Jan 2017 - The Bugis

It was quite a relief to meet a descendent of people who were seafarers and fierce warriors, to learn that the “Bogeymen” of our childhood nightmares are a manifestation of historical events and not true monsters. The revelation came from the cheery and enthusiastic persona of Puan Zuraidah Ghaniat the beginning of her talk on The Bugis at MCG on January 11, 2017.



Zuraidah, of Bugis decent herself, did admit that the Bugis people, of what is now Sulawesi, Indonesia, were fierce fighters and made for effective pirates. It is true that, for centuries, the Bugis people have been seafarers and that the black sails of the Bugis boats were revered (and often feared) throughout the open waters of South East Asia.  When I lived in Surabaya, just 30 years ago, I would go down to the port to see the boats of the “Bugimen” and impress visitors with the physical proof of that history. Until today, their black sails are symbols of their dominance of the seas. 

Zuraidah’s research into the Bugis has been an effort to remind Malaysians of Bugis descent (and there are thousands!) about their ancestry and to help them understand important aspect of their own culture. She spent ten years researching the Bugis’ history, beliefs, way of life, and their importance in the Malay culture of Johor and Selangor and of those Royal families and their descendants. Her presentation was full of references to the strong character and pride of the Bugis people and the tenacious way that they have influenced the history of the region.


According to Zuraidah, the Bugis traders followed the monsoon winds, filling their ships (known as pinisi) with the spices and treasures of Asia and plying between Malacca, Singapore, Penang and the ports of the islands of Indonesia to as far away as Australia. They were respected traders and also feared as pirates as they sometimes preyed on the boats of the European merchants of the East Indies and the Dutch East Indies trading companies.

Zuraidah spoke of the origins of the Bugis people and how they made their way to a “homeland” in south Sulawesi where they grew rice and built ships, becoming one of the most influential dynasties of SEA. She also introduced us to “La Galigo”, a collection of chronicles of the Bugis people, based on oral history, that was written down in the 14th century in a script that, apparently, they created. It was known as “appa”, meaning square letters. The manuscripts of the first “La Galigo” were known as “lontara” after the leaves of the lontar palm on which they were written. It is in these chronicles and stories of the Bugis people that the culture and belief system was defined and its influence has survived (in variation) to the present day, even under the transformation of Islamization.


Zuraidah interjected her talk with many interesting personal stories of how the culture of the original Bugis is still evident in her life including one funny story of her own mother’s desire to have a grandchild born on a Monday, as that is an auspicious day to the Bugis. Zuraidah also helped us to understand the role of woman in Bugis society, claiming a strong and equal role for the matriarchs. She herself seems an exemplary ambassador of the Bugis in Malaysia! 

One of the highlights of the presentation was a show-and-tell of museum-quality Bugis textiles from Zuraidah’s personal collection - black (of course) and polished with stones after each washing. The hand-loomed cloth, often in chequered patterns, was highly valued, even centuries ago, in Europe and around Asia. She also had examples of some beautifully coloured modern weavings. We were very entertained by her description of why certain colours are worn by Bugis women as they move through different stages of their lives.


Zuraidah finished her talk with information about the Bugis in Malaysia. The Bugis had long had a presence along the west coast of Malaysia, for reasons of trade, but it was in the early 18th century when the Sultanate of Malacca fell, that the Bugis gained a role in the ruling elite. Although today, they have been absorbed into mainstream Malaysian society, many people still strongly identify with their roots in Bugis culture. Did you know that the current Prime Minister of Malaysia is of Bugis descent?


Zuraidah Ghani is the author of the book “A Bugis Family”, which is a great source to learn more about this culture. I’m hoping that we get a copy in the MCG library. You can also experience Bugis culture for yourself, if you travel the coastal areas of South Sulawesi, as some of our members have done.


Written by Cheryl Hoffmann

Pictures  by Pam Currie and from the Powerpoint presentation