People of the Seas – Sama-Bajau

The term “Sama-Bajau” refers to a number of Austronesian ethnic groups in Maritime Southeast Asia.

The phrase describes a group of related individuals who are commonly known as Sama or Samah (formally A’a Sama, “Sama people”) or as Bajau, occasionally written Badjao, Bajaw, Badjau, Badjaw, Bajo, or Bayao.

They commonly go by sea in little wooden boats like the lepa, vinta, djenging, and perahu (layag in Meranau) (pilang). People know the Sama-Bajau ethnic tribes from Sabah for their long-lasting horseback riding traditions.

On the Tawi-Tawi islands of the Philippines, the Sama-Bajau make up the majority of the population. They are also present on other Sulu Archipelago islands, the coastal areas of Mindanao, northern and eastern Borneo, Sulawesi, and the eastern Indonesian islands. 

In the Philippines, they are grouped with the Moro people since they practice a similar faith. In the past fifty years, many Filipino Sama-Bajau have emigrated to the northern islands of the Philippines as well as the adjacent Sabah due to the unrest in Mindanao.


Other unrelated ethnic groups with comparable traditional lives have also been referred to as “sea nomads” or “sea gypsies,” including the Moken of the Burmese-Thai Mergui Archipelago, the Orang Laut of southeast Sumatra, and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. Other names for the Sama-Bajau include “Sea Gypsies” and “Sea Nomads.” The Sama-modern Bajau seem to have moved away from places they used to live because the sea cucumber trade (called “trepang”) grew.


Sama-Bajau refers to a group of several closely related indigenous people who see themselves as a single distinct bangsa (“ethnic group” or “nation”). Despite the fact that they never identify themselves as “Bajau” in the Philippines, these ethnic groups are sometimes referred to as Sama or Bajau. They instead refer to themselves by the names of their tribes, which are ordinarily the names of their present or ancestors’ houses. For instance, the maritime Sama-Bajau chose to identify themselves as Sama Dilaut or Sama Mandilaut (literally, “sea Sama” or “ocean Sama”) in the Philippines, but they are known as Bajau Laut in Malaysia.

In the past, the word “Sama” in the Philippines only referred to the Sama-Bajau tribes that were more seagoing and boat-oriented, or nomadic, whereas “Bajau” only referred to the Sama-Bajau groups that were more sedentary and settled. Since most Sama-Bajau no longer live on boats and instead build houses in the shallow water along the coast, these differences are becoming less and less important.

According to some theories, the word “sama” comes from the Austronesian root “sama,” which can also indicate “together,” “same,” or “kin.” The precise origin of the exonym Bajau is unknown. The phrase is allegedly a corruption of the Malay word berjauh, which means “moving farther apart” or “the state of being absent,” according to certain authors.
A possible precursor is the Bruneian Malay word bajaul, which means “to fish.” In the Philippines, the word “Bajau” has negative associations with poverty, unlike the name “Sama.” This is especially true since it is most often used to refer to Sama-Bajau people who beg for a living.

The Sama-Bajau were classified as “Bajau” by British officials in Sabah, and their birth certificates reflected this classification. The Sama-Bajau in Malaysia occasionally self-identify as “Bajau” or even “Malay” for political reasons (though the preferred title is “Sama”). This is so that the Sama-Bajau can use the name “Bajau” and be recognized by the government as Bumiputeras (indigenous natives). As a result, ethnic Malays are guaranteed easy access to the special benefits offered to them. This is true, especially for recent Moro Filipino immigration.

The indigenous Sama-Bajau people of Malaysia have started using names from their ancestors, like Simunul, to identify themselves. The Spanish priest Francisco Combés describes the Sama-Bajau as the Lutao (“one who floats in the water”) in his Historia de las Islas de Mindanao, Iolo, y sus adyacentes (1667) and asserts that they erected their houses on the sea because they “detest land.” People said they were from the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao and that they were very skilled at building ships and were often used as crews.

History and Origin

For a significant portion of their history, the Sama-Bajau were nomadic, seagoing people who relied on trade and subsistence fishing to survive. The Sama-Bajau people, who inhabit boats, see themselves as non-aggressive. They kept close to the shore by constructing their homes on stilts, and they sailed in lepa, homemade boats that many people lived in. A DNA test done in 2021 revealed that some Sama-Bajau have Austroasiatic ancestry.

Oral traditions

The Sama-Bajau were once land-dwelling people who were the subjects of a monarch who had a daughter, according to the majority of the Sama-tarsila Bajau’s (royal genealogy) and oral traditions. They claim that they were given the order to locate her after she was taken hostage by a neighboring country or carried off captive by a storm or flood and hauled out to sea. They tried to do this but failed, and fearing the king’s wrath, they decided to go on as nomads.

According to one such account that is commonly accepted among the Sama-Bajau, the Sama-Bajau of Borneo are supposed to be descended from Johorean royal guards who were accompanying a princess named Dayang Ayesha to her marriage to a ruler in Sulu. But the princess also won the Sultan of Brunei’s affection (reportedly Muhammad Shah of Brunei). As they were sailing to Sulu, they were attacked by Bruneians. The princess was taken hostage and married to the Sultan of Brunei in her place. This myth is well-known among Sabah Sama-Bajau because it supports their claim of “Malay-ness” and deepens their ties to Islam, giving them an advantage under Malaysia’s Bumiputera regulations.

After losing the princess, the escorts decided against going back to Johor and instead settled in Borneo and Sulu (similar to the usage of the name “Bajau” instead of “Sama”). However, the Sama-ties Bajau’s to the Sultanate of Gowa rather than to Johor are given more weight in the oral histories of the Indonesian Sama-Bajau. Their several origin stories each tell the story of a royal princess who perished in a flood. After being found, she wed a prince or king of Gowa. It is thought that the Sama-Bajau of Indonesia were their progeny. On the other hand, other, more mythological versions completely omit the princess. For instance, a Sama-Bajau mythology in the Philippines claims that a massive stingray mistakenly towed the Sama-Bajau towards what is now Zamboanga. The pre-Hispanic name of Zamboanga City, “Samboangan,” which translates to “mooring place” in English, is derived from the original Sinama name for a mooring pole, sambuang or samboang.

Modern research on origins

Since these kingdoms were created too recently to be able to account for the racial variation, modern researchers have largely rejected origin stories that claimed descent from Johor or Gowa. But whether the Sama-Bajau are indigenous to their current territory or immigrants from elsewhere is still up for discussion. Their linguistic makeup distinguishes them from the local populations, especially the Tausg, who are more closely related to the Visayan ethnic groups in the northern Philippines.

According to anthropologist David E. Sopher’s 1965 hypothesis, the Sama-Bajau and the Orang Laut are descended from ancient “Veddoid” (Australoid) hunter-gatherers from the Riau Archipelago who intermarried with Austronesians. They continued to live as hunters and gatherers, but as subsequent Austronesian invaders spread over Southeast Asia, they grew more reliant on the sea and established a stronger maritime civilization. However, according to anthropologist Harry Arlo Nimmo, the Sama-Bajau are native to the Sulu Archipelago, Sulawesi, and/or Borneo and do not share a common ancestor with the Orang Laut.

In contrast to the Orang Laut, the Sama-ancestors of the Bajau people lived on boats, according to Nimmo. In a more recent study, conducted in 1985, the anthropologist Alfred Kemp Pallasen contrasted oral traditions with historical information and linguistic evidence. He dates the ethnogenesis of the Sama-Bajau to 800 CE, disregarding any earlier connections between the Sama-Bajau and the Orang Laut. His hypothesis was that a proto-Sama-Bajau population lived on the Zamboanga Peninsula and practiced slash-and-burn farming and fishing.

They were the first people to live in Zamboanga and the Sulu archipelago, and they had been there for a very long time before the Tausg people moved there from their ancestral homelands on the northern coast of eastern Mindanao around the 13th century. They shared a strong cultural and linguistic influence from Malay kingdoms with the Tausg; by the 15th century, they had been Indianized, and by the 16th century, they had been Islamicized. They also engaged in extensive trade with China in order to get “luxury” marine products such as trepang, pearls, and shark fin. In the tenth century, some of these people left Zamboanga and settled in Basilan, Sulu, Borneo, and Sulawesi, developing a wholly maritime culture.

They reached Borneo in the eleventh century. Today, the vast majority of researchers that study Austronesian peoples agree with this hypothesis. This would also account for the Sama-practice Bajau’s of agricultural rituals while living on boats, despite the fact that they are only fishermen. More linguistic evidence points to Borneo as the proto-Sama-Bajau people’s actual homeland. Genetic testing on three ethnic groups—the Derawan of Northeast Borneo, the Kotabaru of Southeast Borneo, and the Kendari of Southeast Sulawesi—showed that their ancestors were from southern Sulawesi.

It is believed that a Papuan group and the Bugis people mixed around the fourth century CE, which is when their ethnogenesis took place. The authors claim that the Sama migrated from eastern Borneo to northern Borneo and the southern Philippines in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE. After leaving eastern Borneo, the Sama are said to have returned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE. They claim that they were forced to relocate due to the Srivijaya Empire’s rise in power and trade activities.
Given their genetic diversity, the Sama-Bajau may have interacted extensively with the surrounding population or may have adopted the language and culture of the coastal towns where they first settled. However, the study is restricted to the Indonesian Bajo subgroup, and the authors suggest further investigation of the Sama-Bajau populations in the region.

A genomic study carried out in 2021 discovered a specific genetic signal among the Sama-Bajau of the Philippines and Indonesia. They are recognized as descendants of a historical migration of hunter-gatherer tribes with Austroasiatic affiliations from mainland Southeast Asia over the now-submerged land bridges of Sundaland between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago thanks to this genetic marker, which the authors refer to as the “Sama heritage.” The admixture of these populations was caused by both the pre-existing Negrito populations and the later arrivals of the Austronesian peoples (also adopting an Austronesian language in the process). They belong to the same genetic lineage as the Lua and Mlabri peoples of mainland Southeast Asia, as well as the Manobo people of mainland Mindanao.

The study also demonstrates that roughly 1000 years ago, some South Asian gene flow started to affect Sama people. The Sama Dilaut was the most traditional and had the most Sama ancestry. However, it was also discovered in other ethnic groups that do not self-identify as Sama in Palawan, Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

Historical records

A Maranao prince who married a Sama-Bajau princess is included among the hero Bantugan’s ancestors in the Maranao epic poem Darangen. As the Sama-first Bajau’s recorded event, it is estimated that it took place about 840 AD. The fact that they have always lived in the Sulu archipelago and some parts of Mindanao and were there before the Tausg came is also a point in their favor.

Antonio Pigafetta of the Magellan-Elcano expedition first mentioned the Sama-Bajau in 1521 on what is now the Zamboanga Peninsula. According to Pigafetta, “the residents of the island make their dwellings in boats and do not live differently.” The Dutch colonies in Sulawesi in 1675, Thomas Forrest in Sulawesi and eastern Borneo in the 1770s, and Spenser St. John on the west coast of Borneo in the 1850s and 1860s are only a few examples of other Europeans who have since written about them.

The Sama-Bajau were frequently referenced in connection with maritime raids (mangahat), piracy, and the slave trade in Southeast Asia during the time of European colonialism. This implies that both non-Sama-Bajau groups like the Iranun and at least some Sama-Bajau groups from northern Sulu, like the Banguingui, were involved. As part of their extensive pirate activities, they routinely sailed from Sulu to the Moluccas and back. In addition to early European colonial records, they might possibly have been the pirates referenced in Chinese and Arabic literature concerning the Straits of Singapore from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Sama-Bajau usually worked as low-ranking crew members on war boats. They were directly under the command of Iranun squadron leaders, who in turn reported to the Tausg datu of the Sultanate of Sulu. During the Bugis Sultanate of Bone, a small Sama-Bajau settlement existed in Sulawesi’s Bajoe Harbour. The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army was a key player in both the First and Second Bone Wars when it launched a punitive expedition in 1824–1825 in retaliation for attacks by the Bugis and Makassar on adjacent Dutch garrisons. After Bone fell, the majority of the Sama-Bajau moved to other areas of Sulawesi. While the British colonial authority of Sabah was in effect, the Sama-Bajau took part in two uprisings against the North Borneo Chartered Company: the Mat Salleh revolt from 1894 to 1905 and the Pandasan Affair in 1915.

Modern Sama-Bajau

Despite their challenging living conditions, the Sama-Bajau of today are thought of as composed, amiable, and charming people. But a large number of them live as nomads and aren’t educated, can’t read or write, and are poor. Fewer Sama-Bajau are born today and spend most of their time at sea. Assimilation of cultures and modernity are considered to be the two key factors. The fall of the Sultanate of Sulu, which supported the Sama-traditional Bajau when they bartered fish for agricultural goods, is particularly to blame. Because cash-based fish markets have replaced the seasonal commerce at mooring spots, a more land-based lifestyle is necessary for greater market penetration. Also, Bajau has been moved to the mainland because of some very controversial things the Malaysian government has done.

Because the majority of Tausg people viewed the Sama-Bajau, who live on boats, as inferior and outsiders, they have historically discriminated against them in the Sulu Archipelago (the traditional Tausg word for them is the extremely insulting Luwaan, meaning “spat out” or “outcast”). Since they continued to embrace animist folk religions, either exclusively or in conjunction with Islam, they were also shunned by other Moro tribes who viewed them as “uncivilized pagans.” A boat’s residence and the shoreline of Sama-Bajau possessed an extremely low rank in the Suluan Tausg Sultanate, which was based on caste. This still holds true now, as the Tausg continue to show significant cultural bias toward the Sama-Bajau.

The majority of Tausg Abu Sayyaf insurgents and pirates routinely commit theft, extortion, kidnapping, and brutality against the Sama-Bajau. Due to this persecution and the continued slaughter in Muslim Mindanao, many Sama-Bajau have left the country. Typically, they move to Malaysia and Indonesia since there are more job opportunities there. Even in Malaysia, their existence is controversial nevertheless, as the majority of them are unauthorized immigrants. Most undocumented Sama-Bajau immigrants enter Malaysia through outlying islands. They then proceed to the Sabah mainland in search of manual labor positions. Some Filipinos go to the northern islands of the country, particularly the Visayas, Palawan, the northern coast of Mindanao, and even southern Luzon.

The Sama-Bajau, who live aboard boats, are stereotyped by Filipinos as beggars and squatters, despite the fact that these locations are frequently safer and more economically and socially isolated. The pasture and fishing lands of the historic Sama Bajau extended into Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They also occasionally go as far as the Arafura and Timor Seas.

Despite efforts to grant them specific rights to fish in traditional areas, the majority of Sama-Bajau continue to experience legal discrimination. A Memorandum of Understanding from 1974, for instance, allows “Indonesian traditional fisherman” to fish in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which includes the traditional fishing grounds of Sama-Bajau fishermen.
Concerns concerning overfishing and the sabotage of Sama-Bajau vessels have been expressed as a result of corporate sea trawlers’ invasion of these seas for illegal fishing. In 2014, Indonesian authorities burned six Filipino Sama-Bajau boats that had been seen fishing in their territorial seas. For the Sama-Bajau, who often live on their boats, this is a very serious problem.

Fishing with cyanide, blasting for coral, chopping down mangrove trees, and other damaging and illegal actions are usually associated with Sama-Bajau fishermen. The Sama-Bajau are believed to participate in these activities mostly as a result of sedentarization brought on by the restrictions modern nation-states have imposed on their nomadic culture. They have few other options to compete with commercial and land-based fishermen, who are better equipped and make enough money to feed their families because of their now-restricted regions.

The Indonesian government and a number of non-governmental groups have launched a number of programs that give Sama-Bajau alternative sustainable livelihood ventures in order to stop these habits (such as the use of fish aggregating devices instead of explosives). The hamlet of stilt-house Sama-Bajau has also benefited from the construction of schools and health centers (puskesmas). Similar programs have also been launched in the Philippines.

Due to the loss of their normal fishing grounds, several Sama-Bajau refugee tribes in the Philippines are forced to engage in begging (agpangamu in Sinama), particularly diving for coins thrown by inter-island ferry passengers (angedjo). Manufacturing jewelry, selling grated cassava (magliis), and weaving mats (ag-tepoh) are some additional traditional sources of income (especially from pearls).

Recently, local governments in the Philippines have stepped up their efforts to help Sama-Bajau refugees get back on their feet and learn how to support themselves. The Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources started an initiative in 2016 to offer fishing boats, equipment, and other resources to Sama-Bajau villages in Luzon so they may maintain their livelihoods.

Boat dwelling

They live in houseboats, the majority of which are lepa, balutu, and vinta, and often only have room for one nuclear family (usually five people). The houseboats collaborate when sailing in flotillas with houseboats of close relatives during fishing expeditions and ceremonial ceremonies (a family alliance). A married couple might choose to sail with either the husband’s or wife’s family. They stay at sambuangan sites with other flotillas all year long. These sites are usually shared by extended families as well.

These mooring places are usually under the supervision of a headsman or elder. The mooring locations are near waterways or significant cultural landmarks like island cemeteries. Clans of the Sama-Bajau periodically unite, usually for important events like weddings or festivals. They frequently abide by a distance of 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) from their “home” moorage. They occasionally engage in trade with other Sama-Bajau groups as well as communities without a land base. For fishing, trade, or to see relatives, the Sama-Bajau tribes may frequently migrate to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The traditional sunscreen used by Sama-Bajau women is called burak or borak and is made from rice, herbs, and water weeds.

Free-diving adaptations

The Sama-Bajau are well known for having exceptional free-diving abilities. Divers spend more than 5 hours a day under water, which is the “highest daily apnea diving time documented in humans.” To facilitate diving and sea-based hunting, some Bajau intentionally damage their eardrums at an early age. Many senior Sama-Bajau suffer from hearing loss as a result. Through more than a thousand years of subsistence freediving coupled with their existence on the sea, the Bajau appear to have gained various genetic adaptations to support their way of life.

A 2018 study found that Bajau spleens are almost 50% bigger than those of the Saluan, an adjacent land-based group. They can retain more haemoglobin-rich blood in this way, and when the spleen contracts at depth, more of this blood is released into the bloodstream, allowing for breath-hold dives that last longer. A PDE10A gene variant appears to be responsible for this distinction. Among those that appear to have been selected in the Bajau are the genes BDKRB2, which is linked to peripheral vasoconstriction and is involved in the diving response; FAM178B, a regulator of carbonic anhydrase; and another one linked to the response to hypoxia. It was shown that these adaptations most likely originated through natural selection and that the investigated Bajau group had a noticeably greater frequency of the relevant alleles compared to other similar eastern Asian populations. Even though it is not known if this trait is passed down from parent to child, it has been found that the Moken, a separate group, have better underwater vision than Europeans.

Music, dance, and arts

Songs from the Sama-Bajau tradition are passed down orally from generation to generation. At wedding ceremonies, songs are generally sung on instruments like the pulau (flute), gabbang (xylophone), tagunggo’ (kulintang gongs), biula (violin), and, more recently, electronic keyboards (kanduli pagkawin). Traditional Sama-Bajau music includes isun-isun, runsai, najat, syair, nasid, bua-bua anak, and tinggayun tunes, among others. One of the more recognizable Sama-Bajau song examples is the trio of love ballads known as Sangbayan. These are Duldang Duldang, Pakiring Pakiring, and Dalling Dalling. The most well-known of these three is Pakiring Pakiring, usually referred to as “moving the hips,” but among Tausg people it is more commonly referred to as Dayang Dayang because it has been modernized and marketed. The origin of the song—whether Sama-Bajau or Tausg—is a matter of debate, but the Tausg insist it is a product of their society. Most Sama-Bajau folk songs are being lost, in part because newer generations are becoming less interested in them. The Sama-Bajau people are well known for their mastery of tagongo music, weaving, and embroidery.

In the visual arts, the Sama-Bajau people have a long-standing tradition of carving and sculpture known as okil (also known as okil-okil or ukkil). Both houseboats and items used in animistic rites were decorated with them. They were mostly used for Sama grave markers, which may still be seen at their long-established, customary burial grounds on various (sometimes uninhabited) islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Some of the earliest okil sculptures may be seen in these, which are frequently constructed of coral and limestone.
Later, grave markers constructed from the deceased’s boat or from wood that has been specially carved have become popular. These are typically carved into anthropomorphic representations of the departed.

The frequent bunting and food presents left on these graves are evidence of the Sama people’s long-standing ancestor worship (anito) traditions. Later, Okil had a significant impact on the okir traditions of the Maranao people.


Governments have conferred honorific titles on some Sama-Bajau headsmen (such as “Datu,” “Maharaja,” or “Panglima”), although these headsmen traditionally only held a small amount of power over the Sama-Bajau population. The clan cluster surrounding mooring sites has historically been the largest political entity in the Sama-Bajau culture, which has a strong individualistic history. In contrast to the majority of the adjacent ethnic groups, Sama-Bajau society was also more or less egalitarian and lacked a caste system. Their uniqueness is presumably a result of the delicate nature of their relationships with other land-based populations for access to requirements like water and wood. When a relationship ends or when pressure from land-based rulers becomes too intense, the Sama-Bajau prefer to simply move. Kinship and reciprocal effort are valued more highly than formal authority in order to maintain social cohesion. There are a few exceptions, too, such as the Jama Mapun and the Sama Pangutaran of the Philippines, who maintain the nation’s historical pre-Hispanic caste system with lords, notables, commoners, and serfs as its social strata.

Thank you to Wikipedia® as one of the main sources of information of this page as well as the researchers of our team.
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