The Life and Culture of the Bajau, Sea Gypsies:

Kyoungho Jeon *
Author Information & Copyright
*He majored in cultural anthropology and is currently studying at Korea National Maritime Museum.

© Copyright 2020 KNMM·IOCC·APOCC. This is an Open-Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Published Online: Dec 31, 2019


The Bajau are a tribe who live in various areas of Maritime Southeast Asia but who originated from the Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia. They speaking Sama-Bajau, a subgroup of the Austronesian language family.

They live on the coasts and the islands of the Philippines and Indonesia, where they live off of sea-based activities such as fishing, trade, and boat inhabitation.

This paper examines their lives and culture, focusing on the Bajau who inhabit the Buton islands in southeast Sulawesi and the Wakatobi islands. The Bajau are tribal people who make a living by using marine resources and do not own land from the past. However, their sea-based economic activities began to change with exposure to the influence of the establishment of the Indonesian state, their incorporation into the people of the country, their entry into the capitalist market economy, and the effects of globalization. In particular, the designation of the marine national park in the Wakatobi region has had a profound effect on the traditional culture and traditional economic activities. Surrounded by a lack of money and facing economic difficulties, the Bajau are overcoming their uncertainty about their economic behavior at sea by the means of their daily resistance or their own knowledge and through their connections.

Keywords: Sulawesi; Bajau; Sea nomad; Economic activity; Livelihood strategy; Sulawesi; Bajau; Sea nomad; Economic activity; Livelihood strategy

History of the Bajau People

The Bajau are a tribe who live in various areas of Maritime Southeast Asia but who originated from the Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia. They speak Sama-Bajau, a subgroup of the Austronesian language family.

They live on the coasts and islands of the Philippines and Indonesia, where they make a living through sea-based activities such as fishing, trade, and boat inhabitation.

One of the representative areas where there has been a large amount of the Bajau living since the late 19th century are the coral reef deltas of Semporna, Sabah, Southern Philippines, and East Indonesia.

In the past, the Bajau lived along the seafood trade routes of seafood rather than settling in specific areas. Until the middle of the 18th century, they lived on houseboats as a family unit and were referred to as “sea nomads” and “sea gypsies”. (Kazufumi Nagatusu, 2017).

According to ethnographic and historical data, the Bajau form their identity by characterizing themselves, their language, and their way of life. In Malay, “Sama” means “us,” and is used by the Bajau to call themselves “Jomo Sama” (the Sama people). ‘Bajau’, on the other hand, is a term that outsiders called them rather than a term they call themselves One opinion about the origin of the term Bajau is that it comes from the Malay word ‘berjauhan’, which stands for the ‘distant state of eternality’. According to another hypothesis, the name comes from “bujak laut,” which is a tool used to catch marine life such as fish and sea cucumbers. The Bajau are sometimes referred to as “×× (local name) Bajau” by the community they live in.

The second component of the Bajau identity is language. Language is one of the most important factors that can distinguish one group from another. The Bajau language is now divided into about 10 dialects. Also, there are some cultural differences among them. Regionally the Bajau habitats can be divided into those who live on the island of Carpool, on the northeast coast of the Philippines, those who live along the west coasts of Sabah, those who live in the Sulu Archipelago, and the Bajau who live in Sulawesi. The cultural characteristics of the Bajau in these four regions are also notably distinct. The Bajau who live on Carpool island make a living from fishing and coconut farming. Also, their home is geographically remote from other Bajau tribes, so they are not really socially connected to the modern Bajau. The Sabah West Coast Bajau and Sulu Bajau live in close proximity, but the bonds between the two groups are limited. The Sabah Bajau are mainly engaged in rice farming and raising livestock. The Sulu and Sulawesi Bajau are also linguistically and culturally different (Kazufumi Nagatusu, 2017).

The third component which constitutes the identity of the Bajau, is religion. It is unclear when the Bajau converted to Islam and what religion they held before they believed in Islam. However, the current Bajau are Muslim by and large.

Figure 1. Bajau Distribution Map (Kazufumi Nagatsu, 2017)
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There are several hypotheses about the origins of the Bajau. Some of the major theories include that they originated in the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines or they were dispersed from Johor. (ANH LIÊN DO KHAC, 2018: Toga H.Pandjaitan, Albertus Bobby W, 2016). According to the claim that the Bajau began to migrate from the Sulu islands in the Philippines, the Bajau are believed to have established a trade network by moving southward from around A.D. 1000. They are also thought to have migrated to Sulawesi in the 15th century in line with the development of sea cucumber trade with China. (ANH LIÊN DO KHAC, 2018: Toga H.Pandjaitan, Albertus Bobby W, 2016) And it is thought that the Bajau who lived in eastern Sulawesi migrated from the south of Sulawesi. According to Dutch colonial records, by the mid-19th century, the Bajau had set up marine exploitation zones in eastern Sulawesi to procure turtle shells and sea cucumbers. By the 18th century, the Bajau extended their fishing activities to the northern coast of Australia, where the fishery was exported to China via Makassar and other places. (Kazufumi Nagatusu, 2017). Then, in 1850, they settled on Caledupa Island with permission from the Sultan of the Kingdom of Bhutan (Lance Nolde, 2009).

Table 1. Population of Baju in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia
No Name of region Population of Baju
1 Northern Samar 10,670
2 Capiz 1,496
3 Palawan 177,638
4 Basilan 22,336
5 Zamboanga Del Norte 10,226
6 Zamboanga Del Sur 15,518
7 Zamboanga City 57,914
8 Davai Del Norte 3,221
9 Davao Del Sur 62,525
10 Sulu 1,250
11 NCR(Manila) 191,844
12 Tawi-Tawi 6,764
Total 570,857
No Name of region Population of Baju
1 Sumenep 13,832
2 LombokTimur 2,634
3 Sumbawa 4,809
4 Sikka 3,097
5 Manggarai 3,521
6 Kupang 6,930
7 Berau 1,604
8 Kota Bara 4,573
9 Pasir 6,381
10 Minahasa 3,179
11 Boalemo 4,091
12 Toli-Toli 3,977
13 Donggala 3,275
14 Poso 5,659
15 Banggai 6,331
16 Banggai Kepulauan 13,259
17 Morowali 10,137
18 Kendari 11,076
19 Kolaka 1,846
20 Muna 13,173
21 Buton 11,445
22 Selayar 1,288
23 Maluku 12,750
Total 158,970
No Name of region Population of Baju
1 Beaufort 1,873
2 Kuala Penyu 1,675
3 Keningau 3,903
4 Kota Kinabalu 60,857
5 Kota Belud 26,054
6 Tuaran 25,238
7 Penampang 11,810
8 Papar 14,274
9 Kudat 7,266
10 Kota Marudu 8,425
11 Pitas 3,391
12 Sandakan 37,705
13 Kinabatangan 1,228
14 Beluran 27,984
15 Tawau 3,654
16 Lahad Datu 31,589
17 Semporna 63,008
18 Kunak 10,254
19 Labuan 4,015
Total 347,193
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There is another theory of origin among the Bajau who settled in Sulawesi which is centered on their marriage myth about the lost princess of Johor and the prince of the kingdom of Goa in southern Sulawesi. The story of its origin is as follows.

“Princess Bajau disappeared at sea after playing on Johor beach. The king then ordered his officials to find the princess, but he could not find the princess anywhere. Fearing they would be punished by the king, the servants fled eastward. Then one day the prince of Goa Sultan found a beautiful woman who had no identity and made her his wife. At that time, the officials who had fled to the east in search of the princess, heard a poem by the woman married to the prince and recognized her as their princess and told the Goa prince.”

Overview of the Research Site

The National Maritime Museum selected Sulawesi, Indonesia, as a destination for foreign cultures in 2019. Indonesia has been the center of maritime trade between the East and the West since the sea age and is now putting various policies into practice to grow into a maritime center.2

The southern region of Sulawesi, which was chosen as the research site, is a representative marine cultural center of the Indonesian islands. In addition to the Bajau, there are various marine tribes that make their living through marine-related activities such as the Mandar, the Bugis, the Makassar, and the Buton. It is also where an intangible part of UNESCO’s cultural heritage, the skill of Panisi shipbuilding, is passed on.

This paper focuses on the Bajau who live on Buton Island and Wakatobi Island in southeastern Sulawesi. Field research on the Bajau took place over 10 days, from April 20 to 29, 2019. During the field research, the villagers living in the research area were visited and interviews with the people living in that area were conducted. Literature studies were conducted at different times to the field research. Intensive literature studies were conducted before and after the field research, including preliminary research carried out in November 2018.

Figure 2. Sulawesi Map (Google Map)
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Table 2. Information Provider
Name Sex Age Region Job, Village Name Information provided
Okim Male 30’s Buton Fisheries in Bajo Bahari Fishing and sea cucumber related contents
Sindoloje Male 62 Fisheries in Bajo Bahari Bajau house related contents
Toni 父 Male 50’s shipbuilding in Bajo Bahari Contents of modern ship building using FRP
Dahiya Female 60’s Resident in the village of Bajo Bahari Seafood gathering on the coast of the village
Longi Male 27 Wakatobi Fisheries in the Molar village Village fishery-related contents
Tomi Male 35 shipbuilding in Mola village Boat building related contents
Jabira Male 67 Resident in Sampela Main information provider in Sampela
Maman Male 26 Nurse in Sampela Health and child care related contents
Sibli Male 72 Religious leader in Sampela(an imam) and principal of Muslim school Religion and education related contents
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Figure 3. Research Area (Google Map)
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Bajo Bahari Village on Buton Island

Bajo Bahari is a village in southeast of Buton Island. The local name of the village is Kampung Pelangi Bajo Bahari, and Pelangi which is the Indonesian word for rainbow. The town of Bajo is called the rainbow village because the government has painted the houses of the village colorfully. This is to attract more tourists as more tourists will visit exotic villages.

To reach the Bajo Bahari village, you must pass a land village called Holimombo and pass through a 300-meter long road3 over the sea in the northeast. This road is less than 2 meters wide and is only a few centimeters above the surface of the water. At the end of the road connecting the land, there is a large playground, from which the town of Bajo Bahari village begins. The village is generally rectangular in shape and extends from the southwest to the northeast. The village is about 500m southwest-northeast and about 150m southeast-northwest. Roads in the village can be divided into roads connected in a series of roads connected to the land, and parallel roads that only connect the town. Additionally, there are wooden bridges connecting the roads. The road inside the village is about 1m wide, so it is difficult for vehicles other than bicycles to pass through and it is difficult for more than 3 people to walk side by side. The village houses are arranged in an orderly manner next to two parallel roads, with a single log bridge connecting the house and the road.

There are no commercial facilities such as grocery stores in the village and that’s why people from the neighboring town of Tolando come by canoes to Bajo Bahari to sell their products such as sweets, boiled eggs and kasuami.4

Bajo Bahari villages do not have a water supply, so there is not enough drinking water. As a result, villagers buy drinking water on land. And they use brackish water for other needs.5 Brackish water is obtained from mangrove forests and sea boundaries across town. Mangrove forests have a mixture of freshwater and seawater mix and are less salty than seawater, so the villagers use this as their domestic water.

Bajau Village oil Wakatobi Island
1) Sampela Village

To get to Sampella Village, take a two- and half-hour ferry from Wangi-wangi and get off at Ambewuwa, the main island of Kaledupa. Then travel for about 5 minutes by small boat.

Sampela is a floating village on the sea, so you can use a small boat to travel between the villages and even arrive in front of the houses by boat. The villagers usually make or repair fishing tools in their own houses, and the children spend their time diving and swimming around the dock. Accurate statistics on the population of the village do not exist making it difficult to figure out how many Bajau families live there. This is also due to the nomadic character of the Bajau. Although they are currently settling in villages, there are many people who live outside the villages due to education or occupations, and the couples are living apart even after marriage because of fishing activities. 19 years old Hawatia lived in her village for three months since she married a man from the King Mola village one year ago. Her husband continues to live in the Mola village, sending some of his earnings from fishing to his wife. Despite Indonesia’s birth control policy, which states there can only be two children in one family, there are many cases where families have 4 to 6 children, which are not recorded in the demographics. Due to this large number of floating population in and out of this villages, there are no accurate demographics.

The village consists of four sub-villages: Sampelam, Pagana, Dikakatuang, and Wanda. There villages were their present look abound 1977. (Ade Amelia, Albertus Bobby Widagdo, 2015). Starting from the south-west dock, the road going into the village is made of planks on wooden pillars. Even the widest part of the path is difficult for vehicles and it is only wide enough for two people to pass each other going in both directions at the same time. This path is made up of several branched roads, that look like twigs, and houses are located along the road. The size of village correlates with the location and number of floating houses built along the way. In other words, when a new house is built or an old one is torn down, the size of the village increases or decreases in direct proportion to this fact. This is because the floating houses of the Bajau including those of the Sampela village, are floating on the sea rather than being built on the land.

The widest road starting from the dock is about 400m long from southwest-to northeast, and the direction perpendicular to this road is about 300m from southeast-to northwest), the road perpendicular to this road is about 300m southeast to northwest. The roads are all connected by planks, but the height of the wooden pillars holding the planks is about 5m, so a small boat can pass under them Indeed, villagers sometimes use the roads on foot in the villages, but after fishing outside the village, they travel by boat to the bottom of their houses. The village grows to the north, starting from the south, deepening and spreading eastward, close to Ambeuwa (Ade Amelia, Albertus Bobby Widagdo, 2015).

There are shops selling industrial products throughout the town. Most of the shops are in front of the house in the form of an annex, which seems to be run by the residents of the house. Most shops sell products such as sweets and candy. In the center of the village, there is a mosque and a Muslim elementary school, as most of the village are Muslims. There is one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school in the village, as well as three kindergartens. In the hospital next to the mosque, five nurses take turns to work for four hours from 8 am to 12 am. Four nurses commute to and from the main island, Ambeuwa, and one male nurse lives on the island and takes care of the village’s health there. Hospitals can treat simple illnesses and injuries. In order to promote the country’s birth control policy, government officials are dispatched from Caleda to investigate the number of children on the island. They give a birth control shot to women who already have children as an action to stop them having more children.

Like Bajo Bahari villages, houses are divided into the types that are built on top of the wooden pillars planted on the sea and the other that is built on the top of stacked corals.

The houses built on top of corals are first purchased and then assembled and completed on the coral. Since this house is assembled, it can be disassembled and moved if necessary. Traditional houses using wooden poles are less durable because they are built on the wooden pillars in the sea. So, these houses can only be used for about three years, after which they have to be renovated. Instead, houses built on coral bases can serve as homes for a long time, so most of them are now built on corals.

However, these changes to the types of houses has also brought about changes in the marine environment. There is a kitchen inside a Bajau house and a bathroom behind it. However, due to the nature of floating houses, there is no running water or sewage facilities in the kitchen or toilet. Toilets, are created by building a small wooden wall in a small space, and then drilling a hole so the waste flows directly into the sea. In the past, when they had built wooden pillars and built houses on them, these debris flowed away into the distant seas due to the flow of seawater as a self purification process. But now as they pile up corals and build houses on top of them, the seawater flows became inactive, and water has become stagnant in shallower areas.

2) Mola Village

Mola Village, located on the southwestern coast of Wangi Wangi island, is one of the most famous Bajau villages in Indonesia. This is because, unlike the two Bajau villages above, it is large and there is a considerable number of village members. At the entrance, there is a relatively large mosque, large government offices, and there are also sawmills and ship repair shops. Inside the village, you can anchor small boats to the front of the house due to the flow of seawater taking the form of canals. The houses are built on cement floors above the land, making it look different from other Bajau villages.

The village is in the form of ‘¬’ and shows a denser population in the southwest than in the northwest. The village is about 1,200m long from northwest to southeast and 800m long from northeast to southwest. Starting at the village entrance and reaching the south-western end of the village, it is directly connected to the sea. In front of it is a small island and the island of Kamambode. In the sea in front of the village, there are people fishing in the small boats or enjoying water activities. Along the waterways leading into the village, boats that are fishing offshore frequently enter the village. In addition, there are various activities taking place all day long in the surrounding waterways and boats that connect the town and the sea. These are activities such as loading various tools and items necessary for fishing in boats anchored in front of the houses.

The houses in the Mola village do not have the same shape as those in the other Bajau villages. This is because the houses in the Mola village are on land, unlike other Bajau villages, which are floating houses on the sea. Some of the ‘Mola’ village houses are made of wood on wooden poles, just like floating houses, but most of the houses have been built with cement and bricks on the ground. In addition, the villages of Mola are entirely have long channels within the villages, while other floating house villages use plank roads and require the use of boats in areas where these roads are not built. Consequently, villagers usually move around the village easily and only use the bridges when crossing waterways about 3 meters wide.

The size of the houses is also quite different from that of other Bajau villages. This is because this village is more active in fishing than other Bajau villages. According to the villagers, the villagers of ‘Mola’ have been fishing since the early days using powerline fishing. In this village, tuna fishing with motors has been done for about 30 years. As a result, it was more efficient than the fishing activities of other Bajau villages. That is why some of the Bajau who live in Caledupa Sampela migrate to this village. This can also be inferred from the marriage of Sampela village women and Mola village men. So, Mola villages, which used to be two sub-villages, has increased to five, and houses are larger and more modern than other Bajau villages. The village now consists of Mola Bahari, Mola Utara, Mola Samaturu, Mola Selatam and Mola Nelayan Bakti.

Due to the hot equatorial weather, most villagers spend their leisure time outside their houses. The men gather around where they build or repair the ship to talk in the shadows of the house to avoid the heat. Women gather in the shade in front of the house to chat. There are also shops selling goods inside the village. There are shops which are similar to a traditional Korean mill, that sell simple snacks, drinks, and other foods made with dried cassava.

Sea life of the Bajau

The Bajau are people who live on the sea, a land-free tribe from the past. Although the current Bajau are now settling down away from a nomadic lifestyle, as in the three villages above, they have not owned land until now because they live in floating houses. Therefore, most of the Bajau are concentrating on sea-based economic activities. However, due to insufficient capital, the boats and fishing tools used for fishing activities are small or underdeveloped.

Baton Bahari villagers in Buton sail to Entete, Indonesia, where they stay for about two months to catch tuna. From the village, it takes a day to reach Entete by sailing in the 15 to 20 meters long and only 2 meters wide ship that is used for long-distances. This ship is only big enough for two people to board. Tuna caught in the Entete region are taken directly to land for sale. This is because the ship is small and there are no facilities for storing the caught tuna. Villagers also fish on the coast near the village. On the coast of the village, they catch fish called Ketamba.

The Bajau of Wakatibi and Sampela villages also dive while fishing and sailing between villages and coasts without owning any land. Villagers fish with nets in the Jalpi forest around the village or fish on the reefs near Hoga Island, in the northeast of the village. At night, they also use portable lanterns to dive near coral reefs to catch items including sea cucumbers, shellfish, octopuses. The main fish they catch is tuna. The nets are made of bagu bark, but they began to be made out of nylon about a year or two ago. Boats, which are important not only for fishing activities, but also for mobility, have been changed from wooden boats to FRP boats.

The sea life of Mola village in Wangi Wangi is not very different from that of Bajo Bahari and Sampela villages. The most distinctive difference from the latter two villages is that Mola village is large, and that the houses are larger than those of the other two villages because they are not floating houses. This difference is due to the fact that the villagers have been active in fishing since early times. Currently, villagers are mainly catching tuna. It can take up to 24 hours to fish in a place where tuna can be caught. To catch tuna, they usually leave the village at after midnight, at around 1am. The main tuna fishing ground is in Binongko, 3 hours away from the village. The village fishermen who arrive in Binongko early in the morning use the fish called ‘Marmar’ as bait to fish for tuna and when they catch 3 or 4 fish, they return to the village. Momar, a bait used to catch tuna, is sometimes caught directly by fishermen, but it is also caught with fish aggregating devices called ‘rumpon’.6

Most of the Bajau men living in the three villages are engaged in fishing. Most of the fishing methods and equipment are similar. The vessels in use are also small, as in the case of the village of Bajo Bahari in Buton, and only recently have engines been placed at the rear of most ships. Although boats are still operated by oars and wind power, most of the ships used for long-distance navigation are equipped with engines. The method of building a vessel is also similar. In recent years, ships using FRP have been built, but the majority of ships still in use are wooden ships. Ships are mostly built by people who are qualified shipbuilders in town. They are usually made of wood called Salawaku and Bayor. Shipbuilding is not done according to the design but completed by the knowledge of an experienced ship builder.

Life and Culture of the Bajau

In the past, the Bajau lived on boats and kept their nomadic lifestyle but now they have settled in certain areas. Currently, the Bajau live by relying on marine resources, building and dwelling in the houses on top of the wooden pillars on the sea. They call themselves “Sama,” and distinguish non-Bajau people by calling them “Bajai.” In modern times, however, the distinction between Bajau and non-Bajau is beginning to blur.

This is because the Bajau rely on marine resources, but they are gaining basic needs from the land. The Bajau barter fish for their staple food of rice, sago, and maize, or they just buy them with the money they get from selling those fish. This social interaction has brought about a change of everyday language use in the Bajau community. Although the Bajau have communicated in their own languages, they not only speak Indonesian to the outside community but also understand the languages of other races. Among the Bajau people, there is a high-class nobility named Lolo Same, a middle-class nobility mixed with other tribes by blood called Ponggowa, and the ordinary people called Gallarang, with Ate or Ata who are low-class. Upper and middle nobility groups were not allowed to marry ordinary people or lower class groups. And because the ideal marriage in the Bajau community was marriage between relatives, this social hierarchy continued. However, after the Bajau settled down, starting to live among with various tribes, they started to marry regardless of class or they married people from other tribes (Titiek Suliyati, 2017). In the village of Sampela, the son of the village chief married a woman from Australia. In spite of this diversification of marriage partners, men pay the full cost of marriage in the Bajau tribe. Men are required to change 88 Rials (unit currency) into Indonesian money for his marriage partner. This is according to Islamic practice.

The Bajau of Sampela and Mola villages are mostly Muslims. At Islamic prayer times, villagers can hear azan sounds, and they go to their homes or mosques to pray. The people of the village memorize the verses of the Qur’an and conduct rituals to repel evil spirits or to avoid evil, and some of them ask their ancestors for salvation. When storms or difficulties are encountered at sea, they look for “Mbo Janggo” and “Mbo Tambirah.” The Bajau believe that these two souls are the rulers of the sea and their ancestors (Titiek Suliyati, 2017).

For the Bajau, who did not live in settlements, the formal curriculum was not an important factor in their lives. And the Bajau thought that they could live their lives with just their parents’ home education. They basically thought it was sufficient for their children to work in the sea and understand marine life. This knowledge was also passed on naturally through traditional Bajau rituals. Today, however, the Bajau villages are at odds regarding the rituals combined with this traditional Bajau knowledge. Plastic bags, waste fishing tools etc. are left in front of the houses of Sampela village. In addition, due to the structure of the house, wastewater flows directly into the sea as it is, causing a rotten smell. In the Mola village, the number of residents match the size of the city, various household waste is thrown out at the bottom of the water channel penetrating the village.

On the other hand, the enthusiasm for formal education has increased, as opposed to the decline of traditional knowledge based on traditional rituals of the Bajau. The development of capitalism has led to a growing dependence on capital, which has recognized the importance of formal education. Even before the school was established in Sampela village, the villagers sent their children to the school located next to the island. Sampela village students now hope to enter high school in the nearby metropolis Kendari after graduating from middle school. This is because there are various obstacles despite the presence of higher schools in the village. Classes last only about 1 to 3 hours a day and are shortened even if teachers leave town early or arrive late. In addition, there are few employment opportunities in the village or in the region that they long for formal education. In 2007, a medical center opened with the support of the government at an isolated village, that is similar to an island of Sampela. It offers simple checkups, vaccinations and prescriptions for birth control. However, due to the small size of the clinic and the lack of medical personnel, patients with serious illnesses must go to other islands.

As such, the Bajau life is intersected with a ‘lack’ of something and with ‘difficulties’. The Bajau lack the knowledge of capitalist markets, including a decline in local marine resources, difficulty in formal education and lack of employment opportunities. To solve these difficulties, the Bajau have prepared various countermeasures. In recent years, they have been hired by large-scale shipbuilding network companies or large-scale foreign commercial fishing boats, leaving their villages to earn money, some of them returned home with their money after working on a trade ship or by doing miscellaneous jobs during their youth. (Titiek Suliyati, 2017). They are also seeking to diversify their domestic economic income by participating in other ways to earn money in response to the reduction of marine resources due to environmental pollution and seasonal changes. Apart from catching and collecting certain sea resources, they catch different fish using seasonal fishing methods. And they also participate in economic activities such as other service industries. Some people make mats or goggles depending on their personal skills, while others sell bags, clothes and scarves recycled from other products.

Another strategy for the Bajau to solve their difficulties is migration. The types of migration include not only leaving the village and moving to another village, but also travelling for long periods of fishing. Migration is especially common in the town of Sampela. In one case, even after marriage, there is a man who lives in the village of ‘Mola’ and engages in fishing activities, while his wife lives in the Sampela, the home of her own parents, where she lives on the money from her husband. There is also cases of moving from the difficult economic activity of Sampela settle in Mola village for generations.


So far, we have looked at the life and culture of the Bajau, a marine tribe scattered along the coasts of Southeast Asia, who live in southeastern Sulawesi. The Bajau are a tribe engaged in earning a living using marine resources and have never owned land. For them the land is where they are buried when they are dead. The Bajau, who live on the sea for their entire lifetime, are buried only after they die, and when they die in the middle of the sea, they are weighed down with heavy loads or stones so they will reach the bottom. Apart from this situation, the land is not a direct means of economic activity for the Bajau. Instead, they use their resources from the sea as their capital to obtain rice and corn from the land.

In this way of living, changes in the life and culture of the Bajau as sea gypsies and nomads began to emerge as they were gradually exposed to the influence of incorporation into the Indonesian population, entry into the capitalist market economy, and globalization. Indonesia’s designation of a national marine park has had a profound impact on the Bajau’s traditional culture and traditional livelihood. The act of designating it a national park means that the state directly controls certain territories and their resources. This entails coercion and violence against the “natives” who oppose or criticize the state’s actions for its dominance. In other words, while preservation policies for specific regions provide legitimate reasons for national violence, they create interference and loss of everyday control for those who live their own cultures and lives. Wakatobi Marine National Park was also established by the state to protect the marine environment and preserve marine resources of the Flores Sea. The Indonesian government established a national park globalization plan in 2007 while conducting a survey around Wakatobi. According to this plan, Wakatobi Marine National Park is divided into local use zone, protected areas and tourist areas. In the local use zone, only a small number of fishermen can fish with needles, fishing lines, or small nets. Protected areas and tourist areas are no access zones and some fishing activities are forbidden, where fishermen wishing to fish should report their own vessels and catches.

The state’s intervention in the real space of the unified sea gave the Bajau three virtual marine spaces that did not exist in the past. This imaginary division of space led them to experience discrimination. First, due to the designation of the national park, the knowledge and information about fisheries that have been conventionally recognized and acquired through experience has become useless. Although there are many fish near the coral reefs and they can catch enough fish if they go to certain areas, the right to use a specific method of fishing completed by experience became to disappear as the ocean became a national park. The Bajau of the Sampella village also know that there are many species of fish living around the Hoga island close to the village, but this area has been designated as tourist areas, making fishing impossible. As Hoga Island and its surroundings are designated as tourist areas, new economic activities such as tourism can be explored. But this has no positive effect on the Bajau. Because they lack experience and knowledge of other ways to make money except for fishing, it is impossible to completely abandon fishing activities and carry out tourism-related economic activities. (ANH LIÊN DO KHAC, 2018). In response to these national systems and controls, the Bajau carry out everyday acts of resistance, the most common of which is carrying out of fishing activities in the national park. In response to the country’s policy of making the sea information obtained by empirical rule obsolete, the Bajau use their own fishing methods out of sight of the national park managers or watchers who prevent illegal fishing. In fact, Sampela villagers continue to fish around Hoga Island where fishing is prohibited.

In addition, in order to deal with external threats and maintain their livelihood, the Bajau use their knowledge to help each other overcome the uncertainty of fishing and sales and the difficulties of economic capital. The Bajau, who live in Flores, Maluku and Sabah in Malaysia, as well as the Bajau around Wakatobi, rely on existing relationships or building new ones to meet different needs when sailing or moving to other areas. And this voyage and movement exchanges knowledge, stories, experiences about the sea and sometimes family members across the Indonesian archipelago. The history of social connections between the Bajau and Maluku, centered on Tukang Besi, continues to this day. According to a case in 2009, the Tucan Besi Bajau men from Kendari region have relatives in the Bajau villages of northern Maluku, so they live with their relatives when they visit the area to catch turtles. The man’s father married a local woman in Maluku, which could have happened because the man’s father frequently sailed to Maluku for fishing and trade. As a result of marriage to Maluku women, the formation of kinship made it possible for Bajau men in the Tucan Besi region to be given somewhere to stay from friends and family in Maluku and to acquire local knowledge of Maluku easily. As such, the Bajau in the Tucan Besi region are often married to the Bajau in East Java, Flores, Maluku and Sulawesi. So, the men in this area are married to more than one woman. (Lance Nolde, 2009 In addition, long-distance voyages and ship-related labor chosen to secure a variety of ways of making a living form their own networks, forming new ties with the Bajau of other regions. This social connection is used in a small way as a tool to offset the lack of modern knowledge and lack of economic and social capital for the Bajau.


1 This article is based on Korea’s National Maritime Museum’s 2019 Overseas Maritime Heritage Survey.

2 At the 2014 East Asian Summit, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo, presented his vision for making Indonesia a world maritime center, a global maritime hub. Indonesia currently emphasizes maritime culture, maritime economy & resources, infrastructure & connectivity, maritime diplomacy and maritime security.

3 According to the villagers, the road connecting the land to the village of Bajo Bahari was completed in around 2014.

4 Casuami is a unique dish of the Buton, Muna and Wakatobi regions. Its main ingredients are cassava and sweet potatoes, and it is one of the foods you eat when you go fishing at sea.

5 That is, it is salt water (0.5 to 30 %0) diluted with fresh water. (Naver marine term dictionary:

6 Rumpon is a fish farming device and is a traditional fishing tool used in eastern Indonesia. There is no record of when and where this Rumpon was used, but traditional tuna fishers have been using it for a long time. Rumpon has evolved in various forms, depending on the nature of the ocean.



Abdul Rasyid Asba & Ismail Ali, 2014, Gypsy from the Oriental: Bajo Ethnic in the Sulawesi Sea, International Journal for Historical Studies, 6(1), pp25~34.


Ade Amelia, Albertus Bobby Widagdo, 2015, DEVELOPMENT OF SEA DWELLING: BAJAU TRIBE, DEVELOPMENT OF SEA DWELLING: BAJAU TRIBE, 2015 International Conference on Dwelling Form 2015 ROICEEDINGS, pp195~212.


ANH LIÊN DO KHAC, 2018, The Political Sea Conservation Policies, State Power, and Symbolic Violence The Case of the Bajau in the Wakatobi Marine National Park, Explorations Volume 14.


Kazufumi Nagatsu, 2017, Maritime Diaspora and Creolization: Genealogy of the Sama-Bajau in Insular Southeast Asia, Seneri Ethnological Studies 95, pp35~64.


Lance Nolde, 2009, Great is Our Relationship with the Sea: Charting the Maritime Realm of the Sama of Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, Explorations 9, pp 15~33.


Titiek Suliyati, 2017, Social Change of Bajo Tribe Society in Karimunjawa: From “Sea Tribe” to “Land Tribe”, Journal of Maritime Studies and National Integration, 1 (2), pp 128~138.