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Sulawesi's imposing armada

The Buginese prahu probably formed the most impressive fleet of wooden trading ships in the world. Nowadays an estimated 800 of these ships are involved in the trade of wood from Kalimantan to Jawa, varying in weight from 120 to 200 tons. In the seaport of Sunda Kelapa in Jakarta, you can find as many as 200 pinisi, while Peotere, the seaport of Makassar, is full with smaller boats:lambo-boats from Buton which transport copra; pinisi with one mast which can unload timberwood from Kalimantan; motorboats from neighboring islands, loaded with passengers and vegetables and boats from remote islands which transport dried fish.
The days that the big sail-schooners transported their merchandize all over the archipelago and even stopped at small harbours have gone. Most pinisi nowadays travel between Kalimantan and Kawa with lumber as their freight. It's still possible to see several of these ships loaded with petroleum, cement and some household products, allthough these boats are usually going to the outer islands. With several exceptions all boats have been motorized: the last of the real prahu pinisi of Surabaya, which only sailed, sank in 1987.

The century of the trade

When western pioneers and merchants contacted the archipelago in the 16th century, the prahu from South-Sulawesi sailed all the way to Malacca at the coast of West-Malaysia. The Portuguese apothecary Tome Pires wrote in 1515 in Malacca that the Buginese-Makassarese merchants 'come in their well-built pajalas. They bring a lot of food: very white rice, they bring some gold. They take back fabrics from Cambay and big amounts of black raisin and insence'.
Sea maps from the 18th and 19th century show routes as far as Indo-China and Birma. Allowance to sail and other rights from kingdoms of South-Sulawesi, dating from the early 18th century, give fixed cost for freight and passengers to Malacca in the west, Cambodia in the north, and even far to the east: Papua New-Guinee.

Picture: Schooner

In 1792 the English merchant captain Forrest told:'I saw fifteen pinisi at the same time in Bengkulu (along the western coast of Sumatera) 25 years ago, loaded with a mixed freight of spices, wax, cassia, sandel-wood and fabrics from Celebes'. Early European colonists at the northern coast of Australis were astonished when they saw Buginese and Makassarese prahu, which gathered seacucumber around the coasts of Australia, often with the help of the robust Bajau, the 'sea nomads'. These goods were sold to Chinese merchants in Makassar. Even now several boats are cought which fish in Australian waters illegally. The men maintain a centuries-old tradition of hunting down seas on the coastal plateau of Australia. In the 19th century a fleet of 800 prahu padewakeng sailed from Bodu on the Moluccan Aru Islands to Singapore and returned with a wealth of goods, among them cotton fabrics, gold dust, birds nests, turtle shields, feathers, tripang, sandel-wood, coffee and rice. The future raja of Sarawak, James Brooke, wrote in his diary: 'The profits for the Buginese are usually made on the return trip; it mainly consists of weapons, gunpowder, opium and cotton'.
The trade doutes from the past centuries were decided by monsoons. In March, ad the end of the wet season, the ships used the decreasing western winds to sail to the eastern part of the archipelago, where they picked up local products. In April, when the eastern monsoon started to build up, these goods were brought to places along the coast of Jawa, Kalimantan and Sumatera and traded for other goods. Upon return of the western monsoon in September, the sailors went home, to moor their ships during the stormy months of December and January.

Changes by motorisation

The elegant pinisi which are used now, are equipped with three masts and eight sails, made to the example of the 19th century schooner, which had a loading capacity of 200 to 300 tons. When the wind was right, it could sail from Ujung Pandang (Makassar) to Surabaya in three days. Nowadays they are equipped with diesel engines.
The motorisation has brought many changes in the prahu pinisi: the modern ships are much stronger and bigger, with a loading capacity of upto 500 tons. Purists deplore the disappearance of the older crafts; they were without doubt more elegant than the 'woodtankers' which have taken their place now.
Motorisation also changed a lot of things for the about twelve traditional trade-and shipyard centers on Sumawesi: Bira, along the southern coast has been a village for sailors and related people. In the 1930's about 4,000 people worked on one of the 300 schooners of Bira. Nowadays the harbour is virtually empty; only a handfull of small boats moors. The current staff of the pinisi is mainly Jawanese and Madurese, or sometimes Buginese that live in the seaports of Jakarta and Surabaya.
The downfall of sailing also meant the downfall of being a sailor. Motors which were strong enough to maintain a fixed course and cause less fear for the fears of wind and sea, have taken the place of the knowledge which could not be missed on long journeys in the past. Knowledge of weather and wind, ropes and maintaining the ship was tought to children when they were young. When they were twelve years old, they got on the ship as cook or shipmate on dad's ship. The course of the ship, which used to be determined by knowledge of stars, points of recognition, waves and clouds, but is now decided by map and compass.
Nowadays a small number of sailors perform their profession on original ships. They sail with small boats to the remote Singapore, where they illegally trade birds from Papua and Maluku against food. The people still sail with two maps - one for going east, and one for going west - through entire Indonesia and still trust the stars above compasses which they use for navigation. This group of 'real' sailors clings to traditional knowledge of unmapped cliffs near forgotten islands, and of streams in narrow straits far from the normal trade routes.

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