The oyster beds on the north of Bahrain were the centre of a natural pearl fishery that dominated the Arabian Gulf from at least the 3rd century BC until the early 20th century. Exploding demand for pearls beginning in the 19th century produced a single product economy in Bahrain, centred in its then capital and the capital of Arabian Gulf pearling, Muharraq.
Pearl exports contributed three quarters of Bahrain’s total exports in 1877, with most destined for Bombay, Persia and Turkey. Europe emerged as a major direct market for Bahrain’s pearl exports following the turn of the century, and by 1904-05 an estimated 97.3 per cent of the Gulf’s turnover in pearls was traded through Bahrain. The value of Bahrain’s pearl exports increased six fold between 1900 and 1912, when Indian merchants were joined in Bahrain by others from Paris, London and New York, all vying to secure the finest pearls at source.
Bahrain’s annual pearl fishery was a community-wide endeavour: from pearling merchants, divers and dhow captains to boat builders, timber merchants and general goods suppliers, nearly every profession found in Muharraq city existed to serve the pearling economy.
The pearling economy reached its apex in 1911-12, after which a series of catastrophes including wars, price crashes, the arrival of cheap cultivated pearls, the Wall Street crash and its impact on the market for luxury goods, and riots by divers aggrieved at the loss of income, all led to the decline in the 1930s and ultimately total collapse of the industry by 1950.
Pearl jewellery has been an object of intense desire since ancient times. Pierced pearls as items of jewellery dating to around 5,000 BC have been found at coastal sites in the Arabian Gulf region.
The enduring allure of lustrous natural pearls and pearl jewellery is unmatched. Natural pearl necklaces and earrings are depicted in the works of the Renaissance masters, and the use of natural pearls as ornaments in crowns and tiaras, hair adornments and brooches through the ages illustrate their universal appeal. Siyadi Shops, owned by Siyadi family who were famous for pearl merchandise, were the centre for production and sale of pearl jewellery in Bahrain during the pearling era.
Up until the turn of the 20th century, most Bahrain pearls were exported to Bombay, where they were classed, matched and drilled before being resold. Later leading French, British and American jewellers began to visit Bahrain to secure the finest pearls at source. Among them was Jacques Cartier, who visited Bahrain to select natural pearls for his exceptional jewellery, initiating a relationship between Cartier and Bahrain that endures to this day. The Pearl Museum, which will be hosted in Siyadi Majlis, will showcase a selection of jewellery pieces, including Bahraini pearls on a long-term loan from Cartier’s archival collection, alongside historic and contemporary pearl jewellery from Bahrain.
The millennia-long tradition of crafting fine jewellery with natural Bahrain pearls is still being continued in Bahrain by a handful of artisans. Bahrain prohibits the import or trade of cultured pearls, and boasts a state-of-the-art pearl testing laboratory to ensure every pearl sold in Bahrain is natural.
Pearling activities were dependent on an intricate system of trade and support industries that furbished the dhows with the supplies required for the diving season (al-ghus al-kabir). Several families in Bahrain were single-handedly relying on the income generated from the supply industries, which was enough to sustain a middle-class or an upper middle-class family. Yousif Abdulrahman Fakhro and Mahmood Mohammed Al-Alawi were among those, who gained economic strength through the supply trade. ‘Amarat complex located within the Muharraq Suq and Fakhro House are the components testifying to the wealth and economic power, brought by the pearling economy. Al-Alawi House, an urban component of the World Heritage site, depicts how the wealth deriving from supply trade impacted the architecture of a middle class merchant’s house.
The supplies consisted of maintenance equipment for the dhows, gear for the divers, fresh water and food. Water for drinking and cooking was stored in large wooden tanks on board the sea-going pearling dhows. If a boat’s water supply became exhausted, fresh water could be obtained from one of the many underwater springs in the Gulf, or alternately be delivered, together with food resources, by special supply boats operated by local merchants. In addition to water, the supply boats also provided coffee, dates, rice, and tobacco.
On land, storehouses (‘amarat) offered a wide range of merchandise, including hardware, equipment for boat building and, in later years, general goods such as building materials, textiles and groceries. Especially in Muharraq, the storehouses developed a high level of specialisation.
Al Alawi House, 2016, Camille Zakharia
The pearling crews formed a cohesive unit that included a variety of professions working side-by-side on board the dhows. Among these were the diver (ghīs); the hauler (sīb); a young assistant to the hauler (ridhīf); a multipurpose helper, usually aged between 9 and 13 (tabbab); the captain’s best mate and second-in- command (mjaddimi); and the captain (nukhidhah). On land, the pearl merchants (tawawish) assisted in the sale and trade of the pearls to regional and global markets.
Many of the men among the dhow crews started out in pearling as young tabbab. The responsibilities of these youthful assistants included serving, collecting water from the springs, fetching coals, and washing the clothes of the crew. After a few years of training, a tabbab could become a ridhīf. With time, as he gained in strength and experience, he could begin work as a hauler or a diver. The diver collected the oysters from the sea bed. A hauler not only pulled the diver up from the depths of the sea, but also rowed and set the sails of the dhows. The captain of the ship (nukhidhah) mapped the course for that season and oversaw the care of his crew. Al-Ghus House and Nukhidhah House are among the ones to visit to gain a perception on how the pearling crew members’ living spaces looked like.
Pearl diving in Muharraq and most other Arabian Gulf settlements was financed by a chain of loans made to the crews. The primary lenders were leading merchants, who extended advances to the captains, who in turn would use the money to maintain, equip and provision the boats, and also to advance a variety of loans to the divers to support their families. If, by the end of the season, the crew’s catch did not score favourably, the crew would take a loss and their debt would carry over to the following season. Until the pearling reforms of the 1920s, a diver’s or hauler’s next of kin would inherit his unpaid debts.
The loans system was closely regulated by customary law, as were the returns due to the creditor. Three types of loans were made to the pearling crews. The first (tisqam), was taken for the off-season, two months after the end of the main dive, for the maintenance of the haulers and divers and their family. The second loan (salaf), was taken at the start of the dive, to maintain the families of the diver during his absence. Thirdly, there was a mid-season loan (kharjiyyah), taken if necessary to supplement the salaf, or in the event that extra money was required to support the boat during the dive. Additionally, there were various ways of arranging payment of the loans by the financier and delivering him a profit while avoiding the Islamic prohibition on charging interest.
Socio-political matters of pearling were administered and contested within a system of jurisprudence that provided an important legal basis for social relations and financial transactions of the time. Initially, such affairs were addressed in community gatherings (majlis), usually held at the meeting or gathering place (majlis) of a prominent trader or figure within the community. All of these majlis were open to the public, and often played a role in dispute arbitration. This system was later supplemented by modern developments in the judiciary. The Salifah Court was an institution established to rule on disputes, in particular financial disputes, between the pearling crew members and the captains.