History of the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery from 7th-century A.D. to modern times

This webpage is a continuation of the previous webpage, “History of the Discovery and Appreciation of Pearls – the Organic Gem Perfected by Nature – Page 3” – dedicated to the history of the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar, both on the Indian side and Sri Lankan side.  Evidence for the antiquity of the pearl fishery both archaeological and historical were considered in detail dating from around 1,700 B.C. the first time pearls were mentioned in the ancient Hindu religious scriptures of India, to around 6th-century A.D., up to the time Buddhabhatta wrote his renowned gemological text, the Ratnapariksa, which for the first time lists the known sources of both saltwater and freshwater pearls in the world at that time, and Varahamihira further expounds on the gemstone evaluation criterion and types of pearls given in “Garuda Purana.” An attempt was also made in this page to evaluate the evidences available in favor of considering the Gulf of Mannar region, as another possible region, where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began.

This webpage continues with the history of the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery, from the 7th-century A.D. to modern times, both on the Sri Lankan and Indian side of the Gulf

History of the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery on the Sri Lankan side from the 7th-century A.D. to modern times

The trans-Indian Ocean pearl trade with the Indian sub-continent dominated by the Romans during the heyday of the Roman empire, was taken over by the Arabs after the decline of the Roman empire in the 4th-century A.D.

Pearls originating from the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar, were much sought after in the Roman empire, and during the period 1st-century B.C. to around 4th-century A.D. extensive trans-Indian Ocean trade making use of Roman ships and the periodic Monsoon winds, brought pearls from the Gulf of Mannar both from the Sri Lankan side and Indian side of the Gulf, to the Roman empire. After, the collapse of the Roman empire in the 4th-century A.D., the vacuum created in the Indian Ocean navigation and trade, was filled by the Arabs originating from Oman, Yemen and the Hijaz, as well as Persians originating from Iran. Eventually, with the advent of Islam, in the 7th-century A.D. and the subsequent conquest of Persia, Syria and Egypt, the Arabs controlled all the important ports and trading stations, between the East and the West. Thus, the place held by the Romans in the trans-Indian Ocean pearl trade, was effectively filled by the Arabs from the 7th-century A.D. onwards, valuable supplies of pearls reaching the markets of Baghdad, from where they found their way to different parts of the world. The Arabs were the unchallenged masters of the sea from the 7th-century up to the 15th-century A.D. During this period Arab merchant and naval ships chartered the high seas with great ease, unchallenged by any nation, and this maritime strength led to the rapid expansion of trade between the Arab nations and countries of Asia and Africa.

The entry of Arab pearl divers and pearl dealers into the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery, that lasted from the 7th to 15th centuries.

The Arab dominance of the East-West trade during the period 7-15th century A.D. paved the way for the entry of Arab pearl divers, dealers and jewelers in a big way into the lucrative pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, particularly on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf. Arab pearl divers of the Persian Gulf were internationally renowned as the best pearl divers in the world at that time, with a wealth of experience in exploiting the pearl resources of the Persian Gulf, since ancient times. The entry of Arab pearl divers into the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery, hitherto dominated by the Parawa pearl divers of Southern India, helped in the introduction of new diving techniques to the region, but caused considerable friction between the two groups of pearl divers, that eventually led to the Parawa community seeking the protection of the Portuguese in the early 16th-century, to safeguard their interests, that was assured after the mass conversion of the Parawa community to Christianity. The entry of the Arabs into the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar benefited all stake holders. While the Arabs were assured of a continuous supply of good quality pearls, that fetched high prices in the Baghdad pearl markets, the local rulers the Sinhala and Tamil kings, under whose overall supervision the fisheries were conducted, were also happy, as the Arabs were trustworthy buyers who gave them a reasonable price for their produce. The Arab dominance of  international trade continued until the early 16th-century, when western nations, such as Spain, Portugal,  Britain, France and the Netherlands emerged as maritime powers.

The geographical knowledge of the East, of Arab mariners and traders and the tales of their adventures formed the basis of Sindbad the Sailors voyages of which the sixth voyage refers to the pearls, rubies and other precious stones found in the Island of Serendib (Sri Lanka) 

The geographical knowledge of the east gained by Arab mariners during the 7th and 8th centuries, their experiences and adventures and information on the enormous natural resources found in these countries, such as precious stones like rubies, sapphires, beryls and other gemstones, the lucrative pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar, etc. was eventually modified with time into tales and fables, that provided the theme for the unknown story tellers of the “One Thousand and One Nights, of which Sindbad the Sailor’s voyages formed a part. Out of the seven voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, believed to have taken place during the reign of Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid (786-809 A.D.), the sixth voyage is relevant to our discussion on the history of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, as Sindbad and his men land on the shores of Serendib (Ceylon or Sri Lanka) after their ship being wrecked and shattered to pieces by a tropical storm. Only Sindbad manages to survive this ordeal and is eventually rescued by the farmers of Serendib who deliver him to their king. The following is an excerpt from an article titled “Sindbad in Serendib” written by Richard Boyle, and published in Serendib Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 4 :-SindbadÂ’s sixth voyage was to Serendib, as the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was then known to the Arabs. This voyage ended in disaster, when monsoon winds drove his ship towards the base of a mountain rising sheer from the sea. The ship was dashed to pieces, but the crew managed to scramble to safety. In some versions of the story, this mountain is described as a lodestone, or magnetic rock. Many ancient writers referred to a magnetic rock in the Indian Ocean and told of how ships with iron fastenings were attracted to it. Palladius, in the fourth century, even advised that vessels sailing for Serendib should be fastened with wooden pegs.With no possibility of scaling the mountain, Sindbad and his shipmates abandoned themselves to their fate. Soon they started to die of tropical fever. Sindbad discovered a river that flowed out of sight beneath a rocky archway. Exploring further, he saw that the area around this subterranean river was encrusted with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. After burying the last of his companions, Sindbad built a raft, collected some of the gems and floated off into the darkness of the tunnel. Hours of perilous travel passed. He fell asleep and later awoke to find himself in a beautiful country surrounded by friendly-looking people.

Sindbad awoke after his river journey to find himself surrounded by Serendibian farmers who had come to irrigate their fields. On hearing his adventures, the farmers insisted that he be presented to their king, so they all set off to the City of Serendib. The king proved to be so delighted with SindbadÂ’s adventures that he ordered them written in letters of gold and placed in the archives. Sindbad was provided with a chamber inside the palace and a retinue of slaves. He had an audience with the king every day; the rest of the time he amused himself by touring the city and countryside. His description of the island has recognizable elements.Serendib being situated on the equinoctial line, the days and nights there are of equal length,” the mariner stated. “The chief city is placed at the end of a beautiful valley, formed by the highest mountain, which is in the middle of the island. I had the curiosity to ascend to its very summit, for this was the place to which Adam was banished out of Paradise. Here are found rubies and many precious things, and rare plants grow abundantly. On the seashore and at the mouths of rivers, divers seek for pearls.”But Sindbad soon grew homesick and requested the king to allow him to return to Baghdad. Eventually the king consented and entrusted Sindbad with a royal present and letter for Haroun al-Rashid. The kingÂ’s letter was written in blue characters upon a rare parchment. It began: “The King of Serendib, before whom walk a thousand elephants, who lives in a palace, of which the roof blazes with a hundred thousand rubies, to the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, sends greetings. Though the offering we present to you is unworthy of your notice, we pray you accept it as a token of our esteem and friendship for you.”The royal gift was anything but unworthy of notice. It consisted of a fabulous goblet, or grail, carved from a huge ruby and lined with the choicest pearls, and an enormous snake skin with spots the size of a large coin, which would preserve from sickness all those who slept on it. Then there were large quantities of aloes wood and camphor. Lastly, there was a beautiful slave girl who “shone like the moon”.On his return to Baghdad, Sindbad conveyed these gifts to the caliph, who demanded to know whether the king of Serendib was really as rich and powerful as he claimed to be. “Nothing can equal the magnificence of the kingÂ’s palace,” replied Sindbad. “For state processions a throne is set for him upon a huge elephant. On this elephantÂ’s neck sits an officer, his golden lance in hand, and behind him another bearing a great mace of gold, at the top of which is an emerald as long as my hand. A thousand men on horseback clad in gold brocade and silk go before him.”The caliph was well satisfied with SindbadÂ’s report and sent him home. It was not long, however, before the caliph summoned Sindbad and commanded him to deliver a letter and present to the king of Serendib. Reluctant though he was, Sindbad set out on his seventh and last voyage. He sailed uneventfully to Serendib, was greeted by the king with great joy and displayed the caliphÂ’s gifts. They included a sumptuous bed with gold hangings, 50 robes of rich embroidery, an agate goblet carved with an archer aiming at a lion and a priceless table that had once belonged to King Solomon. 

A commentary on the above excerpt from “Sindbad in Serendib”

An examination of the above excerpt by even the most casual reader shows clearly that interwoven into the tales and fables, are real geographical facts, such as the 4th-paragrph, about Serendib (Sri Lanka) being situated on the equinoctial line, with days and nights being equal in length. The  mountain in the middle of the island is a reference to Adam’s Peak, the place to which Adam was banished out of paradise, according to ancient Islamic beliefs. The city at the end of a beautiful valley, probably refers to the city of Ratnapura, the “City of Gems.” The reference to rubies and other precious stones in the land surrounding Adam’s peak, is a reference to the Kalu Ganga basin, the first source of rubies and sapphires in the world, before the discovery of Mogok rubies in the 16th-century. The reference to rare plants growing abundantly is also very accurate, as the Adam’s Peak Wilderness, a recently declared World Heritage Site is famous for its extremely rare plant species, some of which are endogenous to the region. Divers seeking for pearls on the seashore, and at the mouths of rivers, is also an accurate reference to the pearl beds situated closer to the mouths of rivers such as Kala Oya and Aruvil Aru in the Bay of Kondatchchy in the Gulf of Mannar, just below the Mannar island.

Among the gifts sent by the king of Serendib, to Caliph Harun-al-Rashid was a goblet carved out of a huge ruby, an obvious reference to a large non gem-quality corundum crystal, usually employed for carvings. The ruby goblet full of high-quality Sri Lankan pearls, was among the valuable gifts sent to the Caliph. The description of State processions, with the king riding on the back of an elephant preceded by men on horseback clad in gold brocade and silk appears to be fairly accurate. 

The pearl fisheries of the Gulf during the Middle Ages

An enormous volume of literature is available on the status of the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery in the middle ages both on the Indian side and Sri Lankan side of the Gulf, originating from travelers and writers of the period. Some of these travelers and writers arranged in chronological order as follows :-

1) Chau Ju Kua – Chinese traveler and writer in the year 1225 A.D.

2) Marco Polo – Venetian traveler and writer in the year 1290 A.D.

3) Friar Jordanus – Missionary Bishop in 1330 A.D.

4) Wang Ta-Yuan – Chinese traveler in the year 1330 A.D.

5) Ibn Batuta – Traveler and writer in 1344

6) Linschoten – Traveller who visited India in 1590

7) Caesar Frederick – Venetian trader and traveler who visited India between 1563 and 1581

8) Jean Baptiste Tavernier – Traveler and jeweler from France between 1631 – 1668.

9) Juan Ribeiro – Writer in 1685.

10) Father Martin – Jesuit priest based in South India in 1700 A.D.

1) Chau Ju-Kua – Chinese traveler and writer in the year 1225 A.D.

The Chinese writer of the middle ages Cha Ju-Kua, wrote the book “Chu  Fan Chi” in the year 1225, in which he gave details of Arab-China trade in the middle ages. In this book he also wrote about the pearl fishery of South India and Sri Lanka, during the Chola period. He also wrote about pearl diving procedures adopted in the Gulf of Mannar at the time of his visit, and stated that around 30-40 boats were employed at a time in pearling activities.

2) Marco Polo – Venetian traveler and writer in the year 1290 A.D.

Marco Polo in the year 1290 visited Sri Lanka on his return journey from China to his native Venice. He left Sri Lanka and visited the great province of “Ma’abar” on the South Indian coast, believed to be the present Coromandel Coast, which was ruled by a king named Sonder Bandi Davar, in whose kingdom was found very fine and great pearls. He then describes the harvesting of pearls from the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery, held during April/May of that year, and gave a first hand account of the diving methods adopted by the pearl divers engaged in the fishery. He refers to two types of boats used in the fishery – big and small boats. While the bigger boats carried men and supplies to the pearl banks, pearl fishing was actually carried out by the smaller boats. The place referred to as “Bettelar” in his account is believed to be “Puttalam” which Ibn Batuta in the 14th-century referred to as “Battala.”  Marco Polo’s own account of the pearl fishery provides interesting reading :-

When you leave the Island of Seilan and sail westward about 60 miles, you come to the great province of MAABAR which is styled INDIA THE GREATER; it is best of all the Indies and is on the mainland.

You must know that the sea here forms a gulf between the Island of Seilan and the mainland. And all round this gulf the water has a depth of no more than 10 or 12 fathoms, and in some places no more than two fathoms. The pearl-fishers take their vessels, great and small, and proceed into this gulf, where they stop from the beginning of April till the middle of May. They go first to a place called Bettelar, and (then) go 60 miles into the gulf. Here they cast anchor and shift from their large vessels into small boats. You must know that the many merchants who go divide into various companies, and each of these must engage a number of men on wages, hiring them for April and half of May. Of all the produce they have first to pay the King, as his royalty, the tenth part. And they must also pay those men who charm the great fishes, to prevent them from injuring the divers whilst engaged in seeking pearls under water, one twentieth part of all that they take. These fish-charmers are termed Abraiaman; and their charm holds good for that day only, for at night they dissolve the charm so that the fishes can work mischief at their will. These Abraiaman know also how to charm beasts and birds and every living thing. When the men have got into the small boats they jump into the water and dive to the bottom, which may be at a depth of from 4 to 12 fathoms, and there they remain as long as they are able. And there they find the shells that contain the pearls [and these they put into a net bag tied round the waist, and mount up to the surface with them, and then dive anew. When they can’t hold their breath any longer they come up again, and after a little down they go once more, and so they go on all day].[2] The shells are in fashion like oysters or sea-hoods. And in these shells are found pearls, great and small, of every kind, sticking in the flesh of the shell-fish.In this manner pearls are fished in great quantities, for thence in fact come the pearls which are spread all over the world. And I can tell you the King of that State hath a very great receipt and treasure from his dues upon those pearls. 

3) Friar Jordanus – Missionary Bishop in 1330 A.D.

Friar Jordanus, who wrote the “Mira-bilia Descripta” or the “Wonders of the East” in 1330 A.D. reported that more than 8,000 boats were sometimes employed for three months continually in these fisheries, which were then prosecuted under the jurisdiction of the Cingalese kings of Kandy. He also reported that the quantity of pearls taken was astounding and almost incredible. Friar Jordanus obtained his information on the pearl fishery from other sources, and hence was not first hand information. Hence, the exaggeration in the number of boats said to have taken part in the pearl fishery at that time. Again, the information that the pearl fishery was prosecuted under the jurisdiction of the Cingalese kings of Kandy also appears to be inaccurate, as the region where the pearl banks were situated were under the domain of the northern Jaffna kingdom, that lasted from 1215 to 1619.4) Wang Ta-Yuan – Chinese traveler in the year 1333 A.D.

Wang Ta-Yuan,  was another Chinese traveler and writer, who visited the Gulf of Mannar in 1333. In his book “Tao i Chih Lueh”, Wang Ta Yuan writes, At a distance of some 80 li from Ti-san-chiang (“Third Harbour”), the sea goes by the name of Ta-lang (“Great Brilliance”), for at this spot it is extremely rich in pearl-oysters. At the season when these are gathered, the tribal chief slays a human being and about a dozen animal victims as a sacrifice to the sea-godÂ’. Further, in his writings he gave detailed accounts of diving for pearls, in the Gulf of Mannar.

5) Ibn Batuta – Traveller and writer in 1344

“The king of Ceylon, Ayari Shakarti (Arya Chakravarti), by name, has considerable forces by sea. When I was first admitted to his presence, he rose and received me honourably, and said: You are to be my guest for three days. Security shall be forwarded to the people of the ship, because your relation, the King of the Maabar, is my friend. After thanking him, I remained with him, and was treated with increasing respect.”

“One day, when I was admitted to his presence, he had with him a great number of pearls, which had been brought from the pearl-fishery, and these his companions were sorting. He asked me, whether I had ever seen pearl-diving, in any country which I had visited. I said, yes, I had, in the island of Finas. “I have heard of them,” answered he, and then took up some pearls and added, “are there in that island any pearls equal to these?” I said, “I have seen none so good.” He then said: Do not be shy; ask for what you wish. I answered: My only desire in coming to this island was, to visit the blessed foot of our forefather Adam (Adam’s Peak); whom these people call Baba, while they style Eve, Mama. This, replied he, is easy enough. We will send some one with you, who shall conduct you thither.”

The  above is an extract from the Travels of Ibn Batuta, translated from the abridged Arabic manuscript, preserved in the Public Library of Cambridge, and translated by Rev. Samuel Lee.

Ibn Batuta reached Ma’abar (Coromandel Coast) in southern India in 1344, after his overland trip through countries of the Middle East and Asia. He passed through Persia and Afghanistan and entered the Indian sub-continent, through northwestern India. After, his sojourn through the Indian sub-continent from the north to the south he finally reached the Coromandel Coast, referred to by Arabs as Ma’abar, distinct from the southwestern coast known as Malabaar. After gaining the acquaintance and friendship of the king of Ma’abar, Batuta and his group was given a ship to cross the Palk Straits, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, to reach Battala (Puttalam) one of the seats of reign of the Jaffna kingdom, the other being Nallur, where he was granted an audience by the Arya Chakravarty king, Martanda Cinkaiariyan, the 5th in succession to Kulingal Chakravarti, the founder of the Arya Chakravarti dynasty in 1215. The Jaffna king treated Ibn Batuta as a royal guest, on learning that Batuta had earned the respect and confidence of the Ma’abar kings.

During his stay in Battala, on one occasion when he called on the king, he saw a great number of pearls placed in front of the king, and his servants sorting them out according to their sizes and quality. The king inquired from Batuta, whether he had ever seen pearl-diving  before, to which he replied in the affirmative. He then took some pearls and asked Batuta whether the pearls he had seen in that island were as good as these, to which Batuta confessed, he had seen none so good. The king then asked Batuta, not to be shy, and ask whatever he wished. It was then that Batuta said that his only desire in visiting the island was to visit the blessed foot print of the father of the human kind, Adam, at the summit of Adam’s peak. The king agreed to his request and made arrangements to fulfil Batuta’s wish. Batuta was given royal treatment and carried in a palanquin by the king’s servants. Batuta’s delegation on the journey to the peak included four Yogis who were regular visitors to the peak, four Brahmins, ten companions of the king and 15 men carrying provisions. The delegation left the domains of the Jaffna kingdom, passed through the territory of the Kandyan kingdom where the peak was situated, ascending the peak from the Maskeliya side, rough and difficult to ascend, without the assistance of ten iron chains fixed to the face of the cliff, starting from the “Ridge of Alexander,” which Batuta refers to as “the way of Baba.” After the customary rituals at the summit, the delegation descended the peak by “the way of Mama” the present day Ratnapura-Kuruvita route to the summit, which is relatively easy to ascend. The delegation appears to have reached Ratnapura (the City of Gems), and in the domain of the Kotte kingdom selected the shortest route that took them to the sea coast, reaching Galle (Kali in Tamil) a large town, and from Galle along the sea coast to Colombo (Kolumbu in Tamil), the finest and largest city in Serendib (Ceylon). From Colombo the delegation moved northwards along the sea coast reaching Buttala (Puttalam) in three days.

While giving an extensive account of his trip to Adam’s peak, and stories and legends associated with the pilgrimage to the peak, Batuta also mentions about the country’s natural resources, such as the pearls mentioned earlier, and also about the country’s gem and mineral resources.

“The King has a white elephant, upon which he rides on feast days, having first placed on his head some very large rubies. This is the only white elephant I had ever seen. The ruby and carbuncle are found only in this country. These are not allowed to be exported, on account of the great estimation in which they are held: nor are they elsewhere dug up. But the ruby is found all over Ceylon. It is considered as property, and is sold by the inhabitants. When they dig for the ruby, they find a white stone abounding with fissures. Within this the ruby is placed. They cut it out, and give it to the polishers, who polish it until the ruby is separated from the stone. Of this there is the red, the yellow, and the cerulean. They call it the Manikam (Tamil for gem). It is a custom among them, that every ruby amounting in value to six of the golden dinars current in those parts, shall go the Emperor, who gives its value and takes it. What falls short of this goes to his attendants. All the women in the island of Ceylon have traces of coloured rubies, which they put upon their hands and legs as chains, in the place of bracelets and ankle-rings. I once saw upon the head of the white elephant seven rubies, each of which was larger than a hen’s egg. I also saw in the possession of the king Ayari Shakarti, a saucer made of ruby, as large as the palm of the hand, in which he kept oil of aloes. I was much surprised at it, when the King said to me, We have them much larger, than this.”

The king referred to in the above account is probably the king of the Kandyan kingdom, and the “City of Kankar” a reference to its capital city, the “City of Kandy,” situated in a valley between two hills.

The significance of the two extracts from the Travels of Ibn Batuta given above

The reference to a great number of pearls being brought from the pearl fishery to the king’s palace, is a clear indication that the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar, on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf, in the 14th-century, was under the control of the Jaffna kingdom. The pearl fishery came under the jurisdiction of the Jaffna kingdom, ever since  its founding in 1215 by Kulingai Cakravarti (1215-1255), until the overthrow of the kingdom by the Portuguese colonialists in 1619. Among the main exports of the Jaffna kingdom to the international markets, were elephants from the Vanni, ivory and Pearls from the Gulf of Mannar.

The confession by Batuta that the pearls he had seen in Sri Lanka were the best he had ever seen, seem to indicate the high quality of the pearls that were produced from these fisheries, that was subsequently confirmed by other writers.

The extensive account of rubies found in Sri Lanka establishes the fact that Sri Lanka was the primary source of rubies in the world since very ancient times, until the discovery of Mogok rubies in the 16th-century. Batuta stresses the fact that the ruby and carbuncle were found only in Sri Lanka. Batuta’s observations that most women in Sri Lanka wore strands of ruby beads on their hands and legs; the white elephant adorned with seven large rubies each of which was larger than a hen’s egg; a saucer made of rubies belonging to the king in which oil of aloe was kept, seem to indicate that at one time rubies were found in abundance in the island nation, though now they are very scarce due to continuous exploitation. However, some of these rubies might well have been red spinels also found abundantly in the island. In Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, most of the large red gemstones believed to be rubies at first were subsequently shown to be red spinels. The difference between rubies and spinels became apparent only during the 18th-century, though in countries like Sri Lanka with an ancient cutting and polishing industry, such differences might have been known by ancient cutters and polishers, from the hardness of the two materials, evident from the ease of cutting and polishing the two variety’s of gemstones.

6) Linschoten – Traveler who visited India in 1590

John Huyghen van Linschoten was a Dutchman who undertook a voyage to the East Indies in the 16th-century. In his book “The Voyage of John Huyghen van Linschoten to the East Indies,” he refers to the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery as prosecuted under the supervision of the Portuguese on the Indian side of the Gulf from Cape Comorin to Rameshwaram. The pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf was still under the Jaffna kingdom during this period, the Tamil kings of the kingdom successfully keeping the Portuguese at bay, for nearly 114 years. The following is an extract from Linschoten :-

“There are also other fishings for pearle, as between the Hand of Seylon, and the Cape de Comoriin, where great numbers are yearlie found, for that the King of Portingale hath a captaine there with soldiers that looketh unto it; they have yearlie at the least above 3 or 4 thousand duckers [divers], yt live onlie by fishing for pearles, and so maintaine themselves.” He describes the methods of fishing, which appear to be similar to those of the present time, and adds : “When they have made an end of the day’s fishing, all the fishers with the captaine, soldiers,  laborers and watchmen for the king, goe together, and taking all the pearls [pearl-oysters] that are caught that day they divide them into certaine heaps, that is, one part for the king, another part for the captaine and soldiers, the third part for the Jesuits, because they have their Cloyster in that place, and brought the countrie first into the Christian faith, and the last part for the Fishers, which is done with Justice and Equalitie. This fishing is done in the Summer tyme, and there passeth not any yeare but that divers Fishers are drowned by the Cape de Comoriin (which is called the King’s fishing) and manie devoured by fishes, so that when the fishing is done there is great and pitiful noyse and cry of women and children heard. Yet the next yeare they must do the same work againe, for that they have no other means to live, as also for that they are partlie compelled thereunto by the Portingales, but most part because of the gaine.”2

Comments on the above extract from Linschoten

According to the above excerpt 3,000-4,000 divers take part in the annual pearl fishing exercise. Linschoten also gives details of how the day’s harvest is divided, under the supervision of the king of Portugal’s representative. The harvest was divided into four equal heaps, of which one part went to the king, the second part for the captain and soldiers, the third part for the Jesuit missionaries who maintained a church in the region and were responsible for converting the entire Parawa community to Christianity, and the last part to the pearl divers. The beneficiaries of the different heaps of pearls show clearly that the writer of the account refers to the pearl fishery taking place only on the Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar. The writer also refers to the many accidents and loss of life taking place annually during the period of the fishery, by drowning and shark attacks, but the fishery continues to take place annually despite all these dangers, as the divers have no other means of livelihood.

 7) Caesar Frederick – Venetian trader and traveler who visited India between 1563 and 1581

The most detailed account of the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar, in the 16th-century, during the Portuguese occupation of the coastal areas of Southern India, also from the Indian side of the Gulf is given by the Venetian trader Caesar Frederick, who visited the area between 1563 to 1581. An extract from the translation of Caesar Frederick’s account reads as follows :-

“The sea that lieth between the coast which descendeth from Cao Comori, to the lowe land of Chilao, and from Island Zeilan, they call the fishing of Pearles, which fishing they make every yeare, beginning in March or April, and it lasteth fiftie dayes, but they doe not fishe every yeere in one place, but one yeere in one place, and another yeere in another place of the same sea. When the time of this fishing draweth neere, they send very good Divers, that goe to discover where the greatest heapes of Oisters bee under water, and right agaynst that place where greatest store of Oisters bee, there they make or plant a village with houses and a Bazaro, which standeth as long as the fishing time lasteth, and it is furnished with all things necessarie, and nowe and then it is neere unto places that are inhabited, and other times farre off, according to the place where they fishe. The fishermen are all Christians of the countrey, and who so will may goe to fishing, paying a certain dutie to the king of Portugall, and to the Churches of the Friers of Saint Paule, which are in that coast. All the while that they are fishing, there are three or foure Fustes armed to defend the Fishermen from Rovers.

It was my chance to bee there one time in my passage, and I saw the order that they used in fishing, which is this. There are three or foure Barkes that make consort together, which are like to our litle Pilot boates, and a little lesse, there goe seven or eight men in a boate : and I have seene in a morning a great number of them goe out, and anker in fifteene or eighteene fadome of water, which is the ordinarie depth of all that coast. When they are at anker, they cast a rope into the sea, and at the end of the rope, they make fast a great stone, and then there is readie a man that hath his nose and his eares well stopped, and an-nointed with oyle, and a basket about his necke, or under his left arme, then he goeth downe by the rope to the bottome of the Sea, and as fast as he can hee filleth the basket, and when it is full, he shaketh the rope, and his fellows that are in the Barke hale him up with the basket : and in such wise they go one by one untill they have laden their barke with oysters.

In the evening they come to the village, and then every company maketh their mountaine or heape of oysters one distant from another, in such wise that you shall see a great long rowe of mountaines or heapes of oysters, and they are not touched until such time as the fishing bee ended, and at the ende of the fishing every companie sitteth round about their mountaine or heape of oysters, and fall to opening of them, which they may easilie doe because they bee dead, drie and brittle : and if every oyster had pearles in them, it would be a very good purchase, but there are very many that have no pearles in them.

When the fishing is ended, then they see whether it bee a good gathering or a badde: there are certaine expert of the pearles whom they call Chitini, which set and make the price of pearles according to their carracts [carats or weight], beautie, and goodnesse, making :foure sorts of them. The first sort bee the round pearles, and they bee called Aia of Portugale, because the Portugales doe buy them. The second sorte which are not round, are called Aia of Bengala. The third sort which are not so good as the second, they call Aia of Canara, that is to say, the kingdome of Bezeneger. The fourth and last sort, which are the least and worst sort, are called Aia of Cambaia. Thus the price being set, there are merchants of every countrey which are readie with their money in their handes, so that in a fewe dayes all is brought up at the prises set according to the goodnesse and caracts of the pearles.”

Comments on the above extract from the translation of Caesar Frederick’s account

 In the first paragraph of the above extract Caesar Frederick defines the limits of the pearl fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mannar, that is roughly situated north of the latitude that joins Cape Comorin with Chilaw in Sri Lanka (Island of Zeilan). He then mentions the period during which the annual pearl fishery is conducted, and goes onto state that the site of the pearl fishing varies from year to year, the site being selected after inspection by experienced pearl divers, who select the site with the greatest concentration of pearl oysters. If the place selected is far from human habitation a temporary village is set up for the period of the fishery, with houses and a shopping area (bazaar) that stocks all the requirements of the fisherman and other officials and supervisors  that take part in the fishery, so long as the fishery lasts. The pearl fisherman taking part are all Christians, a clear reference to the Parawa community of Southern India who were converted to Christianity by the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, and who were by profession fisherman and pearl divers. However, all pearl divers taking part had to pay a tax to the King of Portugal and the Church. Armed guards are placed on duty at the site of the fishery to provide security for all those taking part in the fishery.

In the second paragraph, Caesar Frederick goes on to describe the actual pearl diving that was carried out during this period. He begins with a description of the type of boats used, the number of men that man each boat, the number of boats taking part each day in the fishery, and the depth at which the fishery was carried out. He then describes details of the actual pearl diving – casting a rope into the sea with a heavy stone tied to its end; preparation of the diver before he takes the plunge – blocking the nose and ears and oiling the body and a basket tied around the neck or under the left arm; going down the rope to the bottom of the sea; picking up oysters and filling the basket as fast as he could; shaking the rope when the basket is full that signals the colleagues in the boat to lift him up as soon as they could. The divers take turns in diving after several plunges, so that they do not get exhausted and can recover their strength. Diving continues till evening until their boat is fully laden with oysters.

In the third paragraph, the writer gives details of what transpired at the end of the day of fishing. The boats fully laden with oysters return to the village and unload their precious cargo. Each group of fisherman that work together make a huge heap of their oysters. Thus, by the end of the day, there will be several rows of heaps of oysters neatly arranged in a hut on the sea shore. The group of fisherman to whom each heap belongs then sit around their heaps and begin the task of opening the oysters and searching for pearls. Not all oysters have pearls in them. If the frequency of occurrence of pearls is high, the harvest of pearls will be good.

After taking the harvest the pearls were classified and valued by experts known as “Chitini.” The pearls were classified according to their shapes. Pearls that were perfectly round or spherical were placed in the first category and were known as “Aia of Portugale,” as the Portuguese merchants preferred to buy such high quality pearls. Pearls that were near spherical and perhaps button shaped were placed in the second category, and were known as “Aia of Bengala.” The third category that perhaps included oval-shaped, pear-shaped and drop-shaped pearls, were placed in the third category and were known as “Aia of Canara.” The fourth category that included irregular-shaped pearls, known as baroque pearls, were known as the “Aia of Cambaia.” Apart from the shape of the pearls, the carat weight, and the luster, brilliance and surface quality of the pearls, which the writer refers to as “beauty and goodness” also determine the value of pearls. After the value of the pearls are set by the valuers known as “Chitini” they are sold to the merchants of different countries who assemble at the site of the annual fishery, and in a few days all the pearls are snapped up by these merchants.

8) Jean Baptiste Tavernier – Traveler and jeweler from France between 1631 – 1668.

Tavernier made six voyages to India between 1631 and 1668

Jean Bapiste Tavernier, a professional jeweler and traveler from France, who combined his desire to travel and explore new countries and cultures, with his personal business interests to buy and sell gemstones, such as diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies and other colored stones and jewelry, traveled to India six times between 1631 and 1668 A.D. Tavernier who was a pioneer of the trade between the West and countries of the East, such as India and Persia, made a great contribution towards the understanding and appreciation of the rich cultures of the East, by the publication of his travelogues, such as a Nouvelle Relation de l’Intérieur du Sérail du Grand Seigneur – New Account of the Interior of the Grand Serail Lord  (Paris, 1675), based on two visits to Constantinople in his first and sixth journeys, followed by Le Six Voyages de J. B. Tavernier- The Six Voyages of J. B. Tavernier (2 vols. Paris, 1676) and his last Recueil de Plusieurs Relations -Several European Relations published in 1679. He wrote extensively about the diamond industry of India, based on the southeastern side of the sub-continent, that was one of his primary interests. Apart from diamonds he also wrote about colored stones like ruby, turquoise, emeralds, pearls, corals, amber, ambergris and musk, their sources, types, properties, and how they were mined or harvested.

According to Tavernier pearls discovered from the Ceylon pearl fishery were the most beautiful in water and roundness

Writing about pearls, Tavernier discusses about the pearl fishery of Bahrain and that of Al-Katif on the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf. The next source of pearls he deals with is that of the Island of Ceylon, near a large town called Mannar. According to him the pearls discovered at this fishery were the most beautiful in water and roundness, but seldom exceeded 3 or 4 carats in weight. The pearl fishing season was in March and April. He also discusses about common beliefs associated with the fishery, such as heavier the rainfall in a year, the better the fishing, and deeper the oyster lies whiter the pearls produced, as colder the water whiter was the product.

The fisheries in the days of Tavernier were first controlled by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch

The fisheries in the days of Tavernier were controlled first by the Portuguese, the colonial power that subjugated the coastal areas of Sri Lanka in the 16th-century, and took control of the pearl fishery in 1619, and later by the Dutch who ousted the Portuguese in 1658 and took control of the fisheries. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch extracted heavy duties from the pearl fisherman, because they also had to provide security for the fisherman against their enemies, the Malabaries, who sometimes came with armed boats to attack them.

Tavernier describes in detail how the pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar was carried out

Tavernier then describes how the pearl fishing is carried out. Each day around 250 ships headed out to the sea before sunrise, helped by a land breeze that lasted till around 10 a.m. The boats returned in the evening aided by a sea breeze, which begins to blow after 12 Noon. The oyster banks were situated 5 of 6 leagues out in the sea. Diving began after the fleet of boats reached the bank. From each boat one or sometimes two pearl divers operated at the same time. Each diver had a rope tied around his body under his arms, and a stone of 18 or 20 pounds attached to his big toe by another rope. Ropes from the body of the diver and the stone are held by men who remain in the boats. The divers carried nets or baskets with hooped mouths to keep them open, and the nets too were linked to the men above by ropes. The diver sank swiftly due to the weight attached to the toe. On reaching the bottom he detached the stone from the toe, which was hauled up by the men in the boat. He quickly collected the oysters from the floor of the ocean, and put them into the nets or baskets, as long as he could hold his breath. He then made a signal to the men above by pulling on the rope tied around his chest, and he was hauled up by the men as fast they could. According to Tavernier, the divers from Mannar were better than those at Bahrain and Catifa, because they could hold their breaths longer, and stay longer underwater. This was because the divers from Mannar did not use clips on their noses or cotton to block their ears, as the divers in the Persian Gulf did. After the divers were pulled up they rested for about 10 minutes regaining their normal breath, until they dive again. The baskets of oysters are also hauled up. Diving usually continued for 10-12 hours at a stretch. Fishers who needed ready money opened their oysters at once and sold whatever was found. Those who had enough to live on preferred to keep the oysters until they decayed and opened by themselves, after which they were washed and pearls separated from the debris. The flesh of pearl oysters tasted bad and was always thrown away.

9) Juan Ribeiro – Writer in 1685.

 Juan Ribero, a writer, gave a detailed account of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, in his book “History of Ceilao” written in 1685. He estimated that around 3,000 to 5,000 boats, were engaged in the exercise annually.

10) Father Martin – Jesuit priest based in South India in 1700 A.D.

Father Martin was a Jesuit priest who was based in South India at the turn of the 18th-century. He gave a detailed description about the pearl fishing near Tuticorin, that was conducted in the year 1700 A.D.

The pearl industry during the Portuguese colonization of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and India

Pearling activities in the Gulf of Mannar took place in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility since time immemorial, until the 15th-century when Arab dominance in world trade ended with the emergence of western nations such as Spain, Portugal, Britain, Netherlands and France. The first western nation to dominate the trade routes of the Indian Ocean were the Portuguese, who took control of the important port cities in the Indian Ocean. The port cities associated with the pearl trade in Southern India came under their control in the early 16th-century around 1510. The Portuguese initially, exacted from the local rulers an annual tribute in pearls and spices. Eventually, they took control of the pearl fishery on the Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar in 1524, by entering into a pact with the Parawas, a caste of sea-going Tamils who were by profession fisherman and pearl divers, who managed the pearl fisheries for the kings of Southern India, from time immemorial. The entry of Arab pearl divers and subsequently their Moor descendants  into the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery from the 7th-15th centuries created a professional rivalry between the Parawa pearl divers and their Arab and Moor counterparts, that threatened their way of life and economic interests. As a result of this rivalry, the Parawa community embraced Christianity en masse and sought the protection of the Portuguese from their Arab and Moor rivals. When the Portuguese conducted the fisheries under their supervision, they allowed the native fisherman to retain one-fourth of the catch as compensation for their work, and divided the reminder to three equal portions. one for the king, the second for the Church and the third for the soldiers.

On the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf, the Portuguese were less successful, as the lucrative pearl fishing grounds in the Kondaichchi Bay were under the control of the Jaffna kingdom, which the Portuguese were not able to subdue for over a hundred years. The kings of the Jaffna kingdom, particularly Sankili I (1519-1561) successfully kept the Portuguese at bay for 114 years, even going to the extent of massacring 600-700 Parava Catholics in the Island of Mannar, who were brought by the Portuguese to take over the pearl fishery on the Sri Lankan side. The Portuguese were able to subdue the Jaffna kingdom only in 1619, 114 years after they subdued the Sinhala kingdom of Kotte in 1505. Thus, the Portuguese were able to exploit the pearl resources on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar, only for a short period of 39 years from 1619 to 1658, when the Dutch took control of the pearl banks in 1658, after the ouster of the Portuguese from the coastal areas of Sri Lanka. Even during the short period of around 40 years they ruled Jaffna, the Portuguese had to suppress at least four rebellions against them in Jaffna. Thus, the Portuguese were more pre-occupied with missionary activities and the suppression of other religious beliefs in the island, that they had hardly any time to exploit the rich pearl resources of the Kondaichchi Bay to the full extent.

Records of the pearl fisheries during Portuguese rule appear to have been destroyed and are not available. However, details of the status of the pearl fishery during this period come to us from travelers and writers who visited the area during this period, such as John Huyghen van Linschoten, a Dutch traveler, Caesar Frederick, a Venetian trader and traveler, and Tavernier, the French jeweler and traveler. From the first hand account of these travelers, especially that of Caesar Frederick, it is apparent that the revenue generated by these fisheries for the Portuguese colonialists was considerable.

The pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar under the Dutch colonialists

The Dutch colonialists first landed in Sri Lanka in 1602, on the eastern coast of the island near the coastal town of Batticaloa, a region that was under the domain of the Kandyan kingdom. They established friendly relations with the King of Kandy, Wimaladharmasuriya I, who sought their assistance against the Portuguese who were entrenched in their well fortified forts in the coastal areas of the island, and whose persecution of the local population was becoming increasingly unbearable. Eventually, the Dutch with the help of the Sinhalese army ousted the Portuguese from all their coastal fortifications, such as Galle, Negombo, Trincomalee and eventually Jaffna in 1658. After the fall of the Jaffna fort in 1658, the pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar came under Dutch control. The Dutch entrusted the commercial exploitation of the resources of the island, including the pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar, to the Dutch East India Company. The company began the direct exploitation of the pearl fishery beginning from the year 1666, and an estimated 200,000 people took part in the first fishery conducted by them. A description of the pearl fishery conducted by the Dutch East India Company, was given by Johann Wolfgang Heydt in 1744. According to Heydt, ““The servants of the Company have at this time a stockade which lies somewhat high, and is a place surrounded by palisadings. At this time the CompanyÂ’s flag flies, and is hoisted or lowered when the signal is given with the cannon, and as long as it is hoisted, all vessels may remain at sea.They live in houses made of cane and grass as long as the fishing lasts. The shore is for more than three hours distance beset with such huts. When the fishery is over, these are set on fire and burnt.Â’

In spite of all the efforts by the Dutch East India Company, the income generated by the pearl fisheries was always second to that of cinnamon. Besides, perhaps due to over exploitation, oyster populations were becoming scarcer, and there were longer intervals between successful fisheries. Such long intervals became necessary in order to give oyster populations sufficient time for regeneration, and reach optimum levels. By the year 1746, after 80 years of managing the pearl fisheries by the Dutch East India Company, during which period only eight successful harvests of pearls were taken, the Dutch Governor Van Imhoff decided that production would improve if the fishery was handed over to the private sector. Accordingly the fishery was rented out to private entrepreneurs with effect from the year 1746. The new arrangement proved so successful, that the Dutch colonial administration decided to continue with it throughout their period of stay in Sri Lanka. The British who ousted the Dutch in 1796, decided to continue with this system of leasing, and the revenue that accrued to the British for the three years from 1796-1798 was a substantial £396,000.

The pearl industry under British rule in Sri Lanka

The British colonial authorities who continued with the Dutch policy of leasing pearling rights to private entrepreneurs, continued with this practice until 1833, but reserved the right to decide the limits of the territory to be fished and the number of days the fishery would last. However, after 1833, due to various drawbacks in the system, such as the difficulty in the proper regulation of the business, that led to deception and concealment of the production achieved and the actual proceeds realized, the government decided to operate the fisheries on its own, as it was done during the Portuguese period, giving the fisherman initially one-fourth and later one-third of the oysters harvested and retaining three-fourths and subsequently two-thirds for the government, that was sold by public auction. The new system adopted worked satisfactorily boosting the revenue of the government.

The Ceylon pearl fisheries were perhaps the most interesting and well known fisheries in the world in the past, due to a multitude of factors, such as ready accessibility; perfect and thorough organization; strict government control that inspected the pearl banks and decided on the areas to be exploited during a particular year, and the duration of the fishery; estimation of the harvest taken annually and the maintenance of records of such harvests and the revenues that accrued to the government in the previous years. The British Colonial Government also set up a “Pearl Fishery Establishment” headed by a superintendent, under whom were an inspector, many divers, sailors and attendants. While the superintendent was in overall supervision of all pearling and selling operations, the inspector and his team of divers made periodic inspections of the approximately 20 “paars” (pearl banks), to select the best “paars” that are to be exploited in a particular year and the duration of the fishing. The inspector and his team also directed the operations in the sea at the time of harvesting. The superintendent also supervised the division of the day’s harvest into heaps, and also the subsequent auctions of the government’s share of the harvest, whose proceeds were credited to the government treasury.

According to statistics, that were maintained by the British colonial secretary’s office, the revenue that accrued to the government throughout the period of British management of the fisheries, from 1796, when the pearl banks were first taken over from the Dutch, until 1907, the year the last pearl fishery was held under British rule, was £2,098, 830 (Rs. 20,988,300). The following table gives a breakdown of the revenues collected from the pearl fisheries from 1796 to 1907, during the years the fisheries were held. The years during which the returns were significantly higher are shown separately. The returns for the lean years are combined together on the table, such as rows 4, 7,8, 9, 11  and 13.

Breakdown of revenue collected by pearling from 1796 to 1907 during the British period in Sri Lanka

S/N Period of pearling   Number of years  Revenue collected
 11796         01£110,000
  21797         01£140,000
  31798         01 Â£146,000
  4 1799-1809         05   Â£37,224
  51808         01    £84,257
  61814         01  £105,187
  7 1815-1820         03                 £10,000   (approx)
  8 1828-1837         10   Â£327,132
  91855-1862         08 Â£117.453
10 1863         01   Â£51,017
111874-1880         07    Â£57,132
12 1881         01   Â£59,868
131882-1886         05                 £18.056   (approx)
141887         01    £39,609
151888         01    £80,424
161891         01    £96,370
171903         01    £55,303
181904         01    £71,050
   191905         01   Â£251,073
201906         01   £137,675
211907         01   £104,000
22Total         53 Â£2,098,830

Information that can be derived from the above table

1) During the 111-year period, from 1796 to 1907, the pearl fishery was under the management of the British, actual pearl harvesting was carried out only for about 53 years.

2) 1905 recorded the greatest fishery in the modern history of Ceylon, and the revenue of £251,073 received by the British colonial government, was perhaps the largest received by any government in the history of the industry.

3) The second and third highest revenue recorded during the British period was £146,000 and £140,000 during years 1798 and 1797 respectively, soon after taking over the fishery from the Dutch.

4) From 1799 to 1808 the fishery was prosecuted every other year (blank 4 years), and there were blank periods from 1810 to 1813 (4 years); 1817 to 1819 (3 years); 1821 to 1827 (7 years); 1838 to 1854 (17 years); 1864 to 1873 (10 years); 1889 to 1890 (2 years); 1892 to 1902 (11 years). Total number of blank years 58. Total number of years the fishery was managed by the British = 53 + 58 = 111 years.

5) After a blank period of 4 years from 1810 to 1813, in the year 1814 the fishery was very good bringing in a revenue of £105,187. Production however declined from 1815 to 1820. Again after a blank period of 7 years from 1821 to 1827, for the next 10 years an average revenue of £32,000 was obtained, which was better than that obtained between 1815 to 1820, but still not satisfactory. A longer blank period of 17 years then followed from 1838 to 1854, but the 9-year fishery that followed immediately from 1855 to 1863 gave an average revenue of only £18,700, with the highest recorded in 1863 of £51,017, which was quite satisfactory and highest recorded since 1814. Another blank period of 10 years followed from 1864 to 1873, and the 8-year fishery that followed soon after that, gave an average revenue of only £14,625, with the highest recorded in 1881 of £59,868, the highest after 1863. A lean period of five years followed from 1882 to 1886, and then production picked up again in 1887 giving a fair revenue of £39,609 followed by a good fishery in 1888 that gave a revenue of £80,424. Thus in the 15 years of continuous fishery from 1874 to 1888, fairly acceptable levels of production were obtained only on three occasions, 1881, 1887 and 1888. After another short blank period of 2 years from 1889 to 1890, the 1891 fishery gave significant returns of £96,370, the last and second highest for the 19th-century. The fishery was again pursued only after a blank period of 11 years in the 20th-century, every year from 1903 to 1907. In 1903, returns of £55,303 were satisfactory, but in 1904 it rose significantly to £71,050. The year that followed immediately, 1905, produced an unprecedented harvest, that has gone down as the greatest pearl fishery in the modern history of Ceylon, giving a record revenue of £251,073. Soon after that year there was a decline in production, and the returns of £137,675 and £104,000 in 1906 and 1907 respectively, was still above the average and considered as good fisheries. The 1907 fishery was the last pearl fishery conducted by the British colonial government after which the fishery was totally abandoned.

6) Out of around 53 times the fisheries were pursued, the number of times the fisheries were considered as having given good returns was only around 11. These years were 1796, 1797, 1798, 1808, 1814, 1888, 1891, 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907. Thus successive good returns were obtained only on two occasions, 1796 to 1798 (three years) and 1904 to 1907 (four years), which was coincidentally corresponding to the beginning and end of the British exploitation of the pearl fisheries. After 1798, the next good return was after 10 years in 1808, and again after 6 years in 1814. The next good return comes only after an extraordinarily long gap of 74 years in 1888, but was followed soon after that in intervals of 3 years, in 1891 and 1904. These statistics only highlight the uncertainty of the fisheries, prosperous seasons being followed by long gaps of low or moderate returns or no fisheries at all.

The 1905 pearl fishery of Ceylon – the greatest fishery in the modern history of Ceylon

Year 1905 has gone down in the history of the pearl fishery of Ceylon, as the year that registered unprecedented pearl oyster harvests, thereby ensuring the highest returns ever not only for the British colonial government, but also the fisherman and the dealers alike. Hence the fishery that occurred in 1905 is referred to as the greatest fishery in the modern history of Sri Lanka. The period of the fishery lasted from February 20, 1905 to April 21, 1905, which gave 47 working days, excluding Sundays and 5 days of bad weather. This was said to be the longest pearl fishing period in half a century. The number of boats employed in the fishery were 318. The number of divers and attendants (manduks) who took part in the fishery were 4,991 and 4894 respectively. Their joint effort over a period of 47 working days, brought out a yield of oysters, estimated to be a whopping 81,580,716 in number.

The oysters were sold depending on their size at the rate of Rs.24 to Rs.124 per thousand. The colonial government received a revenue of Rs.2,510,727 (£251,073) from the sale of its share of two-thirds of the harvest of oysters. This was double or treble the amount realized in any previous year, and perhaps the largest received by any government in the history of the industry. Going by the amount realized by selling two-thirds of the harvest of oysters, the amount realized by the divers who were entitled to one-third of the harvest of oysters, was at least Rs.1,255,363 (£125,536). The merchants who purchased and opened the oysters bought from the government’s share as well as the divers’ share, must have made a profit of at least Rs.1,255,363 (£125,536) by selling the pearls recovered. Thus, the lowest estimated local value of the pearls harvested during the 1905 great pearl fishery was Rs.2,510,727 + Rs.1,255,363 + Rs.2,255,363 = Rs.5,021,453, equivalent to Sterling£ 502,145 or US$ 2,000,000, whose international market values would have been several times greater.

Following the unprecedented success of the 1905 pearl fishery, the response and enthusiasm shown for the 1906 pearl fishery was much greater than the previous year, with the participants anticipating an outcome exceeding that of the previous year or at least a repetition of the bumper harvest obtained in that year. Accordingly, there was a significant increase in the number of boats, divers and attendants employed. 473 boats, 8,600 divers and almost an equal number of attendants were engaged for the fishery, the highest number on record that was ever employed. However, the outcome of the fishery was a disappointment and went far below expectations, the estimated harvest of pearl oysters being only 67,150,641, bringing in a government revenue of only Rs.1,376,746 (£137,675). The disappointing outcome was attributed to bad weather conditions, as well as the great quantity of oysters harvested in the previous year.

The pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar

The pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar are situated in the upper end of the Gulf above the coastal city of Chilaw. The banks are situated on coral reefs known as “paars” on the wide shallow plateau off the northwest end of the Island, directly south of Adam’s bridge. The calcareous bottom of the reefs are made of corals and shell deposits combined with organic remains and sand to form a compact mass, known as “paars.” on which oyster beds are formed. There are approximately 20 such oyster beds or “paars” on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar, situated at a distance of 5 to 20 miles from the shore, and at a depth of 5 to 10 fathoms. The aggregate area of the “paars” covers an area of about 50 miles in length and 20 miles in width, i.e. about 1,000 square miles. Out of the 20 “paars” only about 8 “paars” are important, yielding sufficient quantities of oysters, that could be economically exploited. The 8 “paars” known as “principal” paars are, Cheval, Madaragam, Periya, Muttuvaratu, Karativu, Vankalai, Chilaw and Condatchy, all Tamil names. The other 12 “paars” have never yielded sufficient quantities of oysters for exploitation. The constant density of the sea water in the Gulf of Mannar, standing at 1.023 and the constant temperature range of 82°F to 86°F, seem to have been conducive to the growth of pearl oysters. The “paar’ known as “Periya paar” (Big paar) lying about 15 miles from the shore, in the north-south direction, with a length of 11 miles and a width of 1-2 miles, is well known for the early formation of tens of millions of oysters which mysteriously disappear before they are old enough for gathering. The disappearance of the oysters have been attributed to the shifting bottom caused by the southwest monsoon. However, the natives of the area believed that the oysters migrated from the “Periya paar” to the other “paars” situated in the Gulf, and hence referred to this “paar” as “mother paar.”

The uncertainty of the pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar

One of the noticeable features of the pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar was its uncertainty. Only on rare instances had there been prosperous fisheries successively year after year, such as in 1796, 1797 and 1798 and 1904,1905,1906 and 1907. The trend usually was for a prosperous fishery to be followed by long periods of low or moderate returns or no fisheries at all, known as blank periods. This trend had been observed even in the past during the long history of pearling activities in the Gulf of Mannar. In the early part of the 11th-century, Al-Birouni, the Arab geographer, who served under Mahmud of Ghazni, recorded the total cessation of pearling activities for a considerable period, due to the disappearance of oysters from the pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar. Al-Birouni believed that the disappearance of pearl oysters from the Gulf of Serendib (Ceylon) in the 11th-century and the appearance of pearl oysters at Sofala in the country of the Zends, where previously none existed, were related, and suggested that the pearls oysters from the Gulf of Serendib migrated en masse to Sofala.

Such appearances and disappearances of pearl oysters in the Gulf of Mannar, had been a common feature throughout history. One significant occurrence was reported in 1887 during the British management of the fishery. An examination of one of the reefs (paars) revealed large populations of oysters, distributed throughout an area 5 miles in length and 1½ miles in width. Determination of population density by random sampling techniques revealed a density of 600-700 oysters per square yard. Based on these observations, a total population of 164,000,000 oysters was estimated for the entire reef, which exceeded the total number taken in the preceding 60 years. It was estimated that several million dollars worth of pearls would be harvested in the following season. But a few months later, to everyone’s astonishment, it was discovered that not a single oyster remained on this previously rich reef. The explanations advanced for the sudden disappearance of oysters from this reef, included destruction by the action of the sea; underwater currents sweeping the oysters away; devouring by predators; shifting bottoms caused by the southwest monsoons,  and voluntary movement of oysters to other reefs.

The most profitable period for taking pearl oysters

The Ceylon pearl oyster has a natural life span of about 8 years, and pearl oysters less than 4 years old, produce very few marketable pearls. When the oysters are 5-6 years old the yield of pearls doubles, and in the 7th-year reaches an optimum, estimated to be fourfold of the yield in the 4th-year. Beyond the 7th-year there appears to be little increase in the yield. In fact after the 7th-year the risk of the oyster dying, pearls deteriorating or becoming lost becomes greater. Thus, the most profitable period for taking pearl oysters is when they are from 5 to 7 years old. After the 5th-year the tendency for the oysters to disappear increases. Hence the risk of waiting too long is as great as beginning too early. The final decision for harvesting is taken by the inspector after consideration of various factors, and mainly if the chances of getting the most valuable returns is assured. To evaluate the potential returns from a bed, random samples of a thousand oysters were taken from about 8-10 spots on the reef using a single boat or several boats and the pearls recovered are examined and valued. If the minimum value of the pearls obtained is Rs.25-30 per thousand oysters the fishery could be conducted profitably, provided the population density was higher than an optimum value. Even during the Portuguese period, around 1650, such a system of estimating the potential turn out from a “paar”  was in place, according to Tavernier, who wrote,  ”before they fish, they try whether it will turn to any account by sending seven or eight boats to bring 1000 oysters each, which they open, and if the oysters per 1000 yield five fanos or above, they then know the fishing will turn to account.” 

Advertising the pearl fishery

After the “paars” (oyster beds) to be exploited during a particular season have been selected by the Inspector of pearl reefs, wide publicity is given about the impending pearl fishery by advertising, displaying public notices in English, and the local languages Sinhalese and Tamil for the benefit of the local participants, Tamil and other Dravidian languages of South India, for the benefit of the Indian participants, and Arabic for the benefit of  participants from the Persian Gulf countries. The advertisement gives the names of the “paars” that would be open for exploitation, the estimated quantity of oysters to be removed from each “paar,” the number of boats that would be employed, the date the fishery would begin and its probable duration. Notice of the fishery that usually begins in late February or early March is given in December preceding the fishery.

The following is a copy of the English notice advertising the peal fishery that was to take place at Marichchukkaddi, in Ceylon, on or about February 20, 1907


Is hereby given that a Pearl Fishery will take place at Marichchukkaddi, in the Island of Ceylon, on or about February 20, 1907.

The Banks to be fished are :-

The Karativu, Dutch Moderagam and Alanturat Paars, estimated to contain 21,000,000 oysters, sufficient to employ 100 boats for twenty- one days with average loads of 10,000 each per day.

The North-West and Mid-West Cheval, estimated to contain 2,000,000 oysters, sufficient to employ 100 boats for two days, with average loads of 10,000 oysters.

The Muttuvaratu Paar, estimated to contain 8,000,000 oysters, sufficient to employ 100 boats for two days with average loads as before stated, each boat being fully manned by divers.

2. It is notified that fishing will begin on the first favorable day after February 19, 1907. Conditions governing the employment of divers will be issued separately.

3. Marichchukkaddi is on the mainland , eight miles by sea south of Sillavaturai, and supplies of good water and provisions can be obtained there.

4. The fishery will be conducted on account of the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers, Ltd., and the oysters put up for sale in such lots as may be deemed expedient.

Valuation samples are collected again just before the onset of the fishery and the results published for the benefit of prospective buyers of oysters

Before the actual fishery gets underway in late February, the areas to be fished are again examined and their boundaries demarcated by floating buoys. Valuation samples are collected again for a second time and the pearls found are examined and valued by independent experts, whose results are published, so that prospective buyers of oysters at auctions, may have a reliable idea of the returns expected from their investment.

The fishery begins in late February or early March, the season during which the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka has very calm seas, without any storms that can disrupt the fishing. Apart from the Tamils, Moors and some Sinhalese of the local population, tens of thousands of people from the Malabar and Madras (Tamilnadu) coasts of India, and the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf, take part in the fishery. Boats from the Indian coasts and the Arabian coasts begin to arrive just a week or two ahead of the opening of the season. On a single day sometimes fifty or more boats arrive, carrying men, women and children, and also materials for their temporary camps. They pitch their camps on the temporary settlement set up by the British colonial authorities, on the sandy seashore, with well planned and lighted streets, numerous wells and cisterns for the supply of water, public conveniences, and strict sanitary measures in place to prevent the outbreak of any diseases. “Toddis” or enclosures for decomposing the oysters harvested, and washing and separation of pearls, after they are purchased by the merchants, are constructed at a safe distance from the settlement, because of the stench that emanates from them and to minimize the risk to public health. The police, the courts, the jail, the post and telegraphic office, bank, auction hall, hospital and cemetery, all essential components for an enormous settlement of tens of thousands of people, are situated within the settlement itself or near its periphery.

The 1907 fisheries, the last of the pearl fishery conducted by the British in Sri Lanka, was centered at the temporary settlement known as Marichchukkaddi, eight miles south of Silavaturai. Within a short period the previously isolated beach becomes a hub of activity populated with thousands of people from Sri Lanka, the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian lands, speaking a multitude of tongues, where before only the sounds of the ocean waves was heard. The eight to ten thousand fisherman or divers assembled are mainly Tamils (Parawa), Moors and Arabs. Apart from the divers there are pearl merchants, mainly Chetties and Moormen. Other categories of people assembled include boat navigators and repairers, other mechanics, government officials, clerks, boat guards, koddu counters, a police force of 200 officials, provision dealers, priests and shark charmers, pawn brokers, coolies and domestic servants, and also women and children. For the entertainment of the those assembled, there are jugglers, fakirs, gamblers, female dancers, loose characters and also beggars. The entire population of this temporary settlement constituted about 40 to 50 thousand inhabitants.

The types of boats used in the fishery are as diverse as the types of people and nationalities taking part

The composition of the fishing fleet is as diverse as the various types of peoples and nationalities taking part in the fisheries. The fleet consists of several hundred boats of different sizes, with different types of hull and rigging, characteristic of the region from which the boat originated. One type is the broad and spacious Jaffna dhoni, usually painted black. A second type is the lugger-like boat from Paumben in India. A third is the very narrow and speedy Keelkarai canoes, painted in bright colors such as red, green and yellow, that turn up in large numbers for the fishery. The largest boats in the fleet, weighing 20 to 40 tons each, are the single masted lighters from Tuticorin, sharp sterned and copper bottomed. The Arab boats, big and small weighing from one to 50 tons, have artistic rigs and spoon-shaped sails, the smaller boats carrying 3 to 15 men and larger boats 15 to 30 men at the time of fishing. Another unique type of boat with three masts is the great canoe from Adirampatnam and Muttupattai on the Tanjore coast, with a curved prow and painted pale blue. Apart from these usual types of boats there may be a few boats of unique and special design, adding to the variety of boats turning up for the occasion.

Boats taking part in the fishery are first examined by officials for their sea worthiness, and required equipment for the fishing, and are registered and numbered only if found satisfactory. When the number of boats are more than what is required, the fleet is sometimes divided into two or more divisions with different colors and fishing on alternate days. In 1874 the boats were divided into three divisions, red, blue and green, with fifty boats in each division. In 1879, 1880 and 1881, they were divided into two divisions, red and blue or red and white. Again in 1903 and 1906, there were two divisions, red and white.

A breakdown of the origin of the  boats that took part in the 1905 pearl fishery

A breakdown of the 318 boats employed in the 1905 fishery gives some interesting information.

1) Keelakarai – 143 boats  – India

2) Jaffna      –   74 boats – Ceylon

3) Tuticorin  –   35 boats – India

4) Paumben –    34 boats – India

5) Mannar   –      9 boats – Ceylon

6) Nagapatnam – 6 boats – India

7) Colombo –      5 boats – Ceylon

8) Kayalpatnam- 4 boats – India

9) Tondi   –       4  boats – India

10) Devipatnam-1  boat  – India

11) Adrapatnam-1  boat  – India

12) Ammopatnam-1boat  – India

13) Koddaipatnam-1boat

Total number of boats – 318

Number of boats from India – 230

Number of boats from Ceylon – 88

Information derived from the above statistics

1) Most of the boats that took part in the fishing originated from India. The number of boats from India were almost three times the number of boats from Sri Lanka, even though the fishery was a Sri Lankan fishery. Thus, the British colonial authorities made use of Indian divers to exploit the pearl resources on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar.

2) The highest number of boats from India came from Keelakarai. These boats were the smaller but faster canoe type of boats, that carried up to 12 people.

3) The highest number of boats from Ceylon, came from Jaffna. Thus, most of the participants from Sri Lanka were Tamils from Jaffna.

4) All the boats from India came from the Southern Indian coastal towns and villages, with a tradition of pearl fishing dating back to thousands of years.

5) Only 9 boats came from Mannar, the host city of the Ceylon fishery.

6) Only 5 boats came from Colombo, the capital city of Ceylon. The Sinhalese from southern Sri Lanka, traditionally had not taken an active part in the pearl fishery taking place in the northwest coast of the island.

Categories of people manning a boat

Depending on the size of the boats, the number of people that could be accommodated in them at the time of fishing varied from around 12 to 65, with an average of 35 for the entire fleet. Each boat was manned by a “Sammatti” (master), who represented the owner; the “Tindal” (pilot); the “Todai” (water-bailer), who apart from bailing water was also in charge of the food and drinking water; a government inspector or boat-guard whose duty was to make sure that the oysters were not opened on board; and from 5 to 30 divers depending on the size of the boat and an equal number of “Manducks” or attendants.

Breakdown of the divers employed in the 1905 fishery according to their region of origin, and information that can be derived from such  analysis

In the 1905 fishery a total of 4,991 divers were employed manning 318 boats. A breakdown of these divers according to their nationality or region of origin is quite interesting and informative.

1) Keelakarai    – 2,649 divers

2) Tamils         –   995 divers

3) Arabs          –   923 divers

4) Ceylon Moor –   424 divers

    Total          – 4991 divers

1) The highest number of divers were from Keelakarai, Southern India. These were the Indian Moormen or “Lebbes” from Keelakarai, Tondi and other villages on the Madurai coast. These Moormen were descendants of early Arab settlers from Oman, Yemen and the Hijaz, on these coastal regions of Southern India.

2) The second highest number were the Tamils, originating from Tuticorin, Rameswaram, and other coastal areas of Tamilnadu. These Tamils belonged to the “Parawa” and “Kadeiyar” castes, who were professional pearl divers since ancient times.

3) Arab divers from the Persian Gulf, originating from countries like Bahrain and Kuwait were the third highest number of divers. Like the “Parawa” divers, the Arab divers also had a wealth of experience in pearl diving passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. Arab divers had taken part in the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery since time immemorial. But in recent times Arab divers had appeared in the Gulf of Mannar, since 1887. The number of Arab divers taking part in the fishery had shown a phenomenal increase from 1904 to 1906, In 1904 the number of Arab divers taking part in the fishery was only 238. This number increased to 923 in 1905, and to a phenomenal 4,090 in 1906, almost 50% of the total of 8,600 divers. This was the largest number of Arab divers employed in recent times. According to G.F. Kunz the Arab divers were very energetic and skilful divers, far surpassing the Tamil Parawas. They are very hardworking coming early in the season and staying late, and working on many days even when the seas were rough, that would normally deter Indian divers from venturing out. This observation of Kunz, contrasted that of Tavernier in the 17th-century, who believed that the pearl divers from the Gulf of Mannar, meaning the Parawa divers were better than the divers of the Persian Gulf, because they could hold their breath for a longer time than the Arabs. Tavernier believed that this was because the divers from Mannar did not use clips on their noses or cotton to block their ears, as divers in the Persian Gulf did.

4) The 4th category of divers were the Ceylon Moors from Erukkalampiddi, Mannar, also descendants of early Arab settlers in these regions, but not so energetic and steady in their work as the Arabs, and commonly deserting the fishery even before the official closing.

Apart from the above category of divers there were also small numbers of divers from other regions, such as the Malayalees from the Malabar coast.

5) The above analysis also shows clearly that most of the divers employed by the British to exploit the pearl resources of the Gulf of Mannar, on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf, were either South Indians or Arabs from the Persian Gulf. The divers available in Sri Lanka, mainly the Moor divers were not sufficient to man such a vast fishery, within a short period of time, just bout 6 or 8 weeks, when the seas were calm and safe for fishing.

 The duration of the Ceylon pearl fishery

The Ceylon Pearl Fishery was one of the shortest in the world, lasting just 6-8 weeks (1½-2 months). Most other pearl fisheries in the world lasted from 4-6 months. This was mainly due to weather conditions in the Indian Ocean region, with two seasonal monsoon winds and rains, during which the seas were very rough. The two monsoonal seasons that affected the Gulf of Mannar, were the south-west monsoon that lasted from July to September and the northeast monsoon that extended from November to February. The pearling fishery began soon after the northeast monsoons ended in late February and extended up to the end of April. The seas were relatively calm during this short period of two months, and enabled the unhindered  prosecution of the fishery. Around the month of May the inter-monsoonal rains began, before the onset of the  southwest monsoon in July. Because, of the restricted time limit of the pearl fishery, there was greater activity in the fishery during this period, compared to other pearl fisheries in the world. 

The diving methods employed by the fisherman was the same as that employed over 600 years earlier when Marco Polo visited the region

The divers get ready for their hard days work just a few hours past midnight. After waking up as early as 3.00 a.m. they have an early breakfast, perform their early morning devotions and set off in their boats in order to reach their allotted “paars” situated 5 to 20 miles away from the shore, just before sunrise. The area to be fished has already been demarcated by buoys carrying flags. The boats take-up position within the allocated area, and when all boats selected for the fishing had arrived, the guard vessel, fires a gun signaling the commencement of the fishing. The method of fishing was exactly the way Marco Polo described, when he visited the region in 1294, and later Caesar Frederick, the Venetian trader and traveler between 1563 and 1581 and Jean Baptiste Tavernier, the French traveler and jeweler between 1631 and 1668. Thus, it appears that within the last 600 years very little changes had taken place in the method of the fishery. The divers usually worked in pairs, each pair sharing a single diving stone, and descending alternately. The diving methods employed was the same as that in the Persian Gulf, the only exception being that the Indian and Sri Lankan divers did not use nose-clips, just compressing their nostrils with the fingers during the descent. This appears to limit the depth to which the divers can descend, the maximum depth being around 10 fathoms.

The average number of oysters that can be collected by a diver

During the short period a diver remains underwater and is able to hold his breath the number of oysters he could collect in his basket varies from zero to over 75. The average number of oysters collected by a diver ranges between 15 and 50. This number depends on several factors, such as the fisherman’s ability and experience; the population density of the oysters; and the mode of attachment of the oysters to the reef. In some areas the oysters are found in loose bunches of 5-10, held together by byssal threads. Such loose associations can be easily harvested by divers, who sometimes gather as much as hundred in one dive. In other areas the oysters are attached firmly to the substratum, requiring some force to detach them, thus necessarily reducing the numbers collected in a single dive.

Comparison of the traditional method of harvesting oysters by diving with the mechanical method by dredging using a steamer, showed clear advantages in the traditional method over the mechanical method.

The British colonial authorities in Sri Lanka tried out mechanical dredging of mature oysters from the coral reef on an experimental basis beginning from the year 1904, employing a single steamer, a 150-ton North Sea trawler or a Grimsby, built in 1896. The single trawler was employed in combination with the traditional method of harvesting using boats and divers. This experiment provided an unique opportunity to compare the performance of the trawler with that of the ordinary diving boat manned by traditional nude divers. The officers who were in charge of the dredging operation advanced an argument in favor of their operation, stating that dredging was economically a more sound method of fishing than was diving. However, this viewpoint was disputed by the Superintendent of the Fishery, who showed that the average catch by the steamer by dredging only slightly exceeded that of an ordinary diving boat. He pointed out further, that the cost of maintenance of the steamer and its operation costs were much greater than ordinary diving boats. Another important advantage of the traditional method of harvesting oysters was brought out during this comparison, viz. that on some days when the divers were at work as usual, the sea was too rough for dredging by the steamer. Thus, the traditional method of harvesting oysters by diving had clearly many advantages over dredging, apart from maintaining the delicate ecological balance of the coral reef. 

The role of the  shark-charmers or shark-binders (“kadal-kotti”) in the pearl fishery

A unique feature of the Gulf of Mannar pearl fishery not found in the Persian Gulf pearl fishery, was the crucial role played by the shark-charmers or Shark-binders in the fishery, who were known as “Abraiman” in the 13th-century, when Marco Polo visited the region. The fisherman had implicit faith on the so-called supernatural powers of these charmers, and would not dare to venture out without their blessings. In fact they were entitled to 1/20th of the total harvest of oysters as compensation for the vital services they provided. Some writers even reported that at one time, one shark-charmer was employed for each boat. However, during the Portuguese occupation the number of shark charmers employed were drastically reduced to just 12 in number, and during the time of the British the number was further reduced to just two. The British colonial government in keeping with its policy of non-interference with the beliefs and superstitions of the indigenes, tolerated their activities, as it also to some extent prevented poaching on the reefs, and help conserve the resources. However the British severely curtailed the benefits that accrued to the charmers from the fishery, reducing the compensation to just one oyster per day from each diver. Subsequently with a view of reducing their influence, the government employed their services remunerating them from the government coffers, and banning them from demanding or receiving any oysters as compensation from the boatmen, divers or any other persons involved in the fishing.  Eventually in the year 1885, their services were discontinued, and the age-old shark-charming profession totally eliminated. From 1885 onwards the fisheries were conducted without their presence, and significantly without a single shark attack being reported, until the fisheries came to an end in 1907.

The fact that the fisheries were conducted from 1885 to 1907, without a single shark attack being reported is a clear indication of the fact that the dangers posed by man-eating sharks to the Ceylon pearl divers were grossly exaggerated. The 1905 pearl fishery, the greatest fishery in the modern history of Ceylon, employing 4,991 divers and an equal number of assistants took place successfully without a single fatal accident being reported, or a fishing boat being lost despite the fact that much rough weather prevailed during the season. However, during the partially successful 1904 fishery, that immediately preceded the most successful 1905 fishery, in which 3,049 divers were employed one fatal accident was reported of an elderly Moorman, whose death at the bottom of the sea was caused not by a shark attack, but apparently either by a stroke or asphyxiation due to drowning, precipitated by exhaustion. The safety of the Sri Lankan waters was confirmed by several European officials who were involved in the fishery. The Superintendent of the fishery, who was in overall charge of the 1904 pearl fishery, reported that not a single shark was sighted during the 1904 season. This fact was confirmed by the Inspector of the Pearl Banks, Prof. James Hornell , who reported in 1904, that during all the months he had spent upon the pearl banks during the previous two and a half years, he had never had a glimpse of a shark dangerous to man, and basking sharks of considerable size, caught by boatmen on several occasions, all belonged to a species that lived almost entirely upon small crustaceans. Another British official, Sir William Twynam reported that he had never known of a diver being carried off by a shark, and had hear of only one case, which was a very doubtful one.  According to A.M. Ferguson, who wrote in 1887, it was certain that in the whole course of the Ceylon fisheries only two human beings have fallen victim to these fierce fishes.

Thus, it appears that in the course of the ancient history of the Ceylon pearl fishery, an isolated incident of a killing of a pearl diver by a shark attack, might have become the triggering factor, that led the poor, gullible pearl divers, who took to pearl diving as a means of sustenance for themselves and their families, to seek the protection of the unscrupulous shark charmers, who claimed to have special powers in controlling or binding the man-eating sharks, and thus promised them almost 100% immunity from such attacks. Such superstitious beliefs were more prevalent among the Indian Tamil and Malayalam divers, who still believed in these superstitions despite the fact that most of them were recent converts to the Christian faith.

Return of the boats after the fishery and the charge of illicit opening of oysters

The return of the boats after the onset of sea-breeze around noon or immediately afterwards

Normally diving activities continue until the onset of the sea-breeze around  12 noon or an hour or two after that, when a signal is given from the guard vessel by the firing of a gun to halt diving and ordering the boats to return to shore. The onset of the sea-breeze causes the seas to become rough, interfering with diving activities. Besides, the sea-breeze also hastens the passage of the sailing vessels towards the shore, helping the boats to arrive before dusk sets in, facilitating the unloading of the cargo and other activities that follow. However, occasionally the strength of the breeze is weak, and the boatmen are force to row for miles on their return journey home, sometimes delaying their arrival on the shore until after nightfall. On such occasions the shore is lighted up not only to guide the landing boats, but also to prevent the boatmen from pilfering part of the day’s catch.

Accusations of illicit opening of oysters on the return journey towards the shore

It had been reported, however without concrete proof, that the boatmen took advantage of the time taken in reaching the shore, to open secretly some of the oysters and steal any pearls discovered, throwing the remains of the oysters overboard. The colonial authorities that managed the fisheries assumed that this was the general practice. It was reported that in 1905, the year that yielded record breaking harvests in the recent history of Ceylon, estimated to be approximately 81,580,716 oysters, at least 15,000,000 oysters or approximately 1/5th of the enormous catch that year were illicitly opened in this manner. However, this report was strongly disputed by the Superintendent of the Fishery, who said that it was hardly likely that divers would be foolish enough to throw into the sea an enormous quantity of carelessly examined oysters in which they have a share and which may contain pearls, when they were quite certain that they could get good prices for their shares immediately on landing.

Precautions taken by the government to discourage such illicit openings

Yet, based on the unsubstantiated claims of large scale pilferage of harvested oysters on transit towards the shore, government officials had put in place several measures to minimize such occurrence, such as searching boats and occupants on landing, for evidence of oysters having been opened, or for any hidden pearls and revoking the licenses of boats in which such evidence was discovered or carried knives and other appliances that can be used in such illicit opening. There were also unsubstantiated reports of fisherman resorting to various ingenious methods to hide their illicit finds of pearls, such as concealing in different parts of the body, like the nose, ears and other parts of the body; hiding them in parcels inside the furled sails; or attaching the parcels to the submerged anchor.

As a part of exerting tighter control on the activities of the fisherman, in 1904 and 1905, the government employed a guard for each boat, but the integrity of these guards were called into question, who were severely underpaid, and who could scarcely be expected to oversee the activities of 30-40 fisherman and report any misdoings, when by remaining silent they would have much to gain. One of the officials, is reported to have stated that the guards simply added to the number of thieves on board.

Boats returning by mid-afternoon are welcomed by officials, merchants, laborers and inquisitive camp followers

The return of the hundreds of sail-spreading boats of different makes and sizes around mid-afternoon, aided by the landward afternoon breeze, crowded with turbaned dark-skinned fisherman, scantily dressed, most wearing only a loin cloth, each anxious to become the first to reach the crowded beach, was indeed a spectacular sight. The crowd on the beach waiting to receive the fisherman consisted of officials, merchants, laborers and inquisitive camp followers, all waiting to receive information on the success of the day’s fishery.

The average number of oysters brought in daily by each boat

The average number of oysters brought in daily by each boat varied according to the success of the fishery and weather conditions. There have been occasions during bad weather when most of the boats returned empty. On the other hand there had been extraordinarily good days when large catches had been reported, and accordingly the daily average had increased phenomenally. The maximum catch on a single day for one boat reported in 1904 was 37,675 oysters, and in 1905 29,990 oysters. In 1905, the year that yielded the largest catch in recent years, the average catch per day by the entire fleet of 302 boats was 4,978,686 oysters, which works out to an average of 16,485 oysters per boat. Thus, the average number of oysters brought in daily can vary from zero to around 16,000, respectively the least successful and most successful averages reported. Between these two extremes, an average of 10,000 oysters per day for each boat was a reasonable estimate, for an averagely successful season.

Unloading of oysters into government “koddus” and division into three equal heaps

Unloading of oysters and division into heaps

After the boats have landed on firm, hard beach, the unloading of oysters begin, and all oysters are carried by the crew of the boats into the government koddus or palisade, a large enclosure surrounded by wattle and palm-thatched wall. Inside the enclosure are square pens each bearing a number corresponding to the numbers on the boats. The officials present identify the pen that corresponds to each boat and direct the crew to deposit their catch in that pen. The oysters unloaded from each boat are divided by the fishermen themselves into three equal heaps, of which one heap is given to the fisherman as their share, as compensation for their work, and the other two heaps go to the government. Up to the year 1880, the fisherman received only one-fourth of the catch as their share, but beginning from the year 1881 their portion was increased to one-third of the total catch, which remained so until the end of the fishery in 1907.

The “Sammatti'” “Tindal,” “Todai” and “Manduck” receive a share of the oysters from the fisherman

After an official had pointed out the share that belonged to the fisherman, they removed their share at once from the enclosure, through a narrow gate on the landward side. Every person taking part in the fishery such as the “Sammatti,” “Tindal,” “Todai,” and “Manduck” receives as compensation a definite portion of the oysters from the share of the fisherman, as per government regulations published in 1855. Each “Sammatti,” “Tindal” and “Todai” receives daily one dive of oysters from each diver in the boat to which they were attached. The hire of the boat is sometimes paid for in cash, amounting to Rs.1.50 per day from each diver, but usually in oysters, equivalent to one-fifth or one-sixth of each divers portion. After settling the “Sammatti,” “Tindal” and “Todai” and the boat hire, each diver gives one-third of his remaining portion to his manduck, keeping the balance for himself. The Moor divers from Keelakarai usually contribute one dive daily to the mosque of their native town.

The fisherman sells his oysters in small lots to crowds of natives who are eager to buy them

The fisherman sells his oysters in small lots, ranging from 8-12 oysters per rupee to crowds of natives who are eager to buy them. This “outside market” was said to be an interesting feature of the oyster fishery of Sri Lanka; a type of lottery in which most of the natives assembled on the shore are tempted to test their fortunes by investing just a rupee on a small share of oysters, that may yield a pearl worth hundreds of dollars. It was reported that a poor Tamil once bought five oysters for half a rupee, and in one of them he discovered the largest pearl of the season. Any oysters that are not sold in this way are sold in bulk to a native buyer. After disposing their oysters the divers quickly plunge into a freshwater pool provided for the purpose in the camps, in which they remain sometime and take bath, to eliminate the ill effects of immersing oneself in saltwater for long periods of time

The sale of oysters in small lots brings in a larger return to the fisherman, and their earnings sometimes exceed one-half of the government’s share. In 1905, the total amount earned by the fisherman was around £86,000, which works out to an average of £270 ($1350) for each of the 318 boats. Pearl fishing in Ceylon, even in an ordinary season was a profitable occupation, and a skilled diver earned five or six times as much as a common laborer in Ceylon.

The fate of the government’s share of oysters

The government share of the oysters were sold by public auction on the same day in the evening at 9.00 p.m.

The remaining two heaps of oysters in each pen, i.e. two-thirds of the oysters from each boat, were the property of the government. These heaps are combined together and counted. This is how the statistics of the exact number of oysters taken by the government was arrived at. The government’s share of the oysters are sold each day by public auction at 9.00 p.m. in the evening. By 12.00 noon the next day all oysters in the koddus have been removed by the buyers, and the enclosure is again ready for the next incoming catch.

The auction price for a thousand oysters is first determined by bidding, and all merchants willing to buy lots of 1,000 oysters at this price are supplied as many lots as they wished. The process is repeated until all oysters are exhausted

After the counting of oysters the number of oysters to be sold that evening was announced. The oysters were auctioned in lots of 1,000 oysters. Bidding started at a low of Rs.20 or Rs.25 per thousand, and after successive bids reached  perhaps as high as Rs.50 to Rs.60 per thousand. The successful bidder was allowed to take as many oysters as possible in multiples of 1,000. Other merchants who might also have wanted to purchase at the same price are also accommodated. When there was no further demand for the oysters at that price, bidding for the remaining oysters was started again as before, and when the maximum bid was reached again, all merchants willing to pay that amount are given as many pearls as they wished in multiples of 1,000. If the second bidding did not exhaust all the oysters, a third bidding is conducted on the remainder, and so on until all the oysters are sold. The whole process was actually a gamble as none of the merchants who invested their money knew at the time of purchasing, whether they were buying a fortune in gems or only worthless shells.

Auction prices registered usually varied widely with pre-harvest valuation prices

The price per thousand oysters obtained at the auctions invariably differed very much from the prices published earlier by independent experts after examining pearls obtained from valuation samples just before the onset of the fishing. In 1905, the valuation of the South Madaragam oysters was given as Rs.17.86 per thousand, but the auction results on the first day of the fishery showed that these oysters fetched a price of Rs.53 to Rs.61 per thousand, which was about three times pre-harvest valuation. Pearls harvested from other banks during this season also showed a proportionate increase from their pre-harvest values.

Some factors that played a part at the auctions

The Indian pearl merchants who had been in the business for a long time, and had been keeping touch with the yield of pearls obtained from oysters from different banks, knew the potential of each pearl bank very well. Accordingly they knew very well when to bid and when to abstain from bidding at the auctions, depending on the particular bank from which the oysters originated. There were other clever merchants who just followed the Indian businessman. Superstitions also played a part at the auctions, and some buyers abstained from buying on certain days, considering such days to be unlucky. Again on days they consider lucky, they may bid very high to secure a considerable portion of the sales. 

The seasons that recorded the highest average price per thousand, and the single days that recorded the highest average price per thousand

The average price per thousand also varied greatly in different seasons. One of the highest average prices obtained was for the year 1860, being Rs.134.23 per 1,000. The next highest average price was Rs.79.07 per 1,000 obtained for the year 1874. In 1905, the year that set the record for the highest yield of oysters and the highest return in the recent history of Sri Lanka, the average price recorded was Rs.49 per 1,000. The record for individual days however greatly exceeded these limits. The highest price per 1,000 obtained for any single day was Rs.309 per thousand in 1906. In 1874, the high price of Rs.210 per 1,000 was recorded for a single day. In 1905, the highest price recorded for a single day was Rs.124 per 1,000.

Who were the oyster buyers ?

The principal oyster buyers were the wealthy Chetties from the different towns of southern India, such as Madurai, Ramnad, Trichinopoly, Paumben, Kumbha-konam, Tevakoddai, Parambakuddi etc. Other buyers include the scantily clothed Naddukoddai Chetties from Ceylon; Moormen from Keelkarai, Ramnad, Bombay, Adrampatam, Tondi and Ceylon; Nadans or Chanar caste people from Perunali, Kamuti, and Karaikal.

In the year 1905, over 99% of the 50,346,601 oysters, that was the government share of the fishery, was purchased by the Indian buyers. Less than 1% of the oysters were purchased by the local buyers. Thus, it appears that even though the colonial Government of Ceylon was the main beneficiary of the proceeds of the pearl fishery, the main participants in the fishery such as the divers or fisherman, manducks etc. and the merchants who eventually purchased the harvested oysters, were mainly Indians.

 How the pearls were retrieved from the oysters ?

The most practicable means of retrieving the pearls from the large quantities of oysters harvested was by putrefaction

The usual method of searching for oysters was to open the valves with a knife, and search the contents of the oyster for any pearls lodged within it, by further probing into it. This method was suitable if the number of oysters handled were small. Moreover in this method very small pearls such as seed pearls may be easily overlooked and lost. However, in dealing with large quantities of oysters this method was clearly not practicable, as this might have required the engagement of additional personnel to handle the large quantities of oysters with their attendant problems of pilferage, requiring more personnel such as supervisors to oversee the opening of the oysters. To overcome all these problems the people engaged in the trade in Ceylon, have over the years developed the most practicable means of retrieving the pearls from the large quantities of oysters harvested. This was by allowing mother nature to take over the job of putrefying the flesh of the oysters, leaving the pearls in tact, after the purchases of oysters have been completed, although the process involved the emanation of a nauseating and unbearable stench. The merchants move their purchases of oysters to private enclosures known as “Toddis” that are situated a considerable distance away from the inhabited areas of the camp, because of the stench emanated, and are provided with round-the-clock guards. The oysters inside the “Toddis” are exposed to the elements, such as the sun’s heat and the rains, causing natural decay of the oysters to set in by bacterial and fungal action, and the automatic opening of the valves. While the decaying process continues after this, maggots and flies, especially the big red-eyed bluebottle flies take over and feed on the decaying fleshy parts of the oyster. However, any pearls found inside the oysters are not affected by the putrefaction. When the process of putrefaction is completed, which may take from 1 to 2 weeks, the residue, containing undecayed shells and pearls is repeatedly washed, before the pearls are finally separated from it.

How the putrefaction of oysters was carried out ?

Inside a large “toddi” the oysters are placed in a “ballam” which was a dug out tank or trough, 15-20 feet long and 2-3 feet deep, plastered and smooth on the inside so that no pearls can lodge in the crevices. After the oysters are placed inside the tank, it is covered with matting, closed up and sealed and guarded for a week or 10 days, by which time the maggots would have eaten all the fleshy tissues, leaving only the shells and the pearls. The tank is then opened and if the process of putrefaction is complete, it is filled with sea water to float out the thousands of maggots. As the washing of the residue takes place several semi-nude workmen squat along the sides of the tank to wash and remove the  valves of the shells, and to examine the interior of the valves for encysted pearls, known as “mabe pearls.” The washers are constantly watched by supervisors, and the movement of their hands closely monitored, to prevent the concealment of pearls. They are not allowed to remove their hands from the water except to take out shells. Moving of the hands towards the mouth or the nose, where pearls could be concealed is totally prohibited.

How the pearls were separated from the debris ?

After the removal of the larger valves of shells, and draining of water from above, fresh supplies of water are added to wash the debris, which was turned over again and again. The dirty water from these washings were passed through sieves to prevent the loss of tiny pearls. After several thorough washings, every particle of the material at the bottom of the “ballam” known as “sarakku” was collected and placed on a cotton cloth. The “sarakku” consists of sand, tiny stones, broken pieces of shells and pearls of different sizes and shapes. The “sarakku” is spread out on cotton cloth and dried in the sun, and the most conspicuous of pearls are picked out from it. After the dry material had been examined critically over and over again, and everything of value had been secured, the refuse is turned over to women and children, whose eager eyes and deft fingers may sometimes pick out many “dust pearls,” known as “masi-tul.”  on account of its similarity to “Maldivefish powder.” Even after this the worthless refuse may have some market value among people whose patience and skill may sometimes be rewarded. The Ceylon pearl oyster was well known for producing large quantities of seed pearls, but the credit for separating these seed pearls had to go to the method of retrieving them, however nauseating the process might have been, and the patience and extreme care taken in separating them.  

The “Mabe” pearls attached to the inner surface of the valves, are worked by skilled craftsmen, who separate the embedded pearl from the shell, and using files smoothen the irregular surface of the pearl to improve their appearance.

The invention of a British engineer, Mr. G.G. Dixon, “The Dixon Pearl Separation Machine” to separate the pearls from the oysters

The Ceylon Pearl Fishery was of great economic importance to the British, that they invested considerable sums of money on research and development of the industry. Investigations and research were carried out in two directions. One was the conservation of the valuable oyster resources of the pearl banks, and the development of techniques for the farming of oysters and the culturing of pearls inside them. The second direction in which the research was carried out, was the mechanization of the industry, such as using dredgers for harvesting of oysters, which was experimented on using a 150-ton steamer in 1904, and the development of a separating machine, to extract the valuable pearls from the oysters, instead of depending on the traditional nauseating putrefaction method. The British engineer, G.G. Dixon was entrusted the task of developing a machine for the purpose, who after doing preliminary studies on the subject, eventually invented a machine in the period 1904-1905 at Marichchikadde, that was popularly known as the “Dixon washing machine.” The cost involved in the construction of the machine was Rs.162,000 (£16,200), a considerable sum of money at that time. The separation machine was first employed in the Marichchikadde fishery on an experimental basis. In 1905, about 5,000,000 oysters were put through this machine, but the results of this separation exercise was not published. The separation process involved two steps. The first step consisted in separating the shells from the soft parts of the oysters. The second step that was carried out after drying the soft parts, involved the separation of the pearls from the dried soft parts. As the results of the 1905 exercise in using this machine was not published, it was difficult to assess the performance of the machine. In particular it was not known whether the machine was able to separate the large quantity of seed pearls produced by the Ceylon oysters.

Characteristics of the Ceylon pearls

The quantity of seed pearls produced in the Ceylon pearl fishery exceeded that of any other fishery in the world

In no pearl fishery across the world was the average size of the pearls produced smaller. and the relative number of pearls produced greater than in the Ceylon pearl fishery. To find a pearl weighing more than 10 grains was rare, and the number of pearls produced weighing less than 2 grains was indeed remarkable. Pearls weighing less than 2 grains in size are known as seed pearls. The quantity of seed pearls produced in the Ceylon pearl fishery, exceeded that of any other fishery, from all other parts of the world. The seed pearls were drilled by experienced South Indian pearl drillers, and strung together as strands, before they were exported to the European markets for conversion into jewelry, Seed pearl jewelry were popular during the early-Victorian period both in Europe and America. In fact President Abraham Lincoln is said to have presented a seed pearl jewelry suite, consisting of a necklace and two identical bracelets, to his first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, which she wore for his inauguration on March 4, 1861.

Ceylon pearls were unsurpassed in color, roundness and orient by those of any other region

The Ceylon pearls though smaller with an average size of 2 to 10 grains, are unsurpassed in roundness and orient by those of any other region. The great bulk of the Ceylon pearls were silvery white in color, in which white was the body color of the pearl and silver an overtone color. Silvery white was the most sought after color in pearls. Thus in terms of color too, the Ceylon pearls were unsurpassed by those of any other region. However, occasionally pearls with yellowish and pinkish overtones were also produced, but quality-wise they were inferior to the silvery-white pearls. Very rarely black pearls were also found, though the so-called black pearls were really brown or slate-colored. During some seasons, as in the year 1887, the so-called black pearls were relatively numerous.

Larger Ceylon pearls were extremely rare and fetched high prices

Larger Ceylon pearls, greater than 10 grains in weight were extremely rare. Pearls with a local value of Rs.1,000 equivalent to £100 or about $400 was quite rare. In the 1904 fishery the most valuable pearl found was said to have been sold in the camp for Rs.2,500, equivalent to £250 or $1,000. The 1905 fishery yielded a large pearl weighing 76½ Chevu, that was valued at Rs.12,000, equivalent to £1,200 or $4,800.

Two categories of pearls, smaller than seed pearls, “Thool” and “Mashithool” had no use whatsoever in Europe, but had an established value in Asia

There were two categories of pearls that were smaller than the seed pearls. They were known locally as “Thool” (dust pearls) and “Mashithool” (Maldivefish powder). “Mashithool” was the smallest of all the pearls, particles weighing just a fraction of a grain. The “Tool” pearls were slightly bigger than the “Mashithool.” Both “Tool” and “Mashithool” had no ornamental significance. They had no use whatsoever in Europe, but in Asia, particularly in India, both categories had an established value. The smallest “Mashithool” was powdered further and converted to “chu-nam” for chewing betel leaves, with tobacco and areca nut, a common habit among Asians. The slightly larger “Thool” pearls were used for burial rituals in India, for placing in the mouth of deceased Hindus of wealth, instead of the rice, which was used by the poorer people.

The use of the shells from the Ceylon pearl fishery

Shells of the Ceylon pearl oyster did not have sufficient thickness of lustrous nacre to be used as mother-of-pearl in the button industry. Nevertheless, before Australia and the Islands of the southern Pacific became established suppliers of quality mother-of-pearls originating from the oyster species, Pinctada maxima, the South Sea pearl oyster, the best of the Ceylon pearl oyster shells were exported to the European markets to feed the shell button industry. Since 1875, Ceylon pearl oyster shells had no value at all, as Australia and the South Pacific Islands became the main suppliers of mother-of-pearls to the entire world. The worthless shells were then used for camp fillings, or burned and converted to “Chunam” (prepared lime) either for building purposes, or to be used by natives for chewing with betel leaf and areca nuts.

The British Colonial Office decides to lease out the Ceylon pearl fisheries to a London Syndicate, The Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd. with effect from January 1, 1906

In the year 1904, a London syndicate interested in the scientific development of the pearl fishery of Sri Lanka by investing on research in pearl oyster farming and pearl culture, and modernizing the industry by introducing modern techniques of harvesting oysters and separation of pearls etc. put forward proposals to the British Colonial Office to lease the fisheries from the Colonial Government of Sri Lanka for a period of 20-30 years, in consideration of the payment of an annual rental to the government, based on the average annual return to the government from the fisheries in the preceding twenty years. Lengthy negotiations were conducted between representatives of the syndicate, The Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd. and the British Colonial Office, acting on behalf of the British Colonial Government of Ceylon, and on November 30, 1905, a preliminary agreement was signed between the Crown Agents for colonies, acting on behalf of the Government of Ceylon and representatives of the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd. In spite of objections raised by the people of Ceylon and the general feeling of indignation in the colony, generated by public rallies against the proposal, on February 27, 1906, the agreement was confirmed and made effective by special ordinance of the governor and the Legislative Council of Ceylon, and the Crown Agents were authorized to execute the lease as of January 1, 1906. The year 1906 was a transition year and the fishery was still conducted by the Colonial Government of Sri Lanka, bringing in considerable returns of Rs.1,376,476. The first fishery conducted by the company was in February 1907, which unfortunately became the last fishery to be ever conducted in the 2,000-year old history of the pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka.

The important terms of the lease

The important terms of the lease concluded between the Colonial Government of Sri Lanka and the private company were as follows :-

1) The company was required to adopt modern methods of separating pearls from the oysters, instead of the traditional nauseating putrefaction method, by purchasing the Dixon pearl-washing machine at a cost of Rs.120,000 per machine.

2) The company was required to purchase  the steamship “Violet” which the government had used in its experimental dredging and oyster culture.

3)  The company was required to reimburse the government each year the amount spent in policing, sanitation and hospital services at the fishery camp.

4) To expend each year from Rs.50,000 to Rs.150,000 in the research and development of pearl-oyster culture. 

5) To pay an annual rental of Rs.315,000, based on the average return of the preceding 20 years, including the record year of 1905.

6) The company was allowed to harvest the pearl oysters by using divers or steam dredges, or by such other mechanical means as might appear most advantageous.

7) The company was also authorized to carry on such experiments with immature oysters as appeared most conducive to the profitable working of the fisheries, provided they do nothing to make the resource less valuable at the expiration of the lease.

The Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd. conduct their first pearl fishery in 1907

The Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd. with  a paid up capital of £165,000, entered into the possession of its lease in mid-1906, and took over the inspection of the pearl banks, and the organization of the first pearl fishery under its management, that was due to come up in late February 1907. In December 1906, the company began advertising the pearl fishery that was scheduled to begin on or about February 20, 1907. Public notices advertising the pearl fishery began appearing in all countries involved in the pearl fishery, such as Sri Lanka, India and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, in their own local languages, as well as in English. Copies of this public notice in English and Tamil, the commonly spoken language in the region where the fishery was conducted, have already been reproduced earlier on this webpage.

Did the first pearl fishery conducted by the newly formed company in 1907 end in failure ?

The results of the pearl fishery conducted by the company at Marichchukkaddi, has been variously described as a success, partial success and a failure. According to Kunz, the 1907 fishery at Marichchukkaddi gave a return of £104,000. If this was true we can describe the fishery as a partial success, in comparison to other successful years, such as Â£251,073  in 1905 and Â£137,675 in 1906. However, according to Leonard Woolf, a young British administrator, attached to the Jaffna Kachcheri (Secretariat) as a learner Government Agent, and was assigned the task of officiating at this pearl fishery, the Marichchukkaddi pearl fishery, that began on February 20, 1907 was a failure, as the fishery was concluded prematurely on April 3, 1906, lasting only 11 days, instead of the usual 6 weeks, as the yield of oysters fell drastically. If Leonard Woolf was correct, the first pearl fishery of the newly formed company, ended in a disaster, and provided an additional reason why the company went bust after a few more years of operation.

George Frederick Kunz sounds an optimistic note about the newly formed company in his book “The Book of the Pearl.”

George Frederick Kunz who wrote his book “The Book of the Pearl” around this time, and published it in 1908, sounds an optimistic note about the newly formed company in his book. He wrote, “It is uncertain what changes will be made in the methods of the fishery or what measure of success will follow the attempts at pearl-oyster culture and the growth of pearls. The attention of the pearling interests of the world is now directed to the work of this company in the development of its magnificent leasehold, and it seems not unlikely that greater changes will be made in the methods of the industry during the ensuing decade that have not occurred in the whole of the last ten centuries.”

The Company goes bust after a few years of operation shattering the expectations of the world pearling community

However, the optimistic note sounded by G.F. Kunz, and the high expectations of the world pearling community was shattered when the company that invested heavily on research into the farming of pearl oysters and inducing the farm-bred oysters to produce pearls, went bust only after a few years of operation. Around this time research into the artificial culturing of pearls conducted in Japan by Mikimoto since the early 1890s, had been partially successful, and Mikimoto had succeeded in producing “Mabe” pearls. However, research on the culturing of pearls was still at an early stage, and the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd. by investing large sums of money in trying to perfect the technology, incurred enormous losses, and was forced to fold up their activities in Sri Lanka, to the disappointment of pearling interests across the world.

The British colonial government abandon the lucrative pearl banks of Sri Lanka after the collapse of the company, ending the long and colorful history of the Sri Lankan pearl fishery spanning over 2,000 years

After the collapse of the company, the British colonial government in Sri Lanka, lost all interest in reviving the 2,000-year old natural pearl industry in Sri Lanka, and abandoned the ancient lucrative pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar. Mikimoto who continued his research despite all setbacks was finally rewarded in 1916, when he was able to culture the first whole spherical pearl. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, large quantities of cultured pearls from Japan began entering the pearl markets of the world, and this gave the final death blow to the natural pearl industry of Sri Lanka, dashing all hopes of a revival of the natural pearl industry. The ancient pearl banks of Sri Lanka have ever since remained undisturbed, and most present day Sri Lankans, seem to have forgotten that their country was one of the most ancient suppliers of pearls to the entire world, from time immemorial.

Traditional breath-holding technique of pearl diving and the dangers faced by the poor pearl divers is brought into focus in the famous science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

In the French science fiction novel “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers” – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, written by the famous science fiction writer, Jules Verne, and published in 1869, that tells the story of Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus, Captain Nemo is depicted as a champion of the world’s underdogs and downtrodden. In one passage Captain Nemo is mentioned as providing some help to the Greeks rebelling against Ottoman rule during the Cretan Revolt of 1866-1869. In another passage, Nemo takes pity on a poor Indian pearl diver who must do his diving without the sophisticated diving suit available to the submarine’s crew, and who is doomed to die young due to the cumulative effect of diving on his lungs; Nemo approaches him underwater and gives him a whole pouch full of pearls, more than he could have gotten in years of his dangerous work.

Related :-

1) History of the Discovery and Appreciation of Pearls -the Organic Gem Perfected by Nature – Page 3

2) History of the Discovery and Appreciation of Pearls – the Organic Gem Perfected by Nature – Page 1

3) The Sultan Necklace and Earrings

4) The Ceylon Pearl Necklace

References :-

1) Sri Lanka – Muslim History & General Statistics. The Muslims of Sri Lanka, a brief history. www.islamawareness.net

2) Sindbad in Serendib – Richard Boyle, Serendib Magazine, Vol.17 No.4

3) The Travels of Marco Polo – Book 3, Chapter 16 – translated by Henry Yule. Concerning the Great Province of Ma’abar, which is Called India the Greater, and is on the Mainland.

4) Travels of Ibn Batuta – Chapter XX. Translated from the Abridged Arabic Manuscript Copies, preserved in the Public Library of Cambridge, by Reverend Samuel Lee. London.

5) The Pearl Fisheries of Ceylon – Pearls From Asia, The Book of the Pearl – Kunz & Stevenson.

6) Of Pearls and Pearl Fisheries : Part I – The Symbol of the Soul – Richard Boyle. The Sunday Times Plus, 11th May 1997.

7) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

You are welcome to discuss this post/related topics with Dr Shihaan and other experts from around the world in our FORUMS (forums.internetstones.com)

     Back to Learning Center

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.