The term Samal is used to describe a diverse group of Sama-Bajau-speaking people who are found in a large maritime area with many islands that stretch from central Philippines to the eastern coast of Borneo and from Sulawesi to Roti in eastern Indonesia. Also known as Sea Gypsies, Badjaw, Bajao, Bajau, Sama, Samah, Samal Moro and Turijene in the Philippines, and Bajo, Luwa’an, Pala’au. Sama Dilaut, Samah, and Turijene in Indonesia, and he Bajai Laut or Ornag Laut in Malaysia they are generally associated with the Sulu islands, the southernmost islands of the Philippines. Samal is sometimes treated as the plural of Sama. Most Samal are Muslims. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Samal traditionally spent so much time on the water that it was said they only came ashore to die. Some still live in traditional outrigger houseboats that can be moved to different points, bury their dead on sacred islands and exchange services for spring water at coastal settlements of other groups. Now most are land based. The boat-based groups are found mainly in the Sulu islands and southeastern Sabah.

The Samal are a highly fragmented people who are unified by their traditional seafaring ways and Sama-Bajau languages. They usually identify themselves with their dialect and the area they are based and have links to their country that has domain over their base islands and the dominant ethnic groups on their base islands— the Tausug and Maguindanao in the southern Philippines, Malaysians and Bruneians in western Sabah, and the Ternatans, Bugis and Makassarese in eastern Indonesia. Notable Samal groups include the Abak of Capul Island, northwest of Samar; the Takan of Basilan Island and coastal Zamboanga.

There around 700,000 Sama-Bajua speakers. Those in the Philippines referred to as Samal are the largest groups. There are maybe 300,000 of them. There are also 130,000 Yakan; 30,000 Jama Mapun. There are maybe 80,000 in Sabah and between 150,000 and 200,000 in eastern Indonesia. The largest Samal communities in Indonesia are in Sulawesi. They are also found near Balikpapan in East Kalimantan and islands off the east Borneo coast. Other are widely scattered on islands between the Moluccas and Timor and around the islands of Nusa Tengarra (the islands east of Bali).

History of the Samal

Based on linguistic evidence, the Samal are believed to have originated in southwestern Mindanao and the northeastern islands of the Sulu archipelago, and began dispersing in the A.D. 1st millennium. According to legend the event was triggered by the loss or abduction of a princess. Most moved southward and westward and appear to have been motivated by Chinese trade and the purist of maritime resources. Early groups carved out ecological niches for themselves, with some falling into land-based groups while others being part of sea-based ones.

The Samal’s place in the world and their migration patterns were affected by the rise of the Tausug dynasty in the 13th century, the founding of the Sulu and Brunei sultanates of the 15th century and the bech-de-mer trade and competition from Bugis and Makassarese trades. Bech-de-mer (sea slugs) are a Chinese culinary delicacy and purported aphrodisiac.

With the rise of the Tausug port of Jolo as a major entrepot for slaves, the Samal in some areas became actively engaged in piracy and the slave trade and conducted regular slaving raids until their operation was shut down by the Spanish in 1848.

The secessionist conflicts in the Sulu archipelago in the 1970s resulted in the dislocation of thousands of Samal. Many fled to Zamboanga, Taitawi and the Subutu group or crossed the Malaysia border into eastern Sabah. At the same time large numbers of Tausuh moved from Jolo and Siasi, centers of Islamic extremism, onto the former Samal islands of Tawitawi and Sibutu, forcing more Samal to migrate westward to Sabah, where they became regarded as refugees.

Samal Religion

Most Samal are Sunni Muslims of the Shafu school. Every Samal parish contains a mosque, which is a center of worship and community activity. Mosque officials are appointed by parish elders. Religious officials known as “paki” preside over various ceremonies and serve as religious counselors. Allah is called Tuhan.

Pre-Islamic beliefs about spirits and ghosts remain. Most spirits are regarded as malevolent. Mediums, diviners and herbalist-healers are consulted for health problems. The sick are treated with trance dances performed by cloth-waving shaman.

Islamic burial customs are practiced. The deceased are buried under grave of crushed coral and sand with their heads facing Mecca. Sometimes they are buried on special islands with betel nut boxes. For seven nights after the burial family members gather and read passages from the Koran. During the month of Shaabam God, the Samal believe the souls of the dead return to earth and at this times graves are cleaned and special prayers are said.

Samal Marriage

Samal marriages are generally between kindred of around the same age, preferably between patrilineal, parallel cousins, and may be partially arranged by parents with the help of a go-between. The marriage may by initiated by an elopement or in some special cases by an abduction. In all cases a bride price is paid, with a particularly high one being paid in the case of an abduction.

Weddings have traditionally been the biggest and most grand Samal gatherings. The ceremony is presided over by an imam or group of religious officials, who witness the transfer of the bride price. In a traditional weddings of boat-dwelling Samal the groom is doused with seawater, the bride's face is painted with chalk and her eyebrows are shaped into triangles, girls dance on boats and men throw bananas at each other. The climax of the ceremony is when the father of the bride takes the finger of the groom and places it in the head of the bride and then her breasts. These days the bride often wears a white dress and the groom an Arab headpiece from Mecca. Sometimes newlyweds are pushed out to sea on a boat.

Newlywed couples may live with the bride’s or groom’s family and are expected to set up their own households by the second or third year of marriage, often with the house near the bride’s family cluster. Polygyny is allowed but rarely practiced. The frequency of divorce varies with the group, but is said to be common among some groups.

Samal Family

Samal households are defined as a group that eats together and is usually comprised of a nuclear family with a few additional relatives. The division of labor is pretty equal with men specializing in boat building and iron works and women specializing in pandanus mat weaving and pottery making. Both men and women engage in trade. Among nomadic groups men have traditionally done the fishing while women engaged in inshore gathering.

Family members are expected to attend funerals, children’s weddings and thanksgiving rites; lending and borrowing of property, food or money; and exchanging visits and hospitality. Children are highly valued. They undergo a ritual hair cutting and weighing ceremony. Both sexes are circumcised. Girls are circumcised between the ages of two and six in small private rituals attended only by women. Many children receive some kind of training in the Koran. Reciting the Koran is a greatly valued skill.

After puberty girls are expected to stay close to home. They assist in household chores. Boys are given more freedom. They often help their fathers fishing. Children attend school but generally only for a couple of years. Three days after a child is born his father swims with him to introduce him to the sea.

Samal Society

Samal social and political organization varies with the group. Some groups are egalitarian. Others, often the larger ones, have a hierarchal structure with nobility and commoners, and in the past slaves. These days hereditary privileges are largely a thing of past but titles still carry prestige.

Political organization begins at the cluster level and may advance to the parish and district level among larger groups. It is manifested primarily through the establishment of networks and coalitions between Samal groups and with non-Samal groups and governments in the countries that have jurisdiction over them. Many Samal groups are subordinate to dominate Tausug, Maguindanao and Bugis groups. In the past some groups were treated as the property of local sultans.

Mosques are a center of social, community and religious life. Clusters and parishes are generally led by elders, cluster leaders and religion leaders. Incidents of armed conflict are relatively rate, although raids and vendettas sometimes occur. Disputes are settled with the help of cluster, parish and villages leaders. Incidents involving different groups are often settled using Islamic law.

Samal Settlements

Samal villages generally consist of closely-clustered houses situated along well-protected stretches of shoreline. They are often built directly over the sea in channels or tidal shallows, often behind a fringing reef. Household are often grouped in clusters of related kin with their own chief. The houses are often built near of nipa near mangrove forests, where residents work as thatch- and woodcutters. Large clusters are often organized around a mosque. Schools, mosques and clinics are usually located inland. Some villages are entirely on land and even built somewhat inland.

Houses are raised on piles one to three meters above the high water mark or the ground and are usually comprised of a single room attached to a kitchen, often a room without a roof where various chores are performed.. Those of poor people are typically constructed of split bamboo and have thatched roofs. Many are poorly constructed and too small to allow a person to stand up straight. Those belonging to wealthier families have timber walls and floods, corrugated metal roofing and have additional sleeping rooms. House built over the water are connected by catwalks.

Nomadic groups traditionally have been made up of communities of scattered marriage groups that return regularly to common anchorage sites. These groups were formed around family alliances of two to six closely related boat-dwelling families. who share food, pool labor and fish and anchor together and are intermarried and make regular visits to other groups. The boats they live on vary in size. The small ones are generally dugout vessels with double outriggers. Larger ones lack outriggers and have a solid keel. Both types have a roofed living area made of poles and “kaang” matting and a portable earthenware hearth used to prepare meals. Typically one nuclear family lives on each boat.

Samal Life

Samal arts includes dancing, singing, and music produced xylophone, drums and gongs. Gongs are used to provide the melody and they are often played by women. Their main dance, the “daling-daling” is performed mainly at weddings. and often involves the exchange of verse between men and women. Among the Samal crafts are dyed pandanus mats, food covers, ornaments made of shell and turtle shell, weaving and textiles, and decorative wood carving, often featured in houses, burial markers, boats and machete handles.

Samal textiles feature rectangular design elements and figurative motifs. Some men wear square head clothes known as “destar”. Nomadic Samals wear no clothes before the age of 10.

Samal girls often look like ghosts. They put white cake on their faces called borak which is made from rice, fruit and nuts. What does it do? It moisturizes the skin of course.

Samal Economics and Piracy

Samal have traditionally made their living from fishing, farming, seafaring and trade, and sometimes piracy and smuggling. The nature of their work is often defined by where they live and who their neighbors were. Some Samal in the Sulu islands run guns between Borneo and Muslim insurgencies in the southern Philippines

Samal fish using traps, spears, hand lines, long lines, drift nets and explosives. They catch dolphins and other sea mammals and sea turtles and collect shellfish, crustaceans, turtle eggs, sea urchins, pearls, mother-of-pearl, and edible algae and sea weed. Drift netting is often done with the fall tide, especially during new and full moons. Most fish are dried and salted for sale in markets. Many earn money from shark fins. Coconuts are a major cash crop for land-based Samal. They also grow dry rice, maize, beans, sugarcane and other crops.

Property rights are exercised in connection with fishing grounds and reefs and farms and residential land. Among nomadic groups overlapping fishing grounds have generally invited cooperation rather than fueled feuds. Inheritable possessions includes livestock, farm land. fishing boats, jewelry and gongs.

Most groups practice some kind of farming. Different groups specialize in producing different crafts such as pandanus mats, pottery, roofing, weaving, blacksmithing, and making shell bracelets, tortise shell combs and other items. Boat-building is an especially valued skill. The Sibuti Samal are known as being the best Samal boat builders. Trade is important to the Samal, who have traditionally relied on it even for necessities. They traditionally traded with all comers and exchanged products they gathered from the sea for things like grain and fruit. They also acted as middlemen for trade between other groups.

The Sulu islands between the Philippines and Sabah is ripe with pirates even today. It is not unusual for boats to go missing on perfectly fine days. Many of the pirates have normal day jobs when they are on land.

In Sulawesi Samal still dive for trepang, pearls and other marine products. When Chinese and Bugis introduced compressed air, which allowed them to dive longer they failed to explain about the bends properly. In one area alone more than 40 men were killed and a large number were crippled for life. Today they swim sometimes using homemade wood and glass goggles and handmade spear guns and little else.

Sulu, Basilan and Jolo Islands: Samal Home Islands and Pirate and Terrorist Hideouts

Sulu Islands (1000 kilometers southwest of Manila) are the southernmost islands of the Philippines. Regarded as the most dangerous part of the Philippines and located in the southwestern tip of the Philippines, they have traditionally been the stomping grounds of pirates, sea-gypsies (Samal and Bajua) and smugglers running guns between Borneo and Muslim insurgencies in southern Philippines Gun culture is very prominent. Almost everyone has access to a gun. Children learn to handle guns at an early age.

The are 400 Sulu islands, falling into the Basilan group, Jolo group, Keenapusan group, Laparan group, Pangutaran group, Sibutu group, Tapul group and Tawi-Tawi group. The islands more or less run in a line between the Philippines and Sabah and merge with islands off Sabah, which is part of Malaysian Borneo. On the west and north, the islands are is bounded by the Sulu and Mindanao Seas, and on the east and south, by the Celebes Sea. The Sulu Islands are 98 percent Muslim. Abu Sayyaf has traditionally had a strong presence here. Pearl oysters have traditionally been harvested on the Sulu archipelago.

Basilan (30 minutes by ferry and 10 miles from Mindanao) is mostly Christian. It should be a tourist paradise. It has white sand beaches, magnificent rain forests and volcanic highlands with waterfalls. But instead it is a lawless place where Abu Sayyaf hostages have been kept.

Jolo has been regarded for centuries a center of piracy, banditry and rebellion. The islands between the Sulu and Celebes Seas have been a hideout for pirates. Jolo and Basilan are the bases for the Muslim terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Jolo is the largest Sulu island, measuring 15-by-16 kilometers. It has fertile volcanic soils and about half the island is cultivated. The rest is either mountains, remnant forest or deforested grasslands, Rainfall is between 180 and 250 centimeters a year.

Bajua (Samal) in Sabah (Northeastern Malaysian Borneo)

Semprona (off the eastern coast of Sabah) is famed for dazzling blue water and for being the home of large numbers of Bajau Sea Gypsies There are hundreds of stilt homes set in shallow water, where seaweed is grown on monofilament lines and sold for canned pet food. The homes sometimes are washed away in heavy storms.

Semporna is in the Tawau Division on the east coast of Sabah and is home to around 35,000 people. It is located at the tip of Semporna Peninsula around Lahad Datu Bay (also known as Darvel Bay), and is visited by tourists as a base for scuba diving or snorkelling trips to Pulau Sipadan (Sipadan Island), some 36 kilometres southeast of town.

The majority of the population is Bajau, many of whom live in sprawling stilt villages over the water on the outskirts of town. Thousands of Bajau Laut (also known as Sea Gypsies or Pala'u) people live on the sea around Semporna. They are one of the few nomadic seaborne peoples of the world, and spend most of their lives on boats, making a livelihood from the coral reefs in the area. For some Bajau Laut people, the only time that their bodies spend any extended time on land is when they are buried after death. The main ethnic minority populations in Semporna are the Kadazan and Chinese communities. The majority of Chinese people in Semporna are from the Hakka dialect group.

Semporna is also known for the Regatta Lepa traditional boat races which occur annually in April. Semporna was also the location of the finish line of Eco-Challenge: Borneo, held in 2000. Off the coast is a marine park called Tun Sakaran Marine Park, also known as Semporna Islands Park. It was gazetted by Sabah Parks in 2004. Semporna is the gateway to diving in world-renowned island paradises like Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, Sibuan, Mantabuan, Siamil and Pom Pom among others. Visitors to Semporna are mainly sunseekers looking for relaxation or watersports activities such as scuba diving or snorkelling.

Mabul Island (accessible by boat from Semporna) is located in the clear waters of the Celebes Sea off the mainland of Sabah and is surrounded by gentle sloping reefs two to 40 meters deep. Covering some 21 hectares it is considerably larger than the nearby Sipadan Island and is home to the Bajau Laut tribe of Sea Gypsies.

Bajo (Samal) Villages Off Sulawesi and Borneo

Maratua Island (in the Derawan Archipelago off the north coast of East Kalimantan on Borneo) is a large tropical island partially encircling a massive lagoon on one end and fringed with sheer rocky walls and coral reefs along the other end.This giant upside down U-shaped island covers about 384 square kilometers of sandy white beaches and mangrove forests and 3,735 square kilometers of territorial waters which contain the third highest level of marine biodiversity in the world after Raja Ampat and the Solomon Islands. Maratua has a population of about 3,000 people and is divided into 4 villages, most of which come from the Bajo Tribes.

The Bajo people have traditionally beene a landless people that is sustained completely and exclusively by the ocean. But not only do they survive solely on marine resources—they actually live in the ocean as well. Entire villages are built on stilts and connected by wooden bridges over large expanses of coral reefs and rocks in the middle of the open sea. The Bajo tribes maintain an intimate knowledge of the maritime coastal ecosystems, as well as the seasons, winds, currents, tides, lunar cycle, stars and navigation. These mysterious sea people are also distinguished by their exceptional free-diving abilities, and through years of practice have acquired physical adaptations that enable them to see better and dive longer underwater.

The Bajo villages of Tilamuta, Torosiaje, Popayato can be found in the Togean-Islands-Gorontalo area of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The Bajo here that still live in on boats called “Bangau”, and move around from one island to another islands and spend much time on Toro Pantai Island, where they cultivate pearls and sea grass.

The Bajo people, or Sea Gypsies as they have often been called, are a landless ethnic group that is sustained completely and exclusively by the ocean. But not only do they survive solely on marine resources—they actually live in the ocean as well. Entire villages are built on stilts and connected by wooden bridges over large expanses of coral reefs and rocks in the middle of the open sea. The Bajo tribes maintain an intimate knowledge of the maritime coastal ecosystems, as well as the seasons, winds, currents, tides, lunar cycle, stars and navigation. These mysterious sea people are also distinguished by their exceptional free-diving abilities, and through years of practice have acquired physical adaptations that enable them to see better and dive longer underwater.

In the past, the Bajo lived almost completely segregated from the “land-people,” preserving their very distinct way of life for generations. But these once sea-wandering nomads, who have lived for centuries at sea, are now adapting to and interacting more with the land-based ethnic groups and being encouraged to settle on land. Apart from living locations, many other aspects of the Bajo culture have been abandoned, and with more and more Bajo descendants now speaking Bahasa Indonesia, the ancient Bajo language is slowly dying out.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, 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, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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