Prehistoric man had only to develop a liking for shellfish
in order to acquire a nugget of scientific knowledge that
oysters which somehow go wrong produce a pretty object,
the pearl. Pearls were responsible for a spectacular tumult
on the shores of the gulf of Mannoind of lottery which
amounted to bets on how many -and which -among tens of
millions of oysters had gone wrong. Speculators bought
mountains of the things, laid them out in the sun to rot,
and then gently prised the shells open to see what they
had won. In a good season, between 1 and 2 percent revealed
something, if only a meagre consolation prize. In 1797,
however, a poor labourer who had scraped together enough
to buy just three shells squatted over them while they
rotted, opened them up, and hit the jackpot with the most
valuable pearl anyone could remember.
The oysters, like any gems found below ground, belonged
to the king (farmers owned the surface but that's all).
Tissa, for example, who ruled at the time of the conversion
to Buddhism, styled him- self "Lord of the Pearl Fields".
Tbe oysters returned annually to their feeding grounds
on banks about 30 km (20 miles) out to sea, their numbers
var- ied, and only a proportion of them were of the right
age, between five and seven years old; "if left too long,
the pearl gets so large and so disagreeable to the fish
that it vomits and throws it out of the shell". An official
inspector went out by boat to see if the oysters were
ready for fishing. Timing was critical and hostage to
the possibility that the oysters might be swept away by
exceptional cur- rents. The big day was announced four
or five months in advance, so there were always smug-
glers planning to jump the gun.
In normal times, the village of Marichchukadi was a motley
clump of huts, but with the approach of the big day hundreds
of overloaded boats arrived from India to join a roaring
bedlam attended by an army of snake-charmers, conjurors,
astrologers, betel-sellers, prostitutes and "dancing boys".
Lots were drawn to decide which of the boats would form
the official fishing fleet. The winners were at once importuned
by "shark-binders" who, for a daiiy rate, offered to protect
divers from shark attack with a combination of incantations,
magic potions, contortionism and dancing about on the
beach. Options to buy hauls from various boats changed
hands in what would now be recognised, on the stock market,
as trading in futures. Bizet was sufficiently impressed
by the drama to write the opera Les pecheurs de Perles,
which opened in Paris in 1863.
The banks were at depths between 6 and 20 metres (19-65
ft). Divers jumped in with two ropes: one tied to a heavy
stone and themselves to acceerate descent, the other to
a basket or string bag. i Although the record was reputed
to be six minutes, Ithey generally stayed down for between
40 seconds i and a minute, wrenching the shells off the
seabed and filling the bag. They gave a tug when their
lungs I gave out, and both ropes were yanked to the surface.
Bleeding from the ears and nose, divers repeated the exercise
up to 50 times per day. The boats then raced back to the
shore to auction their , haul, keeping a commission of
about 20 percent.