Part Two – The Moken

The Mergui Archipelago In 1905

Of all the people to be found among the Islands of the Mergui Archipelago, the most interesting are that strange race of nomadic fishermen known as the Selungs (Moken), or Moken Sea Gypsies, a people who seldom stray beyond their home in the Mergui Archipelago, unless a few of the boldest make a visit to Mergui.

In cruising through the island group it is not uncommon to catch sight of one or two tiny square sailed boats hurrying along, or, in rounding the point of an island to find a small encampment on a sandy beach.

A more timid people can scarcely be found. They live in dread of strangers of any kind, and a steam launch with white men seemed to suggest to them merely pirates of another color from the Malay dacoits at whose hands they have frequently suffered. As we approached such a beach encampment there was a general stampede, and before we landed there was often not a single human being on the beach, even the dogs turned tail with their masters and vanished into the jungle. On several occasions I found such deserted encampments with boats drawn up on the beach, fires burning, and a meal cooking, but no sign of occupants.  I entered the jungle with an interpreter in search, but no trace of them was to be found, though no sooner had we put to sea again than those elusive people once more flocked down to the beach.

Moken Settlement on Cantor Island

Selung Settlement on Cantor Island

On a few occasions, however, I contrived it might have to be by cajolery or craft to get at close quarters with the Moken and to hold converse through an interpreter. Even that was difficult, for they have a language of their own in which my interpreter was not well versed, and it is only a

few among them who trade with Mergui, or with the rascally Chinese merchants who visit them, that speak Burmese.

The children are pitiably timid. I have seen them jump overboard and swim for the shore or break into violent fits of sobbing when we ran alongside the boats. But they listened in amazement to the screech of our launch’s steam whistle, and when they saw the propeller revolve neither old nor young could suppress their delight. Despite their savage, gaunt and even forbidding appearance, the Moken are invariable peaceful and unaggressive.

Throughout the fine season the Selungs (Moken) wander through the Mergui Archipelago in their frail boats, which form their real homes. These boats, about twenty feet long, have a solid dug out for hull, with upper-works of palm leaf strips lashed to uprights and made watertight with a coating of dammer. A few seats, a palm leaf awning, and a sail of plaited palm leaf complete the boat. No metal is used in the construction, and the only tool employed is a rough adze; in fact beyond their fishing spears and these adzes the Moken possess no weapons or tools of any sort.

Nor is their household property extensive, for to such confined nomads property would be a serious hindrance to free movement.

A few earthenware cooking pots, two or three bamboo water carriers, some broken crockery (usually made in Germany) and a couple of empty kerosene tins (and where are they not to be found?) complete the list. Clothes do not trouble the Moken; a scanty loin cloth suffices for both sexes though the younger women wear more when they can get it, and some of the men have adopted the Burmese Lungi. The only objects they lay great value on are their trident shaped fishing spears, the iron for which if not the fashioned spear, they get by barter from the mainland.

Moken Women and Children

Selung Women and Children

The Moken occupy themselves almost entirely in fishing, or in diving for various kinds of mother of pearl shell, but occasionally they scour the jungle in search of honey, or hunt wild pigs with the aid of their dogs. There are places among the islands where they have planted plantains, mangoes and pineapples, but they pay little attention to these “Gardens” only visiting them on rare intervals. All their energy seems to be absorbed in obtaining the days scanty living, consisting of fish, oysters, honey, and fruit, with the occasional pig or turtle. I seldom saw in their boats sufficient food for more than the next meal.

During the fine season they pass from island to island in the Mergui Archipelago, never staying more than a night or two in the same place, but when the stormy weather of the south west monsoon sets in and the fishing operations have perforce to be abandoned, the Moken betake themselves to sheltered inlets, where they build rude cheerless dwellings in which they pass the months of waiting until the propitious weather comes again. During these summer months of enforced sedentary life they repair their boats, and weave a few palm leafed mats for use and for sale, all the while, no doubt, dreaming of their liberation when the storms are over. A miserable life it is true, and yet these sea gypsies seem to be a happy people, and to show no signs of dying out. There must be some 900, I estimated in the archipelago. With the exception of a few at Junkseylon, on the mainland of the Malay peninsula, their range is limited to the islands.

Read Part One – The Mergui Archipelago

The Mergui Archipelago

By R.N. Rudmore Brown

Lecturer in Geography, Sheffield University

1905 article from Travel Magazine.