The Bugis are the predominate ethnic group on southern peninsula of Sulawesi. Also known as the Boegineezen, Buginese, To Bugi, To Ugi’ and To Wugi, they are one of the most well known sea-faring people in Southeast Asia. They have traveled widely and colonized numerous coastal areas and have a long association with piracy. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Bugis are famous for their Pinisi schooners which they have used for centuries to travel as far south as the Australian coast where they left behind drawings of ships and words that have been integrated in the Aboriginal language of North Australia. Bugis have traditionally lived on the coast and the plains are culturally similar to the Makassarese, who dominate the southern tip of Sulawesi peninsula where the Bugis live. The Bugis have their own language and shared an ancient written language with the Makassarese that is based on the Indic model and has 27 symbols and looks like a "cross section of different but closely related spiral shells.” The Bugi name is derived from a village—“To Ugi” formally on the Cenrana River. Bugis are believed to number around 6 million, making up 2.7 percent of Indonesia’s population, with maybe three fourths of them living in Sulawesi. ~

The homeland of the Buginese is the area around Lake Tempe and Lake Sidenreng in the Walannae Depression in the southwest peninsula of Sulawesi. It was here that the ancestors of the present-day Bugis settled, probably in the mid- to late second millennium B.C. The area is rich in fish and wildlife and the annual fluctuation of Lake Tempe allows planting of wet rice, while the hills can be farmed by swidden or shifting cultivation. [Source: Wikipedia]

The rhythm of Bugi agricultural and maritime life is influenced by the monsoon seasons. Bugis have settled on their own or through transmigration programs all across Indonesia. They are especially well represented in eastern Sumatra, the Riau Archipelago, along the entire shore line of Sulawesi as well as coastal areas in Kalimantan, the Moluccas, Flores and most the islands in eastern Indonesia. ~

Bugi History

The Bugis are believed to have originated from the Sa’dan River and migrated inland up the Sa’dan valley and across to the Gulf of Boni, where they established their first kingdom, Luwu, which grew rich by dominating the trade of iron and nickel. As time went on a more powerful Bugi kingdom based on a complex network of chiefs and wet-rice agriculture grew up in the south and eclipsed Luwu by the 14th century. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

By the 16th century the Makassar challenged the Bugis for dominance of the region and prevailed by the 17th century. In 1667, the Bugis allied with the Dutch to overthrow the Makassar and established a powerful kingdom that endured through the Dutch period. During this time there was a great diaspora of Bugis, especially those who had been allies of the Makassar. ~

The weakness of the small coastal Malay states led to the immigration of the Bugis, escaping from Dutch colonisation of Sulawesi, who established numerous settlements on the peninsula which they used to interfere with Dutch trade. They seized control of Johor following the assassination of the last Sultan of the old Malacca royal line in 1699. Bugis expanded their power in the present-day Malaysia states of Johor, Kedah, Perak, and Selangor. In the Malay peninsula’s western areas, the Buginese and the Minangkabau, often fought each other. By 1740 the victorious Buginese ruled many peninsular states and continued to do so until they were defeated by an alliance of Johor and the Dutch in 1784.

Bugi mercenaries attained high positions in Aceh, Malaysia , the Riau Archipelago and Thailand and established large settlements in eastern Sumatra. Bugi merchants established strategic trading ports on Kuta in Kalimantan, Johor, north of Singapore, and Selangor, near Kuala Lumpur. ~

The Bugis were notorious mercenaries for the Dutch in the colonial period and their presence often turned the tide in the favor of the Dutch in places like the Riau Archipelago and East Kalimantan. Bugis were also involved in the Indonesia independence movement and thus still remain influential today. The Indonesia government has traditionally kept up a strong military presence in Bugi areas to keep them from rebelling and fighting one another. ~

Bugis, the Bogey Man, Trade and Piracy

The Bugis also have a reputation for being pirates. The expression "the bogey man is going to get you", some say, can be traced back to the first Europeans that came to the East Indies who, like every one else in the region, feared the Bugis. Bugi pirates often plagued early English and Dutch trading ships of the British East India Company and Dutch East India Company. It is popularly believed that this resulted in the European sailors' bringing their fear of the "bugi men" back to their home countries.

European mariners greatly feared Bugi pirates. Both Conrad and Melville mentioned the Bugis. Today, Bugis are associated with the rise of piracy in the waters around Indonesia and Southeast Asia. They are thought to be behind some of the pirate attacks in the region. Newspapers have reported Bugis who invaded atolls, burned the villages and made off with an entire year's worth of their cash crop, copra (oil-bearing coconut husks).

Etymologists disagree with assertion that the Bugis were the source of the word bogeyman because words relating to bogeyman were in common use centuries before European colonization of Southeast Asia and it is therefore unlikely that the Bugis would have been commonly known to westerners during that time. The word bogey is thought to be derived from the Middle English bogge/bugge (also the origin of the word bug), and so is generally thought to be a cognate of the German bögge, böggel-mann (English "Bogeyman"). The word could also be linked to many similar words in other European languages: bogle (Scots), boeman (Dutch), Butzemann (German), busemann (Norwegian), bøhmand (Danish), or bòcan, púca, pooka or pookha (Irish). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Long before European arrived, the Makassarese, Bajau, and the Bugis travelled as far east as the Aru Islands, off New Guinea, where they traded in the skins of birds of paradise and medicinal masoya bark, and to northern Australia, where they exchanged shells, birds'-nests and mother-of-pearl for knives and salt with Aboriginal tribes. Throughout the coastal areas of northern Australia, there is much evidence of a significant Bugis presence. Each year, the Bugis sailors would sail down on the northwestern monsoon in their wooden pinisi. They would stay in Australian waters for several months to trade and take trepang (dried sea cucumber) before returning to Makassar on the dry season off shore winds. Thomas Forrest wrote in A Voyage from Calcutta to the Mergui Archipelago, "The Buginese are a high-spirited people: they will not bear ill-usage...They are fond of adventures, emigration, and capable of undertaking the most dangerous enterprises." +

Bugi Religion and Health

Almost all Bugis are Muslims but they practice a large variety of kinds of Islam, a reflection of their adventures around the world. Most identify themselves as Sunnis. There is a strong Sufi influence. Traditional religion endures in the form of offerings to ancestor spirits and heros. The traditional Bugi universe contains an upperworld and an underworld, each with seven layers and a host of deities, some of whom nobles trace their ancestry to. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Most religious duties are taken care of by local iman. In addition to the usual Islamic holidays there are ,annual local events, many of them rooted in traditional agricultural festivals and the honoring of guardian spirits. Funerals follow Islamic rites and are generally not big productions like they are with Toraja. ~

Many Bugis believe that illnesses have their roots in uniquely Bugi causes and are only cured by traditional Bugi healers, many of who employ techniques such as blowing, massaging, uttering poems, throwing holy water or extracting foreign objects. ~

Bugi Society

Class rankings are very important to Bugis. There are three main divisions: nobles, commoners and slaves, which are often based on lineages that date back to when the Bugi had their own kingdom. Nobles are believed to possess white blood which may be diluted by people of lower ranks. Slavery has been abolished but continues as kind of caste system that affects descendants There is some mobility within the ranks through hard work and entrepreneurship. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Customs regarding inheritance and marriage are in line with Islamic law. Political organization still has some roots in the old aristocratic system. With local leaders often being of noble descent with entourages and leader-follower groups formed around them. The local regencies are in line with former realms governed local nobles. The Indonesian government is trying to undermine this system by getting more government appointed people and popularly elected people in positions of power. ~

Bugi Family and Marriage

Households are formed around the nuclear family with the youngest daughter often in charge of taking care of the elderly parents and relatively well off families taking on poorer members. In some cases unrelated children do work in return for room and board. Men have traditionally done most of the work in the rice fields, with women and children helping with the planting and shooing away birds. Women are in charge of raising children and running the household. Many Bugi women sell stuff in markets and have control over the income they earn. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Both parents and older siblings take care of younger children. Raising someone else’s children and sending children to the cities to be cared by relatives there is common. Marriages have traditionally been arranged especially among the noble classes where first-cousin marriages have been preferred. Girls are expected to marry young and marriages generally involve the payment of a bride price with the amount being a sign of status for the family of the bride. Big weddings are sign of status among nobles. ~

Polygyny is allowed by Islamic law but is rare. In the past it was fairly common among aristocrats who sometimes had dozens of wives. Many couples live with the bride’s family after marriage. Divorce is common especially among couples united in arranged marriages. ~

Bugi Life and Character

The Bugis are regarded as fighters. Many other Indonesians don’t trust them. Describing a Bugi knife fight, the Blair brothers wrote: “It 'was clearly to the death...the milling throng which surrounded the two furious combatants who rolled around like snakes in the dust attempting to stab each other with their 'badiks,' the seaman's dagger." [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York, ♢]

Bugis have a strong sense of honor that is manifested in the punishment for couples who elope and fights that defend insults to family honor. Islamic officials and nobles often try to mediate such disputes. The Bugis have a long history of conflicts between themselves and other groups. In the old days there were often disputes between nobles, who used entourages, militias and armies to defend their claims. Bugis enslaved groups like the Tojada and rioted against the Chinese. Corporal punishment is common among Bugis. Sons are encouraged to be tough and are challenged, taunted and mocked to make them tougher. Same sex siblings often fight a lot.

The Bugis have traditionally been organized in municipal villages (“desa”) with 2,000 to 10,000 inhabitants that were set up in fishing, trading, and rice-growing areas. Each desa usually contained two to five hamlets with houses clustered around roads. Traditional Bugi homes are raised on stilts up to three meters off the ground and have plank walls and floors. Roofs are made of corrugated metal. Only the poorest poor live in houses with thatch for walls or roofs. The number of tiers on the front gable indicates the rank of the homeowner. In the growing season they often set up field huts among their fields and stay there to protect their crops. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Bugi entertain themselves with regional dances, pencak silat (traditional martial arts) and raga (a sepak takraw ball game). The Buginese' diet consists mainly of rice, maize, fish, chicken, vegetables, fruit and coffee. On festive occasions, goat is served as a special dish. Traditional Bugi arts include Islamic decorative art, decorations on buildings, and the making of fine cloth and jewelry. Bugi music is influenced by Middle East music and features flutes and lutes like those found in West Java. Bugi “badiks” (daggers with curved handles) and prized possessions. Gold-threaded clothes are worn at weddings. Royal regalia is displayed in museums.

Bugi Transvestite Priests and Wedding Planners

Bisus are an unusual sect of transvestite hermaphroditic Bugi priests that have traditionally guarded royal regalia and overseen some rituals directed at traditional deities. Describing a Bisu ceremony, Lawrence Blair wrote, "Though shoved and pinched and taunted unmercifully by the spectators, the Bisus quietly drummed themselves into a glassy-eyed state, drew their kerises from the their sarongs, and proceeded to whirl furiously about the room while trying to twist the blades into their own throats and stomachs. There were certain crescendos when a particularly macho spectator would sweep a Bisu off his feet and kiss him furiously before throwing him back into the circle again. It was an alarming and not very attractive event in which the Bisus were treated more like circus whores than like priests." [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York, ♢]

One priest told Blair, "These people, our people, don't know who we are anymore. They treat us worse than our women. Our job has always been to stand just between heaven and earth—to be neither pain nor joy, man nor woman, but to stand beyond the dualities which rule this world. We can remain sensitive to the voices of the spirits, and can dream of events to come—though few people listen to us now." ♢

You're born a Bisu," he continued, "and you realize it very soon. You dream and feel things like a girl as well as like a boy, and you desire to dress and behave like both. It is then that you join the Bisus to learn the old ways of magic. Sometimes you make a mistake, and you are not a Bisu at all, but simply what they call all anyway, just 'lady boys." ♢

The Bugi divide their society into five separate genders. Two are analogous to normal male (oroané) and female (makkunrai), and the remaining three are not easily comparable to Western ideas of gender: bissu, calabai and calalai. Bissu, calabai and the calalai, are authorized to enter the women’s parts of the dwellings and villages in addition to the men's. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to the Bugis gender system, a calabai is a 'false woman' — - people are generally assigned male at birth but take on the role of a heterosexual female. The fashions and gender expression of Calabai individuals are distinctly feminine, but do not match that of the "typical" woman. "If there is to be a wedding in Bugis society, more often than not calabai will be involved in the organization. When a wedding date has been agreed upon, the family will approach a calabai and negotiate a wedding plan. The calabai will be responsible for many things: setting up and decorating the tent, arranging the bridal chairs, bridal gown, costumes for the groom and the entire wedding party (numbering up to twenty-five), makeup for all those 0involved, and all the food. Rarely did I attend a village wedding with less than a thousand guests. On the day, some calabai remain in the kitchen preparing food while others form part of the reception, showing guests to their seats." [Source: Sharyn Graham,+]

Bugi Sailing Ships

Bugi sailing ships are called prahus. Described as hybrids between traditional island sailing ships and 17th century Portuguese galleons, they are the last and largest working sailing ships in the world. The codiscoverer of evolution, along with Charles Darwin— Alfred Russel Wallace— wrote in the middle 1800s, "how comparatively sweet was everything on board...no paint, no tar, no new rope (vilest of smells to the squeamish), no grease or oil or varnish; but instead of these, bamboo and rattan and choir rope and palm thatch: pure vegetable fibers, which smell pleasantly, if they smell at all, and recall quiet scenes in the green and shady forest."

Measuring up to 150 feet in length, prahus are built in on top of stilts in shallow water just offshore from protected beaches around Bira, Celebes. Deities are consulted about design changes, shamans help pick out the best timbers and nails and screws are not used. Instead the timbers are held together with special wooden pegs that swell when immersed in salt water. Caulking is done with a white cement made by mixing coconut oil and lime from coral over a beach bonfire.[Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York, ♢]

Unlike Middle eastern dhows, the other great sailing trading ship still in use, prahus until fairly recently generally didn't have any kind of inboard or outboard motor, or winches to help pull up the anchor, or motorized pumps to empty water that seeped aboard. They were towed into port with outrigger canoes and barefoot crew members scaled the 75-foot masts on "single frayed and rusted wires" and worked the decks in the open sea without guard rails on the deck, rigging harnesses or ratlines. Some steering was done with oars. A squat toilet was off on the side of the ship. These days may have motors.

Alfred Russel Wallace on Bugi Sailing Ships

On the prahu he traveled in on waters around Indonesia, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote: “It was a vessel of about seventy tons burthen, and shaped something like a Chinese junk. The deck sloped considerably downward to the bows, which are thus the lowest part of the ship. There were two large rudders, but instead of being planed astern they were hung on the quarters from strong cross beams, which projected out two or three feet on each side, and to which extent the deck overhung the sides of the vessel amidships. The rudders were not hinged but hung with slings of rattan, the friction of which keeps them in any position in which they are placed, and thus perhaps facilitates steering. The tillers were not on deck, but entered the vessel through two square openings into a lower or half deck about three feet high, in which sit the two steersmen. In the after part of the vessel was a low poop, about three and a half feet high, which forms the captain's cabin, its furniture consisting of boxes, mats, and pillows. [Source: “The Malay Archipelago” by Alfred Russel Wallace (1869)^]

“In front of the poop and mainmast was a little thatched house on deck, about four feet high to the ridge; and one compartment of this, forming a cabin six and a half feet long by five and a half wide, I had all to myself, and it was the snuggest and most comfortable little place I ever enjoyed at sea. It was entered by a low sliding door of thatch on one side, and had a very small window on the other. The floor was of split bamboo, pleasantly elastic, raised six inches above the deck, so as to be quite dry. It was covered with fine cane mats, for the manufacture of which Macassar is celebrated; against the further wall were arranged my guncase, insect-boxes, clothes, and books; my mattress occupied the middle, and next the door were my canteen, lamp, and little store of luxuries for the voyage; while guns, revolver, and hunting knife hung conveniently from the roof. During these four miserable days I was quite jolly in this little snuggery more so than I should have been if confined the same time to the gilded and uncomfortable saloon of a first-class steamer. Then, how comparatively sweet was everything on board—no paint, no tar, no new rope, (vilest of smells to the qualmish!) no grease, or oil, or varnish; but instead of these, bamboo and rattan, and coir rope and palm thatch; pure vegetable fibres, which smell pleasantly if they smell at all, and recall quiet scenes in the green and shady forest. ^

“Our ship had two masts, if masts they can be called c which were great moveable triangles. If in an ordinary ship you replace the shrouds and backstay by strong timbers, and take away the mast altogether, you have the arrangement adopted on board a prau. Above my cabin, and resting on cross-beams attached to the masts, was a wilderness of yards and spars, mostly formed of bamboo. The mainyard, an immense affair nearly a hundred feet long, was formed of many pieces of wood and bamboo bound together with rattans in an ingenious manner. The sail carried by this was of an oblong shape, and was hung out of the centre, so that when the short end was hauled down on deck the long end mounted high in the air, making up for the lowness of the mast itself. The foresail was of the same shape, but smaller. Both these were of matting, and, with two jibs and a fore and aft sail astern of cotton canvas, completed our rig. ^

“The crew consisted of about thirty men, natives of Macassar and the adjacent coasts and islands. They were mostly young, and were short, broad-faced, good-humoured looking fellows. Their dress consisted generally of a pair of trousers only, when at work, and a handkerchief twisted round the head, to which in the evening they would add a thin cotton jacket. Four of the elder men were "jurumudis," or steersmen, who had to squat (two at a time) in the little steerage before described, changing every six hours. Then there was an old man, the "juragan," or captain, but who was really what we should call the first mate; he occupied the other half of the little house on deck. There were about ten respectable men, Chinese or Bugis, whom our owner used to call "his own people." He treated them very well, shared his meals with them, and spoke to them always with perfect politeness; yet they were most of them a kind of slave debtors, bound over by the police magistrate to work for him at mere nominal wages for a term of years till their debts were liquidated.” ^

Traveling on a Bugi Prahu

Before setting off on a voyage in a prahu an auspicious date is determined by a shaman and astrologers, and a white cock and a black goat are often ritually slaughtered in a "leaving land ceremony," the only time of the year women are allowed to set foot on the deck of a prahu. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York, ♢]

The Bugis follow the monsoons winds east and west, depending on the season. According to the Blair brothers, Prahus are great for traveling down wind, but if they are lightly load they make virtually no progress in an upwind and often times get pushed backwards. Bugi navigators once could navigate by observing wave patterns, seaweed and bird droppings, but now they stick to coast hugging in the belief that in the hope that they could swim to shore if their boat sank. ♢

Prahus have eight large sails and the 12 man crew (including two boys that do most of the work) sleep in cramped quarters below the deck. Lorne Blair wrote in his diary, "Our cabin is barely large enough to accommodate both us and our equipment. We cannot fully stretch out in it, nor sit upright without cracking our heads on the decking above...We share it with an unwelcome assortment of fellow travelers...at night bed bugs crawl out from under our mats, and we listen to cockroaches merrily eating in the food baskets between our heads." ♢

A German doctor, who had spent decades living on Celebes told the Blair brothers, "They like easy trading routes now and they have forgotten old navigation ways. Often they do no go where they are saying. And many sink now every year."

Bugi Economics and Trade

South Sulawesi is regarded as the rice bowl of eastern Indonesia and the heartland of the Bugis. The coastal plains are intensively cultivated with wet-rice using miracle rice varieties, fertilizer and pesticides to raise several high yield crops a year. Some farmers use mini-tractors, others still rely on water buffalo and oxen for plowing and plant and harvest by hand. They also raise some chickens and ducks. Where rice is raised as a commercial crop much of the farm work is done by migrant workers, many of them Makassarese, Javanese and Madurese. Many Bugis are sharecroppers who work land owned by landowners, who are descendant of nobles from the Bugi royal era. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Bugis are notoriously poor fisherman. When fishing catches are small they often resort to scraping barnacles off the side of their ship and make a soup that tastes like sea water. Even so many Bugis work as fisherman or raise fish in fish ponds. Outside their homeland Bugis are involved in raising pepper, coconuts and cloves as cash crops.

Bugis are famed traders, prahus have traditionally carries cargo up and down the coasts of Sulawesi and between Sulawesi and Borneo and between islands throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The mariners are usually paid half when they pick up the cargo and half when they deliver it. The crew often subsists on corn meal mixed with salt. The cargos include household goods, bicycles, motorbikes, wood and food stuffs.

Bugis also run small shops and kiosks and are the primary vendors of fish, rice, cloth and small goods in urban and rural markets. Chinese have traditionally been the primary merchants and middlemen in Bugi areas. Bugis also produce intricate filagree work for which South Sulawesi is known. Bugi women are regarded as skilled weavers of silk sarongs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.