In January, taking advantage of a pause in my work in Jakarta, I visited the island of Flores. My aim, as usual, was to visit the Sama villages and collect their historical narratives. The Sama are maritime-oriented population widely dispersedly from the southern part of the Philippines southwards to Flores, the nearest Indonesian island to Australia, and to the farther eastern islands. In Flores, they are concentrated in the Labuhanbajo region, the western tip of the island, and in the Maumere region in the north. Their villages in the two regions are situated on the shores or in the small islands surrounded by coral reefs. A variety of fishing industries are a main source of their income.
I was keen to visit Flores, firstly due to my interest in the history of the
Sama migration. Colonial records show that in the second half of the nineteenth
century, the Sama "pirates" of the southern Philippines fled from attacks on
them by the Spanish navies and migrated to the northern coast of Flores. Across
the sea from the southern Philippines to eastern Indonesia, it seems that there
was a migration network, created by the Sama who had been moving as much as
possible in their attempts to avoid being boxed in by Western colonial expansion.
I was interested in tracing their movements to find out whether or not the
language and origin myths of the southern Philippine Sama had been preserved
among the Sama of Flores. Unfortunately, the language and the myths that I
encountered here were considerably different from those of the Philippines.
Nevertheless, I was very pleased to have made contact with the southern tip
of the 1,800-kilometre wide sea network that had been formed by the Sama over
a hundred years before.
The second purpose of my visit to the island was to meet the Sama fishing
seafarers who experienced long-distance fishing expeditions south-eastwards
from Flores and hear their stories regarding the expeditions. The Sama have
long engaged in a seasonal sailing from here to the south and east in search
of fishing grounds for sea cucumbers, trochus shells and shark's fins which
could be exported mainly to China. This fishing zone stretched from Sulawesi
to as far south-east as the coastal waters of northern Australia. Flores is
one of the bases for these fishing activities.
From the late 1980s, along the northern coast of Australia, there was a series
of incidents in which Sama fishing boats were seized for "illegally" crossing
into Australian territorial waters. Despite these incidents, the Sama continued
to sail their boats into the territorial waters in an attempt to gain access
to the rich fishing grounds. They searched the movements of the border patrol
boats, so as to outwit them, and adopted various tactics such as escaping into
waters that were too shallow for the patrol boats to enter. These incursions
led on to an additional eastwards expansion of the Sama's migration network,
to places such as Aru island in the east and Roti island in the south, spreading
Sama activity to the very limits of Indonesian national territory. Although
I stayed in the village for a short time, I was able to hear the excited accounts
on the historical developments of their fishing expeditions. What do the Sama
think of artificially drawn national boundaries, and how do they propose to
come to terms with them? For further consideration of issues like these, it
looks as though I will have to visit Flores again.