The semi-nomadic Sama Bajo of eastern Indonesia are among the most impoverished and marginalized ethnic groups in the region today. Scholarly writings often depict them as a people who have always occupied the lowest rungs of society, living as slaves of the king or clients of powerful merchants. Yet, the Sama Bajo have not always inhabited the socio-economic and political margins of Indonesia. They were once a powerful, respected, and highly valuable people, particularly in the early modern period (c.1400-1800). In my work I demonstrate that the highly mobile and sea-centered culture of the Sama Bajo was their source of strength and value to land-based kingdoms, particularly the Makassarese twin-kingdoms of Gowa and Talloq, and the Bugis kingdom of Bone in South Sulawesi. Their unsurpassed navigational skills and intimate knowledge of the waters of eastern Indonesia made them vital to the political and economic development of these kingdoms.
The Sama Bajo consisted of numerous small groups of independent family units or boat households that operated both singly and in concert with other groups in the hunt for sea products. Based on VOC documents, Makassarese/Bugis manuscripts, Sama Bajo written and oral traditions, and extensive ethnographic fieldwork among the Sama Bajo of eastern Indonesia, this study reveals for the first time the existence in the early modern period of two different Sama Bajo loci of power: those under a paramount leader serving Gowa-Talloq since the beginning of the fourteenth century; and the other under a different leader, which gave allegiance Bone after the Makassar War (1669). Comprised of numerous groups dispersed throughout eastern Indonesia, these sea-centered Sama Bajo polities helped to extend the authority and influence of their respective allies and were a dominant presence in key regional trade networks. They were primary collectors of the marine goods that were the cornerstone of trade between Makassar and China, and each of these polities also established important secondary trading centers of their own, which then fed Makassar and other regional entrepots. Their unmatched knowledge of the seas, exceptional mobility and navigational skills also made them an indispensable component of their allies’ navies.
Despite this proud history, so little research has been done on the Sama Bajo that many assumed that they had always been a poor, timid, and subjugated people. While the related Samalan communities of the Philippines and Malaysia have been the subject of numerous monographs and articles, the Sama Bajo of Indonesia are far less studied. But even in the case of the Philippines and Malaysia, the focus has been primarily linguistic and anthropological. Very little has been done on the history of these seagoing communities because of the difficulty in reconstructing the past of a primarily oral and peripatetic society. My dissertation is the first book-length historical study of the Sama-Bajo at the time of their greatest glory in the early modern period.
Working with a diverse range of sources, my research reveals a much more valuable role of the Sama Bajo in the history of Southeast Asia than has ever been suggested before. Additionally, my work on the unique sea-centered culture and history of the Sama Bajo people also raises a number of important and more broadly defined research questions. This study contributes to the growing body of historical research on marginal communities in Southeast Asia and, more specifically, to our understanding of less studied peripatetic and transnational populations that often occupy the interstices of national histories and the socio-political margins of the nation-state. While anthropologists have long focused on such groups in their work, especially the highland communities of Southeast Asia, historians have been slower to engage questions of how the histories of these communities might differ from those of their neighbors, and what methodologies are required to better understand the activities of semi-nomadic groups in former times, especially those lacking a written language. Finally, this project also contributes to ongoing discussions about alternate forms of political and social unities. The Sama Bajo serve as an interesting example of a highly unique ethnic group that was dispersed widely throughout a vast area of sea space yet maintained identifiable political structures and socio-economic networks, complete with social hierarchies, law codes, and many of the trappings of a landed kingdom.
During my time at the IIAS I will focus on preparing my book manuscript and completing two journal articles for publication.