Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Oysters and pearls

Illustrated by Matthew James Lawless.


Looloo, Mootoo, Mootie, Margaritæ, Perles, Perlii, Perlas: all sweet, pretty, mouth-rounding names, but worthy to be applied to the lustrous and beautiful spheres which we call pearls. Principium culmenque omnium rerum pretii tenent: “Of all things, pearls,” said Pliny, two thousand years ago, “kept the very top, highest, best, and first price.” What was true then is true now. There are few things so immortal as good taste. Let us pay something “on account” of our debt to the oyster. I propose to regard that placid creditor, not as an article of food, but as an assistant at the toilet. And looking at him in that point of view, here is not a bad instalment of the aforesaid debt. It is contributed by Barry Cornwall:

Within the midnight of her hair,
Half-hidden in its deepest deeps,
A single peerless, priceless pearl
(All filmy-eyed) for ever sleeps.
Without the diamond’s sparkling eyes,
The ruby’s blushes,—there it lies,
Modest as the tender dawn,
When her purple veil’s withdrawn,—
The flower of gems, a lily cold and pale.
Yet, what doth all avail?—
All its beauty, all its grace?
All the honours of its place?
He who pluck’d it from its bed,
In the far blue Indian Ocean,
Lieth, without life or motion.
In his earthy dwelling—dead!
All his children, one by one,
When they look up to the sun,
Curse the toil by which he drew
The treasure from its bed of blue.

Well, pearls are costly. Yet they are merely the calcareous production of the class Mollusca. Diamonds, as a certain pen has elsewhere noted, have been shown to be merely charcoal; the pearl is little else but concentric layers of membrane and carbonate of lime. All the class Mollusca are instances of that beneficent law of nature, that the hard parts accommodate themselves to the soft. The common naked snail, the mussel, cockle, oyster, garden helix, strombus, and nautilus, elegant or rough, rare or common, each illustrate this grand law. The body of a soft consistence is enclosed in an elastic skin. From this skin calcareous matter is continually exuded. This protects the animal, and forms the shell. Where the waves are rough, and rocks superabundant, then the shell is rough, hard, stony, fit to weather anything; where only smooth water and halcyon days are to be looked for, Nature, who never works in vain, provides but paper sides and an egg-shell boat, such as the little nautilus navigates and tacks and steers in.

Besides forming the rough outside, the calcareous exuvium, the mucus of the oyster and other mollusca, forms that beautiful substance, so smooth, and polished, and dyed with rainbow tints, and a glorious opalescence, which, be it as common as luxury has made it, still charms the eye. This is the lining of the shell, the mother-of-pearl, nacre. “The inside of the shell,” said old Dampier, that old sailor with a poet’s mind, “is more glorious even than the pearl itself.”

It is glorious, it has the look of the morning, and the tint of the evening sky; the colours of the prism chastened, softened, retained, and made perpetual in it: this is mother-o’-pearl.

To render its bed always soft and cosy, to lie warm, packed as one might at Malvern in wet sheets, seems to be the oyster’s pleasure. This singular exuvium, this mucus, not only creates pleasure, but alleviates pain. Some irritating substance, some internal worry and annoyance, it may be a dead embryo, or a grain of sand insinuates itself, and, lo! the creature covers it with this substance to ease off its unkind tooth, and converts it into a pearl.

That is the way they are made, these wondrous beauties!

“If,” said Sir Everard Home, “if I can prove that this, the richest jewel in a monarch’s crown, which cannot be imitated by any art of man” (he is rather wrong there; it can be imitated, and wonderfully imitated too,) “either in beauty of form or brilliancy of lustre, is the abortive egg of an oyster enveloped in its own nacre, who will not be struck with wonder and astonishment?" Wonder and astonishment are words which scarcely exist now. Science has shown so many wonders that we are hardly astonished at anything; but Sir Everard’s assertion admits of proof. A pearl cut in two exhibits the concentric layers like an onion, as may be seen through a strong glass; and in the centre is a round hole, very minute it may be, but wherein the ovum has been deposited.

Sometimes the ovum, or sand, or enclosed substance has attached itself to the shell, and has then been covered with mucus, forming a pearl which cannot be separated from the shell. There are several specimens of such pearls in the British Museum.

Pearl wearers and Pearl winners.

The great beauty in pearls is their opalescence, and a lustre which, however clever men are, they have never yet given to artificial pearls. Sir Everard Home supposes that this lustre arises from the highly polished coat of the centre cell, the pearl itself being diaphanous. Sir David Brewster accounts for it by the pearl and mother-of-pearl having a grooved substance on its surface resembling the minute corrugations often seen on substances covered with oil, paint, or varnish. Philosophers are sometimes not very explanatory. Sir David means to say that beneath the immediate polish of the pearl there are certain wavelets and dimples from which the light is reflected. “The direction of the grooves,” again to quote Sir David, “is in every case at right angles to the line joining the coloured image; hence, in irregularly formed mother-of-pearl, where the grooves are often circular, and have every possible direction, the coloured images appear irregularly scattered round the ordinary image.”

In the regular pearl these are crowded, from its spherical form, into a small space; hence its marvellous appearance of white unformed light; and hence its beauty and value.

To prove the translucency of the pearl, we have only to hold a split pearl to a candle, where, by interposing coloured substance or light, we shall have the colour transmitted through the pearl. Curious as is the formation of the pearl, we have yet a cognate substance to it. What we call bezoar, and the Hindoos faduj, is a concretion of a deepish olive green colour found in the stomach of goats, dogs, cows, or other animals; the hog bezoar, the bovine bezoar, and the camel bezoar; this last the Hindoos turn into a yellow paint; but the harder substances the Hindoo jewellers polish and thread, and use as jewels, so that from the stomach of the lower animals, and from the secretions of a shell-fish, the still grasping, prying, worrying, proud, vain-glorious, busy man gets him an ornament for her whom he most loves; for him whom he most honours.

The question of obtaining pearls and of slaying divers; of feeding sharks with human limbs; of the eyeballs starting and the tympanum of the ear bursting; of the pains, perils, and penalties of the pearl divers, must be touched incidentally in any true account of this precious gem.

Vanity demands the aid of cruelty, and for her gratification human sacrifices are still made.

At the Persian Gulf, at Ceylon, and in the Red Sea, the early sources of the Greeks and Romans, we yet find our supply. Pearls are also found in the Indian Ocean along the Coromandel coast and elsewhere; but the two grand head-quarters are in Bahrein Island, in the Persian Gulf, and in the Bay of Condalchy, in the Gulf of Manaar off the Island of Ceylon. There our pearl oyster dredgers bring up their natives.

The fishery at Ceylon is a monopoly of the British Government; but, like many Government monopolies, it is said to cost a great deal more than it produces. In 1804, Government leased it for 120,000l. per annum; in 1828, it only yielded 28,000l. It is a desert and barren spot; no one can fall in love with it; sands and coral rocks are not picturesque; yet, in its season, it attracts more to its shores than one of our best watering-places. Divers, merchants. Arab-hawkers, drillers, jewellers, and talkers; fish-sellers, butchers, boat-caulkers, and Hindoo Robinsons and Walkers are all found there. The period is limited to six weeks, or two months at most, from February to April; and whilst they are making money, these people are rather eager, look you. But the fishers themselves, victims of cruelty as they are, are also victims to their own superstition and ignorance. A Hindoo or Parsee blesses the water to drive away the sharks; a diver may be frightened or ill, and the holidays are so numerous, that the actual work-days amount only to thirty in the season.

The boats assembled sail at ten at night, a signal gun being then let off. They then set sail, reach the banks before daybreak, and at sunrise the divers begin to take their “headers.” They continue at this work till noon, when a breeze starting up, they return. The cargoes are taken out before the night sets in, and the divers are refreshed.

Each boat carries twenty men—ten rowers and ten divers—besides a chief, or pilot. The divers work five at a time alternately, leaving the others time to recruit. To go down quickly they use a large stone of red granite, which they catch hold of with their foot. Each diver holds a net-work bag in his right hand, closes his nostrils with his left, or with a piece of bent horn, and descends to the bottom. There he darts about him as quickly as he can, picking up with toes and fingers, and putting the oysters into his network bag. When this is full, or he exhausted, he pulls the rope, and is drawn up, leaving the stone to be pulled up after him. When the oysters are very plentiful, the diver may bring up one hundred and fifty at a dip.

After this violent exertion, blood flows from nose, ears, eyes. The divers cannot exceed generally one minute’s immersion. One and a half, and even two, have been reached by extraordinary efforts. Those who can endure four and five minutes are spoken of. One also we are told of, an apocryphal fellow, we should think, who coming in 1797 from Arjango, stayed under water six minutes.

The divers live not to a great age. Heart-diseases, surfeits, sores, blood-shot eyes, staggering limbs, and bent backs—these are part of their wages. Sometimes they die on reaching the surface, suddenly, as if struck by a shot.

At Bahrein, the annual amount produced by the pearl fishery may be reckoned at from 200,000l. to 240,000l.; add to this purchases made by the merchants of Abootabee, and we have 360,000l. to include the whole pearl trade of the Gulf, since, through their agents at Bahrein, merchants from Constantinople, Bagdad, Alexandria, Timbuctoo, New York, Calcutta, Paris, St. Petersburg, Holy Moscowa, or London make their purchases.

“But,” says our credible informant, “I have not put down the sum at one-sixth of that told me by the native merchants.” But even then an enormous amount is that to be used in mere ornament, and in one article only.

Well, not exactly ornament. “In Eastern lands,” says Mr. Thomas Moore, “they talk in flowers.” Very flowery certainly is their talk. They also, good easy people, take pearls for physic—not for dentifrice, Easterns always having white teeth, apparently, so far as I have been able to judge, without the trouble of cleaning them, but as a regular dose. They call it majoon; it is an electuary, and myriads of small seed pearls are ground to impalpable powder to make it. As for the adulteration in this article, doubtless to be found, I say nothing. The simple lime from the inside of the shell would be just as white and just as good. Common magnesia would have the same effect; but, good sirs, if an old Emir, or rich Bonze, wishes to pay an enormous price for something to swallow to comfort his good old inside, why not? Do not let us brag too much: from the time of old Gower, doctor of physic, to Dr. Cheyne, we have, sir, allowed everything, from toad’s brains to the filings of a murderer’s irons, to be taken as physic.

The Bahrein fishery-boats amount to 1500, and the trade is in the hands of merchants who possess much capital. This they employ in a manner which the associated operatives, and amongst them the operative, at present unassociated, who has compiled this paper, would consider unjust. They lend it out at cent. per cent.; they buy up, and they beat down, they juggle, cheat, rig the market, rob in a legal way a whole boat’s crew, grow enormously rich, and preach morality.

Nor do they forget superstition. In the chief boat, when they fish, sits a jolly old cheat, a conjuror, called the binder of sharks, who waves about his skinny hands, jumps, howls, incants, and otherwise exerts his theological powers, and will not allow the divers, nor are they willing, to descend till he declares the moment propitious. To add some weight to their devotions, they debar themselves of food or drink during this Mumbo-Jumbo play, but afterwards a species of toddy makes them like “Roger the Monk,” namely, “excessively drunk.”

The true shape of the pearl should be a perfect sphere. In India, and elsewhere, those of the largest size find the readiest sale, and realise immense prices. The very finest pearls are sent to Europe, and of these the very finest of the fine are sent to London and Paris. Thence the great people of the land procure their choice specimens. The late Emperor of Russia used to purchase for his wife, of whom he was exceedingly fond, the very finest pearl he could procure: a virgin pearl and a perfect sphere was what he sought, for he would not have any that had been worn by others. After five-and-twenty years’ search, he presented to the Empress such a necklace as had never before been seen.

Immense prices have been given and are still given for pearls. Julius Cæsar, in love with the mother of Marcus Brutus, is said to have donated her with a pearl worth 48,417l. 10s., which we can believe or not according to our natures. Marc Antony, as all the world has read, drank, dissolved in vinegar, a pearl which cost 80,729l. of our money. Clodius the glutton (surely a gourmet, not a gourmand) swallowed one worth 8072l. 18s. One of the modern pearls was bought by Tavernier at Catifa, and sold by him to the Shah of Persia for 110,000l.; another was obtained by Philip II. of Spain, off the Columbian coast, which weighed 250 carats, and was valued at 150,000 dollars.

Tavernier’s pearl, if engraved, would illustrate the rocky and bad shapes which are too often found. Of the 960,000 pounds weight of oyster-shells imported annually into the United Kingdom we say nothing; nor need we more than advert to the 1,000,000 pounds of the same material cut up by the Chinese for like ornamental purposes.

Did the scope of our paper include a description of the substitute for the real pearl, the marvellously clever imitation which is worn, wittingly, by many a gracious lady, and unwittingly by many another, we should have another interesting story to tell. But these imitations may be considered as frauds upon our placid creditor the oyster—or, shall we say, compositions with him, and beneath the notice of debtors who are trying to behave honestly to a bivalve.

J. H. Friswell.