By Horst Liebner
For ages Bira has been a village of sailors and traders: As the soil here is not fertile and can bear only a bit of maize and sweet potatoes, we turned to the sea in search for a livelihood. For centuries our boats used to sail at the end of the West Monsoon to the islands of Maluku to barter goods for local forest products, which we with the onset of the east winds carried to Java for sale. With the profit we commenced to trade in general cargoes around the western part of the Archipelago, sailing as far as Aceh, Malaysia or Manado, returning to Bira with the first strong westerlies to rest for some months and to overhaul our ships. This age-old pattern has changed nowadays, but we are still known all over Indonesia under the name of ‘Bugis Sailors’ - though we aren't Bugis, outside Sulawesi most people cannot make much out of the names Konjo and Bira, so we do not argue about it.
In an 18th century travel-book it is said, that ‘‘the men of Bira are in general, good warriors, both at sea and land. The richest among them are merchants and the others employ themselves in building of proas. [...] They build their proas, which they call paduakans very water tight, by doweling the planks together and putting the bark of a certain tree between them, which swells [...]. They are resigned to old models; the largest of which never exceeds fifty tons. They have their bows lowered or cut down in an very awkward manner so as to be often under water. A bulk head is raised a good way abaft the stem to keep out the sea. They have a tripod mast with a high pointed sail that is made of three stout bamboos, two rising from the sides and one from the fore part of the vessel lashed together at the top.’’ (Stavorinus, John Splinter 1798, Voyages to the East-Indies (Vol.II), Robinson, London: 260-1)
Actually our praus were and still are built by the people of Ara and Lemo-Lemo, and we ‘only’ sail them. The reason for this is again told in a story from former times.
As sailing and trading was our only means of making a living, we always tried to arrange ourselves with the leading powers in the Archipelago: When the Dutch defeated the famous trading kingdom of Makassar in the 1670ies and installed a monopoly on trade, we Birans managed to be excluded from the oppressive enactments which were imposed on our Makassan brothers and the Bugis traders of Wajo. Many of the the latter had to emigrate all over the islands where they built up new settlements of traders, fishermen and farmers but, we Birans could stay in Sulawesi and trade from our villages.
Our inter-island trading went on normally until in the course of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, a general decline in trade occurred. The Archipelago was then taken over by the English. After the restoration of Dutch rule, this nation which was severely struck by the wars, pressed her colony Indonesia hard with new taxes and forced labour. Accordingly our trade volume decreased and the sizes of our ships grew smaller and smaller. When the English installed Singapore as freeport in the 1830ies, we therefore found it easier to trade directly to that ever-growing harbour than to sell our goods to the Chinese and Dutch trading houses in Makassar or Jawa. Though the Dutch decided to turn Makassar into a freeport which was hoped to compete with Singapore and trade in general recovered, our praus could not rival the European steamships and schooners which in increasing numbers came to the Archipelago after the opening of the Suez Canal. Fore-and-aft rigged vessels and steamships can outsail the monsoon, while our own ships were designed to follow the winds. Accordingly we were forced to look for freights on far-off islands which only seldom were visited by the bigger trading vessels.
Up until then we still used our traditional padewakang sailing vessels, but when we saw the first gaffrigged ships venturing into the Archipelago we started to combine the big rectangular sails of a padewakang with fore-and-aft sails. The famous naturalist Alfred Wallace in the 1850ies sailed on a ship like that from Makassar to the islands of Aru:
‘‘It was a vessel of about seventy tons burthen and shaped something like a Chinese junk. There were two large rudders, but instead of being placed astern they were hung on the quarters from strong cross beams, which projected out two or three feet on each side, and to which extant the deck overhung the sides of the vessel amidships. [...] Our ship had two masts, if masts they can be called, which were great moveable triangles. [...] The mainyard, an immense affair nearly a hundred feet long, was formed of many pieces of wood and bamboo bound together with rattans in an ingenious manner. The sail carried by this was of an oblong shape, and was hung out of the centre, so that when the short end was hauled down on deck the long end mounted high in the air, making up for the lowness of the mast itself. [... This sail] was of matting, and with two jibs and a fore-and-aft sail astern of cotton canvas, completed our rig. [...] The rigging and arrangement of these praus contrasts strangely with that of European vessels, in which the various ropes and spars, though much more numerous, are placed so as not to interfere with each other’s action. Here the case is quite different; for though there are no shrouds or stays to complicate the matter, yet scarcely anything can be done without first clearing something else out of the way. Yet praus are much liked even by those who had European vessels, because of their cheapness both in first cost and in keeping up; almost all repairs can be done by the crew, and very few European stores are required.’’ (Wallace, R. 1869, The Malay Archipelago, Macmillan, London: 311-16)
We saw the first locally made schooners in the Singapore of the middle of last century. Sometime in the 1830ies an European shipwright who had married a local girl in Trengganu, Malaysia, built a small schooner for the local Raja which soon became prototype to a new kind of boat for the Malay traders. These boats were called pinas, quite probably after one of the large boats carried on European sailing vessels for loading services.
However, it still took several decades until we developed our own kind of schooner, the pinisiq (pronounced ‘peeneeseek’). The word pinisiq actually does refer to the rigging only -i.e. eight sails, consisting out of three foresails on a long bowsprit, a mainsail and a mizzen on standing gaffs, two topsails and a staysail on the mizzen-mast’s forestay- while the different types of hulls of our ships bear their own names. Being real sailing ships, our pinisiq were fitted out with masts much taller than you find installed on the motorised vessels of today, and we always kept rigging and sails in shipshape condition. Until the introduction of engines all of our ships had a sharp stern, and we did not use center rudders but steered with two long rudder blades fixed to strong traverse thwarts projecting out on both sides of the aft part, like those used on a padewakang. As they were used for trading, the whole hull was cargo space, and only a small cabin for the captain was put up on the aft deck while the crew slept on deck or in the cargo-hold.
With this new kind of boat which could sail efficiently against the monsoon winds our trade revived and when during the Great Depression in the 1920ies freight rates of European owned vessels rose extremely, our praus again became competive. In the 1930ties we Birans owned about 300 sailing schooners, and our village grew wealthy by their trading. When you're on the way to the hotel beach have a good look at our houses. You for example might have noted, that nearly all are roofed with tiles and not with the cheap corrugated iron you find in other villages. Imagine, that already before the war we installed our own water pipelines which had been in use until recently. The immense use of water in the hotels and the cutting down of the trees which were once all around here dried out the springs where we took the water from. However, in terms of trade we always were a bit behind the Bugis traders from Wajo and Sinjai who during their migrations had spread an extensive network all over the Archipelago on which they could rely.
During World War II the Japanese forced our ships to load the necessities of modern warfare and many were sunk by allied planes and warships. After World War II during the fighting for independence of our country, many Biran vessels were engaged in smuggling weapons from Singapore to Java for the new Indonesian National Army. When peace was restored, sailing ships were the only means of transport which could function without expensive spare parts which had to be imported from abroad and our trading revived rapidly. While before the war the biggest ships could load only about 40t. In the 1950ies we started to order ships of 100t and more and from 1960 on increasingly transported consigned cargoes owned by Chinese and Indonesian traders instead of bartering for our own commodities in East Indonesia.
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