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'Pearling' in the Gulf of Mannar



by Derrick Schokman

When Woolf was a 'learner' government agent at the Jaffna kachcheri, he was asked to officiate at the government pearl fishery held at Marichchakuddu between 20th February and 03rd April 1906.

It is hard to think of anything fairer than pearls, treasures of the sea brought to light and among the loveliest things of this world. In addition to the usually white pearls there are the rarer silver-gray, obsidian, green and even black pearls.

Packing oysters in gunny bags.
Today nearly every pearl in the world market is cultured - grown by humans. The Japanese akoya pearl oyster, which produce most of the pearls in the world is maricultured. It is born in a hatchery where eggs and sperm are artificially combined.

in the polynesian islands in the Pacific, the lagoons formed by the attols play the true parent where oysters spawn naturally, and it is only when they combine to form larvae that they are surgically treated to generate nacre or the pearlescent substance that forms the pearl.

Before these artificial means of modern times, pearls were natural windfalls from the sea that benefitted ancient economies like Sri Lanka's. In ancient times there were no fisheries of true pearls in European waters.

Precious pearls ... Once a foreign body such as a grain of sand goes into the flesh of the oyster, its reaction is to cover the irritant with the layers of the substance from which its shell is lined. This process forms a pearl.
The most abundant supplies like Rome's famous lapilla Indica in the first century came from the pearl banks or paars in the Gulf of Mannar in Sri Lanka via India. Sri Lanka is regularly mentioned as a source of pearls not only in Buddhist and Indian literature, but also by Greek and Roman writers since Megasthenes.

The main market for Sri Lankan pearls was at Muzuris (Cragnagore) and Nelcynda (Kottyam) where specially fine specimens could be obtained.

Fortunately for us, a graphic account by Leonard Woolf of "Village in the Jungle" fame gives us some idea of how these pearl fisheries were conducted.

Marichchakuddu

When Woolf was a "learner" government agent at the Jaffna kachcheri, he was asked to officiate at the government pearl fishery held at Marichchakuddu between 20th February and 03rd April 1906.

Over 25,000 people from all over Asia attended that fishery. There were jewellery dealers, merchants, financiers, shop-keepers, dacoits, criminals shark charmers, and the star performers or divers who came from the Persian Gulf and India in sailing vessels (dhows) commanded by Sheiks.

They were housed in a special town of timber and cadjan roof buildings, together with a police station, prison and hospital. A Superintendent of the Fishery, Assistant Superintendent of Police and three officers of the civil service from the Jaffna kachcheri were in overall supervision and conductance of the fishery.

A quote from Woolf's account is appropriate: "From the point of view of law and order nothing could have been more precariously dangerous than the Pearl Fishing Camp, a temporary town of 25,000 men, many of whom were habitual criminals. As the fishery went on, the town became fuller and fuller of a highly valuable form of property - pearls".

And, of course, there was the koddu, an enormous fenced area with nine open huts running from end to end. Each hut was divided into compartments, and each compartment into three sections. Two sections were meant for the government's share of oysters from each ship's collection every day, and the third for the divers.

The signal to begin pearling everyday was given by the Superintendent who fired a gun at about 2 or 3 am.

The dhows with the divers would then set sail for the paars, some of which were as far as 20 miles from the shore.

Divers

The divers were a superstitious lot who were afraid of shark attack, so the government employed shark-charmers to provide them with the necessary incantations to ensure their safety while on the job.

Divers operated at an average depth of about 9 fathoms. They seldom remained underwater for more than one minute each time they dived, using a nose clip to hold their breath.

To enable them to reach the seabed as quickly as possible, they would go down on a stone through which a rope was passed.

When they needed to come up again for air, they would tug on the rope and be hauled up with the stone. The oysters they collected and put into a bucket would be hauled up at the same time.

This went on all day until another gun fired by the Superintendent called the boats back.

The collection of shells from each ship would be placed in one of the hut compartments in the koddu in three equal heaps. Two heaps would be the government's share and the other heap would go to the divers.

At the auctions held each evening, the GA, Jaffna's representatives would oversee the government's share. The divers made their own deals.

As the pearl banks were showing signs of being played out, the government sold its monopoly in pearling to a private company after the Marichchakuddu fishery in 1906.

The new company which attempted to produce oysters artificially failed and went bust. What it failed to do has now become commonplace in the cultured pearl business of Japan and French Polynesia.

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