Gem trade in Sri Lanka during the British Period

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Despite Sri Lanka's legendary fame for its precious stones, none of the colonial powers showed any interest in developing that industry. John Davy observed that" like mining in general the occupation of searching for gems is a very precarious one" and therefore not "a profitable pursuit"To the Colebrook Commissioners," the gems of Ceylon...(were) the least important of its mineral productions."Even Tennent found that only "persons of worst-regulated habits......(were) continuously engaged in this exciting and precarious trade." He also noticed that because of the gem industry" serious demoralization is engendered by the idle and desolute adventures who resort to Saffragam. Systematic industry suffers, and the cultivation of the land is frequently neglected whilst its owners are absorbed in these speculative and tantalising occupation." The idea that gemming was a precarious and speculative venture together with the ruling philosophy of non-interference in private enterprise prompted the Colonial government to be satisfied with the limited revenue it received from the licenses issued to gem miners.

Nonetheless, as one later report on gem trade remarked, "it (was in) this uncertainty....(that there lay) the romance of the industry." From the very beginning it was the Muslims who enjoyed this romance more than anyone else. As early as 1817 Bertolacci observed that the gem trade was "entirely in the hands of Muslims" and four years later Davy wrote ,that though the number engaged in the industry was "not very numerous" yet they were "chiefly Moor men." Nevertheless they did not monopolize every branch of that industry. In fact the actual mining for gems was done mostly by the Sinhalese.

They either mined independently and sold their findings to Muslim middle men or worked for wages in pits owned by Muslims under the close supervision of the latter." it is a curious sight" says Cumming," to see the keen, eager faces of Moor men to whom the gem pits belong, and who sit perched on raised seats over overlooking the great troughs wherein a long row of coolies sifting and washing the gravel, which, perchance, may yield some priceless gem, only to be recognized in its rough exterior by experienced eyes, but which a clever coolie would detect as quickly as his master, so that the latter needs to practice keen vigilance to prevent any attempt at concealment of the treasure-trove." While the southern Sinhalese mined for wages those of Sabaragamuwa did it independently by forming Karuhaulas, a system by which a no of miners jointly worked in a pit and then shared the finding. Of a total 496 earners categorized as "gem diggers" by the 1911 census report, there were 411 sinhalese,76 Muslims and the rest Tamils
 

The stones that were mined by the Sinhalese were sold either privately or through public auction to middlemen who were mostly Muslims. From this point onwards it was they who dominated the industry. The market value of the gem was often beyond the knowledge of a miner who measured the value" by the prices realized at gem auctions at which the competitive elements were absent. The Muslim buyers at the auction usually formed a ring and through "a secret code in which finger play, nods of the head and eye movements played a part," refrained from bidding against each other and thereby kept the market prices of raw stones very low. After purchasing the stones their values were enhanced by cutting and polishing in which the Muslims virtually had no competition in the Island. This skill was not acquired through formal learning but through tradition handed down fro generation to generation. Moreover those who acquired the skill refused to teach it to a non Muslim. person who desired to learn had to become an apprentice under a reputable cutter," but unless his heritage stamped him as a Muslim he (had) no entry."
 

The techniques used by the Muslim cutters and polishers, though the best available in Sri Lanka at the time, fell far short of international standards. Their tools were "so primitive and their skill so deficient that a gem generally lost its value by having passed through their hands." and because of the lack of brilliancy and proper shape the gems exported to Europe had to be recut and polished in the European Lapidaries. The Muslim cutters were found sacrificing brilliancy and style for size and weight. Despite this draw back they remained as the unchallenged masters of this art during the period of British colonization.
 

After cutting and polishing the stones were passed to the jewellers and gem traders in the cities who either exported them abroad or sold directly to the local rich and foreign tourists. The profits earned were phenomenal. For example, a sapphire mined, cut and polished by C. M. Hassan Marikar of Rakwana in 1881 was estimated to fetch pounds 10,000 or about Rs 100,000 and in 1887 an alexandrite weighing 1867 carats was sold by a Muslim from Weligama for Rs 12,000. The cost prices in both cases was well below Rs.100 each. It is difficult to estimate the actual amount of profit earned my the Muslim gem miners.

The Ceylon Blue Books statistics for instance do not reveal the actual amount earned through the export of gems." A portion only appears," Tennent said," even to those sent to England, the remainder being carried away by private parties." However he computed that the annual value of the quantity of precious stones found in the Island at that time was about pounds 10,000.The highest figure of the export value of gems recorded by the Ceylon Blue Books in the 19th century was Rs76,000 in 1899,but according to other sources, in 1890 alone the sale of gems brought 10 million rupees into the Country.

Dr Ameer Ali, University of Murdoch, Western Australia.

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