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Reviewed by:
  • Bugis Navigation
  • Ben Finney
Bugis Navigation. Gene Ammarell. Yale Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph 48. New Haven, Connecticut, 1999.

Those of us who have worked on issues of indigenous sailing and navigation in the Pacific Islands have long wondered to what extent Indonesian sailors still practice old ways of navigating and sailing, and how these might relate to methods once employed throughout the open Pacific. We had read the journalistic accounts of sailing on romantic looking part-Malay and part European craft, and poured over the few papers that seemed to indicate that despite the presence of magnetic compasses on board these vessels, their navigators still paid attention to the stars, swells, and currents. Now with Gene Ammarell's fine book we at last have a detailed study of Bugis navigation, one that fills an immense gap in Southeast Asian ethnography and also offers comparative data and insights valuable for analyzing the much more fragmentary data on navigation in ancient Polynesia.

In 1991–1992 Ammarell spent 17 months with the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, famed traders who for the last several centuries have ranged over the seas that join the many islands of what is now Indonesia. He focused on a trading community of 145 households based on the atoll community of Balobaloang located in the Flores Sea some 120 nautical miles south-southwest of the port of Ujang Padang (formerly Makasar). Sailing in vessels that range from the Indonesian equivalents of small sloops to medium-sized tall ships, these traders range over the Flores and Banda seas, calling on ports in South Sulawesi, Maluku (the Moluccas), and Nusa Tenggara (the Lesser Sundas). Their wooden, locally built vessels carry a wide variety of goods, ranging from timber, nails, bricks, and other construction materials to copra, cashew nuts, coffee, rice, flour, shallots, fruits, and other products. To learn their navigation system the author apprenticed himself to master navigators, and sailed with them at various times of the year to learn firsthand about wind and weather conditions and navigational challenges throughout the entire monsoon cycle.

The craft employed by the Balobaloang are hybrid in design and to some extent, in materials, and are equipped with auxiliary engines and compasses. Nonetheless, these wooden vessels are a far cry from the container behemoths that now dominate world trade. Although the traders may use their engines to power through calms and in and out of harbors, many cannot afford to run them all the time. And, above all, they still sail according to the alternation of the monsoon winds. During the steady easterly monsoon winds from March through September and extending into the calmer months of October through December, most of the able-bodied men are at sea on the island's trading vessels. During the January–February height of the rainy and often stormy west monsoon, all but the [End Page 307] largest ships stay in port. Similarly, although some younger sailors can only sail by a magnetic compass, most older sailors can still use the stars, wind, and other cues from their environment to set courses and steer. And, like sailors elsewhere, at night the Bugis still mostly steer by the stars, rather than slavishly trying to follow the gyrations of a compass needle.

At the heart of this book are two chapters on navigation. The first is devoted to offshore navigation in which conceptual compasses, one denoted by wind directions and the other by the rising and setting points of stars, are employed along with the magnetic compass. The second chapter focuses on piloting, that is guiding a ship through reference landmarks, depth soundings, tidal patterns, coastal currents, and other land-related phenomena. The wealth of material presented in these two chapters is much too rich to summarize here. Let me just say that it is one of the best integrated presentations of indigenous navigation I have read, and one that suggests a continuity of Austronesian practices extending at least from Indonesian waters through to the far reaches of Remote Oceania. In particular I appreciate Ammarell's analysis of how the Bugis employ their wind compass, along with bearings derived from the rising and setting points of stars and observations...