Photo courtesy of Ismeth Raheem

Braving sharks, venomous snakes and their own human frailty, the pearl fishers of the Gulf of Mannar would plunge deep into the depths of the Indian Ocean to secure their prizes; pristine, shining and valuable, Sri Lankan pearls were sought after by emperors, kings and the super-rich in Paris, London, New York, Mumbai, Istanbul and beyond.

The pearl fishers have been the subject of an opera composed in 1863 by Georges Bizet that has been staged around the world. Divers and traders came from India Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen and Aden along with entrepreneurs seeking a fortune from Europe, South Asia and the Far East.

The earliest Pali chronicles refer to pearls among the gifts as dowries between the royalty of Sri Lanka and the Pandyan kings of South India. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans were acquainted with pearls from Sri Lanka from antiquity. In Roman society, pearls came into fashion even among the poorer classes.

The fisheries were largely concentrated along the North Western coast. While the Portuguese and the Dutch harvested the pearls for their own profit, it was the British who undertook the activity into the public domain.

Although orientalist literature romanticised the pearl fisheries, the actual conditions of the site were insanitary and unhygienic. The sea was infested with sharks, sting rays and poisonous sea snakes. Divers would develop a condition the bends due to the rapid release of nitrogen gas into the bloodstream and other tissues when a diver ascended to the surface too rapidly, leaving him paralyzed below his waist or even dead. The divers from the Gulf coast countries were accompanied by shark charmers who provided amulets and other trinkets to assure their safety from shark attacks.

Some weeks before the date fixed for the commencement of the operations, the government would broadcast the specific dates for the harvesting of the pearl fisheries to commence. This was done by placing advertisements in the press announcing the dates to traders, boat owners, and divers in Sri Lanka as well as in the Gulf Coast states and in cities in Southern coastal India. Usually the season for diving for pearls would extend from February to April. On the specific appointed day after the signal of the gun, the crafts would set off late at night to arrive at the site at dawn as the fishing grounds were 20 miles off the mainland coast. The boats dropped their anchors at a place within the demarcated area. On the blast of the gun from the shore by the British superintendent, the diving crew got ready to enter the water. Each diver has a pair of ropes. On one end of the rope was a heavy stone or lead sinker, on which he stood, to carry him rapidly to the bottom of the sea. The ropes also served as a life line to haul him up when he was ready to return to the surface.

When all was in place, the divers jumped overboard and plunged down to reach the oyster beds. They collected each oyster and placed it in a bag hung around their neck or waist. Most good divers could remain underwater for 90 seconds, which was about the maximum possible to hold one’s breath.

Arab divers used a nose clip and Indians used their fingers to block their nostrils. The Arabs were considered better divers and swimmers than their Indian counterparts in maintaining their breath underwater. At midday when the landward breeze began to blow, they ceased fishing for oysters. A signal was sounded from a gun at the shore. The boats heaved up their anchors and headed for the shore, back to the camp. On landing the oyster catch was carried into a fenced enclosure known as a kottu (stockade). Here a specially appointed government inspector, usually the Assistant Government Agent divided the day’s catch. The division of harvested pearls was based on an age old custom – one third share to the diver and the remainder to the government. As soon as the divisions were made, the number of oysters were counted and the portion belonging to the government was sold by auction.

Although the harvesting of the pearl fisheries had been going on for centuries, the extraction of pearls from the oysters was done in a primitive manner. A high yield one season alternated with a series of blank years in the next. During the whole of the 19th century, in only 36 years was there as a sizable profit. In 1901 Governor West Ridgeway, after ten years of the poor yield of pearls, turned to scientists and requested the assistance of Professor W.A. Herdman, an eminent marine biologist, to undertake a scientific research study to ascertain the causes and make the necessary recommendations. It resulted in the Royal Society of London publishing the results in five volumes in 1904 to 1906. More than 20 marine biologists, including James Hornell, also weighed in with their research.

James Hornell spent a decade studying the ecology of the marine fauna in the area but this scientific and biological enquiry of the formation of pearls in oysters raised more questions than suggesting a specific remedy. Further attempts were made in 1928 but with little success of harvesting pearls due to overfishing. Today it is a dead industry in Sri Lanka.

In 1907, Scottish artist Edward Atkinson Hornel (spelt differently), James’ cousin, came to Sri Lanka and  collected a series of photographs depicting the pearl fishing industry that formed a part of an exhibition held recently by the National Trust of Sri Lanka, which was partly funded by the National Trust of Scotland. The exhibition was curated by architect and historian Ismeth Raheem who, over the last 40 years, has amassed a collection of articles, books and copies of photographs, engravings and paintings of the pearl fisheries.

Here is a selection from the archival collection of Edward Hornel’s photographs now deposited with the National Trust of Scotland.

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