1816 - James Silk Buckingham
The Pearl Fishery
The pearl fishery, of which these islands form the centre, is calculated to yield annually about twenty lacks of rupees worth for exportation, the greatest portion of which find their way to India, and the remainder are dispersed throughout the Persian and Turkish empires, by way of Bushire, Bussorah, and Bagdad, and from thence to Constantinople, Syria, Egypt, and even as far as the great capitals of Europe. The bank on which this fishery is carried on, extends from Bahrein nearly to Ras-el Khyma; and the finest of the pearls are found among the group of Maude's Islands, near Haloola, (which may derive its name from loolo, the Arabic name for a pearl,) and Geziret Beni Aass. The islands of Bahrein furnish annually about a thousand boats; the tribes of Beni Aass at Bethoobali, or Boothabean, about five hundred; and the other small ports along that coast an equal number; besides those which sometimes come over from the Persian shore. It is said by some that any boats may fish for oysters on these banks without paying for such a privilege; but others contend that every boat found there must pay a fixed tribute to the Sheik of Bahrein. Both parties admit, however, that when any danger of capture from pirates is apprehended, the Sheik furnishes several armed vessels to protect the whole; and for this he claims a tribute of from six to ten pearls from each boat, according to her size and importance.
The fishery is carried on during the summer months only, when the bank is covered by boats throughout its whole extent. The divers are Arabs and negro slaves, who are mostly trained to the practice from their youth. They commence their labours at sun-rise, and continue generally until sun-set. They go down in all depths, from five to fifteen fathoms; remaining from two to five minutes, and bringing up with them from eight to twelve oysters in both hands. On reaching the surface, they barely take time to recover breath, and then dive again immediately, as it is found that any length of repose between rather weakens than recruits the diver. All the gains of the fishery are divided in the most equitable way, by shares in proportion to the capital embarked in the boats; and those who have not at all contributed to their equipment are yet paid in proportionate shares also; so that all parties are interested in the gains of the concern, and all prosecute their labours willingly. The food of the divers, during the season, is chiefly fish, dates, and a small portion of bread, rice, and oil. During the fair season, they barely earn enough to keep them through the winter, which they pass, like the sailors of all other countries when on shore, in as great a state of indolence and dissipation as their religion and their habits will admit of. These men, as might be expected, who pass one-half of their lives in the most fatiguing labours, and the other half in dissipation, seldom live to an old age. They use the precaution of oiling the orifices of their ears, and placing a horn over the nose when they dive, to prevent the water from entering by these apertures; but when they have been long engaged in this service, their bodies are subject to break out in sores, and their eyes become blood-shot and weak; and all their faculties seem to undergo a premature decay.
The terms of conducting an adventure in this fishery vary so much at every season, and with every individual boat, that no rule can be laid down as a general one, except that each party is allowed to participate in the gain, in proportion to the capital he has embarked, or the personal service which he renders, and that strict justice and impartiality in the division prevails.
The largest and finest pearls are brought up from the deepest water, and all of them are said to be as hard when they are first taken out of the fish, as they are ever afterwards. They are, when new, of a purer white than after they become exposed to the air; and are calculated to lose, in this respect, one per cent annually in value. There are two kinds of pearls found: the yellow one, which is sent chiefly to India, where those with this tinge are preferred; and the pure white, which are more esteemed in Europe, and find a better market also at all the great Turkish and Persian towns. The pearl of Bahrein is considered by all as very superior to that of Ceylon. The last is said to peel off, from not having acquired its perfect consistency when first taken, and to lose constantly in colour; whereas that of Bahrein is firm, and secure from that injury, and after a period of about fifty years, ceases to lose anything in purity of colour. Before the pearls are sent off from the island, they are carefully assorted as to size, shape, tint, &c., and being drilled through, are strung on threads, and made up into round bundles of about three inches diameter, sealed and directed, and sent in that form to distant markets. They are then called metaphorically, 'Roomaan el Bahr,' or 'Pomegranates of the Sea,' as that fruit is in great esteem here, and these bundles resemble them almost exactly in form and size.
Buckingham, James Silk
Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia
London 1829; reprint Westmead 1971