Before oil, the inhabitants of the Gulf’s Arab coast depended on diving for natural pearls for their economic livelihoods. And, like oil, it was chiefly European and North American demand that dictated the success or failure of each pearling season. Prior to the start of large-scale exploitation of the region’s oil reserves in the 1950s, pearl diving was the primary economic activity along the Arabian coast of the Arabian Gulf. Pearls had been harvested from the waters of the Gulf from time immemorial, but it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the industry grew quickly to meet an increasingly global demand.
Pearls from the Gulf were traded to India, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and further afield to Europe and North America, where the aristocratic and emerging middle classes regarded pearls as luxury items for use in jewelry and clothing. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the pearl trade in the Gulf had grown to such an extent that it united men of all backgrounds. In 1877, William Palgrave recalled how Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani of Qatar had exclaimed to him that: ‘We are all from the highest to the lowest slaves of one master, Pearl.’
Pearl diving in the Gulf was a seasonal activity, taking place over the four months of summer. Each season, scores of pearling boats departed from ports such as Manama, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi for coastal banks rich with oysters. Most of the active male populations of these towns were involved in the industry. The lowliest employees, many of whom had been enslaved in Africa and the Asian subcontinent before being transported to the Gulf, worked as divers, sailors and ‘pullers’ (those responsible for pulling the divers up by ropes from the seabed).
These men subsisted on advances given to them at the beginning of each season by their captains (nakhudas), who either owned or hired their boats and were responsible for feeding and clothing their crews. Pearl merchants (tawawish) in turn, forwarded advances to boat captains to finance the diving season. The tawawish paid the nakhudas upon the delivery of the pearls. The pearling industry therefore functioned on borrowed capital.
Since ancient times the sea has played a vital role in the daily life of the citizens of the peninsula of Qatar. Fishing is thus one of the ancient trades that the people of Qatar practiced to earn a living in the pre –oil era. There were different methods of fishing, such as Al-Maskar and Al-Hadhrah. Al hadhrah is an enclosure made from palm fronds and robes made of plant fiber. It was used in shallow waters to catch certain kinds of fish such as Assafi. Almaskar is a stone structure of various sizes in the sea. Al maskar method relies on the tide movement. During ebb an iron bar with a sharp end called the Nira, or the Sahila which is a net fixed with two pieces of wood on each side are used to catch fish entrapped in al maskar.
Pearl Diving in Qatar is one of the oldest professions in the Gulf region. It was one of the main sources of income in the pre-oil era. There were two diving seasons: the big dive, a two-month journey, and the small dive, a forty-day journey. Both seasons fell between June and September. Among the tools the divers used were the scuttle, Al-futam, Al-falakah and stones. With the discovery of oil in the 1930’s and the introduction of Japanese artificial pearls, pearl diving became unprofitable and people turned to earn their living from other less demanding activities.
The pearl divers of Qatar endured extraordinary hardships in order to access their product. Gone for months at a time, the pearl divers would be forced to forego washing to conserve fresh water while at sea (which can be very uncomfortable when diving in salt water), and they had to survive on a diet solely consisting of fish. If they were lucky enough to survive their pearl campaigns, they would return home, sometimes with few pearls, and often severely malnourished and sick. The pearl divers were then forced to surrender half their product yield to colonial tycoons who would sell the pearls for enormous profits in distant markets.
Being a pearl diver also carried tremendous personal risk. Physically, the job was demanding and dangerous, requiring pearlers to quickly free-dive to extreme depths to retrieve oysters, before being quickly pulled to the surface by ropes, to maximize their time spent underwater. Due to the speed at which they plunged and subsequently resurfaced, many of the divers suffered from the bends (a tortuous condition accompanied by headaches, hallucinations, brain damage, and, in extreme cases, death). There was also always the risk of shark, swordfish, or barracuda attacks.
Historical sources give us some idea of the extent of pearl diving activities and the profits made over time, although the accuracy of their figures cannot be precisely verified. James Buckingham reported in his 1829 book Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia that the industry at Bahrain brought in twenty lakhs of rupees annually, approximately £200,000 at the time. In his 1838 book Travels in Arabia, James Wellsted estimated that there were 3500 boats of all shapes and sizes at Bahrain at the height of the season, and a further 700 on the coast between Qatar and Oman.
Another Political Resident, John Lorimer, wrote an historical account of the Gulf’s pearling industry for his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. He stated that the industry was worth £625,933 in 1873/74 and £1,076,793 thirty years later in 1904/05. Lorimer also reported that the Bahrain pearl fisheries employed 917 boats and over 17,500 men in 1905. At Dubai, Lorimer counted 335 pearl boats, 410 at Abu Dhabi and 350 at Doha. Paul Harrison wrote in 1924 that in the 1913 season, the value of pearls sold from Bahrain amounted to approximately nine million US dollars.
By the time Harrison visited the Gulf, the region’s pearling industry was already falling into slow decline. A major factor affecting that decline was the development of the cultured (artificially produced) pearl industry in Japan from 1916, by the entrepreneur Mikimoto Kōkichi. Cultured pearls were more abundant and up to a tenth of the price than those harvested in the Gulf.
From the 1920s, the pearl fishing fleets belonging to the towns along the Arab coast shrank, and the populations of many towns dwindled dramatically as people moved away to seek work elsewhere. Between 1908 and 1941, the population of Bahrain fell from around 100,000 to 90,000 persons (Lorimer, 1908: vol. 2; Bahrain 1941 census statistics) while Doha’s population dropped from 27,000 to 16,000 inhabitants during the 1930s. By the early 1950s, as large-scale oil production facilities grew up across the region, the traditional pearling industry had all but disappeared from the coastal waters of the Gulf.
Before the beginning of the 20th century, the only means of obtaining pearls was by manually gathering very large numbers of pearl oysters or mussels from the ocean floor or lake or river bottom. The bivalves were then brought to the surface, opened, and the tissues searched. More than a ton was searched in order to find at least 3-4 quality pearls.
In order to find enough pearl oysters, free-divers were often forced to descend to depths of over 100 feet on a single breath, exposing them to the dangers of hostile creatures, waves, eye damage, and drowning, often as a result of shallow water blackout on resurfacing. Because of the difficulty of diving and the unpredictable nature of natural pearl growth in pearl oysters, pearls of the time were extremely rare and of varying quality. The made it hard to get good prices for pearl shell. The natural pearls found from harvested oysters were a rare bonus for the divers. Many fabulous specimens were found over the years. In Asia, some pearl oysters could be found on shoals at a depth of 5–7 feet (1.5–2 meters) from the surface, but more often divers had to go 40 feet (12 meters) or even up to 125 feet (40 meters) deep to find enough pearl oysters and these deep dives were extremely hazardous to the divers. In the 19th century, divers in Asia had only very basic forms of technology to aid their survival at such depths. For example, in some areas they greased their bodies to conserve heat, put greased cotton in their ears, wore a tortoise-shell clip to close their nostrils, gripped a large object like a rock to descend without the wasteful effort of swimming down, and had a wide mouthed basket or net to hold the oysters.