WORDS BY DEEMA AL AJLANI
When one thinks of the Middle East and Gulf States in particular, images of immense wealth, decadent palaces and glitzy cars spring to mind. It is after all the mysteriously veiled land that gave birth to folktales such as Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves and Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp from The Thousand And One Nights. The region therefore has long been associated with opulence; an association that predates the discovery of oil and this is partially due to the wealth generated by pearl fishing, one of the region’s main sources of income for centuries.
The Arabian Gulf is considered to be one of the richest natural pearl habitats in the world with Bahrain’s, Hayrat or pearl fishing beds, as the most famous and abundant. This is partly due to the fact that these large expanses of flat land at the bottom of the sea sometimes contain coral growth, which enables oysters to latch on and grow in larger numbers since oysters need an anchor and cannot grow on pure sand. This distinguishing quality led to the abundance and richness of Bahrain’s banks, called The Great Bank, which came to be known as the best. This bank extended from north of Bahrain all the way down to the Abu Dhabi islands. The oyster banks were generally located between 11m to 27 m in depth with 22m being the limit of comfortable dives for the divers.
This Great Bank as well as many others led to the rise of several other Arab pearling powers in the 18th and 19th centuries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain however stood strong and remained the center of the pearl fishery industry. This captured the eye of the Persians as well the European powers who hatched out plans to take Bahrain by force in order to seize its pearl beds. These plans however luckily never were implemented and pearling therefore remained the premier industry of the area and the region’s principal source of wealth, which played a key role in the development of the Gulf States up to the early 20th century. The abundance of these natural gems in theses waters made the Gulf the largest world supplier of natural pearls, supplying between 65 and 80 percent of the world’s pearls.
This in turn led to the spread of pearling settlements, which quickly gave birth to new pearling towns across the Arabian coastline. The size and vitality of these towns scattered along the coastline vastly depended on the extent of their participation in pearling. Bahrain for a while enjoyed almost total monopoly of the market as it owned the largest fleet and so was able to remain the largest pearl- diving center in the Bahrain archipelago until the 1830’s with Manama and Muharaq as the hubs of pearl trading.
It is estimated that at that time Bahrain’s fleet consisted of 2,430 pearling boats which would have equaled almost 80 percent of the whole Gulf fleet, which was believed to be of 3000 vessels. This enabled Bahrain to remain a large pearl emporium in the Gulf with its pearls accounting for more than half of the value of total pearl exports from the region which was estimated to be 6,736,500 Rupees in 1873.
Till the end of the 19th century pearls harvested in the region were dispatched to Bombay, where they were sorted and graded then exported to international markets such as Europe. This built a strong trade relationship between Bahrain and India and enabled the pearling industry to grow as a number of Indian merchants began to finance pearling and to accordingly purchase most of the harvested pearls. Bahrain’s pearl exports therefore continued to grow until it peaked between 1900 and 1912 when it was valued at 30,000,000 Rupees which equals more than 2,000,000 sterling pounds.
A number of changes accompanied this boom such as increase in manpower, the expansion of fleets, the exploitation of new banks, as well as the extension of the diving season. This booming trade was kept alive by the insatiable appetite of the Western markets, which came to compete neck to neck with Bombay in directly exporting the pearls from Bahrain. The West perceived pearls as romantic, exotic and Oriental and so came the time when Western jewelelers descended onto the island. According to the Persian Gulf Administration Report this was pioneered by French jewelers such as Ettinghausen and later Jacque Cartier, who were later followed by their British an American counterparts, who hoped to bypass the traditional route of buying them in Bombay and instead buy them directly from the source. Prices therefore soared and the region, and Bahrain in particular, enjoyed a “golden” era where pearling boomed and the region grew rich.
Unfortunately the pearl market and pearl prices are highly unstable and are thus easily influenced by socio economic forces as well as by political events. The advent of the First World war therefore which was later followed by the emergence of high quality cultured pearls in the 1920’s greatly affected this delicate industry and led to plummeting prices and greatly reduced demand. Despite these world events which decimated the demand for natural pearls, Bahrain has somewhat retained this pivotal trade which shaped its history. It has held onto this legacy of pearling and so natural pearls can still be found in the depth of its turquoise waters, small treasures waiting to be discovered.
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