The lulu (locally qamashah), or pearl oyster was a source of wealth in the Emirates, long before the discovery of oil. Pearl oysters occur naturally on relatively shallow banks (fasht) in the Gulf. However, it is not clear when the people of the Emirates first began to harvest this valuable resource: individual pearls have been found in excavations on archaeological sites that date back to at least 7000 years ago. The Arab writer Al Idrisi mentions that in 1154 Julfar, in Ra’s al-Khaimah, was already a major pearling centre. Other historical accounts indicate that Julfar’s fame had spread far and wide. According to the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa, recorded in 1517: ‘Here (Julfar) is a very great fishery as well, of seed pearls as of large pearls; and the Moors of Hormuz come hither to buy them and carry them to India and many other lands.’ The Portuguese traveller Pedro Teixeira mentions that a fleet of 50 terradas sailed from Julfar every year to the pearl beds. There was even a kind of pearl found near Julfar named after the latter, and it was the growing interest of the Europeans in Gulf pearls that led the Venetian state jeweller, Gasparo Balbi, to the Emirates in 1580.
To the people of the Emirates, pearling offered a major, if seasonal, form of employment. While many of those engaged in the pearling industry would return home to tend date-gardens in inland oases and herd camels between seasons, there were others for whom it was a full-time occupation. British historical records from the late nineteenth century, for example, refer to divers from the Emirates travelling to Sri Lanka to work on the pearl beds there once the season in the Gulf was over.
Over time, many families moved to live permanently in one of the coastal settlements, increasing, in particular, the size and importance of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and the intervening coastal villages were also long-established as ports of the tribal Arabs and they, too, participated in this industry.
By the beginning of the twentieth century there were, according to one calculation, over 1200 pearling boats operating out of the Trucial States, each carrying an average crew of 18 men. This meant that during the summer most able-bodied men, numbering more than 22,000, were absent on the pearl banks. The average annual value of pearls exported from the Gulf at the turn of the century was estimated at £1,434,399, with an additional £30,439 resulting from the export of mother-of-pearl. The industry reached its peak shortly before the market was undermined by the cultivation of cultured pearls in the 1920s. The economic depression of the 1930s coupled with Indian taxation completed the destruction of the pearling industry, leading to a great deal of hardship, since the local economy, from supplies for the pearling fleets to boat-building, was centred around pearling.
Nonetheless, pearling was never merely a trade or a means of subsistence for the population. It was an entirely integrated social system, which has left a rich heritage of traditions. Outsiders were forbidden to engage in pearling without the permission of the rulers and pearls were to be gathered only by the traditional practice of diving, for which the use of modern diving equipment was banned. For this reason, the time-honoured methods, first developed thousands of years ago to harvest pearl oysters, continued to survive until the demise of the industry itself.
The general term for the pearl fishery was ghaus (literally diving) and all the people that took part in the active operations were included under the common denomination (ghawawis). All boats from the same port under the authority of one sheikh departed for the ghaus al-kabir at the beginning of June in a great picturesque swoop of sail, and returned to port together, approximately 120 days later, towards the end of September. Sambuks were mostly employed as pearling boats, but the batil, barqarah, shu’ai and zarqah also had a place in the industry. Depending on the preference or particular strategy of the captain, a pearling boat might anchor for the entire season at one pearl bank or move from bank to bank. Short trips were made to ports such as the island of Dalma for the renewal of drinking water, rice, dates, coffee and tobacco.
The normal complement of crew for the average pearling vessel was 18–20 men; eight divers or ghasah ten haulers (siyub) and an apprentice walaid who fished, cooked, cleaned and took care of the coffee. A nahham was employed on the larger boats, to coordinate the evocative rhythmical chants used to ease the rigorous tasks on board. The captain (nukhada), chose the location of the dive and also took control of the sale of the catch.
Despite much nostalgic reflection on the communal spirit encountered in pearling, there is no doubt that life was extremely hard for the average diver. Diving commenced about an hour after sunrise, the divers having breakfasted lightly on coffee and dates, and proceeded right through until an hour before sunset, except for prayers and sometimes coffee and a short rest at midday. The hard-working diver, nose pegged with clips of turtle shell (ftam) and ears plugged with wax, plummeted to the bottom with the aid of a stone (hajar) attached to his foot, which was subsequently pulled up by his attendant hauler on board ship. Fingers protected by leather caps (khabt), he quickly filled an attached basket (diyyin) with as many shells as possible, finally signalling by a tug on his rope that he needed to be hauled to the surface. The diver rested in the water after his arduous task, holding onto his rope in characteristic pose, while his basket was being emptied. But it wasn’t long before he was again descending to the deep.
After an evening meal of fish and rice, complemented by dates and coffee, the crew attempted to settle down for the night on board the crowded deck to avail of any cooling sea breezes. Not before the following dawn was the pile of oyster shells opened to reveal the previous day’s catch. This task took place under the watchful eye of the captain who recorded any particularly big pearls that might be sold individually.
Some nukhada sold the season’s catch to a tawwash who visited the pearl banks from time to time while the diving was in progress; some made direct contact with wholesale pearl merchants, whilst others contracted with financiers at a pre-arranged price. The wholesaler arranged for the sale of the pearls and mother-of-pearl to Indian pearl merchants present for the lucrative season. Local merchants (tawaeesh) made no distinction between pearls and seed pearls, which were divided up by size and quality alone. The traditional tools used by the tawaeesh for this operation were graded sieves, scales and magnifying glasses. Pearls were stored in rainwater to remove the greenish tinge, which often stains freshly harvested pearls. They were then wrapped in red cloth, sorted by size, weight and quality.
Many of the Liwa-based sub-tribes of the Bani Yas formed co-operatives (ikhluwi), which jointly owned a boat and whose members shared the proceeds from the sale of pearls according to an established arrangement. The biggest share was given to the captain, a larger share to the divers than the haulers, and some money was put aside to finance the preparations for the following year. On the other hand, amil denoted a system whereby the boat was owned and fitted out by an entrepreneur, who was entitled to the lion’s share of the proceeds at the end of the season, leaving the rest to be divided among the crew.
Eventually entrepreneurs dominated the industry. This degree of specialisation was to be the downfall of these businessmen and indeed all those who depended on the pearling industry, whereas the families who had retained their roots in the desert were able to concentrate again on utilising its resources.
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