Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Orang Laut (Sea Nomads)

Five hundred years ago, however, they roamed the Straits of Malacca in bands, raiding, burning and pillaging. And, whoever controlled the Orang Laut, controlled the seas. They are the old pirates of South East Asia, not as well-known as their counterparts in other parts of the world perhaps, but certainly a group that influenced the political scenario and history of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines.

The Orang Laut
The Orang Laut, orang Suku Laut or Bajau Laut are a group of Malay people living in the Riau Islands of Indonesia. Broadly speaking, the term encompasses the numerous tribes and groups inhabiting the islands and estuaries in the Riau-Lingga Archipelagos, the Pulau Tujuh Islands, the Batam Archipelago, and the coasts and offshore islands of eastern Sumatra and southern Malay Peninsula.

The Malay term orang laut literally means the sea people or Sea Gypsies . The Orang laut live and travel in their boats on the sea. Other Malay terms for the orang laut were Lanun, Celates or Orang Selat (literally 'Straits People').

Historically, the orang laut were principally pirates but they also played important roles in Srivijaya, the Sultanate of Malacca, and the Sultanate of Johor. They patrolled the adjacent sea areas, repelling real pirates, directing traders to their employers' ports and maintaining those ports' dominance in the area. They gathered sea products for China trade, performed special services for the rulers at weddings, funerals, or on a hunt, provided transport for envoys and royal missives; and manned ships to act as ruler's naval fleets and to patrol the water.

Eda Green wrote in 1909, "The Lanuns, supposed to have come from the Philippines, are Mohammedans and are dying out; they were one of the most aggressive tribes in their wild piracy, raiding not only the coasts, but stealing away the children of the Dusuns and Ida'a

(source: wikipedia)

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.

(Extract from source: The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, http://epress.anu.edu.au/austronesians/austronesians/mobile_devices/ch13s05.html)

Orang Laut in Singapore.

Orang Laut

By Hwang, Joycelyn written on 2001-11-02
National Library Board Singapore

Orang Laut, or "Sea People" refer to sea nomads and sea gypsies. They were one of the earlier immigrants who inhabited along the coastline of Singapore island during pre-colonial days. The community typically lived off a long dwelling boat, known colloquially as sampan panjang or "long boat".

The Orang Laut who settled in Singapore around 1819 were made up of different groups. They included the Orang Laut of Rhio-Lingga such as the Orang Galang, the Orang Gelam, the Orang Selatar, the Orang Biduanda Kallang and the Orang Selat. The only commonality they shared was some degree of Malay ethnicity and a preference for living on boats rather than on land.

In early Singapore, the headman of the Orang Laut or Batin (Chief) acted as messenger for the Temmenggong and Viceroy of Riau. These officials offered protection to the Orang Laut who in turn served as boatmen, rowers or warriors on pirate escapades. Otherwise they lived off the sea as simple fishing folks. Many of the Orang Gelam who lived along the Singapore River served as boatmen for merchant ships while their womenfolk were fruit sellers on boats.

The Orang Selat were believed to have traversed the waters of Keppel Harbour since the early 16th century, making them one of the earliest settlers of the island according to ethnologist Gibson Hill. By the early 19th century, more than 1,000 Orang Laut resided in Singapore with about 500 Orang Biduandan Kallang and 150 being boat dwellers. In 1940, at least 450 of the nomads, including the headman, were relocated to Tanjong Rhu with others moved to Telok Blangah, Selat Singkeh, Pasir Panjang, Geylang and Pulau Brani. The Orang Biduanda Kallang were moved to Johore, leaving only 40 tribesmen by mid-20th century. Many thus abandoned their nomadic lifestyle with some settling along the shoreline, and assimilating with the natives of the land leaving only the Orang Seletar, the last remnant clinging on to their nomadic lifestyle. By early 1930s, the last of the Orang Laut settled around the Kallang River were moved to Kampong Melayu.(source: http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_551_2005-01-09.html)

According to Sopher (1977), the Orang Kallang, Orang Seletar, Orang Selat and Orang Gelam were the Orang Laut that lived in Singapore. The Orang Kallang (also called the Orang Biduanda Kallang) lived in the swampy areas in the Kallang River. They lived on boats and sustained their lives by fishing and collecting other materials from the forests. After 1819, they were relocated by Temenggong Abdul Rahman to the northern Singapore Straits at Sungai Pulau. Tragically in 1848, the Orang Kallang were wiped out by a smallpox epidemic.

The Orang Seletar lived in the river swamps and the small islands surrounding mainland Singapore. They would often gather on the coastal areas especially on the estuary of the Seletar River. They lived a nomadic lifestyle until the 1850s when they started living on land and followed the lifestyles of others living in Singapore.

The Orang Selat lived in the harbour waters of Keppel Singapore. They were believed to have traversed the waters of Keppel Harbour since the early 16th century, making them one of the earliest settlers of the island. They sold fish and fruits to the trading vessels that passed the area.

The Orang Gelam came from a tribe in Batam Island. They were brought by the Temenggong of Johor together with a group of his followers to establish a settlement in the first decade of the 19th century. Many of the Orang Gelam who lived along the Singapore River served as boatmen for merchant ships while their womenfolk were fruit sellers on boats.

The Orang Laut differed from the Malays in that they lived a nomadic lifestyle and lived at sea in their boats whereas the Malays lived in settlements in the villages on the land.

Orang Laut in Malaysia/Johor

In 1511, the Portuguese gained control of the land of abundance, Malacca. The Sultan of Malacca had fled with his family to Johor, and Malacca lay in ruins, to be rebuilt and fortified by the European conquerors.

To the Malays, the protection of the Sultan's line was all-important as he was the last direct link with the ancient kings of Malaya. He embodied the mythical descent from Alexander the Great, and Sri Tri Buana, one of the three princes who appeared miraculously on the sacred hill of Bukit Si Guntang in southern Sumatra.

So, the Orang Laut took it upon themselves to protect the Sultan and the Malacca royal family. The Sultan's Orang Laut retainers took him to the east coast of Sumatra where he died, and the powerful magic and prestige of the Malaya line passed from the Sultanate of Malacca to the kingdom of Johor when his son Sultan Alauddin Riayat Syah married into the royal family of Pahang and built his palace at Pekan Tua on the Johor River in the early 1530s.

Sultan Alauddin's task was to win back the influence that his family had lost to the Portuguese in Malacca by establishing Johor as a trading centre. He made little progress at first. Half his energies had gone into building a new State and what remained was not sufficient to hold off his two powerful and well-established enemies.

The Portuguese had the advantage of European ships and firearms, and secure lines of communications stretching to India, Africa, and back to Portugal. The Achenese were based closer, and had centuries of experience of fighting and pillaging behind them.

Against them Sultan Alauddin had only one strong card in his hand. The Orang Laut pirates who controlled shipping in the Straits of Malacca and the waters around Singapore were loyal to the descendants of the Malaya line.

Despite their pirate allies, the Sultans of Johor suffered a series of crushing raids and defeats at the hands of the Portuguese and Achenese. All efforts to establish Johor as a major centre of trade appeared to be in vain until the Sultans received help from an unexpected quarter.

In the late 16th century the Dutch appeared on the scene and it became immediately apparent that Johor and the Dutch were natural allies. The VOC, or Dutch East India Company, had as little love for the Portuguese as the Sultans, and Acheh was just another troublesome competitor.

The tide turned in 1636 when Sultan Iskandar Muda, the warlike ruler of Acheh died, and the Dutch approached the Sultan of Johor over plans to turn the Portuguese out of Malacca. The Sultan decided to throw his lot in with the Dutch and when Malacca was besieged in August 1640, it was the Johor Malays who dug trenches, built blockades and supplied the Dutch with food. The Portuguese held out for five months, and their resistance finally collapsed in January 1641.

As a reward the Dutch signed a treaty of peace and mutual friendship with the Johor Malays, which granted them special trading rights and a guarantee to protect them against Acheh. However, with the support of the Orang Laut, the Sultans of Johor were more than a match for the Dutch. They immediately began to establish Johor as a major trading centre. Because the Asian traders much preferred to do business with each other than with the Europeans, the variety of goods available in Johor was soon much greater than in Malacca, and the prices were cheaper. The Dutch merchants complained to the VOC headquarters in Batavia (Jakarta) and begged them to destroy Johor

It was time for the Sultans to play the Orang Laut card. If the VOC honored their alliance, the Orang Laut would continue to protect Dutch shipping. Should an expedition be sent against Johor, the Sultans would unleash the Malay pirates, and an immense disruption of trade would ensue.

1699,the assassination of Sultan Mahmud Syah, last male ruler of Malacca Sultanate in Johor. Orang Laut has strong reaction against assassination, refusing to recognize the new Bendahara Dynasty. In 1709, Bendahara move its capital to Riau, about a quarter of entire population moved to assist Siamese against Bendahara ruler, because of questionable legitimacy of the new ruler.

In 1718, Raja Kechil of Minangkabau advernturer, claim to be the last male heir of the Malacca dynasty, gaining mass support from the Malay and Orang Laut

1722, Sultan Sulaiman Syah, the Bendahara ruler regained throne with the help of Buginese warriors and seamen from southwest Sulawesi. Raja Kechil , accompanied by Orang Laut (Orang Suku Bentan and Orang Suku Bulang)and some of his supporter established a new kingdom in Siak, following an expulsion from Johor.

The Buginese become an effective power bloc in Johor Sultanate, replacing Orang Laut's role in trading , patrolling, and military; and Orang Kaya's role in the principal decision making functions.

(extract from : Pirates of the East ,http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/1997 & The Encyclopedia of world history: ancient, medieval, and modern )

Orang Laut from Thailand

On the Thai islands north of Langkawi, along the exotic islands around the Andaman Sea, small black men perch on the rocks fishing with lengths of twine. Scattered along the shoreline are their villages: small huts with fish traps lying around them, trays of gamat (a type of grass) drying over smoking fires and traditional Malay boats pulled up onto the sand. These people are the last direct descendants of the Orang Laut or sea gypsies. Originally from the Spice Islands in Indonesia, the Orang Laut have migrated all the way here after ceasing their original role as pirates of the Straits of Malacca. The Malays of Southern Thailand still know the Orang Laut well.

Orang Laut, Moken and Bajau.

They form three distinct cultural groups stemming from archipelagic environments: the Orang Laut from estuaries of the Lingga-Riau-Straits of Malacca mudflats, the Moken from the Mergui Archipelago and the Bajau from the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines, in the adjoining islands of East Borneo, and those of eastern Indonesia, in particular the coasts of Celebes and Flores.

Their numbers remain somewhat of a mystery, partly due to imprecise census-taking. While they are counted as citizens in the countries where they are found, they are considered as ethnic minorities subject to discrimination reserved for “outsiders”.

Anthropologists put their total population at about 35,000. Yet they estimate that probably not even one third of this number still live by tradition–meaning with the sea.

Modern World

The Orang Laut were so important to the Malays and so respected by them that gradually the two communities fused into one. Malay men married Orang Laut girls; one by one the Orang Laut converted to Islam and adopted the Malay language and customs. In fact, some royal families in Malaysia have Orang Laut ancestors!

Those who retained their old way of nomadic life moved on to South Thailand where many still working as fishermen and remain one of the poorest minority groups of Asia. Education and economic status of this group remain at the lowest level. It is evident that those who did not assimilate into the Malay way of life have somewhat been a forgotten breed.

It is fortunate that the descendants of the sea gypsies continue to carry this intriguing chapter of Malaysia's history with them as they sail the Thai waters of the Andaman Sea. However, theirs remain one of the few dying sea gypsies population in South East Asia. Showcasing their unique heritage would enhance the lifestyle of these people. Another dying breed of sea gypsies relying on the Andaman Sea for their livelihood are the Moken people.

Related articles

1. A Orang Laut Story, http://wildshores.blogspot.com/2008/11/orang-laut-story.html
2. The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The inalienable gift of territory(2009), by Cynthia Chou, Published by Routledge
3. Where the spirits roam, by Esteban T. Magannon, Ethnologist, Inalco, France, http://www.unesco.org/courier/1998_08/uk/dossier/txt38.htm
4. Orang Laut, http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orang_Laut( In Malay)

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