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The Borneo Sea Gypsy : Who is Pala’uh & How to Know Them

Who is the Borneo Sea Gypsy?

Trading Market of Bajau people at Semporna, Sabah Borneo

The Pala’uh or also called by westerners as ‘sea gypsy’ was in the group of Sama-Bajau refers to several Austronesian ethnic groups of Maritime Southeast Asia with their origins from southern Philippines. The name collectively refers to related people who usually call themselves the Sama or Samah; or are known by the exonyms Bajau (also spelt Badjao, Bajaw, Badjau, Badjaw, Bajo or Bayao and Samal or Siyamal-the latter being considered offensive).

They usually live a seaborne lifestyle and use small wooden sailing vessels such as ‘perahu’, lepa, pilang, and vinta (lepa-lepa). Some Sama-Bajau (Bajau Kota Belud) groups native to the most north big land of Borneo (Sabah) are also known for their traditional horse culture. 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 afterwards, they reported were the second-largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

How to know them?

Me with the Bajau children at Salakan Island, Semporna Sabah Borneo

Sama-Bajau has sometimes been called the “Sea Gypsies” or “Sea Nomads,” terms that have also been used for non-related ethnic groups with similar geographically lifestyles (live as a sea-fearer, some house on boat, stilt houses, or live near to the coastline), such as the Moken of the Burmese-Thai Mergui Archipelago and the Orang Laut of southeastern Sumatra, the Riau Islands of Indonesia, and the Rengit’s people at Johor in Peninsular of Malaysia.

The new outward spread of the Sama-Bajau from older inhabited areas seems to have been associated with the development of sea trade in sea cucumber (Balat). Like the term of Kadazan-Dusun, Sama-Bajau is also a collective term, used to describe several closely related indigenous people who consider themselves a single distinct bangsa (“ethnic group” or “nation”). It is accepted that these groups of individuals can be termed Sama or Bajau, though they never call themselves only-“Bajau” in the Philippines. Instead, they call themselves with the names of their tribes, usually the place they live or location of origin. For example, Bajau from Tabawan Island, called themselves as Bajau-Tabawan or the sea-going Sama-Bajau prefer to call themselves the Sama Dilaut or Sama Man-ri-Laut (literally “sea Sama” or “ocean Sama”) in the Philippines; while in Malaysia, they identified as Bajau Laut or Pala’uh.

Historically in the Philippines, “Bajau” was used to describe the more sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic groups. Even these distinctions are fading as the majority of Sama-Bajau have long since abandoned boat living, most for Sama–style piling houses in the coastal shallows. “Sama” is believed to have originated from the Austronesian root word sama meaning “together,” “same,” or “we”. The exact origin of the exonym “Bajau” is unclear. Some authors have proposed that it is derived from a corruption of the Malay word berjauh (“getting further apart” or “the state of being away”). Other possible origins include the Brunei Malay word bajaul, which means “to fish”. The term “Bajau” has pejorative connotations in the Philippines, indicating poverty in comparison to the term “Sama”. Notably, on the east coast of North Borneo, Pala’uh commonly used to refer the poverty-stricken Sama-Bajau who make a living through begging, marginalised, not educated and feral people. They are in the lower caste group in the Sama-Bajau community.

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