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ETHNONYMS: Orang Bonerate, Salayar, Selayar


Identification. Bonerate live on the island of Bonerate, which is situated in the middle of the Flores Sea in Indonesia. They call themselves "Orang Bonerate" and are referred to by the same term by their neighbors. Westerners have grouped them with both Bugis and Selayar people. They speak the Bonerate language and, according to official records, are all Sunni Muslim.

Location. Bonerate is situated at approximately 7° S and 121° E. The area belongs to the moist deciduous monsoon forest zone. The rainy season normally starts in the latter part of December and lasts through February. Showers also occur quite often in March and April. The rest of the year is dry, but occasional showers may appear any time. Bonerate, meaning "flat sands," has two minor hills, the higher of which reaches less than 200 meters above sea level. The island is formed from corals, is almost circular in shape, fringed by extensive reefs, and covers about 70 square kilometers. The soil is of poor quality. Where fields are cleared, seeds are sown between coral-limestones. There are no rivers or creeks, and water is a scarce resource during the dry season. Water for human consumption is fetched from village wells. During the dry season the water in the villages located close to the shore is often of poor quality and brackish.

Demography. The island's total population is approximately 5,500 (1978), which includes people of various origins and affiliations. The largest ethnic group is the Bonerate, who are regarded as descendants of the original population and early Butonese immigrants.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Bonerate language is spoken in all villages and is the language of local market communication. All over South Sulawesi, different languages have been in prolonged and often intimate contact with each other. This blurs the distinction between dialect and language. The reference to a Bonerate "language" is based on the knowledge that the tongues spoken on the neighboring islands and Bonerate are not mutually understandable. This does not mean, however, that the inhabitants of the different islands are unable to communicate verbally. First, Bonerate individuals master more than the local "language"; they are bi- and even trilingual. Second, a significant number of the islanders have some knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia (the national language) , which is also the language of the schools. According to Bonerate people, their language shares many similarities with Butonese. The Bonerate language has been included with the Muna-Butung Group.

History and Cultural Relations

Accounts of Bonerate history and traditional culture are few, and interisland variation in this area is significant. We do, however, know that in the past a combination of trading, slaving, and piracy formed the base of the economy. There are strong indices pointing to the probability that the island was never able to feed a large population solely from domestic resources. Population pressures seem always to have been somewhat relieved by the customary period men spend at sea. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were reports of some export of deer antlers and hides. But approximately 30 years ago, dogs were introduced for hunting and the deer were driven into the sea; they are now extinct. Another economic enterprise that has ceased is the growing of cotton for spinning and weaving. As late as the beginning of this century textiles were being exported from Bonerate. Bonerate materials, however, could not compete with modern factory-made textiles from Java. Orang Bonerate have a long-standing tradition and reputation for being particularly skilled builders of the local type of prahu (sailship). In earlier times, Bonerate had a stratified society with sharply defined classes: kings, queens, and their descendants; nobility; commoners; and slaves. Today, this social division is of almost no importance in everyday interaction.

For centuries and up to the present men from the South Sulawesi mainland, especially of Bugis affiliation, Butung, and Flores have settled and married at Bonerate. Immigrant men far outnumber immigrant women. The cultural impact of these relations can be observed both in ritual and everyday village life. Orang Bonerate have close, ancient, and lasting relations with Bajau people (also known as sea nomads). In earlier times this interaction may have had the character of a symbiotic relationship. At the present the relationship would more correctly be described as an ecologically based cooperation in which Bajau fetch water at Bonerate and barter fish and other sea products for cultivars grown on Bonerate.


Orang Bonerate live in ten villages, the populations of which vary from approximately 20 to 1,000 residents. Seven of the villages are seashore communities; the remaining three are situated in the interior of the island. When the residents from the latter want marine foods, they barter for them in the coastal villages, or they purchase them at the market at the island capital (ibu kota ). This survey of Bonerate's settlements would not be complete without the mention of an eleventh village that was emerging in 1978. People from two inland villages cooperated in building new houses and developed swiddens at a virgin inland location. The people who periodically lived at the new site gave the growing scarcity of land around their home villages as the reason for moving there. At that time no children had yet been born there. The development of the new village was based on local initiative, not sponsored by the island's civil servants.

Most houses on Bonerate have bamboo or rough wood walls and roofs of thatched coconut-palm leaves, and are built on poles. The size is highly variable from small, one-room all-thatch huts to houses with a veranda, bedrooms, and a separate firehouse/kitchen.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Orang Bonerate regard themselves first of all as agriculturalists. They practice a system of slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture. Owing to a lack of water, only one crop is possible per year. Primary forest is absent from the island. Secondary forest and bush land are cleared in the preparation of swiddens. Fields are usually cultivated for up to three years and then lie fallow from six to ten years. The technological level is low; a long-bladed bush knife and a digging/weeding iron rod are the only agricultural implements in use. Corn is the staple crop, backed by cassava. In addition, pumpkins, watermelons, and such vegetables as peas and beans are grown. Some fruits, such as bananas, papaya, breadfruit, and coconuts are also grown for local consumption. Domesticated animals are few, but include goats, ducks, hens, dogs, and cats. Most animal proteins in the diet derive from fishing and the gathering of marine animals such as worms and mollusks. At the island capital some men have specialized as shipbuilders. During the 1980s they managed to shift from the construction of sailships to motor vessels suited for local interisland commercial traffic. The boats are built on contracts for clients all over South Sulawesi and other parts of Indonesia. Most men in the age group of 19 to 30 years are absent from the island from six to ten months yearly, while they are sailing as crew members on Bonerate boats engaged in the copra and spices trade between the Moluccas and Java. The major effect of this trade has not been economic, in terms of the wages earned by the sailors. Only ship owners and captains make a profit, and few households are involved at this level. Rather, the most important effect of this trade is that the absentees reduce the pressure on food, which is yearly in short supply during parts of the dry season.

Industrial Arts. Except for the building of boats, which is carried out at a remarkably low technological level and without blueprints, the island has few artisans. One blacksmith resided on Bonerate in 1978.

Trade. Bonerate has one market, which is open once every week. There are a few small stores in the larger villages.

Division of Labor. With the exceptions of boat building, a few fishing activities, and the sailing of boats, division of labor by gender is poorly developed at Bonerate. Men and women engage in some fishing activities, and work together at the swiddens. The traditional home tasks are usually assigned to women, but men also cook, tend babies, fetch water, and wash clothes.

Land Tenure. Agricultural land is collectively owned by the villagers; plots for cultivation are allocated by the village headmen. Fishing and collecting of beach and shore resources are open to all.


Kin Groups and Descent. Formerly kin groups were closely knit to a rigid system of social rank. Today kin groups exceeding the household units, based on core families, have relatively little significance. Moral support may, however, be sought from relatives recognized through both male and female links. Bilateral relatives are also recruited for occasional communal tasks such as ritual activities and agricultural work.

Kinship Terminology. The Bonerate kinship system is clearly bilateral. Kin terms are the same whether the linking relative is one's mother or father. It is a generational system; all members of each generation are grouped terminologically. In the generation of Ego, relative age and the distinction between siblings and cousins are emphasized. Thus, elder siblings are referred to as ikaka and younger as yaisu. Gender is marked by adding the suffix moane (male) or vovine (female). Parallel and cross cousins are named sapisa. In the parent generation ina (mother) and ama (father) are identified; all other members of that generation are tuha, with the exception of the in-laws, who are davo. Grandparents and grandchildren are named ompu. One's children are anak. In everyday encounters, however, parents are referred to with teknonymic terms by the name of the eldest son.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. When people marry, social prestige is at high risk. Orang Bonerate stress that fathers and mothers gain prestige through their daughters. Men try to move up the social ladder by marrying socially important women. According to what people say, a woman does not lose in rank by marrying down, but her husband will always be seen as inferior in comparison with his in-laws. Most weddings are arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. Wealthy parents of Bonerate girls find it natural to donate money to the family of the groom. This is done to enable them to pay a substantial bride-price. Residence is generally uxorilocal. Polygyny is possible, but almost absent from Bonerate. Marriages tend to be stable, and divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family, which may include one or more married daughters and grandparents, is the most significant family and residential unit. Egalitarianism between the sexes, particularly between husband and wife, is a striking feature of Bonerate social organization, which should be regarded as matrifocal.

Inheritance. Bonerate sons and daughters inherit equal shares of their parents' estate and other belongings. There is only one exception to this rule of even distribution of inheritance. The parental house, which is actually the mother's house, and all household equipment, belong to the youngest daughter. If there are no daughters, the house belongs to the youngest son.

Socialization. The absence of the father is experienced by most infants and children for prolonged periods when fathers are at sea. Otherwise both parents take part in the socialization of their children. Also, child care by young caretakers is an institutionalized custom. The caretakers may be siblings, but not necessarily so. In socialization emphasis is placed on emotional control, that is, the concealment of expressions of love, joy, and anger from public exposure. Orang Bonerate seldom praise their children, nor do they use physical punishment in child rearing. Children seem to direct aggression toward themselves and culturally acceptable targets such as animals and strangers. Puberty rites are staged for both girls and boys.

Sociopolitical Organization

Bonerate belongs to the Kabupaten Selayar in the province of South Sulawesi. It is the administrative center of the district of Pasirmarannu, which means that the chamat, or head of the district civil administration, is located here together with police and military personnel. Authority lines follow the rules laid down by the modern republic of Indonesia.

Social Organization. The traditional stratified social organization of the Bonerate has generally lost its social relevance, but is expressed for instance during occasions of ritualized dances. A new elite based on economic success seems to be emerging among the islanders.

Political Organization. Bonerate society is a hierarchical system organized by locally recruited headmen for the island ( kepala desa ) , settlements ( kepala linkung ) , and neighborhood (kepala kampung ). These headmen cooperate with, and carry out, the policy of the civil servants, who are recruited from areas outside Bonerate. The local headmen, and the islanders in general, have little influence in political issues above the restricted kampung level.

Social Control. Internal island conflicts are generally avoided and aggression is directed toward outsiders, but nowadays no action is carried out. When necessary, headmen at the different levels mediate when potential conflicts appear.

Conflict. In the past Bonerate men were renowned pirates. Today any serious conflict is taken care of by police or military personnel. At the village level, minor conflicts are solved within the community by strategies of ridicule, gossip, and reference to normative respect toward elders.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Orang Bonerate regard themselves as Muslims, but they do not follow the Quranic prescriptions strictly. Most villages have a mosque, but except during Ramadan these are poorly frequented. Imams are present only in the largest village. The local religion is syncretistic: many traditional customs, such as the belief in supernatural beings, are integrated into its belief system. Iblis is the deity to whom many Orang Bonerate make offerings at small altars. Some people refer to Seta as a synonym for Iblis. "Seta" is commonly used to denote spirits and ghosts in much of Indonesia. The villagers' preference for the Arabic-derived term "Iblis" may reflect the strong desire to appear Islamized and thus blur the connections to a traditional religion of spirit worship.

Religious Practitioners. There are no full-time traditional ritual experts on Bonerate. Minor rituals are carried out by both women and men.

Ceremonies. On special occasions, a possession-trance ritual is staged. The ritual is led by two women dressed as male sea captains. A medium dances until she enters a state of trance. At this point she walks on live embers and thus proves her authentic role as a medium. Then Iblis, who has taken possession of the medium's body, speaks, and the message is interpreted by the ritual leaders. Only women can be possessed in this way at Bonerate. Other rituals also are staged, some of which are in concord with Quranic prescriptions, such as the first haircut for boys.

Arts. At ritual occasions, highly stylized war and other dances are performed, accompanied by flutes and drums. Ornamental arts are poorly developed.

Medicine. Severe illness is generally attributed to "soul loss" and an imbalance of elements in the body. Accidents and injuries may also inaugurate illness. Resort to local healers, both men and women, is common; they apply few local remedies but trust in blowing on water, which the patient drinks, or blowing at the chest and upper back to restore the body's balance. Modern medicines are obtained from "barefoot doctors" and at the island health station.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral is not elaborated and is regarded primarily as a matter of household and close-family concern. Graves are not attended. Ritual crying is carried out at the time of death. Before the corpse is buried, ideally before the next sunset, Orang Bonerate take some precautions such as not taking part in fishing or other activities that bring them in close contact with the sea. Concepts of afterlife are influenced by Islam, but also show traditional traits. After death the soul sets out on a voyage through the dark before it reaches the site of final rest.


Broch, Harald Beyer (1985). "'Crazy Women Are Performing in Sombali': A Possession Trance Ritual on Bonerate, Indonesia." Ethos 13:262-282.

Broch, Harald Beyer (1985). "Resource Utilization at Miang Tuu, a Village on Bonerate Island in the Flores Sea." Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography 4:5-29.

Broch, Harald Beyer (1987). "Ethnic Differentiation and Integration: Aspects of Inter Ethnic Relations at the Village Level on Bonerate." Ethnic Groups 7:19-37.

Kriebel, D. J. S. (1920). "Het Eiland Bonerate." Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Landen Volkenkunde 76:202-222.