Marco Polo Saw Pearls Galore!

Marco Polo tells all...all about pearls!

In that interesting book dictated in a Genoese prison to Rusticiano da Pisa, accounts are given by this famous traveler of great treasures seen by the first Europeans to penetrate into China.

Malabar Pearls

He describes the king of Malabar as "wearing suspended about his neck a string of 104 large pearls and rubies of great value, which he used as a rosary. Likewise on his legs were anklets and on his toes were rings, all thickly set with costly pearls, the whole "worth more than a city's ransom. And 'tis no wonder he hat great store of such gear; for they are found in his kingdom. No one is permitted to remove there from a pearl weighing more than half a saggio. The king desires to reserve all such for himself, and so the quantity he has is almost incredible."

Gulf of Manaar Pearls as described by Marco Polo

The first extensive description we have of the Gulf of Manaar fisheries was given by the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, who visited the region about 1294. He wrote:

"The pearl fishers take their vessels, great and small, and proceed into the gulf where they stop form the beginning of April til the middle of May. They go first to a place called Bettelar, and then go 60 miles into the Gulf. Here they cast anchor and shift from their large vessels into small boats.

You must know that the many merchants who go divide into various companies, and each of these must engage a number of men on wages, hiring them as his royalty, the tenth part. And they must also pay those men who charm the great fishes to prevent them from injuring the divers whilst engaged in seeking pearls under water, one-twentieth of all that they take.

These fish-charmers are termed Abraiaman; and their charm holds good for that day only, for at night they dissolve the charm so that the fishes can work mischief at their will. These Abraiaman know also how to charm beasts and birds and every living thing.

When the men have got into the small boats they jump into the water and dive to the bottom, which may be at a depth of from 4 to 12 fathoms, and there they remain as long as they are able. And there they find the shells that contain the pearls, and those they put into a net bag tied round the waist, and mount up to the surface with them, and then dive anew. When they can't hold their breath any longer they come up again, and after a little down they go one more, and so they go on all day.

These shells are in fashion like oysters or sea-hoods. And in these shells are found pearls, great and small, of every kind, sticking in the flesh of the shell-fish. In this manner pearls are fished in great quantities, for thence in fact come the pearls which are spread all over the world. And I can tell you the King of that State hath a very great receipt and treasure from his dues upon those pearls."

Polo, Marco, Italian Merchant and Adventurer
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Shark Charmers as observed by Marco Polo

Until 1885, one of the most novel features of the fisheries in Asia was the employment of shark-charmers or "binders of sharks" (kadal-kotti in the Tamil language, hai-banda in Hindustani), whose presence was rendered necessary by the superstition of the Indian divers. The fishermen placed implicit reliance upon the alleged supernatural powers of these imposters, and would not dive without their supervision.

It is unknown what period the influence of these semi-priests developed, but when Marco Polo visited in 1294, they were in the full bloom of their authority, receiving one twentieth of the total catch of oysters, which amounted to a very considerable sum.

Marco Polo visits the King of Malabar

Oriental potentates loved collecting jewels, as this quote from Marco Polo, centuries ago, shows.

"Several times every year the King of Malabar sends his proclamation through the realm that if any one who possesses a pearl or stone of great value will bring it to him, he will pay for it twice as much as it cost. Everybody is glad to do this, and thus the King gets all into his won hands, giving every man his price."

Marco Polo
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King's Prayer Pearls as Seen by Marco Polo

Speaking of the jewels of the King of Malabar, or what was known as the Coromandel Coast in 1908, Marco Polo tells us: "It is a fact that the king goes as bare as the rest, only round his loins he has a piece of fine cloth and round his neck he has a necklace entirely of precious stones, --rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and the like, insomuch that this collar is of great value. He wears also hanging in front of his chest from the neck downwards, a find silk thread strung with 104 large pearls and rubies of great price. The reason," says Marco Polo, "why he wears this cord with the 104 great pearls is (according to what they tell) that every day, morning and evening, he has to say 104 prayers to his idols. Such is their religion and custom and thus did all the kings his ancestors before him, and they bequeathed the string of pearls to him that he should do the like."

Marco Polo Loses His Gem Lined Coat

In Oriental countries, one tactic used to hide the fact one was carrying valuables such as pearls was to dress like a vagrant and conceal the gems in your clothing.

This reminds us of Marco Polo who had concealed in an old coat valuable gems, the gift of the Grand Khan. His wife heedlessly gave the coat to a beggar and it was only regained by clever stratagem.

Marco Polo Paints us a Picture of the Great Kublai Khan

Describing the birthday festival of Kublai Khan (circa 1275 A.D.), Marco Polo says: "The Great Kaan dresses in the best of his robes, all wrought with beaten gold; and full 12,000 Barons and Knights on that day came forth dressed in robes of the same color, and precisely like those of the Great Kaan, except that they are not so costly; but still they are all of the same color as his, and are also of silk and gold. Every man so clothed has a girdle of gold; and this as well as the dress is given him by the Sovereign. And I will aver that there are some of these suits decked with so many pearls and precious stones that a single suit shall be worth full 10,000 golden bezants (about $25,000 in 1908)."

In the Kan period in China, the dead bodies of the emperors were embalmed and wrapped in a garment ornamented with pearls. They were then enclosed in a case of jade.

Special thanks to Kunz and Stevenson for their 1908 account of these Marco Polo pearl adventures.

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Kari


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