Pearl industry during the British period in Sri Lanka

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The Moors of Sri Lanka were involved in the business of pearl fishery and pearl exports during this period. Even though this industry was a government monopoly until 1833,the manner in which it was operated provided ample opportunities for the Moors to engage in the enterprise in various capacities. The Government usually rented the fishing rights to speculators on condition that they fish within a predetermined area, for a specified number of days and with a stipulated number of boats. Even after 1833 this system remained largely intact with the difference that instead of renting the right to fish, the government now hired the divers to work for it under official supervision and sold the oysters to pearl merchants through public auction.

Before the actual commencement of the fishing season, the Government inspected the respective pearl banks and collected samples of oysters in order to assess the prospects and profitability of the venture. The pearls collected from this sample were sorted ,classed and valued by an assembly of five or six native pearl dealers, respectable Moormen, who considered it a compliment to be called to this service. At the beginning this was performed gratuitously but later they were paid for their services." Nobody understands the value of pearls and precious stones so well as the Moors", Wrote Wolf in 1785,"and the persons who used to farm the pearl fishery, always rely on their skill on this article, as well as in Arithmetic to inform them what they are to give for the whole fishery". Pearl valuing appears to have been a special skill monopolized by the Moors. For example, in each of the five member committees of pearl valuers appointed in 1881 and 1905,all,except the Inspector of Pearl Banks and the Adigar, were Moors.

After assessing the prospects of the forthcoming season the Government advertised the date for fishing. Before 1833 the renters were mostly South Indian Chetties, but after that and from 1850 there came a variety of merchants, among whom many were Moors. In 1856 for example, of the 42 Kottus-a Tamil word for a ground pit where oysters were dumped on a mat to rot and dry-allotted for pearl merchants ,13 were taken by Moors ,of whom 9 were Indians,3 from Mannar and one from Colombo. In 1889,the Government Agent of Northern Province, reported that there were Chetties and Moorish Merchants from- Madura, Nagapatnam, Keelakarai, Tondy, and Adrampatnam-all South Indian towns, and from Colombo and Jaffna, who had come to participate in the fishery of that year. He also regretted the absence of Moor Merchants from the South Indian town of Nagore, who were there in the previous year. In 1905,of the three largest purchases of oysters two were Moors (one from Bombay and the other from Keelakarai) and the third was a Chetty. A year before that, there was a merchant from Mecca too.While the Bulk of these Moors returned to their homeland when the season ended, a few remained in the Island and became permanent residents.
 

A more important branch of this industry from the point of view of employment was diving for pearls Hundreds of Moors, both indigenous and foreign were involved in this. In 1856 for instance, of the 323 boats which arrived at the fishing site with 678 merchants,1926 divers and 4698 coolies,19 came from Kalpitiya and 3 from Mannar, all carrying Sri lankan Moors, while another 72 came from Keelakarai,24 from Tondy and 5 from Kayalpattanam, carrying South Indian Moors. Four years later there were 200 boats from Keelakarai alone. In 1890,of a total of about 1300 to 1400 divers Moors from Keelakarai, Paumben, and Tondy together counted 800,while another 200 Indian Moors, mostly of Arab stock, came from Bombay. In that year there were also 300 Sri lankan Moor divers, mostly from Erukkalampitty and Mannar. Again in 1903 out of a total 242 boats and 7408 divers,150 of the first and 3732 of the second arrived from Keelakarai alone. In the following year Moors from that place so dominated the diving, they were described as the "backbone of the fishery." Finally in 1905 and 1906 there was a marked increase in the number of Arabs to 923 and 4090 respectively, out of a total 4991 in the first and 8368 in the second year.

Culturally and historically Moors have an ancient connection with pearl fishing. According to the Quran, "He it is who has made the sea subservient that you may eat fresh fish from it, and bring forth from it ornaments which you wear.  "Perhaps in keeping with the spirit of this verse Muslims took to pearl fishing from very early times. Tennent cites the Arab Geographer Masudi's description of the habits of Arab Muslim pearl divers in the Persian Gulf in the 9th century. As Islam spread Muslims in other areas also took to pearl fishing and in Sri Lanka it became a vocation practiced by members of that community. The expertise thus developed appears to have enabled Muslim divers to dive to greater depths and stay under water for longer periods. Of the four groups that participated in diving, viz. the Malayalees, Christian Tamils, Moors and Arabs, the last were rated as best, the Moors ranked second, the Tamils and Malayalees third and fourth respectively.

Even though the Muslims shared widely in pearl fishery a large proportion of them were not Sri Lankans. Except for a small number of Mannar and Kalpitiya Muslims and a few from Vannarponnai area in Jaffna, the rest came from either India or Persian Gulf. There were two reasons for this foreign dominance. Firstly the Dutch discriminatory policies against the Moors between 1650 and 1750 and the absence of frequent pearl fisheries during the Dutch regime made the local Moors lose much of their skills in pearl fishing over a period of time; and secondly, the British practice of advertising contracts for pearl fishing in India helped wealthy traders there to submit tenders and recruit divers locally before setting out for Sri Lanka. What the local moors gained mostly from the fishery was the opportunity to trade with foreigners who arrived at the fishing site. Sometimes a crowd of 30000 to 40000 gathered at the place and remained there for a month or so until the season was over A sandy desolated spot along the Mannar Coast became a crowded town of merchants, divers, coolies and officers living in temporary huts and palm leaf sheds trying to maximize their earnings within a short space of time. Though trading was brisk, yet it was not the monopoly of the local community. There was stiff competition from south Indian Moors. In 1856 for example of the 127 boutique allotments only 24 were taken by Sri Lankan Moors. Of the rest, except for one which was allotted to a Pathan Muslim from Kabul, all were shared by the Moor traders from Tondy, Keelakkarai and Kayalpatnam.The seasonal character of the industry generally shortened the period of trading. But that short duration sometimes became even shorter as in 1858,because of outbreaks of epidemics. Even otherwise the entire industry was of a speculative nature which depended on the availability of oysters. For some unknown reason these oysters appeared and disappeared periodically and consequently the annual pearl fishing was seriously disrupted from time to time. Such disruptions occurred several times in the 18th centuryand in the 19th there were disruptions from 1820 to 1828,from 1846 to 1849,in 1853,1861,1876 and from
1893 to 1896.

Dr Ameer Ali, University of Murdoch, Western Australia.

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