Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry that Shaped the Gulf

Author: Robert A. Carter

Volume Volume 44, Issue 3, 2013, Asian Affairs

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This is a magnificent book: in some ways too magnificent, for it is not a book to take to the beach, to sit and read in the park or to curl up in bed with. To read it properly the reader has to prop it up on a desk or table. No expense has been spared in its production, thanks to generous support from the Alfardan Group of Companies in Qatar.
We can be distracted by the superb pictures, the clear and comprehensive diagrams and maps, even the sensuously fine quality of the paper. The text which holds it all together can be overlooked, and this would be a pity, for Robert Carter has produced the most comprehensive and authoritative account of the origins, rise and fall of pearl fishing in the Gulf. Dr Carter was originally an archaeologist and can trace the history back seven millennia. The discovery of a fashioned pearl is an indication that pearls were found and probably used for adornment from that time. Carter looks at the literary sources that start to accumulate over the last 2000 years. This is supplemented by artistic evidence – from Byzantine mosaics to Renaissance paintings, from royal portraits to items of jewellery. There is a lot of information – including legends and beliefs – from the medieval geographers such as al-Mas’udi and al-Biruni. In the last three centuries, there are reports from Western sources – travellers, sailors, merchants and officials – that supplement local writers and memoirists.
It is an extraordinary story. Pearl fishing reached its peak shortly before the First World War and was already in decline when the cultured pearl, promoted and farmed in Japan, effectively destroyed the industry between the wars. It was no longer possible for the layman to tell a pearl brought up from a Gulf oyster bed from a pearl mass-produced on a Japanese farm. Already there was competition from other oyster beds, such as in Venezuela, that were able to use less traditional methods of bringing the pearls into the international market. From the 1920s, the people of the Gulf underwent acute hardship until the exploitation of the oil resources that transformed the region in every possible way. But it is still possible to see certain links with that pearl fishing past. The economic integration and interdependence between South Asia and the Gulf is nothing new. Until the 20th century, the flow of pearls to the international markets passed through Bombay. There has for centuries been migration between India and the Gulf. The pearl merchants are still merchant princes, having switched their commercial talents to other businesses, similarly global, and requiring similar comprehensive entrepreneurial skills. The pearl divers themselves, whose debt-ridden miserable existence was recorded by among others Alan Villiers, have benefited from oil wealth. Their wretched patches of sandy estate have become assets of high value.
Carter covers every aspect of the industry, from the mechanics of actual fishing, the local economics of the trade, to international commerce. He looks at the pearling activities in other parts of the world. There are stunning photographs, and accounts and descriptions of the basic equipment used by divers and merchants. For about 100 years, the industry dominated the social, political and economic life of the Gulf. Kuwait, Bahrain and Dubai were the great centres. In the boom years, perhaps 75,000 people were involved as divers, traders and middlemen. The season lasted for four months during the summer months.
The pearls were coveted by people in West and East. They became symbols of wealth, authority and privilege, in both East and West. Western society hostesses and Indian maharajahs were equally keen to adorn themselves. Pictures show examples of both. Prices for individual pearls reached dizzying heights.
Today there is a renewed interest in pearling in the Gulf. It has become a sport, with Europeans scuba diving. But in several of the Gulf capitals there are good museums collecting and displaying the surviving equipment, old photographs and recorded memories.
And in this book we have an eloquent and authoritative source on the activity. The book is – as is the expectation with Arabian Publishing – meticulously edited and we are grateful to the Alfardan Group of Companies for making this publication possible.
Peter Clark C.2013
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