best and a very high incidence of open piracy. Yet these Bajau claim never to have wielded weapons — preferring to simply flee from potential attack. They come ashore only to bury the deceased and to live temporarily while making new boats.
Other Bajau began living entirely on land about 200 years ago. Many of these are to be found in Malaysia's eastern state, Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Of course, the seafaring Bajau make their living from fishing. Those who have abandoned that lifestyle have become farmers and cattle rearers, earning them the local nickname, "cowboys of the east." Indeed, their equine skills are well known in this part of the world, and are always to be found displayed in Bajau ceremonial events. Still other Bajau live a lifestyle between nomadic and sedentary, housed in villages on the water, but not far from land.
From old to young, the Bajau are a colorful, festive and musical people. They believe they are descended from royalty. This is perhaps partly why they wear such richly colorful clothes, often made by hand from traditional dastar fabric. Brides and grooms wear even more colorful clothing at their wedding. The more highly regarded a woman is, the more brightly and colorfully she will be dressed. She will also receive many water buffalo which, to the Bajau, is a special animal that usually forms part of any woman's dowry. Arranged marriages are common. Marriage by kidnap and elopement are also still quite frequent.
Although they are the second-largest indigenous people in Sabah, the precise origin of the Bajau is unknown. They may have come from Johore, in peninsular Malaysia, long before the two Borneo states became a part of the country. Wherever they came from, their migration has been attributed in part to their pursuit of trade, particularly in a sea cucumber species called the trepang. It is considered a delicacy and is used in soups made as far away as China, where it is also used medicinally. Bajau divers can descend as deep as 30 meters (100 feet) in search of it.
Almost all Bajau today claim to be Sunni Muslim. They believe that among their people are direct descendants of the prophet Mohammed. Yet many — predominantly the seafaring, nomadic Bajau — retain spiritually based religious practices that pre-date any major religion. In their religion, designated spirit mediums communicate with the spirit world in ritual ceremonies of celebration, worship and exorcism — in which, for example, spirit boats are sailed into the open seas to cast the offending spirit away from their community. They also worship the God of the sea, Omboh Dilaut.
A large part of Bajau history and tradition is captured in their folklore. One ancient story tells of a very large man, named Bajau himself. His people used to follow him into rivers because whenever he went there the river was so overflowed by his body mass that they could easily collect dead fish. They eventually came to call on his service just to help harvest fish. Other tribes in the area soon learned of his reputation and, being envious of the advantage he bestowed on his people, plotted to kill him. But their efforts came to no avail and he survived the poisoned arrows they fired at him. His epitaph today is a stone which he carried to his own burial place — a stone that no other man could lift. Some Bajau — and other local indigenous peoples — still fear his stone and his reputation to this day.
Folkloric stories like this are, these days, based on interpretation throughout countless generations. Yet however much the original story might have been distorted or exaggerated over time, it reflects a common theme in many people's folklore: theirs is the dominant or superior people in a region.
The Bajau, like any distinct group, have already lost some of their heritage as some of their stories were never re-told to the next generation. The Bajau are also beginning to lose something of their identity as they integrate with their adopted, land-based communities. Even the most traditional, seafaring Bajau are losing their boat-building craft as they replace their hand-made lipa-lipa boats with commercially built, mass-produced ones. On Sabah's southeastern-most coast, these lipa-lipa boats are a feature of the annual Semporna festival, for which the boats are colorfully decorated and raced against each other in a celebration of Bajau culture. It is uncertain how long this festival might be able to continue.
Despite these changes, the richness of Bajau heritage is starting to be recognized as worthy of preservation. In addition to anthropological works (see Books/Articles below), organizations like the Sabah Bajau Arts and Cultural Association and the Centre for Borneo Studies sponsor various events that spotlight Bajau life.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2021, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
Sather, C., (1997) The Bajau Laut: Adaptation, History, and Fate in a Maritime Fishing Society of South-Eastern Sabah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Teo, S. S., (1989) Lifestyles of the Badjaos. Manila: Centro Escolar University Research and Development Center.
Bottignolo, B., (1998) Celebrations With the Sun: An Overview of Religious Phenomena among the Badjaos. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Nimmo, H. A., (1972) The Sea People of Sulu: A study of Social Change in the Philippines. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company.
Nimmo, H. A., (1994) Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Warren, C., (1983) Ideology, Identity and Change: The Experience of the Bajau Laut of East Malaysia. James Cook University, Southeast Asian Monograph Series, No.14.
National Conference on the History and Culture of the Bajau. February 26-27, 2001. Culture and Peace Studies, 1, 1, June 2001.
Yamamoto, H., (2002) "The Emergence of Bajau Identity in British North Borneo (Sabah)" Southeast Asia: History and Culture, 31, May 2002.