Bugis trade

Singapore Infopedia


The opening of Singapore as a British free port in 1819 attracted trade from the Bugis, a group of seafarers from the southern Celebes (today’s Indonesian island of Sulawesi). Travelling on their distinctive boats known as prahus, they brought with them specialised sea and forest produce gathered from the islands of the Malay Archipelago in exchange for goods such as opium or British and Malayan products. The Bugis relied on monsoon winds to make their annual trading trips and added colour to Singapore’s waterfront and local culture during their stay. After more than a century of trading activities in Singapore, their prominent role as maritime traders declined due to growing competition from Dutch ports and the rising dominance of fast steamers over sailing crafts.

The forays of Bugis merchants around the Malay Archipelago date to at least the 16th century. In his book, Suma Oriental, published in the 16th century, Portuguese historian Tomé Pires mentions the existence of small pockets of Bugis communities in Sulawesi who traded with Malacca, Java, Brunei and “all the countries between Pahang and Siam”. Most Bugis merchants who ventured abroad were from the kingdom of Wajo and they benefitted tremendously from the free trade promoted by the neighbouring kingdom of Makassar. This free-trade policy, however, came under constant pressure from the Dutch. After the fall of Makassar to the Dutch following a series of defeats between 1666 and 1669, trade between Makassar and its neighbours became restricted. There followed an exodus of Wajo Bugis, with a number of noble families along with their dependents and followers arriving in Johor and Riau.1

Development of the Bugis trade
From the end of the 18th century to the 19th century, new developments such as the founding of European trade centres (including Singapore) and the growth of Chinese communities in the region (known to the Chinese as Nanyang, or “South Seas”) gave new life to the old indigenous merchant network that relied principally on Bugis traders. The Bugis played an important role connecting trade between China, European trading centres and the islands of the Malay Archipelago.2

The Bugis trade was sustained by a large-scale demand for trepang (Indonesian for “sea cucumber”) from the China market, which triggered a massive hunt for and distribution of this sea produce considered a delicacy by the Chinese. The islands of Southeast Asia became the main catchment area and trepang catching was dominated by coastal communities as well as the Bajau, a group of sea nomads. Many boats sailed from Makassar in December and January to as far as the coasts of Australia to catch and prepare the product for sale to the Chinese. The Bugis were involved in the trepang trade as traders, collecting it from communities throughout eastern Indonesia, as well as gatherers and processors. Before the establishment of Singapore as a colonial trading port, Bugis traders would dock at Riau or Banjarmasin (a port in South Kalimantan) to trade trepang and other sea and forest products for Indian textiles and opium with Asian merchants and later British country traders.3

Bugis trade route
The Bugis people’s extensive trade route, which included Bali, Lombok and South Borneo,4 made them a significant force in the indigenous regional maritime trading network and earned them the title of “carriers of the East”.5 The direct journey from the Celebes to Singapore usually took between 15 and 18 days,6 with good wind conditions shortening the journey to a week and the longest voyage taking up to a month.7 In their early days of sailing, the Bugis relied on the positions of the sun and stars to navigate the seas and it was not until the start of the 20th century that they began to use the compass.8 Bugis prahus that were chartered by Chinese merchants to bring Celebes produce to Singapore took the direct route. However, Bugis private traders would take a longer route, visiting many ports along the way as they sought the best prices for their cargo.9

Bugis trade with Singapore
Trading season
When Singapore opened as a centre for maritime entrepot trade after Raffles set up a trading outpost there, the Bugis joined other vessels that rode the monsoon winds to trade in Singapore.10 The Bugis prahus from the Celebes, as well as the Chinese junks, formed an important part of this regional maritime trade.11 Some 120 Wajo Bugis ships came to Singapore in 1825, while the previous year saw 90 ships.12 The presence of Bugis traders in Singapore was seasonal, with most arriving with the angin timur (east wind) during a three-month period starting from around late August13 and departing sometime in November during the northeast monsoon. The prahus arrived at different times, depending on where they were coming from. For example, ships from northeastern and eastern Borneo typically came in September and those from the Celebes arrived in November.14

Threat of pirates
Piracy was a menace to ships plying the waters of the Malay Archipelago during the early decades of the 19th century.15 The lure of profits in Singapore waned against the gory reports of plunder and murder by the pirates.16 The frequency and impunity of pirate attacks in the waters off Singapore made the Bugis consider pulling out from trading at the port.17 Government gunboats were dispatched to patrol the seas, but the piracy problem was too entrenched and continued to haunt the Bugis juragans (captains), in turn affecting Singapore merchants involved in the Bugis trade. The war on piracy took a favourable turn towards the mid-19th century following the cooperation of the Malay chiefs, especially the temenggong (village chief) who was able to turn the tide against the pirates through his network of Malay followers and personal connections with neighbouring chiefs and princes.18

Anchorage and trading centre
The Bugis traders anchored at Tanjong Rhu, historically referred to as Sandy Point, in the eastern part of the trading settlement. Here, except at the entrance, the water was deep enough for the Bugis to anchor their prahus inside the bay.19 The arrival of the first Bugis fleet for the trade season was eagerly awaited and always created a flurry of excitement once spotted:20

A tamby was always stationed on the verandah by the telescope to give the signal as soon as they appeared, and when they came to an anchor off Tanjong Rhu and Clyde Terrace the harbour presented a most animated appearance.

Historically, the Bugis merchants conducted their trade at Kampong Glam, which a journalist had once referred to as their “Piccadilly Circus”.21 A writer recalls the liveliness brought by the Bugis traders in the 19th century:22

Here we are at the end of October, and no Bugis boats; in fact hardly any compared to what it was, when the ancient [Kampong] Glam was tenanted before migration to the Bukits. Sandy Point and its surroundings were full of the mosquito fleet, and the Kwala [estuary] was lively with all sorts of crafts … During the Bugis seasons all the large Hokien
towkays engaged long sampans for the month, running up and down between the river and Sandy Point. There was open space somewhere on the top of Arab Street, where a fair during the said season was held.

The gaiety and scale of the trade during the Bugis season was described in a 1921 article by The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser newspaper:23

In ancient times, when the Bugis boats came in, it was a beautiful sight to see hundreds of these strange yet sea-worthy craft, anchored for weeks on end, and the trade that was done would astonish some of the firms that now own fine concrete godowns of several stories.

Goods traded
The Bugis brought a variety of goods to be traded in Singapore and their exports would change according to market demands. In the 19th century, the goods traded by the Bugis included birds of paradise, medicinal masoya bark, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, trepang, birds’ nests, sandalwood, gold dust, beeswax, cotton and coffee, which were acquired from places such as Papua New Guinea, the Moluccas, northern Australia, as well as the Celebes itself. From Singapore, the Bugis brought back products like British and American firearms and gunpowder, Malayan tin, iron parangs, Chinese raw silk, earthenware, opium, Bengalese cotton fabric, European woollen cloth and cotton linen.24

The woven fabric brought by the Bugis was known as “sarong Bugis” and renowned for its durability. The merchants then returned with threads for their womenfolk to weave into new sarongs for trade in the next season.25 Due to a shortage of threads during the postwar period in the late 1940s, not enough of these sarongs were produced for export and they were only used for barter in the neighouring islands of the Celebes.26

From the 19th century up to the early 20th century, Bugis traders also brought shiploads of slaves, who were mainly Bugis, to be sold in Singapore and other parts of the Malay Archipelago.27

Life outside of trade
When engaging in trade, the Bugis sailors used their time in Singapore to prepare for their homeward journey, including making their boats seaworthy. The Bugis crew would busy themselves with mending the sails; even after World War II (WWII) the Bugis could be seen making new sails by the Esplanade waterfront.28

Their presence enlivened the local scene and contributed to local businesses.29 Coffeeshop owners, fortune tellers and storytellers took home more earnings during the Bugis season, while the native bazaars swarmed with Malay women and girls – dependents of the Bugis crew – who were out shopping. The seasonal visitors would also visit Wayang Kassim, a popular bangsawan (Malay opera) venue.30

In the 1830s, there were around 200 prahus visiting Singapore every year, each with a 30-strong crew.31 Later, with the opening of Dutch ports and steamship lines in the East Indies, the British found it hard to sustain the unrivalled position of Singapore in the transit trade.32 A confluence of factors led to the slow decline of the Bugis trade in Singapore. The first blow to the Bugis trade with Singapore came in 1847 when the Dutch made Makassar a free port.33 The second was when Dutch steamers revised their freight rates and made them more competitive. With direct Dutch lines from the East Indies to India, China, Japan and Australia, the Bugis found Makassar to be a more attractive trading location compared to Singapore. In 1907, the Bugis fleet completely stayed away from Singapore. The Moluccas trade had been redirected to Makassar, resulting in a sizeable economic loss to Singapore.34 The steam age also led to the depletion of Bugis fleets, which lost their supremacy in the Malay interisland trade to the faster Dutch steamships, particularly those of the Dutch shipping company, Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij, which made it very challenging for the Bugis as well as other natives in the archipelago to keep up the trade with Singapore.35

In the decade before the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), many Bugis traders skipped Singapore as a stop because they earned no more than $100 on each trip. During the war, however, the Bugis returned to trade with Japanese merchants under strict supervision.36 They continued trading in Singapore during the period of the British Military Administration (1945–46) as the Bugis made a profitable business trading in commodities that were not controlled by the authorities, particularly spices. Chinese merchants in Makassar chartered Bugis boats to transport produce from Sulawesi to Singapore. Other Bugis traders stopped at various ports in the archipelago to gather goods that were eventually sold in Singapore.37

There was, in fact, a revival of Bugis trade in Singapore during the postwar period. The Bugis who came then made large profits – reportedly in the range of $2,000 to $4,000 for each trader.38 The Bugis season in 1956 saw some 200 prahus visit Singapore,39 while a 250-strong fleet docked at the Kallang River in 1961.40

End of a tradition
The  Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation between 1963 and 1966, however, signalled the end of the Bugis trade. Trade with Singapore was illegal during this period and traders risked prosecution by the Indonesian or Singaporean authorities.41 Nonetheless, their trade was still welcome by local businessmen as the Bugis were willing to sell commodities such as rubber for a third of the prevailing price in Singapore.42

From the 1970s, Bugis traders had to call at the barter trade zone in Pasir Panjang, which replaced Telok Ayer Basin as the centre for regional trade.43 In 1973, it was reported that only 20 Bugis ships had moored in Singapore for barter trade.44 With the closure of the Barter Trade Centre at Pandan Crescent in 1995,45 Bugis fleets became a relic of Singapore’s maritime commerce.46


Nor Afidah Abd Rahman

1. Glenn Hamonic, “The Bugis-Makassar Merchant Networks: The Rise and Fall of the Principle of the Freedom of the Seas,” in Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, eds., Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 256–59. (Call no. RSING 382.095 ASI)
2. Harmonic, “Bugis-Makassar Merchant Networks”, 260.
3. Heather Sutherland, “Trepang and Wangkang: The China Trade of Eighteenth-Century Makassar c.1720s–1840s,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- enVolkenkunde 156, no. 3 (2000): 451–52, 469, 471. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
4. Ken Jalleh, “Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice,” Singapore Free Press, 15 October 1949, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “The Bugis Traders Sought Refuge in Singapore,” Straits Times, 6 April 1957, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Bugis Fleet Waits at Kallang for a Monsoon Deflection to Sail Home to the Celebes,” Singapore Free Press, 14 October 1961, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Century-Old Spice Trade Is Resumed,” Singapore Free Press, 19 May 1947, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Chan Swan Dee, “Bugis ‘Armada’ Invasion…but Only Trinkets Interest the Sailors,” Singapore Free Press, 14 November 1960, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Boom for Spice-Boat Trade,” Straits Times, 9 November 1947, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2009 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 32. (Call no. RSING 957.57 TUR-[HIS]) 
11. “The Island’s Trade Ninety Years Ago,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 6 February 1939, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Christian Pelras, The Bugis (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 307. (Call no. RSING 959.84 PEL)
13. “Macassar Prahu season Begins,” Straits Times, 31 August 1949, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Singapore: Bugis Trade,” Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China, and Australasia 5, no. 20 (May–August 1831): 212 (Call no. RRARE 950 AJ; microfilm NL18134); “Bugis Fleet Waits at Kallang.”
15. Llyod Morgan, “Century of Piracy in Malayan Waters,” Straits Times, 13 September 1958, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Singapore, Thursday, 29th Oct. 1846,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 29 October 1846, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “More Atrocious Piracies,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 25 August 1831, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 6 April 1847, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Harbour Improvements,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 23 November 1901, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819–2000 (Singapore: Archipelago Press; National Heritage Board, 1999), 33. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])
20. “The Bugis Fleet Arrives,” Straits Times, 5 April 1936, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 15 January 1947, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Notes from the kampong,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 30 October 1886, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Singapore Free Press. Thursday, August 11, 1921,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 August 1921, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Pelras, Bugis, 305, 311; “Singapore: Bugis Trade.”
25. “Celebes,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 6 October 1851, 2; “Untitled,” Straits Observer, 8 November 1876, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Ken Jalleh, “Bugis Reclaim the Seas,” Straits Times, 14 December 1947, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Pelras, Bugis, 308–09.
28. “Century-Old Spice Trade Is Resumed,” Singapore Free Press, 19 May 1947, 5; Jalleh, “Bugis Reclaim the Seas.”
29. W. Bartley, “The Panorama of the Waterfront Forty Years Ago,” Straits Times, 22 July 1948, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Untitled.”
31. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 57. 
32. “Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 7 December 1847, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Celebes.”
34. “The Changing East,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 11 June 1907, 1; “Transit Trade Decline,” Straits Times, 17 January 1908, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Untitled.”
36. Jalleh, “Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice.”
37. Jalleh, “Bugis Reclaim the Seas.”
38. “Boom for Spice-Boat Trade”; Jalleh, “Bugis Reclaim the Seas.” 
39. “40 Men in Fear for Lives,” Straits Times, 26 October 1957, 7. (From NewspaperSG)\
40. “Bugis Fleet Waits at Kallang.”
41. Gabriel Lee, “200 Bugis Ready to Run the Gauntlet Again,” Straits Times, 8 November 1963, 5; “Barter Ban Is On: Patrols Turn Back 30 Indonesian Boats,” Straits Times, 14 August 1964, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Lee, 200 Bugis Ready to Run.”
43. Betty L. Khoo, “Oldest Trading Vessels to Call Here,” New Nation, 29 December 1972, 9; Ismail Pantek, “Orang2 Bugis,” Berita Harian, 17 January 1986, 5; ”Pasir Panjang the New Regional Trade Centre,” Straits Times, 14 April 1977, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
44. A. Ghani Nasir, “Orang2 Melayu Perlu Sesuai…,” Berita Harian, 4 March 1973, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
45. “Lack of Use So Historical Barter Trade Site Closes from Today,” Business Times, 1 July 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Indonesia Lacks Ships to Handle New Trade,” (1982, January 19). Business Times, 19 January 1982, 15. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
John G. Butcher, The Closing of the Frontier: A History of the Marine Fisheries of Southeast Asia, c.1850-2000 (Singapore: ISEAS, 2004), 49. (Call no. RSING 338.37270959 BUT)

Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History 1819–2002 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003). (Call no. RSING 959.57 DOB-[HIS])

Singapore Business Men Urge Drastic Reform,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 10 September 1908, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

The Moluccan Archipelago,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 26 October 1848, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 27 June 1839, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

W. Bartley, “The Panorama of the Waterfront Forty Years Ago,” Straits Times, 22 July 1948, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 17 February 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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