Pearl Diving

Pearl Diving

For hundreds of years, the finest pearls in the world were found in the waters of the Arabian Gulf



The ancient pearling industry provided the only real income for the people of what is now the UAE. The land was too barren to allow any farming and the people were generally too concerned with finding water, food and other provisions to consider trying to make money. The barter system was their way of trading. A few families would leave the nomadic desert lifestyle and settle on the coast to fish. Some of the fishermen probably found the occasional pearl when wading in the shallows, and kept it until there was an opportunity to barter it. To gather enough oysters to make a living, however, required a huge communal effort, as well as people who were able to dive to depths of around 40 metres without equipment, in order to access the offshore oyster beds.

As India became increasingly prosperous in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, demand for pearls grew. What had been little more than a cottage industry became a major part of local life. Merchants would provide the capital to provide and equip a boat for the diving season, in return for a majority share of the profit accumulated from the sale of the pearls. The rest of the profit was distributed between the captain (nakhutha) and the crew. Pearling offered the possibility of comparative riches if one was lucky enough to be on a boat that discovered a top quality pearl or two. There is evidence of a single pearl being sold for fifteen thousand pounds (sterling) during the 1920s - equivalent to more than three hundred and fifty thousand pounds today1.

In response to the increased demand for pearls, many more families settled permanently in the coastal villages, which began to grow in importance and influence, particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Others would live on the coast during the four months of the main pearling season, from May to September, and return to the desert in the winter.

British government papers from the 1920s describe the pearling industry in Bahrain, which would have been almost identical to Dubai's.

Until they clear the harbour the boats are propelled by heavy oars, each pulled by two men, who sing the song of the pearlers as they row. Often the fleet returns at night when the moon and the tide are full. The sound of the sailors chanting and the splash of the oars is carried across the still water to the town. The sight of hundreds of white sails, some of them coloured orange by the light of the fires burning on the decks, is one of the most picturesque in the world.

Photograph by Ronald Codrai © Justin Codrai

Mechanical apparatus of any kind is forbidden, and the methods of diving have not changed since they were described by fourteenth-century travellers. Each diver wears a clip like a clothes-peg to close his nostrils, leather sheaths protect his fingers and enable him to (wrench) the shells from the rocks underneath the sea, and each of his big toes is guarded by a similar sheath. He descends on a rope which has a stone weight attached to it. This is hauled up when he reaches the bottom. Round his neck is slung a string bag, which he fills with shells, attached to a rope with which his comrade, the puller, draws him up again when he gives the signal. Divers remain below the surface for nearly a minute and a half, and they descend about 30 times in one day, often to a depth of 14 fathoms. The shells are heaped on deck during the day and opened in the evening under the vigilant eye of the captain, who puts away the pearls in his sea chest. No diver knows whether it is his shell that contained a pearl. While the men are working they take neither food nor drink, but they eat in the early morning and after sunset they have a meal of rice and dates and fish. The shells are thrown back into the sea, the divers believing that oysters feed upon the empty shells. They believe too, that drops of rain which are caught by the oysters at night form pearls.

The work is very strenuous and conditions are hard, but the divers on the whole are healthy and many of them show unusually fine muscular development...

…The men are paid no wages, but they receive a share in the profits of the season. Divers are entitled to twice the amount which is paid to a puller, as their work is more arduous. There are several different diving systems, and all of them are very ancient…

Records of Dubai 1761 - 1960 (Volume 3) pg. 56-57

Although the pearling industry offered potential wealth, it was also very dangerous for the divers, both physically and financially. In order to provide for their families over the months they were at sea, most would take advances from the owner of the boat. If their seasonal catch was not enough to cover their advances, they were in the owner's debt at the start of the next season, when they would have to get another advance. One bad diving season could lead to a lifetime of debt for the divers. A good season, on the other hand, could provide the means to acquire land in an oasis such as Al Ain and the luxury of a date garden.

In the early 1930s, the worldwide economic depression and the Japanese discovery of the cultured pearl (a pearl created by placing a shell bead inside an oyster manually) spelt disaster for the Gulf's pearling industry. The vision of the Al Maktoum family meant that Dubai, thanks to its free trade port, was not as badly affected as the rest of the region. Nevertheless, it was a serious blow to the local economy - one from which it would not fully recover until the discovery of oil.
1. Calculated using the online resources of the Economic History Services website

UAE: A New Perspective - Trident Press Ltd, 2001
Records of Dubai 1761 - 1960 - Archive Editions, 1994

The photograph of the pearl diver is by Ronald Codrai. © Justin Codrai