Pearl Diving in History

Here you will find various quotes relating to pearl diving from historical accounts.

There are numerous reports of much longer stays than in this account on a previous page; indeed, a study of the published evidence bearing upon the subject furnishes surprising results. Ribeiro wrote, in 1685, that a diver could remain below while two credos were repeated: “Il s’y tient l’espace de deux credo.” (1)

In his interesting account of pearl diving in the Ceylon fishery, Percival stated that the usual length of time for divers to remain under water “does not much exceed two minutes, yet there are instances known of divers who could remain four or five minutes, which was the case with a Caffre boy the last year I visited the fishery.

The longest instance ever known was of a diver who came from Anjango in 1797, and who absolutely remained under water pearl diving for a full six minutes.” (2) Le Beck says, that in 1797, he saw a diver from Karikal remain down pearl diving for the space of seven minutes. (3) The merchant traveler, Jean Chardin, reported in 1711 that the divers remain up to seven and a half minutes under water: “Les plongeurs qui pechent les perles sont quelquefois jusqu’a demi-quart-d’heure sous l’eau.” (4)

In 1667, the Royal Society of London addressed an inquiry on this subject to Sir Philiberto Vernatti, the British Resident at Batavia in the East Indies. Vernatti’s reply gave certain details regarding the Ceylon fishery, but did not touch upon the length of diving because, as he stated, he could not “meet with any one that could satisfy me, and being unsatisfied myself, I cannot nor will obtrude anything upon you which may hereafter prove fabulous; but shall still serve you with truth.” (5)

Two years later, and presumably after investigation , Vernatti reported: “The greatest length of time of pearl diving that pearl-divers in these parts can continue under water is about a quarter of an hour; and that by no other means than custom; for pearl-diving lasts not above six weeks, and the divers stay a great while longer at the end of the season than at the beginning.”(6) The anatomist Diemerbroeck relates(7) the case of the pearl diver who, under his own observation, remained half an hour at a time under water while pursuing his work; and this was seriously adopted without comment by John Mason Goode in his “Study of Medicine.”(8) Ibn Batuta, “the Doctor of Tangier,” wrote about 1336 that “some remain down an hour, others two hours, other less.”(9)

A still earlier writer, Jouchanan Ibn Masouiah, a christian physician who lived in the time of Khalif Wathek Billa, about 842 A.D. in his book on stones, states that “the diver, when he dives, places upon his nose a masfasa lest water should enter into him, and breathes through the fissure, and remains under water for half and hour.” According to Sebaldus Rau (10) this masfasa was an article resembling a hood or a cap, which the diver places over his nose. It was made of some impervious material and had a projection so long that its reached to the surface of the water.

The same writer believes that this object was alluded to by Aristotle (“De part. Animal,.” Lib II,c.16), where he likens the trunk of the elephant to the instrument used by certain divers for aiding their respiration, so that they could remain longer in the water and draw in air from above the surface.(11) And here we cease pursuit of further records, lest our faith in recorded testimony be too severely tested. (12)

A superficial inspection of the above evidence, from the one or two hours noted by Ibn Batuta about the year 1336, to half and hour of Diemerbroeck in 1672, the quarter of an hour of Vernatti in 1669, the seven and one half minutes of Chardin in 1711, the six minutes of Percival in 1803, to the 110 seconds of the present time, seems to indicate very clearly a gradual but somewhat remarkable decrease in the ability of Asiatic divers, and that the pearl fishermen of the present day are very different creatures from their ancestors.

And especially is this so when considered that the above records are not isolated reports selected for the particular purpose of showing a decrease in the length of pearl diving; on the contrary they are authoritative and representative of publications of their respective periods. We do not recall having seen in any report issued on pearl diving previous to 1675, an intimation that the limit of time was less then ten minutes.

However, a careful consideration of the subject of pearl diving leads to the belief that there has been no serious decrease in the length of time that the Arab and Indian diver remain under water, and that either the writers were misinformed or that the individual cases reported were extremely exceptional. Ibn Batuta’s instance of one to two hours could easily be caused by a mistake in copying Arabic manuscript, or in the translation. The case related to Diemerbroeck in which a pearl diver remained submerged half an hour pearl diving, is more perplexing, especially as the physician reports that this was done under his own observation. The numerous reports of five or six minutes may have been based on a very exceptional case.

These statements are viewed as highly incredible by men who have spent scores of years at the fisheries. A man may remain submerged for several minutes, but the conditions are vastly different from the activities of pearl-diving at a depth of ten fathoms, where the pressure of the water in nearly thirty to the square inch, and the slightest exercise is fatiguing.

Unless the time is taken by a watch, it is easy to over estimate the stay; the seconds pass very slowly when one is waiting momentarily for the appearance of the diver’s head above the water, and certainly to the nearly exhausted fisherman with the straining chest and palpitating heart, the last few seconds must seem extremely long indeed. An instance is noted in which an Arab diver remained submerged pearl diving seventy-one seconds, and on his reappearance, naively inquired if he had not been down ten minutes.

It seems doubtful whether the 110 seconds herein noted has been greatly exceeded, in recent years at least, by Arab or Indian divers, who do not appear to equal the semi-amphibious natives of the South Sea islands in their exploits.

1.”Histoire de I’Isle de Ceylon,” Amsterdam, 1701, ch. 22, p. 169
2.”An account of the Island of Ceylon,” London, 1803, ch. 3, p. 91
3.”Asiatic Researches,” London, 1798, Vol. V, p.402
4. Chardin, “Voyages en Perse,” Paris, 1811, Vol. III,p.363
5. Sprat, “History of the Royal Society,” London, 1667,
6. Philosophical Transactions for 1669, No. 43, p. 863
7. Diemerbroeck, “Anatome Corporis Humani,” Ultrajecti, 1672.
8. Sixth American Edition, NY,1835, Vol. I, p. 239
9. Reinaud, “Fragments Arabs,” Paris, 1845,p. 126. Lee, “Ibn Batuta,” London, 1829, p.65.
10.“Specimen Arabicum,” Traiecti ad Rhemin, 1784, p. 64.
11. Ibid., p.65.
12. Writers describing the early pearl fisheries on the American coast, and especially at Cubagua on the present coast of Venezuela, also reported very lengthy stays. In 1526, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes wrote: “The thing that causeth men most to marvel is to consider how many of them can remain at the bottom for the space of one whole hour, and some more or less according to expertness.” (“Natural Historia de las Indias,” Toledo, 1526.) About 1588, the Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta wrote: “I did see them make their fishing, the which is done with great charge and labor of the poor slaves, which dive six, seven, yea twelve fathoms into the sea…; but yet the labor and toil is greatest holding their breath, sometimes a quarter, yea half and hour together under water.” (Acosta, “Natural and Moral History of the Indies,” Hakluyt Society, 1880, p. 227.)

Special thanks to Kunz and Stevenson for their 1908 account of pearl diving.

Go to pearl characteristics after pearl diving.

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