Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March 1829

How to Study: Pearls of the Past

In this blog series for National Marine Week, Geography PhD Student Anna Guasco describes the many ways Cambridge postgraduate researchers study life in the ocean. Here she interviews:

Tamara Fernando: Marine Historical Ecology and Archival Methods

Tamara is a PhD student in the Faculty of History. She is from Sri Lanka.

Using a historian’s tools to explore these stories of underwater change, ecosystem variance, and how they intersected with human lives and labour can give us useful models for how to think about our place in relation to the ocean.

What do you study (and why)?

I study the history of natural pearl fishing in the Indian Ocean. In the 19th century, within the ocean we now know as the Indian Ocean, there were three major sites where pearl-fishing took place: the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mannar between South India and Ceylon/Sri Lanka and the Mergui Archipelago in Southern Burma/Myanmar.

Before we invented ‘pearl culture’ technology, which allows us to artificially stimulate oysters to produce pearls, humans who wanted this luxury gemstone had to fish up millions of oysters from the ocean floor and open them on the random chance that one of them would contain one pearl or several. That means that before the 1930s, when cheaper cultured pearls took over the market, procuring gems for world markets (think beautiful necklaces, carpets, jewellery and other ornaments) required massive harvests of oysters from the seafloor. It also required specialised kinds of work—that is, most of the people who retrieved pearls from the ocean floor practiced a form of free-diving, using no equipment to dive up to 16 meters deep to the ocean to retrieve hundreds of oysters every day. I study the pearl fisheries at the peak of a world ‘pearl boom’, when demand for pearls increased in European and American markets. This was also a time of empire, with the British Empire increasingly entangled in the sites of pearling, leaving a rich colonial archive to work through. I suggest that using a historian’s tools to explore these stories of underwater change, ecosystem variance, and how they intersected with human lives and labour can give us useful models for how to think about our place in relation to the ocean.

Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March 1829
‘Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March 1829’ probably by H. Silvaf, from inside lid of a box of molluscs sent to British Museum in 1868, Natural History Museum, NHMUK 1868.5.29.1.
How did you get started studying this?

The project grew out of a photography project that I embarked on with some Sri Lankan naturalists to catalogue the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mannar. Although this was a fun, ‘public-facing’ hobby, I soon discovered that very little was written seriously about the pearl fishery, and there were few, if any, attempts to write environmental histories of Sri Lanka. From Sri Lanka, then, the project expanded to become a connected and comparative study. I found that divers from Bahrain and Kuwait, Bedouin and African, were attending the Ceylon pearl fisheries to work there. At the same time, scientific experts from Ceylon were travelling to Burma to start cultured pearling industries. So the story grew out of one place and became a connected history of empire, environment and labour.

Illustration of an octopus
How do you study what you study?

I am a historian, not a scientist, so most of my time is spent in archives. That is, I visit places like the National Archives of Sri Lanka or the National Archives of Yangon in Myanmar and I read documents produced at the time of the pearl fishery. Here I might find a list of the crew who worked on a pearling ship in 1887, or a complaint from a fisherman that after the pearl fishery, there are no more fish left in the sea for him to make his livelihood! I read documents at many levels. Some, like the ones I just mentioned, come from close to the ground—they allow me to reconstruct a social history: how did a pearl fishery affect the lives of those who lived around the site of oyster harvesting? What was it like to harvest oysters? Did divers make a lot of money, or did they get further into debt? What were the conditions of their work like?

Pearl divers from the Persian Gulf
H.H. Heineman, ‘Pearl divers from the Persian Gulf with nose-clips working in Ceylon’, 1904

In these same archives, I can often also trace a story about the non-human world: in Myanmar’s Southern Archipelago, I can trace how the initial excitement about a new pearling frontier in the 1890s left the seafloor entirely depleted, with the oyster close to extinction. Similarly, in the Persian Gulf and Mannar, harvests that lifted several million or one billion oysters dramatically transformed undersea environments.

In addition to social histories and environmental histories, we can also read higher-level documents, such as those exchanged between state officials: how did British colonial bureaucrats manage marine sustainability? Who did they declare the reefs belonged to? How were the profits shared? How did London’s scientific networks become entangled in pearl fisheries in the tropics? How are empire and environmental change connected?

As a historian, I hunt for stories. These might include human stories of lives made and unmade by extraordinary pearling finds, or very difficult conditions of life. But they might also be stories about oysters underwater, and their life-cycles, which correlate to environmental phenomena such as historic Indian Ocean dipole events, an aspect of the climate cycle caused by periodic changes in sea-surface temperatures which in turn impact precipitation (rainfall and drought). While our contemporary understanding of these events and actors grows every day, we can also turn to the historical archive to ask new questions about past ways of living with oceans and their creatures.

Please note: this interview has been edited for clarity and/or length.

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