Divers are a Pearl’s Best Friend: Pearl Diving in the Gulf 1840s–1930s

Dr Mark Hobbs

Author

Gulf History Specialist, British Library
Before oil, the inhabitants of the Gulf’s Arab coast depended on diving for natural pearls for their economic livelihoods. And, like oil, it was chiefly European and North American demand that dictated the success or failure of each pearling season.

Prior to the start of large-scale exploitation of the region’s oil reserves in the 1950s, pearl diving was the primary economic activity along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. . Pearls had been harvested from the waters of the Gulf from time immemorial, but it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the industry grew quickly to meet an increasingly global demand.

Pearls from the Gulf were traded to India, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and further afield to Europe and North America, where the aristocratic and emerging middle classes regarded pearls as luxury items for use in jewellery and clothing. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the pearl trade in the Gulf had grown to such an extent that it united men of all backgrounds. In 1877, William Palgrave recalled how Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani of Qatar had exclaimed to him that: ‘We are all from the highest to the lowest slaves of one master, Pearl.’

Arab pearl-divers at work in the Persian Gulf from: George Frederick Kunz, The Book of the Pearl (New York: Century, 1908). Courtesy of Hathi Trust
Arab pearl-divers at work in the Persian Gulf from: George Frederick Kunz, The Book of the Pearl (New York: Century, 1908). Courtesy of Hathi Trust

Organisation of the Pearling Industry

Pearl diving in the Gulf was a seasonal activity, taking place over the four months of summer. Each season, scores of pearling boats departed from ports such as Manama, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi for coastal banks rich with oysters. Most of the active male populations of these towns were involved in the industry. The lowliest employees, many of whom had been enslaved in Africa and the Asian subcontinent before being transported to the Gulf, worked as divers, sailors and ‘pullers’ (those responsible for pulling the divers up by ropes from the seabed).

These men subsisted on advances given to them at the beginning of each season by their captains (nakhudas), who either owned or hired their boats and were responsible for feeding and clothing their crews. Pearl merchants (tawawish) in turn, forwarded advances to boat captains to finance the diving season. The tawawish paid the nakhudas upon the delivery of the pearls. The pearling industry therefore functioned on borrowed capital.

Extract of blueprint map of the Arab coast of the Gulf, with pearl banks indicated, 1930s. IOR/R/15/1/616, f. 3
Extract of blueprint map of the Arab coast of the Gulf, with pearl banks indicated, 1930s. IOR/R/15/1/616, f. 3

Historic Accounts of Pearl Diving

Historical sources give us some idea of the extent of pearl diving activities and the profits made over time, although the accuracy of their figures cannot be precisely verified. James Buckingham reported in his 1829 book Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia that the industry at Bahrain brought in twenty lakhs of rupees annually, approximately £200,000 at the time. In his 1838 book Travels in Arabia, James Wellsted estimated that there were 3500 boats of all shapes and sizes at Bahrain at the height of the season, and a further 700 on the coast between Qatar and Oman.

The Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. Lewis Pelly wrote a report on the pearling industry in 1865, in which he stated that there were 1500 pearling boats active in Bahrain during the pearling season, yielding a profit of £400,000 each year.

Statistics of the Value of Pearls exported annually from the Gulf, 1873-1906. From Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, vol 1, part 2, p 2252. IOR/L/PS/20/C91/2
Statistics of the Value of Pearls exported annually from the Gulf, 1873-1906. From Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, vol 1, part 2, p 2252. IOR/L/PS/20/C91/2

Another Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. , John Lorimer, wrote an historical account of the Gulf’s pearling industry for his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. . He stated that the industry was worth £625,933 in 1873/74 and £1,076,793 thirty years later in 1904/05. Lorimer also reported that the Bahrain pearl fisheries employed 917 boats and over 17,500 men in 1905. At Dubai, Lorimer counted 335 pearl boats, 410 at Abu Dhabi and 350 at Doha. Paul Harrison wrote in 1924 that in the 1913 season, the value of pearls sold from Bahrain amounted to approximately nine million US dollars.

Decline

By the time Harrison visited the Gulf, the region’s pearling industry was already falling into slow decline. A major factor affecting that decline was the development of the cultured (artificially produced) pearl industry in Japan from 1916, by the entrepreneur Mikimoto Kōkichi. Cultured pearls Pearls created artifically by pearl farmers under controled conditions were more abundant and up to a tenth of the price than those harvested in the Gulf.

From the 1920s, the pearl fishing fleets belonging to the towns along the Arab coast shrank, and the populations of many towns dwindled dramatically as people moved away to seek work elsewhere. Between 1908 and 1941, the population of Bahrain fell from around 100,000 to 90,000 persons (Lorimer, 1908: vol. 2; Bahrain 1941 census statistics) while Doha’s population dropped from 27,000 to 16,000 inhabitants during the 1930s.

By the early 1950s, as large-scale oil production facilities grew up across the region, the traditional pearling industry had all but disappeared from the coastal waters of the Gulf.

Primary Sources

  • James S. Buckingham, Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (London: Henry Colburn, 1829)
  • Paul Harrison, The Arab at Home, (London: Hutchinson, 1924)
  • Kingdom of Bahrain Ministry of Health, Census and Demographics Statistics (2011) [accessed 19 June 2013]
  • J. G. Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf Oman and Central Arabia, 1 & 2 (London: Archive Editions, 2003)
  • Edwin W. Streeter, Pearls and Pearling Life (London: George Bell & Sons, 1886)
  • William G. Palgrave, A Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia, (London: MacMillan and Co., 1877)
  • J. R. Wellsted, Travels in Arabia, (London: John Murray, 1838)

Secondary Sources

  • Robert Carter, ‘The History and Prehistory of Pearling in the Persian Gulf’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 38, 2 (2005), pp. 139–209
  • George Frederick Kunz, The Book of the Pearl (New York: Century, 1908). 
  • Florian Wiedmann, Ashraf M. Salama & Alain Thierstein, ‘Urban Evolution in the City of Doha: An Investigation into the Impact of Economic Transformations on Urban Structures’, Journal of Faculty of Architecture, Middle East Technical University, 29, 2 (2012) pp. 35–61.