The name is spelled in various ways: “Badjao,” “Badyaw,” or “Bajau.” They are also known by other names such as: “Sama Dilaut,” “Laut,” or “Orang Laut”. Sometimes called “Sea Gypsies” these once-boat-dwelling people are traditionally found in the southwestern Philippines (Basilan and Tawi- Tawi areas), northwestern Malaysia and the northern parts of Indonesia down to Johore where legend traces their origin.
There are two tales about the origin of the tribe. The first story involves the Princess Ayesha of Johore and the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu. She preferred the Brunei sultan, but was engaged to the Sulu sultan instead. Escorted by a fleet of war boats, she was sailing towards Sulu when a Brunei fleet, led by their Sultan, intercepted them and took the princess away. The princess’ entourage, fearing to go on to Sulu or return to Johore, stayed on the sea, mooring only at uninhabited islands. Some turned to piracy and established pirate dens along North Borneo coasts.
The other Badjao tale says that the ancestors of the Samal ha Laud came from a fishing clan in Johore, Indonesia. A group of boats sailed in search of richer fishing grounds. One night, a typhoon came and they had to anchor by a sandbar. As they were about to rest for the night, their boats suddenly started bucking up and down. They realized they had tied their boats to the nose of a giant manta ray, which had begun to swim round and round in a frantic attempt to unloosen the ropes tied to its nose. The fishers managed to untie their boats, but by then, they had been flung in an island that is unfamiliar to them.
There is also a theory that the Badjaos were originally from the land-based Samal group but branched off into boat dwellers as a result of their occupation. Another theory claims the Badjaos were originally boat dwellers that eventually built stilt houses near fertile fishing grounds.
Regardless of their origin, the Badjao have been driven to near extinction due to the exploitation by the neighboring dominant tribes like the Tausog, the Yakans and even the Christians, disease, starvation and apparent inability to cope with the social changes, they are sometimes referred to also as a “vanishing tribe.” At present estimates place their number to about a 40,000 in the Philippines.
The Badjaos are peace-loving people, oftentimes to a fault. They would endure all forms of hardship, inconvenience and lost opportunities only to avoid getting into trouble, especially with people not of their own tribe. Hence, they prefer to live in peace by themselves at the coastal fringes of population centers, mangrove areas, coves and islets. With the huge logs which they once used to carve into houseboats becoming scarce (and expensive), their mobile dwellings have since evolved into shanties on stilts – literally a ramshackle ensemble of poles, palm fronds, and if the family is better off, some pieces of miss-cut planks.
Most Badjaos are fishermen (traditionally, all of them were) and they live on the bounties of the sea or on what is left of it. Having lost their traditional fishing grounds due to armed conflict, commercial fishing, pirates and poachers, they are left with meager means of livelihood.
Extreme poverty has forced many of them to resort to begging as a means of survival. Wherever they live, they are considered citizens of the lowest class: ignorant, dirty, stench-smelling and deprived and most people have very low regard for them. In different parts of Mindanao their situation is a picture of complete neglect that has driven whole families to flock to the big cities of Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao to beg in the streets.
The Badjaos are at the receiving end of all the consequences of the systemic on-going insecurities and violence beyond reach of government services.
*Some of the above information is taken from a portion of a petition letter for the inclusion of the Indigenous People (IP) Samal Bajau Communities in the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law BBL written and originally published by: Bro. Nicer O. Natulla, JPIC commission Head of the Claretian Missionaries in Maluso, Basilan province Philippines (January 2015)