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Caesar Frederic on Pearl fishing — 1600 AD


Caesar Frederick the celebrated Merchant of Venice, like Marco Polo had left detailed notes on the pearl fishery of the Gulf of Mannar.

What Marco Polo wrote on the pearl fishery was already covered in one of our earlier notes. The Pearl fishing spot, he describes, refers to KILAKKARAI, according to Bishop Caldwell. But the observations of Caesar Frederic relate to the pearl fishing at KAYAL or PUNNAIKAYAL.

Caesar Frederic spent eighteen years in India between 1563 and 1581 and his visit to Tinnevely and the scene of pearl fishery is generally deemed to be 1563 — period of Portuguese domination in the eastern coast.

His report is so detailed and graphic that any attempt to tamper it by abridging or expanding would be a great disservice to the pleasures of the readers. Hence , here it is, as it was penned by Caesar Frederic– but of course as translated in English.

“The sea along the coast which extends from Cape Comarin to the low land of Kayal and the island of ZEILLAN (Ceylon) is called the pearl Fishery. This fishery is made every year beginning in March or April, and lasts fifty days. The fishery is by no means made every year at one place, but one year at one place and another year at another place: all however in the same sea.

When the fishing season approaches, some good divers are sent to discover where the greatest quantity of oysters are to be found under water; and then directly facing that place which is chosen for the fishery, a village with a number of houses, and a bazzar, all of stone, is built, which stands as long as the fishery lasts, and is amply supplied with all necessaries. Sometimes, it happens, near places already inhabited, and at other times at a distance from any habitations.

The fishers or divers are all Christians of the country, (Parawa converts) and all are permitted to engage in this fishery, on payment of certain duties to the King of Portugal and to the churches of the Friars of St. Paul on that coast.
Happening to be there, one year, in my peregrinations, I saw the order used in fishing which is as follows ;-

“During the continuance of the fishery, there are always three or four armed foists or galliots stationed to defend the fishermen from pirates.

Usually the fishing boats unite in companies of three or four together. These boats resemble our Pilot boats at Venice, but are somewhat smaller, having seven or eight men in each.

I have seen of a morning ,a great number of these boats go out to fish , anchoring in 15 or 18 fathoms water, which is the ordinary depth along the coast.

When at anchor, they cast a rope into the sea, having a great stone at one end. Then a man having his ears well stopped, and his body anointed with oil, and a basket hanging to his neck or under his left arm, goes down to the bottom of the sea along the rope, and fills his basket with oysters as fast as he can. When that is full, he shakes the rope, and his companions draw him up with the basket. The divers follow each other in succession in this manner till the boat is loaded with oysters and they return at evening to the fishing village. Then each boat or company makes their heaps of oysters at some distance from each other, so that a long row of great heaps of oysters are seen piled along the shore. These are not touched till the fishing is over, when each company sits down beside its own heap, and falls to opening the oysters which is now easy, as the fish within are all dead and dry. If every oyster had pearls it would be a profitable occupation but there are many which have none.

There are certain persons called Chittnis ( Chetty)who are learned in pearls. And are employed to sort and value them, according to weight, beauty, and goodness dividing them into four sorts.

The first sort which are round are named AIA of Portugal as they are bought by the Portuguese.

The second sort which are not round are named AIA of Bengal.

The third which are inferior to the second, are called AIA of Canara which is the name of the kingdom of Bijnagar or Narasinga into which they are sold.(VIjayanagar)

The Fourth or the lowest kind, is called AIA of Cambaia, being sold into the country.

Thus sorted, and prices fixed to each, there are merchants from all countries ready with their money, so that in a few days all the pearls are bought up according to their goodness and weight.

Commenting on this report of Caesar Frederic , The Census report of Tinnevely Census three hundred years later said

“The description of the pearl fishery of Caesar Frederic is applicable to the method of procedure at the present day, as when it was written nearly 300 years ago , except that from some causes but little understood, the banks of recent years have unfortunately ceased to furnish a supply of the valuable oysters yielding the pearl of commerce.”

Commenting on AIA –term used in classification of the pearl, Bishop Caldwell would say as follows;-

‘’It is not clear what word was meant by AIA.
HAYA, horse was the title of the eight varieties of pearls sent by King DEVENIPITISSA in BC 306 to King ASOKA.(Emerson Tennents Ceylon.)
Each of Caesar Frederic’s varieties, however was called The AIA of such and such Kingdom.

Can the ordinary word AYA—Ayam –meaning Tax – have been intended?
This is the impression of the Tuticorin traders as they pay the tax to the Portuguese ; and it was paid in pearls.”

Is there any one to throw more light on this?

Our next, on Pearl fishing will be ” PEARL FISHING IN 1700 –The Dutch Period ’’ as told by the Jesuit Fr. Martin.

- A.X Alexander

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