The Orang Laut

Although culturally and linguistically very different, the situation of the Orang Laut, as we know it from the 16th through the end of the nineteenth century, was in many ways similar to that of the Sama-Bajau. Even more than Sulu, the Straits of Malacca, along the southern approaches to which the Orang Laut were very largely concentrated, were and continue to be a major cross-roads of maritime commerce. They were also the primary arena of Malay political history. Thus historians like Wolters (1967, 1979) on Srivijaya and Andaya (1974, 1975) on the Johor Kingdom have stressed the centrally important role they see the Malay-speaking Orang Laut as playing in providing the naval power and communicative links on which the hegemony of successive Malay states was based in a zone of otherwise relatively sparse population. Here, like Sulu, the sea nomads similarly emerged, together with a variety of related coastal and strand peoples, from a common cultural matrix.

With the Orang Laut, we see boat nomadism, again, embedded in a complex political order. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, different named groups of Orang Laut were incorporated in the Kingdom of Johor by their formalized ties to the ruler (Andaya 1974). These ties were articulated in terms of the specific corvée duties assigned to each of these groups (or suku). With corvées were associated degrees of status. Thus Andaya (1974:7), writing of the seventeenth century, outlines these relationships in the following terms:

The more powerful and prestigious Orang Laut groups were associated with the larger islands or those islands which were favourably situated on major sea trading lanes, …The duties of the Orang Laut were to gather sea products for the China trade, perform certain special services for the ruler at weddings, funerals, or on a hunt, serve as transport for envoys and royal missives, man the ships and serve as a fighting force on the ruler’s fleet, and patrol the waters of the kingdom. Except in times of actual warfare when their services were needed for the fleet, the Orang Laut were usually on patrol providing protection for Johor’s traders or to those wanting to trade in Johor while harassing all other shipping.

Groups such as the Orang Suku Galang, for example, comprising the upper stratum of Orang Laut, were those whose duty, as might be expected, was to provide the naval fighting force for the realm. In contrast, the corvée duty assigned to the Orang Mantang, who formed one of the lowest status groups, was to care for the ruler’s hunting dogs. Later, with the breakdown of central hegemony, fighting groups like the Orang Galang appear to have transferred their allegiance to local Malay chieftains who engaged them as pirate crews. As a result, one of the consequences of the suppression of piracy in the mid-nineteenth century was a rapid sedentarization of a number of these Orang Laut groups (Sandbukt 1984:7; Sopher 1965). Today, former high status groups have generally embraced Islam and become more or less assimilated into the general Malay population, while marginal low status groups have generally continued to maintain a separate ethnicity, even after becoming sedentary fishermen.

Like the Bajau Laut, the identity and mode of life of the Orang Laut was powerfully shaped by their interaction with settled groups in a larger, hierarchically-constituted field of political and economic relations. Both groups lacked an independent political and economic existence, separate from that of their settled neighbours. Within the Malay world, this interaction appears to have been even more formally structured than it was in Sulu, where the sultanate remained, despite its formal patterning on a Malay court model, a relatively loosely structured polity (cf. Kiefer 1972). Thus the Orang Laut were divided, through their relationship to the ruler, into status groups, each differentially situated to perform specific corvée tasks, these tasks in turn associated with positions in an almost caste-like status hierarchy. To the extent that the Orang Laut functioned as marine foragers and fishermen, they were clearly, like the Bajau Laut, “professional” foragers whose very existence presupposed trade, political hierarchy and the institutions of the state.

The Moken

In comparison, the Moken offer an important contrast. If Bukit Tengkorak suggests that boat nomadism may have evolved from a more generalized form of coastal foraging, the Moken give evidence of what such an adaptation may have been like. Unlike Sulu, and even more the Straits of Malacca, the Mergui Archipelago was a comparative backwater in the past. Here boat nomads, while trading with shore people for agricultural produce, appear to have been much less subject to their political domination and were little involved in a procurement trade for external markets. Mergui therefore presents us with a form of boat nomadism as a predominantly subsistence adaptation.

Fortunately for the Moken, unlike the Bajau Laut and other boat nomadic groups, we have a comparatively detailed ethnographic literature for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (cf. Anderson 1890; Carrapiett 1909; White 1922). While the Moken also gathered some marine and littoral produce for exchange, receiving in return cultivated staple foods such as rice, this trade was mainly seasonal and for most of the year Moken bands appear to have been largely self-sufficient. Some groups in addition planted shoreline gardens, to which they returned from time to time to harvest crops. In contrast to the Bajau Laut, the Moken made extensive use of the resources available in the interior of the larger islands of the archipelago. Here they gathered wild honey, fruit, roots and tubers and hunted wild pigs with the aid of dogs. Some communities also occupied brackish tidal estuaries and mangrove swamps, exploiting these areas, not in the highly specialized manner of the Duano, but as one of a number of varied foraging habitats.

Today many of these groups, much like rainforest hunter-gatherers, are faced with environmental loss as mangrove and coastal forests are cleared for farming, charcoal production, plantations and other kinds of coastal development (Engelhardt 1987:11-13). Thus, many former boat nomads in southwestern Thailand have been forced into an increasing reliance on inshore fishing, where they face competition and, increasingly, assimilation by established coastal populations.

From this survey it should be clear that an understanding of boat nomadism requires that it be seen historically and in a wider ecological context. As Sandbukt (1984:4) stresses,

Because of their dispersal … and the varying extent and significance of their historical interaction with land-based peoples, a comprehensive study of the sea nomads necessitates a region-wide perspective and one with a considerable timedepth, in addition to localized field studies.

When viewed from such a perspective, the sea nomads may be seen as associated with archipelagic environments that are, in the western Austronesian world, singularly extensive and rich in food resources. Implied is a wealth of opportunities for strand foraging and for the exploitation of inshore waters using nets, spears and other techniques, all historically employed by the sea nomads (cf. Sopher 1965). But also implied is access to the shoreline and to coastal forests which hold out still further exploitable resources, including wild plant foods capable of supplementing a protein-rich marine diet. What is suggested is a range of possible adaptive modes, and among them the possibility of a more generalized adaptation, resembling more closely hunter-gathering (rather than peasant fishing), in the sense that it involves the exploitation of a highly diverse resource base. This possibility is obscured in the case of the Sama and Orang Laut by their specialized adaptation to trade and the state.

Finally, while the role of maritime peoples in early Austronesian expansion remains unclear, Solheim (1975, 1984) has recently proposed that this role was possibly central and that it may have involved peoples ancestral to the historical sea nomads. As an alternative to the model of southward migration proposed by Bellwood and others, Solheim (1984:86) has argued that the proto-Austronesians first emerged within Island Southeast Asia itself. In this thesis, he proposes that Austric, a possible language grouping encompassing both Austroasiatic and Austronesian, was spoken throughout the whole of Southeast Asia, including Sundaland, during the late Pleistocene (Solheim 1975:152). Later, with raising sea levels, Sundaland became a zone of islands, isolating Austric speakers in the east from those of the west and north, and so producing a split between what he calls “Pre-Austroasiatic” speakers on Sumatra and the Southeast Asian mainland and “Pre-Austronesian” speakers in eastern Indonesia and the southern Philippines (1975:156). Following this split, Proto-Austronesian developed according to Solheim in Island Southeast Asia and from there was carried northward to Taiwan and South China by a developing maritime people whom he calls the “Nusantao” (“people of the island homeland”) (1975:156-158).

In a more recent version of this hypothesis, Solheim (1984:81) proposes that Proto-Austronesian developed initially as a “barter language” among these early “Nusantao” mariners, who came eventually, following their northward migration, to occupy the coasts of northern Luzon, southern Taiwan and South China some time between 4500 and 5000 BC. Later Taiwan became isolated, while elsewhere along the western shores of the South China Sea, developing Austronesian languages remained in contact as a result of “Nusantao” voyaging and so diverged only much more slowly from one another. Following the isolation of Taiwan, the resulting “Proto-Malayo-Polynesian” languages were then carried southward, back through the Philippines to Borneo and from there south, east and westward, by groups of bartering “Nusantao” mariners (1975:153; 1984:84-85).

While many elements of Solheim’s hypothesis appear improbable, particularly, his account of the emergence of Proto-Austronesian, his arguments have the merit of highlighting the possible role of sea-going trade and maritime peoples in early Austronesian expansion. Indeed, Solheim sees the historical sea nomads as representing “the most direct descendants” of his “Nusantao” mariners, although,

During the last few hundred years their status has deteriorated, bringing them to the bottom of the local pecking order instead of being, as they were around 2000 years ago, economically prosperous and the masters of their homes and livelihood, the southern and eastern seas, from Madagascar to Japan to Easter Island (Solheim 1984:86).

Here Solheim perilously telescopes a vast sweep of Southeast Asian and Pacific prehistory; he also ignores the apparently diverse origins of the sea nomads themselves and the existence of close cultural and linguistic affinities between them and related shore- and island-peoples, all suggesting a long and complex pattern of local interaction.