Table of Contents
Conference Proceedings

List journal issues




Maritime Ideologies and Ethnic Anomalies:
Sea Space and the Structure of Subalternity
in the Southeast Asian Littoral

Jennifer L. Gaynor
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


            This paper is an effort to consider how conceptions of sea space have been integral to political imaginaries in Southeast Asia. While in other parts of the world, national ideologies were often expressed in relation to a homeland, for Indonesia and the Dutch East Indies before it, geopolitical notions of place included the seas in increasingly explicit and more territorialized ways. While I touch on imperial, colonial, national and post-national settings, I focus here primarily on how the space of the seas was articulated in maritime ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

            In addition to examining maritime ideologies from different historical moments, I also explore how they may inform our understanding of changes in the configuration of social difference in the region, especially in the Southeast Asian littoral. Maritime ideologies offer a privileged view into political imaginaries, yet they also suggest how the structures of governance were changing during the late-colonial and post-independence periods. These changing structures of governance, linked to increasingly territorialized notions of space and belonging, have played an important role in shaping contemporary Indonesian ideas of "ethnic" difference and the apparently anomalous position that "sea people" occupy in relation to others.

            I begin the paper with a look at the "free seas," Hugo de Groot's Mare Liberum composed in the early seventeenth century. Despite its mercantilist setting, the Mare Liberum had an anti-imperial rationale └ opposed, that is, to Iberian domination in both hemispheres. Ironically, a similar sense of the seas as the common inheritance of all mankind appears in the remarks of a contemporaneous Southeast Asian ruler who protested against Dutch attempts to monopolize trade. In the late colonial context these seas appear along with their island chains in a grand image of archipelagic empire. Nusantara, a fourteenth century Java-centric term of reference for others, was reinvented  in this nineteenth century context and it went through various permutations to become, much later in the twentieth century, an icon of a unitary national territory. Maritime ideologies were also a vehicle for the agendas of early twentieth century anti-colonial nationalists. They used the Malay term tanah air, the "land (and) seas" or "land of seas" to refer, as others might use the term "homeland," to the space of national belonging. I draw attention, finally, to the most recent incarnation of Nusantara in emergent visions of the archipelago as an Islamic political space, and point out how this rendition of sea space in a post-national Southeast Asia, like earlier maritime ideologies, proffers an alternative political imaginary.

Why "maritime ideology" ?

            It has often been said that the seas in Southeast Asia, rather than an obstacle or hindrance, are a unifying factor for the peoples who live along the region's rivers and coasts.1 The seas may also provide a geographical framework for discussing the possibility of region-wide themes.2 Comparing the seas of Southeast Asia with the Mediterranean, O.W. Wolters pointed out that in Braudel's portrayal, the unity of the Mediterranean was created by the movements of people over the sea routes └ movements that had much to do with the growth of urban-based trade. In Southeast Asia, by contrast, maritime communications did not lead to similar permanent and substantial polities.3 Wolters reckoned that when we examine the sea's influence on shaping history in Southeast Asia, we do not stumble upon a useful theme, for in his view, the seas there fit into a polycentric landscape.4 Nevertheless, he went on to suggest another way that the seas had an impact on the region's history, namely, the influence they exerted on the possibilities for an intra-regional communality of historical experience. In connection with this idea, rather than a Southeast Asian "Mediterranean," Wolters argued instead for a "single ocean" stretching from East Africa to South Asia and on to the coasts of China. He viewed this "single ocean" as a "vast zone of neutral water," "with a genuine unity of it's own."5 Although his temporal focus largely predates mine, Wolters' perspective on Southeast Asian ocean space as part of a "vast zone of neutral water" "with a genuine unity of its own" provides a sharp contrast with my aims here. The thrust of this paper is that, on the contrary, Southeast Asian seas have been a symbolic and material resource significant to imperial, national, local, and "ethnic" contexts. Whatever sea-related "unities" have been made to appear as natural, the seas have hardly comprised a "neutral" medium, but have rather been the terrain, as it were, of contestation.

            The view of ideology employed in this paper does not reduce it to the notion of an illusion, a mask or false consciousness. Rather, the conception of ideology used here is primarily concerned with the representation of unities where, if not contestations, social divisions certainly abound.6 I am especially interested here in the formulation of apparently legitimate political visions for social groupings └ for collectivities either explicitly named or simply presupposed └ whose internal differences are effaced. These apparently legitimate political visions are, in effect, political imaginaries that use different versions of the space of Southeast Asian seas └ different seascapes └ as their vehicle. Like other political imaginaries groping for legitimacy, the maritime ideologies I examine here reach back to the past for "names, battle cries and costumes" and project this "time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language" onto claims in the present and for possible futures.7

            A history such as the one I suggest here, which looks at ideological forms └ discourses in which multiple social divisions are effaced └ is by no means a substitute for studying either the multifarious things that people do, or their empirical distribution in a production process. This is an important caveat. Yet, despite the disorientation that may come from analyzing such decontextualized material, ideological discourse is, for all that, a crucial part of the social. Once we recognize that

       ideology operates through language and that language is a medium of social action, we must also acknowledge that ideology is partially constitutive of what, in our societies, is "real." Ideology is not a pale image of the social world but is a part of that world, a creative and constitutive element of our social lives.8

To study ideology, then, is to study, in part, how these creative actions serve to sustain the organization of power in unequal social relations.9

Empires real and imagined

            While in this paper I trace a history of the region's seas as an area that, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, becomes increasingly territorialized, it should at least be mentioned that enormous swaths of ocean were claimed as territory in the sixteenth century. Balboa, for instance, had claimed the entire Pacific for the King of Spain in 1513. Although such a claim to the entire ocean "was never legally accepted,"10 by the end of the sixteenth century, not only did Spain claim the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, but Portugal claimed the Atlantic south of Morocco as well as the Indian Ocean.11

            Certainly the Dutch did not accept this. Although technically the Dutch were in revolt against Spain and not at war with Portugal, both, under the same sovereign, claimed the right to exclude all "foreigners" from navigating or entering these waters.12  Hugo de Groot's legal treatise Mare Liberum, or Freedom of the Seas, composed in 1604-5, argued against the ownership of the high seas, and it did so in the interests of Dutch trade. The Mare Liberum was part of a larger work, De Jure Praedae, or The Law of Prize,13 which was composed after a decision by the Dutch Admiralty court to investigate the seizure of the Portuguese vessel, the Sta. Catarina and to determine what to do with her cargo.14 The Sta. Catarina had been seized near the mouth of the Johor River and the present-day Straits of Singapore by the Dutch Admiral Jakob van Heemskerk in 1603 └ the year after the founding of the Dutch East India Company, or VOC.15

            Whether the services of Hugo de Groot, or Grotius └ a scholar of law, classics, and a theologian └ were sought to provide the strongest possible legal and moral justification for the Dutch action,16 or rather, in an apologia, to popularize it,17 the framework in which Grotius interpreted this capture was patently not just about trade rivalries. It was also about the United Provinces' revolt against Iberian domination and the extension of this struggle to the waters of Southeast Asia. That this was an important framework for Grotius himself becomes clear if we turn to his poetry.18 In a series of elegiacs called the Maurice Epigrams, written for Prince Maurice, Grotius celebrated the exploits of the Dutch army and navy from 1588 to 1609. One of these poems, a tetratisch called Itinera Indicana, or Expedition to the East Indies, was composed in 1602, before the Sta. Catarina was captured.19 In Itinera Indicana, Grotius speaks of a fleet that comes far from the Northern sky └ or perhaps hemisphere, "a free people, Batavians by name; sole hope and effort lest both skies know a single master."20 The Batavians in question were not so much the settlers on Java, but the ancient Batavians, who provided the Dutch with a myth of descent from magnificent ancestors predating Spanish rule. This myth, re-presented as a historical continuity, served in part as justification for the Dutch Provinces' revolt against Spain. It was, then, within this anti-imperial framework and the effort to imagine and establish a Dutch polity with a legitimate sovereign that the Mare Liberum was articulated, and the events it referred to would in turn anchor the efforts of the Dutch to expand their own influence in the region.21

            Grotius based his arguments in De Jure Praedae partly on the notion, also common to the Spanish sources he consulted, that the act of preventing or actively impeding a party from exercising a right bestowed by nature is in itself a sufficient legal ground upon which to initiate and wage a just war.22 Ironically, a notion similar to "the free seas," based less on "natural" than on arguably more theological grounds, was put forward by the ruler of Makassar in 1615, in protest against the Dutch:

  God has made the earth and sea, has divided the earth among mankind and given the sea in common. It is a thing unheard of that anyone should be forbidden to sail the seas─23

            In the seventeenth century, the South Sulawesi state of Makassar, which had a large-scale transit trade in spices from the Moluccas to other parts, had no choice but to fight the VOC's efforts to gain a monopoly in the nutmeg and clove trade. In the first half of the century, military and naval preponderance still lay with Makassar, although not without a struggle, but the balance shifted significantly in the second half of the century. Objections to the prohibition of trade with Company islands and ports were most clearly expressed by Sultan Hasanuddin during Dutch negotiations for a treaty to do so in 1659. Such a prohibition ran counter to the commandment of God, he said,

  who created the world in order that all people should have the enjoyment thereof, or do you believe that God has reserved these islands, so far away from the place of your nations, for your trade alone─?24

Within a decade, with the help of Makassar's rivals, Ternate and the Bugis realm of Bon■, the Dutch took over the port of Makassar, dramatically altering the dynamics of trade and power in the region.

            Despite his mocking, ironic tone, Sultan Hasanuddin's remarks that perhaps the Dutch thought God had reserved the archipelago for their trade alone sound eerily similar to later colonial visions of empire in the nineteenth century. It was in the mid-nineteenth century that the famous Dutch author Multatuli └ a Latin nom de plume meaning "I have suffered much" └ put forward in his best-known work an archipelagic vision of empire.

            Multatuli's novel, Max Havelaar, decries the treatment of the native Javanese under the yoke of colonialism, and it also bemoans the equivocal position of an official who tries to ameliorate their conditions. This, however, is no anti-colonialist tract. In fact, it does not advocate doing away with colonialism at all, but envisions a kind of radical reform. Toward the end of his book, the author-cum-narrator threatens

Deliverance and help, by legal means, if possible, by the legitimate means of force, if necessary─This book is only a beginning. I shall wax in power and keenness of weapons, in proportion as shall be necessary. God grant that it may not be necessary!  No! It will not be necessary! For I dedicate my book to You, William the Third, King, Grand Duke, Prince └ more than Prince, Grand Duke and King --- Emperor of the glorious realm of Insulinde, that coils yonder round the Equator like a girdle of emerald─25

            Although he was concerned with the suffering of Javanese peasants under colonialism, in seeking a way out of their predicament and his, Multatuli imagined an entire archipelagic realm of which perhaps he himself, or William the Third, would be the rescuer and Emperor. The realm, "Insulinde," a name that he coined by combining insula └ "island" and Ind(i)´, was the brainchild of a loyal └ if critical └ imperial subject. This mythic image of the entire archipelago as a political space prefigured later colonial and nationalist spatial imaginings that explicitly included the seas together with the archipelago's islands.

            Similar territorial myths of dominion were supported by the work of colonial cartographers who, in the early twentieth century, represented the high seas of Southeast Asia as "empty space" and the coastlines as part of colonial territory. Maps were used as a quasi-legal means to reconstruct the property histories of the new colonial possessions └ legitimizing the spread of colonial power.26 Such maps thus reworked what were acknowledged to be, in other legal contexts, the coasts of independent native realms.

            G.J. Resink worked hard to bring to light these other legal articulations in which native realms were still recognized as independent, and to deflate the territorial myths of extensive colonial control outside of Java before the twentieth century.27 Resink had a keen eye for noting the passing remarks of colonial officials, remarks which show, for instance, that the independence of the allied realms and vassal principalities on Celebes was recognized between 1871 and 1881 by courts of every level in the lesser Netherlands East Indies. Yet the Council of the Indies reconsidered this fact of their independence in the 1890's. By the end of the century and following the "fall" of Aceh a few years later, this independence was lost └ legally, if not in practice └ to a policy that attempted to bring Dutch "political" domination to realms across the archipelago, through the use of "short declaration" (korte vekrlaring) treaties backed by the use of guns. What Resink shows, I would like to stress, is that certain lands in the late nineteenth century, which were considered and were treated by officials as independent realms, still └ in the legal sense └ had shores that were not washed by the waters of the Netherlands East Indies.28 In other words, at the time there had not been a sense of the Netherlands East Indies as a unified territory, least of all one that encompassed the entire archipelago. It is important to bear this in mind, for Multatuli's vision of Insulinde and the dominance of subsequent maritime ideologies seem to obscure these historical circumstances.

            Following the defeat of realms outside of Java between 1905 and 1915 through the imposition of short declaration treaties, the waters of the archipelago and what they contained increasingly became the object of scientific attention, and one could say that scientific discourse and practice were part of the arsenal by which the Dutch appropriated these waters. In 1922, with the publication of De Zee´n van Nederlandsch Oost-Indi´ (The Seas of the Netherlands East-Indies), one could learn about ocean science by reading chapters that discussed sea depths and soundings, the temperature and salinity of the water, maritime meteorology and the tides, the biology of the seas, its geology, and the delineation of coasts └ a few of which already had lighthouses.29 Two sections on the environment appear in the chapter on biology: De zee als woonruimte (Oikumene) voor dieren └ the sea as an environment for animals, and another section on the sea as an environment for plants. One finds here no mention at all of orang laut or "sea people" └ the various people whose lives were closely associated with the waters. Although the maritime realm was also their "environment," it was, perhaps, considered inappropriate to study them under the rubric of scientific discourses about the sea. Yet within discourses of colonial knowledge produced about "natives," it was also difficult to locate "sea people," who were dispersed, peripatetic to varying degrees, and claimed no land as collectively theirs or to which their "origins" might be traced.

            Just as colonial mapping did not recognize the presence and practices of upland shifting agriculturalists, the littoral spaces in which sea people lived and the maritime areas they traversed were likewise viewed as a kind of empty space. This contrasted markedly with the ways that places └ on land └ began to index groups of people in colonial knowledge about "natives." Places on land, that is, stood for various groups of people in a way that could not be applied to people associated with the seas. The organization of colonial knowledge produced about "native" peoples and their languages, well-ensconced, by the time of The Seas of the Netherlands East-Indies, in the Royal Institute for Philology, Ethnography and Geography,30  followed much the same logic as late colonial administration, which, like military operations, worked largely within a discourse of mapping.31 "Sea people," apparently lacking a particular place on land from which they might claim to hail as a group, thus occupied a kind of structural blind spot, and a position that marked them, in relation to others, as different in an unusual or peculiar way. Their movement on the seas and their perceived lack of a homeland seems to have destined them for a place in the colonial imagination └ both British and Dutch └ as "sea gypsies." It is through these structures of late colonial administration and the production of knowledge about the archipelago's "natives" that "sea people" begin to appear not to "fit." They appear, in other words, to be out of place with respect to the curious relation between the organization of knowledge about native peoples and the logic of mapping evident in the structures of late colonial governance. I will come back to this point in the final section below, following a look at how the space of the seas has appeared in different post-independence national settings.

            First, though, I wish to return for a moment to The Seas of the Netherlands East-Indies, in order to suggest how it was that the imperial vision of Multatui's Insulinde "that coils yonder round the Equator like a girdle of emerald," drew closer to and nearly converged with the Dutch transposition of the old Javanese term nusantara. In the introductory section of the book is an historical overview of the research, and here we find, in the early historical background, that in the opinion of its author, Marco Polo's travel notes were "not of any oceanographic importance," for

     the beginnings of our knowledge lie not with Marco Polo. One seeks it (it speaks for itself) in the knowledge of the natives themselves. It is the Nagarakertagama (1365) which, through an enumeration of many geographic proper names, demonstrates that the Javanese of the fourteenth century were acquainted, even though only superficially, with the whole of our "East," from Sumatra including the Malay peninsula to the west coast of New Guinea, and thus, from their own experience, had acquired a certain degree of familiarity with its coasts and principal channels.32

            The Javanese, says the author, were acquainted with "the whole of our 'East'." This "whole of our 'East,' from Sumatra─to the west coast of New Guinea," no different a space, really, from Multatuli's "Insulinde," would, even before independence, become known as "nusantara," a term borrowed from fourteenth century Javanese texts such as the Nagarakertagama. In those fourteenth century texts, however, nusantara did not mean "archipelago," still less "Dutch empire in the east"; rather, the term was used to refer to the other islands beyond Java. In the next section, I examine how "nusantara" underwent various permutations as an emblem of archipelagic political space.

Spaces of nationalist unity

            Images of political unity were, to be sure, crucial to the successes of the anti-colonial movement. Calls for anti-colonial national unity had already been clearly voiced at the Youth Congress in Batavia in 1928, and these calls explicitly included the seas in the space of the nation. The Sumpah Pemuda, or Youth Pledge, of the1928 Congress adopted the ideals of one nation, one language (bahasa Indonesia), and one "homeland." However, in Indonesian, the term wasn't really "homeland," "fatherland" or "motherland," but tanah air, which can be glossed as either "land (and) seas" or even "land of seas."

            "Tanah" literally means land or soil, and cognates of this Malay term were widely used in place names. Similar to how the term "-land" is used in Germanic-language place names, these areas, often ill defined, became more carefully demarcated by the late-colonial period (and in some places much earlier), as the authorities drew the boundaries of administrative units. This process of establishing administrative territories out of more vaguely defined "lands" was described to me once by an anthropologist early in my studies. Pausing in her description of the process, she asked me about the "Bajo" └ the name by which Sama sea people in the archipelago are usually known to others. Like the tana Bali of the Balinese and the tana Jawa of the Javanese, don't, she wondered aloud, the Bajo have a tanah too? Yet there is, as I told her, no such place.33 All such "tana(h)" places are by definition on land, whereas the Bajo or Sama, associated with the sea, have no ideologically primordial attachment to particular bits of land as the place they "come from." Tanah air └ the land (and) sea, or land of seas, has, for its part, a specifically nationalist referent and is not marked as the place of any particular sub-group.34

            "Nusantara," since at least the mid-twentieth century, has basically served as a synonym for tanah air. Usually translated as "the Archipelago," the term, as mentioned above, can be traced to fourteenth century Javanese texts where it meant not "archipelago," but "the other islands" └ as seen from Majapahit Java.35 In colonial (and later) scholarship, the rather exaggerated reach of a Majapahit "empire" served both Javanese pretensions as well as those of the Dutch who claimed to want to restore the luster of the glorious "Indianized" states of Java's pre-Islamic past.

            While these colonial connotations of an authentic Javanese imperial past persisted, modern usages of the word nusantara denote a national space in which the Javanese frame of reference has largely fallen away. Since the mid-1940's nusantara has stood for the whole archipelago, not just some parts of it in the eyes of others, and contemporary Indonesians of all stripes give it a believable, if mistaken, folk etymology. The folk etymology derivation works as follows: nusa, familiar to Indonesians who encounter it in the place names for particular islands and island chains, is Javanese for "island"; antara, in modern Indonesian, means "between." Most Indonesians nowadays are happy to explain that the term nusantara therefore refers to the islands between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean (or the China Sea), or the islands between the Asian mainland and Australia.

            Vlekke used the term in his book, Nusantara; A History of the East Indian Archipelago, published in English in 1943.36 He was the first to see that the history of "Indonesia" └ a term already in scholarly use for a century └ had begun to vacillate between a colonial history of the Netherlands East Indies and a national history of Indonesia.37 The 1943 edition was reprinted in 1977, but in revised versions from 1959 and 1960 the title was indeed changed to Nusantara: A History of Indonesia.38 The change in title reflected the occurrence of the anti-colonial revolution following the end of World War II.

            In connection with the final suppression of multiple rebellions against the central government after Indonesia's revolution, nusantara was again reinvented. As the revolution's army of "irregulars" was disbanded, the emerging professional army basically reconquered, during the 1950's, much of the territory that had only been brought under the colonial state's sway (and this to varying degrees) in the early twentieth century.39 In attempts to bring these "regional rebellions" to a close, in 1957 the central government issued a statement of national unity called the Djuanda Declaration. This Declaration asserted national territorial unity on the basis of what was ostensibly bequeathed by the former colonial power. It differed, however, from earlier, colonial visions of territory by having not just a narrow strip of coastal zone around each of the islands, but including instead all of the waters between Indonesia's many islands within a single body. It was the creation of what the historian Tongchai Winichakul has called a national "geo-body," an abstract geographical signifier that was a model for, rather than a model of, what it purported to represent.40

            This new geo-body called "Nusantara" └ a territorial space that included all of the intra-island waters └ was meant to stand for "Indonesia." Implicitly, it referred back to the earlier nationalist formulation of tanah air, while it simultaneously invoked a supposedly imperial Javanese past. In this way, a notion of the pre-colonial past was used to underwrite a presumption of Javanese supremacy with a pseudo-historical legitimacy.41 It should not be forgotten that the Djuanda Declaration's particular reinvention of nusantara was not simply intended to buttress national unity, but rather was quite explicitly used to justify measures taken against "rebellions" in "the regions" in the name of "national security."

            Heavily promoted as a national ideology since 1973,42 the "Nusantara Concept" (Wawasan Nusantara) gained even further legitimacy with Indonesia's participation in the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which lasted from 1973 to 1982. In this third UNCLOS, the Djuanda geo-body of Nusantara gained an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile swath around an imaginary line connecting the outermost points of all the islands. Like the colonial use of maps in an earlier time, the new nusantara borders reconfigured a property history. In this international context of legal discourses, the Nusantara Concept was used to justify state ownership of all material resources within and below the waters between the archipelago's islands as well as within the EEZ.43

            The major concerns of most nations involved in UNCLOS were both strategic and material. Strategic concerns, for instance, included rights of passage through certain waterways, and material concerns focused especially on deep-seabed minerals and ownership of sub-seafloor hydrocarbon resources. These resources are much more lucrative and less mobile than the sea's dwindling biological resources which, adversely affected by illegal and unsustainable commercial fishing, have since raised the stakes on the struggle for survival among Indonesia's coastal populations, including "sea people." For the government of Indonesia and the other states involved in UNCLOS, however, fish were small fry compared to strategic interests, hydrocarbons and the potential of exploiting deep-seabed minerals. Such material interests underlie ongoing disputes over the ownership of particular small islands, such as Sipadan, and the EEZ's that would be extended by sovereignty over them.44

            Similarly, with the disappearance of East Timor from the Nusantara geo-body, Indonesia had few legal grounds to contest the loss of the resource-rich Timor Gap. Yet small islands like Sipadan present another sort of problem. One of the factors in deciding territorial disputes over such islands is the question of whether they support a "permanent settled population." This question links territorial claims to the issue of permanent settlement. However, like colonial mapping and other discourses that link notions of property to settled occupation, this criterion does not recognize the fact that historically, "sea people" have lived on, and sometimes moved off of, the small islands like Sipadan that dot the waters off the coast of eastern Malaysia and elsewhere in the region.

Anomalous ethnicity and the new nusantara

            Perhaps nothing in Indonesia better illustrates the use of place as an icon of "identity" than Taman Mini └ the Mini Theme Park of the high Suharto era that John Pemberton writes about so revealingly in On the Subject of 'Java'. He describes how the park presents emblems of "cultural" difference from various parts of the archipelago to people for their self-recognition as Indonesian subjects. Such emblems of difference included, among other things, styles of dress and architecture. The park's pi˙ce de r■sistance, however, is the pond, which contains the archipelago in miniature. Through it, people are meant to read isometric relations between the particular places, and the presumably distinct peoples, of Indonesia. Of course, "sea people" are nowhere to be found in such a scheme, for there is no place in the pond that represents for them, what is, for others, a notion of "their land." While on the one hand, the miniature archipelago in the pond iconically manifests the national motto "Unity in Diversity," on the other hand, the bounded pond taken as a whole is an iconic representation, not just of the space of the nation, but of the EEZ-expanded Nusantara.45

            When one focuses on the ideological structures of ethnic difference and how these are produced in relation to discourses about national subjects, one gets a remarkably flat picture that irons out the complexity of social differences and hierarchies. Yet it is against precisely this structure of apparently equivalent differences that sea people appear as a kind of ethnic anomaly.46 Romanticized in the colonial period as "sea gypsies," one gets the impression from this characterization that most "sea people" were always on the move or about to be. This romanticized image facilitates the sense that sea people, under the present rubric of "formerly nomadic," no longer move anywhere at all. While there has been, over roughly the past century, a great deal of settlement both by choice and by government policy,47 just as sea people were not itinerant in line with the romantic colonial image of them, it is also clearly not the case that sea people no longer get around nautically. Nonetheless, viewed as "sea gypsies" who are now only "formerly nomadic," they are widely considered to have lost their "authenticity."

            Sama and other "sea people" in Indonesia have, moreover, been relentlessly subjected to primitivizing discourses, which cast them as the inverse of the "modern" and the "developed." In the Suharto period they were administratively classed with masyarakat terasing └ "isolated peoples," or suku-suku terasing └ "isolated tribes." "Terasing," here, has two meanings and there is slippage between them: secluded, separate, isolated on the one hand and very foreign or exotic on the other. What "sea people" have often been isolated from, however, are not other people and places └ they have after all been involved in some degree of travel and trade └ rather they have become isolated in relation to administrative structures and their centers.

            Yet, it is not that administrative centers are so physically distant. Small islands and coastal settlements often must be reached by boat, and civil servants consider them out-of-the-way. But even when the way is clear and not so far, officials are often reluctant to get into boats they consider risky with people they sometimes call "primitif." In addition, for "sea people," their apparent "lack" of an ideologically primordial identification with a particular place on land has prevented them from forming the kinds of ethnic patronage networks that are supported by territorial administrative structures. Even when Sama people do, for instance, rise in the bureaucracy, they may shed their ethnic markedness and "disappear" to would-be clients. Not only in terms of physical infrastructure then, but also for structural-ideological reasons, many Sama "sea people" have become administratively marginal, persisting, in a sense, on the edges of governance.48

            This, at any rate, is how things seem from the outside looking in, and from the top looking down. As I outlined at the beginning, this paper attempts to trace a history that looks at ideological forms └ discourses in which multiple social divisions are effaced, and that this approach is by no means a substitute for examining the many things people do and say, or their place in processes of production.49 What I have tried to show is that the space of the seas have been a crucial part of political imaginaries at different historical moments in Southeast Asia and particularly in Indonesia. As part of political imaginaries, sea space became increasingly territorialized, while at the same time, people of the littoral came to be viewed as more, or perhaps less, than just another ethnic group. Romanticized as "sea gypsies," their putative origins as a group not traced to any particular land, "sea people" elude the impetus to found ethnic "identity" or historical "origin" on place. Like "gypsies" elsewhere, they reveal a dominant structure of equivalent ethnic oppositions through their implicit placement outside of it └ a kind of anomaly to that structure, despite increasingly territorialized seas.

            The UNCLOS-inspired Nusantara was the height of attempts to use this term to represent a precisely delimited Indonesian territorial unity. After Suharto's fall in 1998, the "regions" began to call for decentralization. Coupled with a referendum in East Timor that led to its independence, and violent conflicts in a number of areas, fears mounted that Indonesia might disintegrate. In February 2000, these fears were serious enough for the United States to publicly affirm its backing of Indonesia's territorial integrity.50

            Other sorts of material developments on which I have not focused will also affect the state of the seas and coasts as well as the lives of people in the littoral. For instance, the proposed installation of a Kuwaiti oil refinery in South Sulawesi, or, if environmental concerns take precedence there, then somewhere else;51 and the parceling of the territorial sea by fishing conglomerates in cahoots with officials52 └ a practice that follows the sectioning of EEZ's into lots for offshore oil exploration rights └ these illustrate important material issues that are bound to affect the littoral and those who live there. Instead of focusing on such material details, I have sketched here a broad sequence of maritime ideologies, rather like a rock skipping over the surface of history. More than simply a sequence, however, I have tried to show how these maritime ideologies reach back to "the past" and then use that "past" to project a design from the political present into the future.

            The latest incarnation of Nusantara, for example, appears amidst concerns over Islamic radicalism in the region. In early 2002, police authorities in Singapore claimed to have evidence that Jemaah Islamiyah was a movement dedicated to establishing a vast Islamic state embracing Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.53 One individual held under the Internal Security Act in Malaysia is accused, among other things, of working to establish a "Nusantara Islamic State" (Daulah Islamiah Nusantara). As the International Crisis Group has noted, Malaysian and Singaporean authorities have made much out of calls to establish an Islamic state as evidence of possible links to al-Qaeda. But calls like this have become such a common theme among militant groups in Indonesia, that, indeed, it is hard to see how, by itself, it indicates much of anything.54 By itself it does not indicate much. Taken together with the other maritime ideologies sketched here, in which the space of the sea forms an important resource in the production of powerful political imaginaries, this example illustrates a reformulation that draws on earlier similar terms, but turns them toward a new agenda. In this, it is much like Insulinde, tanah air, and earlier versions of nusantara, taking a "time-honored guise and this borrowed language" and projecting them onto a new political project and possible futures.


1 George Coed˙s, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (Honolulu: East-West Press Center, 1968), pp.3-4.

2 O.W. Wolters, History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982), p. 35.

3 Wolters, pp. 36-37. In part because of this, it is safe to say that Wolters did not view the seas of Southeast Asia as a regional analogy for the Mediterranean. Compare Bentley who claims the opposite. G. Carter Bentley, "Indigenous States of Southeast Asia" Annual Review of Anthropology 15 (1986): 275-305.

4 Wolters, p.38; this "polycentric landscape" refers to his well-known metaphor of "mandala" polities.

5 Wolters, pp. 38-9. 

6 My use of the term "ideology" here is indebted to John B. Thompson and especially his attention to the work of Castoriadis, Lefort, and Bourdieu. Thompson sought to redirect the study of ideology away from the search for collectively shared values, and, as with shifts in the study of "culture," to aim investigation instead at "the complex ways in which meaning is mobilized for the maintenance of relations of domination." Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p.5, also see p.35.

7 The quoted fragments are from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p.15.

8 Thompson, pp. 5-6.

9 Thompson, p. 6. The limitations of space preclude a fuller theoretical discussion of how ideologies are historically produced and transformed. Such a discusion would take account, among other things, of how discourse is always made, as Bakhtin showed, through "dialogical" movements that refer to prior usages of words, phrases, styles, etc., even as these are reinvented in the concreteness of present circumstances. Yet this materiality of language use and its dialogical movement give only a glimpse onto wider worlds of structure and practice that also enable discursive meaning to emerge and are in turn invoked through it. The worlds of practice and structure most relevant to the maritime ideologies in this paper are those of governance. Above all, the late colonial military and administrative reorganization of space and its relation to the production of colonial knowledge about human, and especially "native," social differences. I touch on this below.

10 Hanns J. Buchholz, Law of the Sea Zones in the Pacific Ocean (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), p. 2.

11 James Brown Scott, ed., Hugo Grotius, The Freedom of the Seas (Latin and English), Oxford University Press 1916, p.vii.

12 Scott, Freedom of the Seas, p. vii.

13 Hugonis Grotii De Jure Praedae, edited and with an introduction by H.G. Hamaker, Martinus Nijhoff 1868, cited in Scott, Freedom of the Seas. Scott translates "praedae" as "prize," but it may be closer to "booty". (Personal communication John Blankenship.)

14 On the occasion of its composition, see Scott, Freedom of the Seas, p. vi; Charles Wilson, "Hugo Grotius and His World" in The World of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) (APA-Holland University Press), p. 7. Borschberg indicates that the vessel, usually referred to as a "carrack" or "galleon" was, judging by descriptions, most likely a sixteenth century Portuguese nao, and would have appeared "colossal" to its Dutch attackers. Peter Borschberg, "The Seizure of the Sta. Catarina Revisited: The Portuguese Empire in Asia, VOC Politics and the Origins of the Dutch-Johor Alliance (1602-c.1616)" Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33, 1 (2002), p.35.

15 According to Borschberg, Grotius incorrectly places the incident in the Straits of Malacca. See Borschberg, "Sta. Catarina," note 12, p. 34. The Sta. Catarina incident should be seen against the background of the Union of Spain and Portugal under Hapsburg rule by 1580, and by 1590, the extension of attacks to Portuguese targets by Spain's avowed enemies └ England and the United Provinces. In this context, Stadholder Prince Maurice of Orange instructed Dutch captains under the VOC's predecessors to "defend" themselves against any party that might impede their voyage or inflict harm, and to seek reparations for damages suffered. Grotius, De Jure Praedae, p. 376, in Borschberg, "Sta. Catarina,ö p.50. But also see note 18 below.

16 Scott, Freedom of the Seas, p. vi; Charles Wilson, "Hugo Grotius and His World" in The World of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) (APA-Holland University Press), p. 7.

17 Borschberg, "Sta. Catarina,ö pp. 31, 56.

18 That the struggle against Iberian domination is the framework in which to view Grotius' composition of De Jure Praedae (DJP) is also supported by Lauren Benton's work (this conference) on the complex and evolving legal regimes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. In light of her discussion, it is important to view the DJP and the role of Prince Maurice in relation to legal regimes that defined legitimate trade as that sponsored by a lawful sovereign. Claims such as the DJP to rightful prize, as well as seeking reparations for damages would, then, presumably have been a way to gain recognition of Prince Maurice's sovereignty within international legal fora that judged the legitimacy of such sovereign authorizations.

19 Arthur Eyffinger, Inventory of the Poetry of Hugo Grotius (Assen: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1982), 94; located by first line index. I gratefully acknowledge the Latin translation assistance provided by John Blankenship.

20 "Sidera sub pedibus positum quae pingitis axem; Haec procul Arctoo classis ab axe venit. Libera gens: nomen Batavi; spes sola laborque, Unum ne dominum norit uterque polus." Hugo Grotius, Hug.Grotii Poemata, Omnia, editio quinta (Amstelodami: Apud Joh.Ravesteynium, 1670), p. 276. I gratefully acknowledge the Latin translation assistance kindly provided by John Blankenship.

21 For details on how the Sta. Catarina's seizure led to such longer-term developments as: the consolidation of the Dutch presence in the region, the opening of the China and Japan markets to the VOC, the securing of Johor's independence vis-ł-vis regional powers, as well as the eviction of Portugal as a maritime and land-based military force from the Straits of Malacca, I refer the reader to the excellent article by Peter Borschberg in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, cited above. 

22 Borschberg, "Sta. Catarina,ö p. 56. Emphasis added.

23 Quoted in G.J. Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths: Essays in Legal History and Historical Theory (The Hague: W. van Hoeve Publishers Ltd., 1968), p.45; from F.W. Stapel, Het Bongaais verdrag: De vestiging der Nederlanders op Makassar (The Bonggaya Treaty: The Establishment of the Dutch in Makassar). Dissertation, University of Leiden. The Hague, 1922, p. 14 and note 2.

24 Stapel, Verdrag p. 62, in Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths, p. 46.

25 Multatuli, Max Havelaar or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, translated by Roy Edwards (Penguin, 1987 [1860]), p.320. Emphasis and capitalization in the original. I have edited out the ellipses in the original.

26 Benedict Anderson, "Census, Map, Museum," in Imagined Communities (London and New York: Verso, 1991): 173-6.

27 A point also noted by Barbara Harvey. Barbara Sillars Harvey, Tradition, Islam and Rebellion: South Sulawesi 1950-1965 (Unpublished dissertation in Political Science, Cornell University, 1974), note 66, p.47. Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths.

28 Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths, pp. 136-8, 141-2, 165, 182-3.

29 De Zee´n van Nederlansch Oost-Indi´ (Leiden: Brill, 1922), uitgegeven door het Koninklijk Nederlansch Aardrjkskundig Genootschap.

30 Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde, currently translated as the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology.

31 On colonial administration and military operations in Southeast Asia serving a discourse of mapping, see Tongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), p. 310; and Anderson, "Census, Map, Museum."

32 S.P. l'Honor■ Naber, "Chapter I," in De Zee´n van Nederlansch Oost-Indi´. Emphasis in original.

33 None, except for "Bajo■" which in the Bugis language of South Sulawesi means "the Bajo," a name applied to the site of a Bajo settlement that was closest to the Bugis realm of Bon■. Similarly, there is a "Labuanbajo" or "Bajo Harbour." But neither of these places is pointed to by Bajo people as the collective locus of mythic origins. Some loci of mythic provenance exist, yet they apply only to elites, are not widely known, are different in different versions of similar stories, and are not regarded as places of collective "origin" except, perhaps, by a very few.

34 It has carried this nationalist sense in Malaysian usage as well.

35 Mpu Prapanca, Desawarnana (Nagarakrtagama), translated by Stuart Robson (Leiden: KITLV, 1995), canto 79.3 on p.82, canto 83.5 on p.85; Calon Arang, 10, BKI 82, cited in Gonda, Additions to a Study on Sanskrit anta-, antara-, etc." BKI 112 (4), p. 402; Zoetmulder, P.J., Old-Javanese-English Dictionary (Leiden: KITLV, 1982). In addition, I later found, after doing the research on this material, that G.J.Resink himself had made the same point. He cites C.C. Berg, "De Geschiedenis van pril Majapahit" (The History of Young Majapahit), I, IV (1950-1951), 512 n.11, in Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths, p.21-22.

36 Bernard H.M. Vlekke, Nusantara; A History of the East Indian Archipelago (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1943).

37 Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths, p.18. Resink noted that Vlekke owed the title to Ki Hadjar Dewantoro, known not only for his co-authorship of an early anti-colonial essay of biting sarcasm, but also a key figure in the growth of national education.

38 Bernard H. M. Vlekke, Nusantara : a History of the East Indian archipelago (New York: Arno Press, 1977). Bernard H. M. Vlekke, Nusantara: A History of Indonesia (The Hague: W. van Hoeve, 1959). Bernard H. M. Vlekke, Nusantara: A History of Indonesia (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1960).

39 These "regional rebellions" took place, for the most part, in areas which the Dutch had called "the Outer Islands" └ rather reminiscent of the fourteenth century Java-centric sense of nusantara.

40 Tongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped, p.130.  In a piece that first appeared in 1952, Resink remarked upon precisely this sort of forward-looking impetus in historiography. While Resink's eyes dwelt on the page of colonial history, the gaze of Armijn Pan■ └ an author who traveled the path from literature to history and who wrote about the precolonial past └ skipped over the that page entirely, wandering to the still-unwritten national history. See Resink, Indonesia's History Between the Myths, p.25.

41 This was, in form, not so unlike Grotius invoking, "a free people, Batavians by name─" This poetic reference was, if you recall, a myth of glorious ancestors set out as a proposition of historical continuity. Used against Iberian imperial domination, it also projected the image of a Dutch collectivity into the future: "sole hope, lest both skies know a single master."

42 The same year, as it happens, that oil prices shot up, and what was left of political parties in Indonesia became fused into two groups barred from organizing below the district level.

43 As a "logo," however, the other "avatar" of the map discussed by Anderson └ a sort of "pure sign" of a political space, the amorphous nusantara shape left a bit to be desired. See Anderson, "Census, Map,. Museum."

44 Sipadan, from which 21 people were taken on 23 April 2000 by Abu Sayyaf "rebels," was reported in most media as "a Malaysian resort island." It had, however, been under dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia since 1969, and by mutual agreement was submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1997. The ICJ decided on 17 December 2002 that Sipadan and Ligitan islands belong to Malaysia (Media Indonesia, 18 December 2002). Overlapping claims to islands and the EEZ's they would extend are perhaps denser in the South China Sea than anywhere else in the world. While Indonesia is not a primary party to the complex Spratly Islands dispute, China's claims do overlap the area that Indonesia claims around Natuna and its associated gas fields.

45 In this, it is another example of the Indonesian nation's geo-body └ using Tongchai's term. See Tongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped. On Taman Mini, see John Pemberton On the Subject of 'Java' (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994; also see Patricia Spyer, "Diversity with a Difference: Adat and the New Order in Aru (Eastern Indonesia)" Cultural Anthropology 11 (February 1996): 25-50.

46 One can make a similar case for Roma, especially in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

47 I say this based on over eighteen months of fieldwork between 1994 and 2000, including dozens of interviews with elderly Sama people in the Sulawesi region; yet there is other evidence for it as well, such as James F. Warren's Masters thesis, The North Borneo Chartered Company's Admisitration of the Bajau, 1878-1909: The Pacification of a Maritime, Nomadic People (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1971).

48 Finding themselves in this position, there is a certain craft └ interpretive and practical └ involved in taking advantage of it in order to survive materially and socially. I explore these dynamics, as well as more material aspects of their contemporary subordination, in the larger project, which essentially focuses on Sama practices of dealing with subordination. I gratefully acknowledge the phrase "edges of governance" as a gift from Kathleen Canning, who used it to describe part of what I seemed to be getting at in an early draft of the dissertation chapter on "Reluctant Rebels."

49 This examination of maritime ideologies and what it means to be on the edges of governance is, then, analytic historical background to the wider project on Sama people in Eastern Indonesia's littoral.

50 "U.S. Backs Indonesian Territorial Integrity," The Jakarta Post, February 18, 2000, p.2. The U.S. stated that it did not support other independence movements that sought to break away from the republic after East Timor. Around the same time, there was a resurgence of an old term from the 1950's: "NKRI" └ Negara Kesatuan Republic Indonesia, literally the "United State of the Republic of Indonesia," but the sense of it is more like "unity" or "unified" for the root, satu, means "one" and also the discursive reappearance of "NKRI" is clearly tied to anxieties of disunity.

51 "Menlu akan bicarakan dengan Kuwait └ Soal Investasi Pengilangan Minyak di Selayar," Fajar, March 8, 2000, p.1.

52 "Parceling" comes from the Indonesian, dikapling, where the root kapling (Dutch: kaveling) means "lot."  "Kapal Asing itu Bak Raja Laut," Kompas, February 23, 2000, p.20. The daily Kompas ran a series of articles around this time on the difficulties facing fisherpeople, especially along the north Java coast.

53 Singapore government press release, January 11, 2002, and reporting in The Straits Times, January 12-26, 2002.

54 "Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The Case of the 'Ngruki Network' in Indonesia," Indonesia Briefing (Jakarta/Brussels: ICG- International Crisis Group, 8 August 2002), pp.3, 18.


Copyright Statement

Copyright: ę 2003 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format by Chris Hale.

Previous Table of Contents Next