The Sunday TimesPlus

18th May 1997



Of Pearls and Pearl fisheries: part two

The jewel of the deep

In the second of a three-part series,
Richard Boyle looks at the
colourful and cosmopolitan
activity that surrounded the
pearl fisheries that flourished
off the coast of Mannar

If I had the ability to travel back in time, there is no doubt that the colourful and cosmopolitan pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar in its heyday would top my list of places and events to visit. As this is unlikely to occur, it is fortunate that there are so many descriptions of the fishery, especially during the l9th century, to make up for the limitations of science.

Until 1889 the fishery headquarters were located at Silavatturai "the port of the pearl fishery" - in normal times a lonely place on the coast south of Mannar. But in January of the years that a fishery had been proclaimed, a temporary town constructed of timber and cadjan began to arise miraculously from the windswept sands. Moreover, the official buildings, which included a court, police station, customs post, prison and hospital, were built along established thoroughfares known by such names as Main Street, Tank Street and New Street.

The number of Government structures was soon swelled by the huts of the countless divers, traders and shopkeepers who arrived on sailing craft and steamers from Arabia and India. Amazingly, after a few weeks of frenetic activity, this pearl metropolis often boasted a cosmopolitan population of 50,000 men, women and children.

The extraordinary atmosphere of this town has perhaps been captured best by Captain Robert Percival, who wrote in ‘An Account of the Island of Ceylon’ (1803): ‘There is perhaps no spectacle more striking to a European than the bay of Kondatchy during the season of the pearl fishery. This desert and barren spot is converted into a scene which exceeds, in novelty and variety, almost anything I ever witnessed. Several thousands of people of different colours, countries, castes and occupations, continually passing and re-passing: the vast numbers of tents and huts erected on the shore with the bazaar before each: the multitude of boats returning from the Pearl Banks, some of them laden with riches....’

Percival continues: ‘Every caste has its representatives; the arts practised by some, the ceremonies performed by others, and the appearance of all, present the richest repast to the curiosity of an European. In one he may see jugglers and vagabonds of every description practising their tricks with a degree of suppleness and skill which appear supernatural to the inhabitant of a cold climate; in another he may observe Fakeers, Brahmins, Priests, Pandorams, and devotees of every sect’.

Providing amusement for the masses was an important aspect of the pearl fishery, and there were crowds of jugglers, snake-charmers and dancing boys and girls of every variety. There was even entertainment for children. In ‘A Description of Ceylon’ (1807) James Cordiner writes of what sounds like primitive fairground equipment: ‘At almost every enclosure along the shore is erected a moveable cross, or wheel, with four hanging boxes fixed to the four opposite points, in which children are permitted to swing for a certain time. The weight in one box lowers it down, and raises up another, and the machine goes round like a windmill’.

Cordiner makes particular mention of a female performer of about 40 years of age. ‘The instrument on which she displayed her agility was a pole forty feet high, erected like the mast of a ship, with a cross-yard near to the top of it, from one end of which a wooden anchor was suspended. This woman, in the dress of a sailor, sprang up to the yard on a single rope, by means of her hands and toes. There she lay carelessly down in a sleeping posture. She then ascended the top of the mast, and threw down a branch of a tree, which had been fixed there’.

The extraordinary woman then laid her stomach on the top of the pole, ‘and personified a weathercock, turning round horizontally. She descended to the anchor, and suspended herself from it alternately by her chin, her feet, her toes, and her heels, keeping her hands entirely disengaged. Her last performance was hanging by the feet on the yard, dropping down, and alighting lighting in the same position on the stock of the anchor. During the exhibition, she harangued a gazing crowd with impetuous vociferation....’

The DoricGovernor North's mansion "The Doric" at Aripo
In order to supervise the fisheries personally, the first British Governor, Frederick North, built a beautiful mansion called ‘The Doric’ at Arippu, a few miles north of Silavatturai. ‘It is undoubtedly the most beautiful building on the island’, wrote James Cordiner, ‘and almost the only one which is planned according to architecture.’ Despite its outward elegance ‘The Doric’ was somewhat cramped for space. The ground floor consisted of four small bedrooms, and on the first floor there was a dining room seating about 20 people, and His Excellency’s bedchamber.

A staircase at the end of the bedchamber led up to a terraced roof, from which, by all accounts, an extensive view of land and sea could be obtained, especially of the boats returning from the pearl banks. That the mansion was close enough from which to witness some of the strange sights of the fishery and its transient encampments is suggested by J.W. Bennett in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843) when he wrote: ‘The medley of colours, nations, castes and trades upon the Arippu sands, would form a panorama which, if taken from the flat roof of ‘The Doric’, would be well worthy of Barker’s pencil.’

Not forgetting his subordinates, Governor North converted a small Dutch fort half a mile away into a bungalow for the officers supervising the pearl fisheries. It was to this Dutch fort, incidentally, that Robert Knox escaped in 1679, after his 20-year captivity in the Kandyan Kingdom. Even in the 1970s part of the fort was visible, the bungalow was standing but dis-used, and the ruins of ‘The Doric’ could be clearly discerned. It would be interesting to learn the situation today.

The boats used in the fishery were mostly 15-tonne dhows from the Persian Gulf that carried a crew of 14, together with 10 divers. The fleet, often numbering 400, usually left Kondatchy Bay for the pearl banks in the early hours of the morning. ‘The boatpeople are raised from their slumbers by the noise of horns and tom-toms, and the firing of a field-piece.’ wrote Cordiner. ‘The noise and confusion of collecting and embarking upwards of 6,000 people in the darkness of night, may be more easily conceived than described.

After going through what Cordiner describes as ‘various ablutions and incantations’, the pearl fishers set sail for the pearl banks, guided by pilot boats. By sunrise the fleet was anchored in position around a barque carrying the Inspector of Pearl Banks and which marked the centre of the fishing ground. A gun fired by the Inspector of Pearl Banks an hour after sunrise gave the signal for diving to commence.

The divers were predominantly Indian Tamils or Arabs. Some plunged head first from a spring-board, but the majority descended to the bottom in an upright position, carried down rapidly by a weight, either stone or lead. The divers operated in pairs, one of whom was always on the surface, and each diver was attended to by a munduck, whose duty was to take care of the ropes that were attached to the weight, as well as the basket in which the oysters were collected underwater. When ready to descend, the Tamil diver closed his nostrils with his fingers, while the Arab diver invariably used a horn clip slung around the neck. Some rubbed their bodies with oil.

On reaching the bottom the diver stepped off the sinker, slipped the noose of the basket over his head, and swam slowly over the bank collecting the oysters. Meanwhile, his munduck above hoisted up the sinker and adjusted it ready for the next dive on a boom projecting from the side of the boat. After about 60 or 70 seconds, sometimes even longer, the diver below gave a tug on the basket rope indicating that he was ready to come up. Instantly, two munducks hauled the rope up along with the diver, and the contents of the basket were emptied into the boat.

Following a few minutes rest on the surface, which consisted of holding an oar or rope, or swimming about, the diver was ready to descend again and would only let his comrade take his place when he had completed about 8 descents over a period of half an hour. In this manner, a single diver could gather 3000 oysters in a day. Upon being brought into the boat the divers would discharge water from their mouth, ears and nostrils, and frequently blood as well.

The shark, being a common inhabitant of these waters, represented the main occupational danger to the divers. Being superstitious, they always consulted the so-called shark-charmers or sharkbinders before commencing work. Indeed, the divers would not venture into the sea until they received an assurance that ‘the mouths of the sharks would close at their command’. All the sharkbinders belonged to one family from Mannar, so they were able to monopolise the business and perpetuate the superstition and fear to their own advantage.

There were at least two or three shark-binders in attendance at every fishery. One would go out to sea with the fleet in the head pilot’s boat. The others would recite mantrams and perform certain rites on shore. One of these rites required the shark-binder to strip naked and shut himself up in a closed room. He would sit before a brass basin full of fresh water supposedly obtained from a secret well on a distant island. In this water, which was said to have magical properties were silver replicas of a male and female shark.

During the period that the boats were at sea, the shark-binder would mutter his mantrams at the brass basin containing the silver sharks. If there should be a shark attack on a diver the shark binder will know, for it was believed that when such an incident occured, one shark in the basin would bite the other. Normally the shark-binders abstained from drink during these rites, but sometimes they indulged in toddy until they could no longer stand. Nevertheless, they were considered so indispensable to the success of the fishery that they were paid by the Government in addition to receiving a daily tithe of oysters from each boat.

About mid-day signal was made to cease work and the boats started to head back to Silavathurai, often a four hour journey. ‘All descriptions of people, whose duty does not prevent them, hasten to the water’s-edge to welcome the arrival of the fleet’, wrote Cordiner. ‘The concourse of people, stir, and noise, are then immense; a crowd, through which it is difficult to pass, extending for half a mile along the sand’.

The boats lined up close to the shore in front of a huge enclosure known as the Kottu, or oyster store, which consisted of nine open huts divided into compartments. The divers carried their catch into the Kottu and deposited it in three equal heaps inside a compartment. The Colonial Superintendent then went around and chose two of the heaps as the Government’s share, leaving the remaining one to the diver.

The division of the catch into three equal parts seems to have an ancient origin, for according to S. Arumugam, author of ‘Ancient Hindu Temples of Sri Lanka,’ (1980), ‘Tradition has it that Queen Alli Arasani (whose palace was situated at Kudramalai) was emphatic on making three separate heaps of the proceeds of the pearl fishery. One for Sri Meenadshi of Mathuri Temple, another for Sri Vadivambigai of Muneeswaram Temple, and the third for herself’.

After the divers took their oysters away to open or sell, the Government’s share was counted and auctioned off. The oysters were then placed in small pits by the sea where they were allowed to decompose for ten days - an extremely malodorous process. Finally the remains were rinsed and the pearls picked out and graded. The grading was achieved by passing all the pearls through a series of brass sieves. The mesh of the sieves varied in a ratio, beginning with a few large holes and increasing in number the smaller they became.

‘Various and curious are the operations which the pearls undergo, from the time that they are first raised from their native beds by the poorest of the human species, until at last they blaze in the eyes of an Indian idol, shine in a diadem, or add grace and beauty to the bosom of a queen’, wrote Cordiner.

One of the principal operations was the drilling of the pearls, which was done by a contraption consisting of a needle attached to a shaft, and rotated by a bow formed of bamboo and string. 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, especially in London and Paris.

While the early period of British rule was characterised by rich pearl harvests, from 1809 a series of failures occured, in spite of better appliances, charts and methods of inspection. Subsequently, in 1900, the Governor, Sir West Ridgeway, was prompted to seek the help of science, for little was then known about the oyster’s habits and the causes of its erratic appearances. The comprehensive research undertaken by Professor (Sir) William Herdman of the Royal Society filled five bulky volumes and provided many of the answers. The decision was made to revert to the system introduced by the Dutch, and from 1907 the fishery was leased to the Ceylon Company of Pearl Fishers Ltd.

As a young colonial civil servant, Leonard Woolf was appointed Superintendent of the last Government fishery of 1906, and he provides a description of it in ‘Growing’ (1961), the second part of his autobiography. Woolf quotes revealingly from a letter he wrote at the time: ‘It is merely coolie work supervising this and the counting and issuing of about one or two million oysters a day, for the Arabs will do anything if you hit them hard enough with a walking stick, an occupation in which I have been engaged.’

The lease experiment proved unsuccessful, as within a few years the supply of oysters failed and the company went bankrupt. This misfortune, coupled with the introduction of the cultured pearl by Mikimoto, dealt a mortal blow to the industry in Ceylon, even though there was a further fishery in 1925, and another much later in 1958, when traditional methods were abandoned and dredges used instead.

Since then the Pearl Banks have remained largely undisturbed, and the shallow waters have been left to the other inhabitants of the Gulf of Mannar.

There is little physical evidence left to indicate that the fisheries were held for centuries along this desolate yet beautiful coast. However, under certain conditions - in the right light and with the sun at a low angle - the long shore apparently still glitters with ancient, abandoned shards of mother-of-pearl.

-To be continued next week

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