1775 - Abraham Parsons
At these islands is the greatest and most valuable pearl fishery in the known world, the annual produce being seldom less than sixty thousand Bussora tomans, oftener more; some years it amounts to one hundred thousand, at thirty-seven shillings and six-pence per toman.
The fishery commenced the beginning of this month [July], and will continue until the end of the next, or perhaps some days longer; it is in the hands of the Persians, who send the officers to collect the duty; the divers who bring up the oysters are Persians, who are bred to the business from their youth; their gains are according to the success they meet with, or sometimes according to the bargain they each make with the merchants or their agents, who come at this season from Bussora, Bushear, Muscat, and other parts of the Persian gulph; it being a free trade to every person who brings ready money to purchase.
The duty on what is taken is one third part to the sovereign, which the collector receives each day, either in pearls or their equivalent in money, as the divers, or those who contract with them, can agree; some of the divers contract, either by the day, week, month, or for the whole season, to receive a certain sum for their labour; in such case, all the oysters which they bring up are, immediately as they rise above water, delivered to the person contracted with. Others take their chance, and deliver what they bring up to their associates or friends. It sometimes happens that a diver or contractor makes his fortune in a season. Each diver has a boat to attend him, from which he descends, and when he rises, he delivers the oysters to a person in it; when he is weary or hungry he gets into his boat and refreshes himself. The boats are all numbered, and no man is allowed to open an oyster in his boat; but must bring what he has taken on shore by a certain hour; when they are opened in the presence of an officer: the pearls which are found are then carried to the collector, who receives the duty, and the day's business is concluded.
The oyster shells are always the property of the divers, whether they fish for themselves or contract with others. The shells are bought on the spot and sent to different parts of Persia, some to Muscat, from whence they are sent to Mocha, in the Red Sea, from thence to Suez and Grand Cairo; what are not manufactured there go to Constantinople and other parts of Turkey, from whence they are transported to Venice, Leghorn and Germany. Many are carried to India, and from thence to China. In the latter places they are manufactured into spoons and trinkets of various kinds; of the very smallest pieces which remain, the Chinese make beads, and sell them to the Europeans of all nations.
As every article which is made of these shells is whiter and has more lustre than what is made of other oyster shells, they are justly called the true mother of pearl. Some of the oyster shells are from eight to ten inches in diameter, nearly of a round form, and thick in proportion. The oysters are seldom eaten, as they are generally rank. The sorts and sizes vary so much, that the smallest are not two inches diameter; these are eaten by the people on the spot; the largest shells have not always the greatest quantity, nor yet do they contain the largest pearls, as neither the size nor colour indicate their contents, it being mere chance. The round pearls are always found in the fleshy part of the oyster, and many of those that have an irregular shape; some adhere to the inner part of the shell, and are flat on that side which is attached to it, the other part of them is either round, oval, or conical.
It sometimes happens that a man will bring up three or four hundred oysters in a day, and not find as many pearls as are worth five shillings; as there are more which have not any, than those that have; and of these many have only small pearls, some of them so very diminutive as to be incapable of being bored; these are what the English call seed pearls.
The oyster banks have from fifteen to thirty feet of water on them, some of them more, yet the divers make no difficulty in reaching the bottom. They descend from the boat with a small rope fastened round one of their wrists, the other end of which is attached to the boat, by pulling which they facilitate their rising. They have a canvass bag which is fastened round their waist and hangs before them, into which they put the oysters. The men teach their children, or other young boys, the art of diving, by carrying them down on the shallowest banks at first, and afterwards the deeper by degrees, until they become proficient in the art. It is not uncommon for boys of twelve years old to bring up oysters from off the deepest banks.
It sometimes happens that the oysters are found in clusters, so very large as to be immoveable; in that case, they carry down hammers to separate them. Some of the divers are said to keep under water so long a time, as I think incredible even to relate.
Travels in Asia and Africa