Sea Gypsies to Sultans: Meeting the mariners of the Java Sea

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

Thirty years ago, field-research for the museum took me to a remote little Indonesian island called Raas in the Java Sea. It was so far off regular motor-ship routes that I took passage on an engineless trading prahu propelled by a huge lateen sail. Prahus like these, called lete-lete, provided transport and livelihoods for Raas and adjacent islands, and some of them were sailed on long-haul fishing expeditions into northern Australian waters. The museum, which at that time was just beginning to develop its collections and first exhibitions, wanted to learn more about various types of maritime contacts linking Australia and Indonesia.

This autumn I returned to these same waters, leading a small group of visitors from Australia, the UK and Canada who were eager to meet some of Indonesia’s least-known maritime communities, in a region of the Java Sea where tourism has not yet arrived.

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