Recording the past of “peoples without history”: Southeast Asia’s sea nomads


  • Barbara Watson Andaya Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i.


Sea people, historiography, state, marginality, “watery Zomia”


This essay has been developed from the conviction that scholars of all disciplines, particularly from Southeast Asia, must work together to prioritize the task of recording the traditions of “marginalized peoples” before practices, beliefs and memories disappear completely. Although anthropologists dominate contemporary studies, historians have much to offer, especially in dealing with the relationship between such groups and the state. Here I provide a background to historical work on sea peoples, tracking the evolution of the now accepted view that, traditionally, they were respected by land-based states and that this relationship was mutually beneficial. However, the demise of reciprocity combined with state pressure for the adoption of a sedentary existence led to a decline in regard for the maritime skills of sea peoples and the services they once provided. In seeking to resurrect a past that emphasizes indigenous
agency, there is a need to break out of disciplinary confines and develop methodologies and approaches that more effectively link the past with the present.



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1. It would be extremely helpful to have a historical overview of work on other sea nomad groups like that supplied in Cynthia Chou, The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The Inalienable Gift of Territory (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 50-58.

2. F.H. Verschuer, “De Badjos,” Tijdschrift van het Koninklijke Aardrijkskundig Genootschap 7 (1883): 1-7; Chapter 6 in Leonard Y. Andaya, Leaves of the Same Tree; Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006) provides the information collected by these early ethnographers.

3. Nicholas Tarling, Piracy and Politics in the Malay World: A Study of British Imperialism in Nineteenth-century South-East Asia (Singapore: Donald Moore,
1963). Tarling did not have access to Sopher’s book, which had appeared the year before.

4. Briget Abels, “Introduction,” in Oceans of Sound: Sama Dilaut Performing Arts, eds. Birgit Abels, Hanafi Hussin and Matthew Santamaria (Olms: Hildesheim, 2012), p. 14. Nuraini, “Indonesian Bajo history,” p. 141 compares the lack of research on the Sama Bajau with that of the Sama Dilaut in the Philippines and Sabah.

5. See above, fn. 88. The village in which these interviews took place is Sampela, located on Kaledupa Island in the Wakatobu National Park in Indonesia’s Banda Sea.




How to Cite

Andaya, Barbara Watson. 2020. “Recording the past of ‘peoples Without history’: Southeast Asia’s Sea Nomads”. ASIAN REVIEW 32 (1):5-33.



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