The People that Live on the Sea

The Sama-Bajau refers to several Austronesian ethnic groups of Maritime Southeast Asia with their origins from the southern Philippines. They usually live a seaborne lifestyle, and use small wooden sailing vessels.

The Sama-Bajau are traditionally from the many islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, coastal areas of Mindanao, northern and eastern Borneo, the Celebes, and throughout eastern Indonesian islands. In the Philippines, they are grouped together with the religiously-similar Moro people. Within the last 50 years, many of the Filipino Sama-Bajau have migrated to neighbouring Malaysia and the northern islands of the Philippines, due to the conflict in Mindanao. As of 2010, they were the second-largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Sama-Bajau have sometimes been called the “Sea Gypsies” or “Sea Nomads”, terms that have also been used for non-related ethnic groups with similar traditional lifestyles, such as the Moken of the Burmese-Thai Mergui Archipelago and the Orang Laut of southeastern Sumatra and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. The modern outward spread of the Sama-Bajau from older inhabited areas seems to have been associated with the development of sea trade in sea cucumber (trepang).

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A few Sama-Bajau still live traditionally. They live in houseboats which generally accommodates a single nuclear family (usually five people). The houseboats travel together in flotillas with houseboats of immediate relatives (a family alliance) and co-operate during fishing expeditions and in ceremonies. A married couple may choose to sail with the relatives of the husband or the wife. They anchor at common mooring points (called sambuangan) with other flotillas (usually also belonging to extended relatives) at certain times of the year.

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Flotilla

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