Located off the coast of the Philippines are a truly seafaring people who have forged a nomadic lifestyle that’s persisted for generations. Though the world around them has changed drastically, these water-dwelling people have managed to preserve their way of life through fishing and trading. It’s a simple life for the Sama-Bajau, one that’s filled with hard work and a roving lifestyle that is as transient as the sea itself. Here is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most enterprising people on the planet.
1. Where to Find Them
Sama-Bajau is actually a collective term that refers to several groups of indigenous people in the area. Most commonly, the Sama-Bajau are found in the Philippines. They live off the coast of a series of islands on the eastern end of the island nation.
2. A Royal Heritage
According to oral tradition, the Sama-Bajau were originally a land faring people who acted as the royal guard to a king. When the king’s beloved fiancé was swept out to sea, the Sama-Bajau were ordered onto boats to find her and bring her home to her love. They spent several years searching for their lost mistress, only to come up empty-handed. As a result, the Sama-Bajau have stayed on the water, adhering to their duty and avoiding the wrath of the vengeful king.
3. First Recorded Sighting
While the written history of the Sama-Bajau goes all the way back to 840 AD, their first recording in European history is attributed to Antonio Pigafetta in 1521; Pigafetta recorded that even back in 1521, the Sama-Bajau were living a life entirely on the water, erecting homes on the ocean and not venturing to land.
4. The Golden Age of Piracy
During the European colonial period, at least one or two of the groups that fall into the Sama-Bajau umbrella were associated with an extensive range of piracy, sea raids, and the slave trade. It’s not unthinkable to believe the Sama-Bajau would put their sailing knowledge to lucrative use, however that seems a far cry from the peaceful traders who occupy the waters of the Philippines today.
5. Historical Objectification
Historically, the Sama-Bajau have faced discrimination because of their unique lifestyle. The dominant, land-dwelling Tausūg people viewed the Sama-Bajau as “inferior” and treated the nomadic people as outcasts. What’s more, the current of Islam running through the Sama-Bajau have made them a target of objectification.
6. The Practice of Animism
One of the reasons that the Sama-Bajau have faced scrutiny in the past is thanks to their practice of animism. Though it can’t be said of the entirety of the Sama-Bajau, some of the peoples within the culture are known to practice animism, the belief that everything in the physical world — animals, rocks, trees, all that — possess a spiritual essence.
7. Making Money in Modern Times
As sea-based people, the Sama-Bajau make their living in modern times thanks to the fishing trade. Unfortunately, as the near-shore dwelling people have run up against modern political borders — specifically the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia — it has become harder for them to forge their living.
8. Free-Diving Experts
The Sama-Bajau people are world renowned for their free-diving ability. Generations spent largely at sea have allowed them to develop minute physical adaptations that allow them to see better and survive longer underwater. Free-diving runs through the culture, as well, as some people in the Sama-Bajau actually rupture their eardrums at an early age in order to become better at diving.
9. A Reputation for Giving
Unfortunately, due to the very nature of their nomadic lifestyle, a sizable portion of Sama-Bajau are poorly educated and impoverished. That hasn’t stopped the Sama-Bajau from garnering a reputation for hospitality and charity throughout the region.
10. All the Languages
Within the umbrella of Sama-Bajau, there exist as many as ten functioning languages. What’s interesting about this linguistic development is that the distinction of dialects from group to group among the Sama-Bajau is so distinct that they were given their own branch within the grouping of Filipino languages.
11. Life on the Water
For the most part, the Sama-Bajau live on their boats. Typically, these vessels accommodate an averaged sized family (about five people). Individual families tend to travel in larger groupings of boats, branching out as married couples choose to build their own boat and travel alongside either the groom or the bride’s flotilla.
12. Communal Anchoring
At various times throughout the year, the Sama-Bajau will anchor just offshore at various mooring points that are scattered throughout the region. These mass gatherings are usually presided over by one individual, and are usually for some reason, be it a wedding, a funeral, or something as seemingly mundane as gathering fresh water.
13. A Diminishing Lifestyle
Perhaps it’s a necessity of the modern era, but the amount of Sama-Bajau who are born at sea and who live the majority of their lives on the sea is dwindling. It’s not environmental concerns, it’s a simple case of cultural assimilation that’s causing several of the younger generation to move inland in order to pursue different pursuits than the generation that’s come before them.
14. Horse Culture
The Sama-Bajau aren’t entirely based on the water. Some of the people based on the Philippines’ western coast are expert equestrians. In the region of Malaysia, horses themselves are extremely rare, which makes an entire group of people who make their reputation on horseback even more remarkable.
15. Egalitarian Migrants
Though modern governments in the region have done their part to try and impose their will upon the Sama-Bajau, they’ve been largely unsuccessful. For the most part, the only authority is sparse, at best, and the society within the Sama-Bajau is incredible egalitarian. The people’s fragile relationship with the land-based inhabitants have created a culture that’s always on the move, yet always open to visitors.