The pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar

The pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar

Sri Lanka was once known as the pearl of the orient in the past and it was not only because of the attractions that Sri Lanka offered and the shape of the country but also the richness of the valuable pearl in the waters of Sri Lanka.

Historical evidence suggests that Sri Lanka was known to be a producer of quality pearl in the world. Island Sri Lanka had exported this valuable commodity as early as 3000 BP. According to the Mahawamsa King Vijaya (the first king of Sri Lanka) had sent a pack of valuables to his brother King Padi in Mayura kingdom in India. The incident took place in 5th century B.C and there were valuable pearls from Sri Lanka in the package.

In Rome, in the days of Pliny, pearls from this part of the Indian Ocean were highly valued, and Pliny himself refers to this fishery as the most productive in the world. Furthermore, the Greeks, Venetians and Genoese all sought the beautiful specimens harvested from these waters. Since Pliny’s time, references to the pearl fishery have appeared in the majority of the written accounts of the island. In addition, the Arabian Nights contain the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor, who was shipwrecked on the island of Serendib.  Subsequently, Sindbad had an audience with the king of Serendib, who commanded him to convey a goblet filled with fine pearls to Haroun al-Raschid Caliph of Baghdad.

Chinese Monk Fa-hien had made some remarks on the valuable pearls of the island as he was travelling in Sri Lanka in 412 AD. According to Fa-hien king had protected the island with soldiers, where the pearl fishery took place and the king had levied the 3/10 of the profit of the pearl collectors.  Taprobane (Sri Lanka) pearls were highly valued in the thriving civilizations like Rome.

The world-renowned historian has said that most of the pearls that were used by Cleopatra were imported from the island. It is said that there had been very strong ties between Sri Lanka and Rome in 45 AD and King Claudius received pearls as gifts from the king of Sri Lanka.

The Arabian write Edris who lived in the 12th century had made the valuable description on the pearls of Sri Lanka. He had written that Serendib (Sri Lanka) had been a rich country that had valuable Pearl banks. Further to his description, the king of the country was richer than all the rulers in India. The king earns a large amount of money from pearl fishery on the island.

Another Arabian traveller who was known as Ibn Batuta also praised the value of precious pearls discovered in Sri Lanka. According to his description, he had arrived in Sri Lanka in 1344 and had landed in the area of Puttalam. He was provided with the shelter and protection by a Tamil leader in the area. The Tamil ruled said to have possessed a large number of valuable pearls.

Marco Polo the ancient trader had arrived in Sri Lanka after his long stay in China and had the opportunity of seeing the pearl fishery off seas of Mannar. The method of pearl fishery had been slightly changed for a long time since the arrival of Marco Polo’s time.

The Portuguese, the island’s first colonial rulers, took control of the pearl fishery in 1524. When the Dutch expelled the Portuguese in 1658, they set out with characteristic thoroughness to develop the fishery under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company. From 1746 the fishery was rented out, a system that proved most successful. Yet the British did not adopt it after they took control of the island from the Dutch in 1796.

The underwater pearl Banks that yield these riches stretch from the island of Mannar south to the coastal town of Chilaw and are located in depth ranging from five to ten fathoms. Under the British administration, this area was examined twice a year. If the Pearls were sufficiently numerous, a fishery was called for the following year; advertisements were published throughout the east to attract divers and pearl merchants. A temporary town to house the cosmopolitan population – often numbering 50,000 – arose miraculously from the windswept coastal sands opposite the Pearl Banks.

Dhows from the Persian Gulf that carried a crew of 14, together with ten divers, were the boats used in the fishery. The fleet of around 400 vessels left for the Pearl Banks before dawn and by sunrise was anchored in position at the centre of the fishing ground. A gun fired an hour after sunrise gave the signal for diving to commence.

After about seconds, sometimes even longer diver below gave a tug on the basket rope indicating that he was ready to come up. Instantly, two-man ducks hauled the rope up along with the divers, and the contents of the basket were emptied into the boat.

Following a few minutes rest, the diver was ready to descend again, and he would let his comrade take his place when he had completed about eight descents over a period of half an hour. In this manner, a single diver could gather 3,000 oysters a day.

Sharks represented the main occupational danger to the divers. Being superstitious the divers always consulted the so-called ‘shark-charmers’ before commencing work. Indeed, the divers would not venture out to sea until they received an assurance from the shark-charmers that “the mouths of the shark would close at their command.”

While the boats were out at sea the shark-charmers would wait on shore, reciting prayers and contorting their bodies. They were considered so indispensable to the successful outcome of the fishery that they were paid by the government in addition to receiving a daily tithe of oyster from each boat.

Towards midday, a signal was made to cease work and the boats headed for the coast. The divers carried their catch into a large hut where it was deposited into three equal heaps. The British colonial superintendent then chose two of the heaps as the government’s share, leaving the remaining one to the diver.

After the divers took their oyster away to open or sell, the government’s share was counted and auctioned off to the merchants. The oysters were then placed in small pits by the sea where they were allowed to decompose – an extremely smelly process. Finally, the remains were rinsed and the pearls picked out and graded.

The bulk of Ceylon pearls, which were valued for their golden hue, found their way to Bombay where most were perforated and strung into ropes, and thereafter sent to brokers and dealers throughout the world.

While the early period of British rule was characterized by rich pearl harvests, a series of failure occurred thereafter. The decision was made to revert to the Dutch system of leasing out the fishery, but this proved unsuccessful. Mikimoto dealt the final blow to the industry in Ceylon with the introduction of the cultured pearl.

Since then the Pearl Banks have remained largely undisturbed. There is little physical evidence left to indicate that the fisheries were held for centuries along this desolate coast. However, under certain conditions – in the right light and with the sun at a low angle – the longshore still glitters with ancient, abandoned shards of shell.