Jakarta - The 13th to 16th centuries are the glory days of European voyages, as Spanish, Portuguese and Italian sailors roamed the continents in expeditions looking for a "new world".
Marco Polo, an Italian trader, explorer and writer from Venice, who lived from 1254-1324, was believed to be the first European to set foot in China, while Christopher Columbus is known as the Spanish sailor and first European to arrive in the Bahamas and the American continent in 1492.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese sea expedition conducted by Vasco da Gama from 1497-1499 drove him to India. In fact, Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan, during his sea expedition to the East Indies from 1519-1522 which covered South Asia and Southeast Asia, crossed the Banda Sea from the north, then down south through Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia.
In his travel journal, Magellan stopped at Tidore on November 8, 1521, at the Ambon Islands on December 29, 1521, and on January 25, 1522 his ship, named Victoria, leaned on Timor Island.
The European sailors of the time circumnavigated the globe by sailing with ships which were equipped with basic sea-navigation tools and capabilities. The ultimate goal of those sea expeditions was looking for a "new world", an area that was said to be rich in tropical spices, and for occupying the precious wealth of nature, which could not be found in the cold European region.
At the same time, sailors from the Konjo community, who were of the Bugis tribe from South Sulawesi, had actually sailed the oceans, not only covering the archipelago, but they also sailed to Southeast Asia and Australia. In fact, Madagascar, in Africa had been a stopover for Buginese sailors.
As European sailors were undertaking colonial missions to the eastern world, the purpose of Buginese expeditions was to trade with their counterparts from other regions, and to transport crops from Sulawesi.
Buginese sailors were not only known for their agility and bravery in sailing, as maritime life around the 1000s was marked by the construction of quadrangle sailing boats. The boats, with a capacity of no more than five tons, were used for fishing, and sometimes also for trading in neighborhood areas.
Notes from a Portuguese explorer, Tome Pires who settled in Malacca from 1512-1515, reported how Buginese sailors traded with Malacca (including Malaysia and Singapore), Java, Borneo, the Philippines, and Siam (now Thailand), using large sailboats of strong and tough construction, called phinisi.
Professor of Anthropology Usman Pelly explained the several versions of the origin of the name Phinisi. A story mentioned that the name was derived from the name of a port city in Italy, Venice (Venicia). In the Konjo dialect the name was called a penisi, which eventually became phinisi.
Another version revealed that phinisi evolved from a Bugis word, panisi, which means to insert. Another form of this word is mappanisi, which means to insert and conform. This word is also consistent with the technique used in building phinisi ships, which is to patch all wallboard and shipboard connections with certain materials so that water cannot enter the ship.
With the ships, Buginese merchant sailors brought very white-colored rice and gold and exchanged those for clothing from Cambay, Bengal and Keling, which were part of India.
Like the sailing system of the day, Buginese sailors relied on their abilities to read the east and west monsoons, as well as the position of the sun and the constellations to aid them in maritime navigation that permitted them to sail the world.
In addition, they relied on observations of marine characteristics, such as currents and wave movements, changes in color and temperature of sea water, species of fish they found in certain waters, and even the flying patterns of birds.
Though six centuries have passed, the history of the Buginese sailors and their phinisi remain alive. In fact, on December 7, 2017, the 12th Session of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the art of phinisi shipbuilding from South Sulawesi as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The designation is a UNESCO recognition of phinisi as part of the priceless art of sailing in the archipelago, considering the shipbuilding process is rich in cultural and spiritual values, besides applying sophisticated and unique technologies and forms during its time, and continuing to the present day.
Phinisi has two main masts with two mainsails and five jibs. These five jibs consist of three triangular small jibs, called tanpasere, set between anjong (a balancing triangle on the front side of the ship) and the main mast, two jibs in the middle, called cocoro tangnga, and two jibs on the back, called tarengke.
Meanwhile, the two trapezoid-shaped mainsails are set in the middle. The mainsail on the front mast is called the sombala bakka, while the one on the back mast is called the sombala riboko. These two mainsails and five jibs were the typical characteristic of phinisi.
At the beginning of building a ship, certain rituals were held. The first stage was to calculate a good day to look for wood for construction of the ship, which usually fell on the fifth and seventh day of the month. Each day had a good meaning, such as 'sustenance is in hand' and 'always receive sustenance', respectively.
The process of searching for wood was led by a chief craftsman. Furthermore, wood for the keel would be placed facing northeast. The front of the keel beam symbolized a man, while the back is defined as a woman.
After being spelled, the cutting process began by using a chainsaw that must keep moving until the wood is cut.
The next stages are manufacturing deck, cabins, installing the masts, mainsails, jibs, and the finishing process, and, finally, the first launch in the sea. All of these stages were always preceded by rituals that reflect the social and cultural values of everyday life of collective work, hard work, beauty, and appreciation of the natural environment.
The traditional phinisi making process can still be found in some areas in South Sulawesi, including in Tana Beru, Bira, and Batu Licin in Bulukumba District.
Now, phinisi is the mainstay of economic activity in Indonesia, especially in the inter-island transportation sector. Major ports, such as in Makassar (South Sulawesi), Surabaya (East Jakarta), Jakarta, Semarang (Central Java), Pontianak (West Kalimantan) and Banjarmasin (South Kalimantan), are crowded with phinisi.
Source: Antara News