Pearl Fishing History of Mannar

Pearl fishing history of Mannar

Mannar District has been famous for pearl fishing since the early part of the 19th Century. Richard Boyle (2001) writing in Himal Southasian pointed out that pearl fishing was an integral part of Sri Lanka’s colonial history, and the island’s north-western coastline enjoyed a pre-eminent reputation for producing the best pearls in the world.

According to Tennekoon (2010), pearl fishery was the number one revenue source of the British who needed funds to administer the Colony. This was the reason for establishing a permanent post in Arippu, and why the Mannar Administrative District received so much attention at the beginning of the 19th Century. Until 1889, the fishery headquarters was located at Silavatturai – ‘the port of the pearl fishery’ (Boyle, 2001) – in normal times a lonely place just south of Arippu, on the coastline.
All that’s left: Ruins of the historic Doric building on the cliff threatened by sea erosion.

Map of Sri Lanka, Indian Sub-Continent

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Siriwira, in an article, which appeared in Daily News on May 25, 2011, refers to 2400-year-old, ancient Greek records of pearls from the Isle of ‘Taprobane’, and other reliable references to Sri Lanka’s pearl fishery. It appears that the Chinese traveller - Fa-Hsien, who arrived in the island in 411 A.D.; and the Arab traveller, Ibn Batuta, who visited in 1344 A.D., reported actually seeing precious collections of pearls in the King’s treasury.

Records indicate that the British earned considerable revenue from Ceylon pearls; for instance, from March 1828 to May 1837 alone, Sterling Pounds 227,131 were credited as revenue into the Ceylon Treasury on account of the pearl fishery (Siriweera, 2011)

Reflecting on Mannar and the Pearl Fishery, I was also reminded of another famous name, that of the British Civil Servant in ‘Ceylon’ – Leonard Woolf, of the ‘Village in the Jungle’ fame. Colonial records indicate that in the period 1905-1911, Woolf, then a young man in his mid-20s, spent a considerable amount of time in the Mannar and Puttlam Districts, at various times, supervising pearl-fishing communities.

Source for pearl fishing history of Mannar

Gulf of Mannar pearl fisheries by Kunz (1908)

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