Both Portuguese and Malay sources agree that one of Parameswara’s main sources of support when he fled from Palembang, Sumatra, to Singapura was a group of “Sea People” or “Sea Nomads” (Orang Laut). The Portuguese called them Çelates, which was derived from the Malay word selat (which means “strait”). The Sea People who came with Parameswara from Palembang (or perhaps Bangka) chose not to live with him at Singapura but stayed at Karimun Island in the Riau Islands instead. Perhaps they felt unwelcome in Singapura, as the Portuguese claim. These Sea People may have been involved in the murder of Singapura’s chief eight days after Parameswara arrived there in 1391.
For hundreds if not thousands of years, the Sea People specialised in collecting natural products, which they exchanged with the inhabitants of settlements located in estuaries along the Straits of Malacca. These Sea People were usually allied with a patron, either Malay or Chinese, who claimed exclusive rights to trade with them, and was seen as their protector.
Karimun plays no role in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), but the island occupies a strategic position at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca. Chinese sailing directions of the Yuan and Ming dynasties refer to Karimun Island as an important navigational landmark and rendezvous.
A cliff on the northern side of Karimun bears a Sanskrit inscription in Nagari script that was carved either in the ninth or 10th century during the Srivijaya empire’s golden age. In large letters 30 cm tall, the inscription proclaims Mahāyānika Golayantritasri Gautama Sripada, which is translated as: “These are the footsteps of the illustrious Gautama, the Mahayanist, who possessed an armillary sphere”. Probably this is a boast by a local Sea Nomad ruler resulting from his acquisition of a token of esteem from the Srivijayan ruler.
The Çelates were the only people who lived in Singapura in 1511. Tomé Pirés, a Portuguese apothecary and author of the early 16th century, provides the following description of Singapura: “The Synggapura channel. It has a few Çelates villages; it is nothing much”. Çelates Bajaus, according to Pirés, lived near Singapura and Palembang, and were always seen in the company of Parameswara. The Bendahara and Laksamana were the hereditary offices of these Sea People. In the 17th century, the Sea People of Singapura had a chief who went by the high-sounding title of Raja Negara Selat, which means “king of the country [or town] of the Straits”.
According to Pirés’s informants, it was the Sea People who discovered the site of Malacca and then invited Parameswara to move there from Muar. When the Portuguese took Malacca, the Laksamana there was a descendant of these Sea People. Hang Tuah, the Malay hero of 15th-century Malacca, may have been a member of this group. Pirés called a group of islands between Karimun and Rangsang “Çelates islands”, and noted that they produced some food.
In 1846, Karimun was still notorious as a base for pirates of the Galang suku (suku means “tribes”, communities; small groups, usually speaking their own dialect, and identified with a particular range of territory). In the late 19th century, Karimun’s population consisted largely of the descendants of these boat dwellers.
The Sea People retained their important position in the kingdom after the Malay capital moved from Malacca to Ujung Tanah (the Johor-Singapore-Riau area). Different suku had different occupations. The suku Mantang specialised in blacksmithing, including making swords and spears. Other suku served as soldiers, rowers, “transport of envoys and letters to rulers in foreign countries”; were producers of agar-agar and sago, provided service in the kitchens by transporting water and wood; and raised hunting dogs.
The Sea People’s links to the Malay rulers persisted until 1699, when the last sultan who could claim to be a direct descendant of Sri Tri Buana was assassinated. Following the death of the sultan, the Sea People soon became fragmented and leaderless, and were absorbed by other ethnic groups.
In 1819, Singapore was home to several suku of Sea People. Those who lived around the Singapore River belonged to the suku Gelam, who also inhabited Batam and the nearby islands. Munshi Abdullah noted that they paid homage to a rock near the mouth of the Singapore River that resembled a garfish head. Soon after the British arrived, the suku Gelam moved to Pulau Berani, an island located off the southern coast of Singapore. The suku Seletar lived around mangroves, especially on the northern coast of Singapore near the mouth of the Seletar River. The suku Biduanda-Kallang, who lived in the mangrove swamp at the Kallang River, died out in 1848 due to a smallpox epidemic.
1. Pirés, T. (1944). The Suma oriental of Tomé Pirés, an account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan, written in Malacca and India in 1512–1515, and The book of Francisco Rodrigues, rutter of a voyage in the Red Sea, nautical rules, almanack and maps, written and drawn in the East before 1515 (A. Cortesao, Trans.) (p. 262) [Microfilm: NL 14208 (Vol. 1), NL 26012 (Vol. 2)]. London: Hakluyt Society.
2. Andaya, L. Y. (1975). The Kingdom of Johor, 1641–1728: A study of economic and political developments in the Straits of Malacca (pp. 256, 259, 264, 281, 288). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
3. Andaya, 1975, p. 44.
4. Sopher, D. E. (1977). The sea nomads: A study of the maritime boat people of Southeast Asia (p. 105). Singapore: National Museum Singapore. Call no.: RSING 959 SOP.
5. Sopher, 197, p. 107.
The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.