Into the Blue

October 23, 2016


The pearl, the lustrous child of the oyster, born from a grain of sand incubated in its host, has a long history in Bahrain, the island of pearls. It is a treasure that stood at the epicenter of the romantic industry of pearling in the Arabian Gulf. An industry that is estimated to have boasted a fleet of 4,500 boats and manpower of up to 74,000 men. They came from all over the Gulf, as well as from far-flung destinations such as the coast of Africa, seasonally to plunge into the azure sea and retrieve these precious treasures from their awaiting “mothers”, the oysters.

“Indeed, Allah will admit those who believe and do righteous deeds to gardens beneath which rivers flow. They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearl, and their garments therein will be silk”

(22:23) surat I-haj (The Pilgrimage)

These oysters can be classified into three kinds or species:

Mahara: the pearl oyster. This was the smallest and most common of the three varieties making it the chief source of pearls. Found at up to depths of 33 meters (the limit for divers at that time).

Sadaifiya: the Black-lip Oyster. This was a larger and scarce variety that yielded rare pearls but was collected mainly for mother-of-pearl.

Zinniya: Pen Shells and Winged Oyster. These yielded smaller and inferior quality pearls, so were mainly a source of mother-of-pearl.

Oysters grew anchored to stone, coral or other oysters at varying depths across the Great Pearl Bank, which stretched from north of Bahrain past Qatar and through the Abu Dhabi islands, as well as on the hundreds of named pearl banks across the region. These banks were open, to be fished by any native inhabitant of the Gulf, without restrictions or limits although often the closest banks to the shore were left to the fleets from the nearest port. Bahrain, it was widely acknowledged, possessed the best beds or Hayrat, consisting of flat lands at the bottom of the sea, located 40 to 70 km off the northern coast, until the end of the industry. In those days most divers still believed pearls to be born from drops of dew or rain swallowed by oysters rising to the surface, so they believed a good pearl harvest would follow a year of good rainfall.

It has been documented that an astounding quantity of oysters, totaling a billion and a half, were collected during the annual dive, or the Rakbah as the pearling quest was then dubbed, in the Gulf. These expeditions lasted four months during the summer pearling season so that the divers are able to find the greatest number and rarest of pearls to make a living and survive during the off season months of winter.

Financing the dive

The entire industry owed its existence to a long chain of credit, borrowed capital and debt, as the dives were costly. A great number of expenses had to be taken care of before the journey could begin. Boats needed to be prepared and equipped so advances were made to the captains, nakhodas, by leading merchants, tujar, or specialized financiers, musaqqamin.  From these advances captains gave their crew loans to enable them to support their families during the long pearling season.  Under the system of salafiya the crew took loans from the captain and were paid by shares so many crew were indebted to captains from a previous season of loans and were obliged to return to him the next season. Three loans could be made to the captain: the salaf, the kharjiyya and the tisqam. The salaf was taken at the start of the dive to provision the boat and to advance to the crew to sustain their families families during the long dive season. The  kharjiyya  was a mid-season loan taken if extra money was needed to support the divers and boat during the dive. The tiqsam was taken during the off-season to sustain the divers and their families when they had no income from pearling. In this manner captains were often also bound to specific merchants just as divers were to their captains.

The key players in the loan system therefore were;

The tajir, or leading merchant, who was crucial to the industry in many ways. As well as being the major pearl dealers of the Gulf, they possessed deposits of wealth, which provided the capital needed for the industry to survive. They not only supplied the loans needed by the captain and crew but also the provisions and in some cases the boats.

The musaqqam, or financier, believed to be mostly of Indian origin, advanced money to the nakhodas (captains) to provision their boats and pay the crew. They however were few.

The tawwash, or seagoing merchant, could also advance loans.

Under the salafiyya system the captain and the financier could have one of two kinds of agreements; amil or madyan. Under the first the captain received a loan at no interest which he had to repay after the sale of the pearl harvest to his financier who also had the privilege of being able to buy all the pearls of the catch at a price lower than market value.

Under madyan however the captain could sell his pearl harvest to any tajir or tawwash. The financier in this case who advanced the money obtained his profit by selling the captain provisions for his boat or providing other goods or services needed, all at an inflated rate.

This salafiyya system meant that the crew was paid in shares of the value of the boat’s harvest once it had been sold after expenses were deducted. The crew then had to pay back the loans they had taken at the start of the season from their captain, or otherwise be indebted to him and be obliged to return to him the following pearling season. Often the profit gained from the season was too little to sustain divers and their families around the year so the tiqsam loan was often taken resulting in the diver living in almost permanent debt.

Robert A. Carter in A Sea of Pearls, describes the shares system in Bahrain and the typical salafiya arrangement of repayment. He states that typically the money obtained by the sale of the pearls by the nakhoda (captain) was as follows; first the debt or interest owed to the buying merchant is repaid. Second, 20% of the gross profit is owed to the owner of the boat and third, the provisions and other expenses are deducted from the remaining profit. Finally the crew is paid in shares of the remaining money. The captain would obtain 3 shares, divers 3 shares, haulers 2 shares, trainees (radif) 1 share and tax would consist of 3 shares.

Two alternative loan systems existed; the khammas and the ‘azzal. Under the kammas meaning “those who pay one-fifth” the owner of the boat received one-fifth (20%) while the captain, divers and haulers shared another one-fifth of which 10% went to the captain and the other 10% to the others with whatever remained being split between the crew according to the shares system. This meant that the captain, divers and haulers in effect were paid the extra 20% that would have otherwise gone to the tajjir who advanced the loan so it was seen as more profitable. Under ‘azzal, the other alternative system, a diver was autonomous and therefore funded himself and kept his own catch while working on someone else’s boat. He paid for his own food but paid the captain a fifth of his profit and shared the remaining profit with his own hired hauler in the same ratio as the shares system of 3:2.

The financial aspect of the dive, and its advance systems, was regulated by a Divers’ Court. It was sustained by donations and was made up of one or more former captains or nakhodas and pearl merchants.

The sun set on this historical trade, that previously sustained the island’s economy and shaped its identity, with the discovery of oil fields in Bahrain and the Gulf region.

Pearling Seasons

The pearling season began around mid-April with the Cold Dive, al-ghaws al-barid, in shallow warmer waters and lasted 30 to 40 days. This was followed by the Great Dive, al ghaws al-kabir which typically began in June and lasted approximately 130 days. The boats’ departure for this journey was known as the rakba, the setting out. It required that the crew have all the necessary equipment for their pearling trip which included tools, protective clothes and food supplies. A wide array of simple yet specialized equipment was used in the dive:

Shamsul: diver’s shorts. They were usually black as it was believed the color repelled sharks.

Miflaqa: oyster-shucking knife.

Futam: nose clip made out of tortoise shell or horn used during the dive

Deyyeen: oyster bag used to collect the shells during the dive that was attached to the rope used to haul in the bag and diver.

Khabt: finger-guards that consisted of small leather guards to protect their fingers against the rough surfaces of the oysters and other sharp objects they may come into contact with.

Hajar: diver’s weight, used to take divers to the seabed.

Zaybal: a rope attached to the diver’s weight.

Yida: strong rope used to haul in the oyster basket and diver.

Once the vessels were equipped and ready the boats would set out on their perilous, arduous and lengthy journey. Besides the danger of working alongside sharks and stingrays, a number of ailments plagued the divers. This was due to the long exhausting hours their jobs entailed and their constant exposure to the elements. Skin lesions occurred from constantly being damp and washing in salt water only. Ear infections were also common, as were chest infections and even bursting eardrums due to the pressure. Hallucinations also sometimes occurred as did scurvy due to the meager meals the divers received that were void of citrus fruit or any fresh produce. Their diet was simple and consisted mainly of fish, rice and dates.

The whole success of these pearling trips hinged on an intrinsic part of the expeditions, the crew, the backbone of the whole industry. The personnel on large vessels often included:

The nakhoda: the captain of the dhow (traditional sailing vessels) who was responsible for the ship, the crew as well as the pearl sale at the end of the season.

The ji’di: first mate, who was responsible for operation sat sea.

The ghassa: the pearl diver.

The sayb: the hauler, who also rowed and sailed the vessel as well as pulled the divers to the surface during the dive.

The tabbab: the cabin boy, usually under the age of twelve who was a general helper and unpaid.

The jalallas: extra men who filled in for sick haulers.

The radif: the apprentice, who was a trainee diver or hauler.

The nahham: the singer who led the chants of the crew and essentially was there to boost the sailors’ spirits as they worked.

The tabbakh: the cook.

Life on the boat was harsh, rife with illness as well as injuries. The crew had to survive 4 months in cramped quarters, under harsh conditions, so survival necessitated a symbiotic relationship between the crew, whereby each member needed to play their individual roles and work harmoniously with others to ensure a successful harvest.  It was an arduous and physically demanding trade rooted in an ancient industry that eventually went extinct at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The sun set on this historical trade, that previously sustained the island’s economy and shaped its identity, with the discovery of oil fields in Bahrain and the Gulf region. Competition from Japan’s oyster farms further obliterated this traditional industry and put an end to the romantic pearling era that had given life and sustenance to the island of the two seas.

Although pearl diving as a trade was abandoned, it is currently being revived around the region where traditional divers can be seen diving into the warm azure waters of the Arabian Sea to retrieve the prized, lustrous spherical gems awaiting discovery.    

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