Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls
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Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls

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by Stephen G. Bloom
     
 

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A round, luminescent pearl is the simplest and most perfect gem. Columbus sought—and found—this precious jewel coveted by his Spanish sovereigns, sparking popularity throughout Europe. Fashion icons Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace, and Michelle Obama cherished them, making them iconic. And designer Coco Chanel raised them to new heights, bringing

Overview

A round, luminescent pearl is the simplest and most perfect gem. Columbus sought—and found—this precious jewel coveted by his Spanish sovereigns, sparking popularity throughout Europe. Fashion icons Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace, and Michelle Obama cherished them, making them iconic. And designer Coco Chanel raised them to new heights, bringing pearls— fake and real—to women everywhere. In Tears of Mermaids, Stephen G. Bloom travels 30,000 miles in an effort to trace a single pearl—from the moment a diver off the coast of Australia scoops an oyster containing a single luminescent pearl from the ocean floor to the instant a woman fastens the clasp of a strand containing the same orb. Bloom chronicles the never-before-told saga of the global pearl trade by gaining access to clandestine outposts in China, the Philippines, French Polynesia and Australia. He infiltrates high-tech pearl farms guarded by gun-toting sentries, farms for pearls in rural China, and even goes backstage at Christie's for a fast and furious auction of the most expensive pearl ever sold. Teeming with rogue humor and uncanny intelligence, Tears of Mermaids weaves a nonstop detective story whose main character is the world's most enduring jewel.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 2003, author and journalism professor Bloom (A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America) embarked on a journey "to track a single pearl" from the ocean floor to the string on a woman's neck. Over 30,000 miles and "four hectic globe-trotting years" later, Bloom concluded that the task was impossible; still, he had succeeded in tracing the pearl industry across history and through cultures, profiling a motley crew of divers, sorters, pearl lords, and others along the way (including a woman even more obsessed than Bloom, who believes pearls speak to her in spiritual messages). Bloom travels to spots like the Philippines; Australia; Kobe, Japan ("known worldwide as Pearl City"); and the Chinese hotspots currently giving Kobe a run for it global business. In China, Bloom learns the fascinating technique by which farmers seed a single large, fresh-water mussel to generate as many as 50 pearls at once, nearly identical in quality to much more expensive Kobe pearls. Average readers may find more than they ever wanted to know on the subject, but anyone who's ever dreamed about a string of black Tahitians will be enchanted.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
In this worthy addition to the microhistory genre, Bloom (Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America) sets out to follow the journey of a pearl "from diver's hand to woman's bosom." Of course, the sheer volume of pearls and their circuitous paths from oyster to necklace make this impossible, but in his study of the gem Bloom travels the world and interviews major and minor players in the field, including pearl farmers, sorters, distributors, and auctioneers. He draws thought-provoking comparisons to the trade of other global commodities, especially cocaine, and considers how unfair it is that those at the beginning of the pearl's life cycle get paid the least. A couple of minor quibbles: a few illustrations would have been welcome, and the author's transcriptions of dialect can be tiresome (we get it; people have accents). VERDICT Sometimes learning too much about something can kill its magic, but Bloom's love of pearls—which are, after all, "essentially calcium-coated beads"—allows him to draw back the curtain on the business of dealing in them without ruining his or the reader's pleasure in their charms. Recommended for readers of history, as well as gem and jewelry aficionados.—Megan Hahn Fraser, UCLA\
Kirkus Reviews
An enthusiastic reporter reveals all about this precious but useless bauble. An oyster makes a pearl by coating an irritant that enters its shell-despite the legend, rarely a grain of sand, usually a tiny parasite. This takes years and doesn't happen often, so hundreds of oysters die to produce a single natural pearl. Bloom (Journalism/Univ. of Iowa; Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, 2000, etc.) points out that the first treasure returned to Spain by Columbus was not gold or even spices but pearls, which also produced the first rush of greedy European entrepreneurs who enslaved the Native Americans. Literally tons were harvested across the world during the next centuries, but pollution, overfishing and culturing have reduced natural pearls to a minor niche. Originating in Australia at the dawn of the 20th century, developed in Japan, but now flourishing in China, culturing produces a product nearly identical to the real thing at a fraction of the cost. Fortunately, despite mass production, large, perfect, exquisitely beautiful pearls remain rare and wildly expensive. The author obviously enjoys himself, traveling the world to pearl conventions, observing sales and auctions, interviewing experts, dealers, farmers, scientists and eccentric pearl aficionados, working on an oyster vessel, pausing to deliver historical lessons, entrepreneurial success stories and-inevitably-bad news about the environment. Oysters, wild or farmed, require clean water, but the vastly more productive mussels used in China grow fine in polluted rice paddies. A satisfying mixture of history, science and popular culture a la similar books on salt, diamonds, potatoes, cod, uranium, etc.
From the Publisher

“In Tears of Mermaids, Stephen G. Bloom tells the history of the pearl trade down to the present day, focusing in particular on the harvesting and marketing of pearls in today's global markets. As Mr. Bloom makes clear, pearls are still big business, with dealers routinely exchanging hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time for just the right ones. And certain pearls command astonishing prices. One striking quality of pearls, Mr. Bloom tells us, is the aesthetic rapport they form with their wearers, absorbing body heat and seeming to glow and reflect luminescence onto the skin. For millennia, only the wealthiest members of society could hope to know this quality first-hand. And now millions of people can.” —Wall Street Journal

“a labor of love and obsession. Bloom was inspired by a necklace his mother would wear only on special occasions and wound up traveling 30,000 miles over four years in his quest to uncover info on the global pearl trade and its origins.” —New York Post

Tears of Mermaids is more than just the biography of a milky orb. It's also an adventurer's travel log, in which Bloom muses on his favorite experiences like living as a deckhand on an Australian pearling vessel and singing karaoke with Chinese businessmen.

Bloom's adventure goes a long way in proving the pearl is anything but plain-especially when he's observing an auction at Christie's, where a string of 68 gumball-sized pearls belonging to an Indian Maharaja are up for grabs. Final price? $6.3 million.” —More Magazine

“Bloom's adventure goes a long way in proving the pearl is anything but plain-especially when he's observing an auction at Christie's, where a string of 68 gumball-sized pearls belonging to an Indian Maharaja are up for grabs. Final price? $6.3 million.” —More Magazine

“The most memorable pearls in Tears of Mermaids are not in the necklace Michelle Obama wears, but the ones that are missing. Time after time, a fisherman, diver, or small-scale pearl farmer recalls a tremendous pearl he found on the ocean floor. But they always disappear: lost, sold by a spouse, swindled away by a supposed friend. The fishermen seem upset, but not much. They seem to know, even without an economics class, that the value is not the pearl itself, but the setting.” —Orion Magazine

“Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, has poured his passion into Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, a tell-all book about pearls and the network that delivers them to the world's well-dressed women. The more we learn, the more contagious his passion becomes. He introduces characters worthy of a screenplay -- the swaggering Australian pearl lord, the Chinese pearler in her Cadillac and sprayed-on jeans, and the improbable "Rana of Fresno," whose home in a modest subdivision is a treasure chest of rare pearls.a fascinating book.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Anyone who's ever dreamed about a string of black Tahitians will be enchanted.” —Publishers Weekly

“Bloom's love of pearls--which are, after all, "essentially calcium-coated beads"--allows him to draw back the curtain on the business of dealing in them without ruining his or the reader's pleasure in their charms.” —Library Journal

“A satisfying mixture of history, science and popular culture.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Forget The Treasure of Sierra Madre--gold is so boring when it's up against the story of pearls. In Tears of Mermaids, Stephen Bloom takes you into a world of bravado and mystery as he traces, in a multi-continent quest, where pearls come from. Bloom, in league with writers who go deeper and practice what I call "method journalism", did everything but become an oyster to understand pearls. His passion for the pearl is infectious--it will be difficult for you to put this book down.” —Dale Maharidge, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of And Their Children After Them.

“Stephen Bloom takes us into a world so hidden it might as well be underwater. This richly-written book about pearls is about more than the bauble. It is about the human story--both glorious and sad--behind those organic spheres that have been the subject of popular fascination since the discovery of the Americas. An incredible feat of reportage.” —Tom Zoellner, author of The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire and Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of And Their Childre Dale Maharidge

Forget The Treasure of Sierra Madre--gold is so boring when it's up against the story of pearls. In Tears of Mermaids, Stephen Bloom takes you into a world of bravado and mystery as he traces, in a multi-continent quest, where pearls come from. Bloom, in league with writers who go deeper and practice what I call "method journalism", did everything but become an oyster to understand pearls. His passion for the pearl is infectious--it will be difficult for you to put this book down.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312363260
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
11/24/2009
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
382
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

1

 

In the Beginning

The story everyone knows goes like this:

On a clear night on October 11, 1492, Christopher Columbus gazed westward into the horizon from the Santa María and saw a faint light, “like a small wax candle that rose and lifted up,” as he would write in his ship’s log. The next morning the Genoese navigator and his men would be greeted by legions of adoring Caribbean Indians, and thus Columbus discovered the New World. The extraordinary first-ever meeting of Indians and Europeans would stir the greatest clash of cultures the world has ever known.1

But that’s the official, sanitized version that details how Columbus brought prosperity and religion to tens of thousands of New World Indians and, in the process, set the course for the settlement of North and South America. It’s also the version of Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. Columbus’s next three voyages to the New World—and the reasons for them—have largely been lost to modern readers of history.

Our story begins with why Columbus made these three subsequent trips across the Great Abyss, as the Atlantic was then called. Originally, his mandate from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella was to find a route to the Orient so that the Spanish crown could access the reputed riches of Asia. But what specifically were Columbus and the Spanish monarchy looking for?

Columbus’s charge was very specific, according to his ship’s log: “to discover and acquire new lands,” to set forth “the expansion of the Catholic Faith,” and to secure “Pearls, Precious Stones, Gold, Silver, Spiceries, and other Things and Merchandise of whatever kind, name or description that may be.”

That pearls led the list of commodities was not an accident. At the time, pearls fetched more per ounce than gold, and their scarcity led to a booming seller’s market throughout Europe. While the king and queen were hopeful that Columbus’s expedition would result in shiploads of gold and therefore finance greater expansion of the Spanish flag, it was pearls that particularly captivated the royalty of Spain, as well as the rest of Europe. Queen Isabella was almost a contemporary of England’s Elizabeth, known as the Pearl Queen (for her coronation, Elizabeth draped herself with pearls; when she died, her corpse was swathed in them). Isabella, a strawberry-blonde fashion plate who often wore ornately spun satin and velvet gowns, was fascinated by pearls. With eyes described as a combination of jade and amethyst, Isabella collected hundreds of pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. When crowned queen of Castile in Segovia at age twenty-three, the fair-skinned princess wore a magnificent pearl necklace with a ruby pendant hanging from it. After Isabella and Ferdinand’s first son, Juan, was baptized in Seville in 1478, riding high atop a white palfrey in a great procession, Isabella was dressed in a brocade shimmering with pearls. The queen took to wearing pearls woven into her flaxen hair. For the wedding of her oldest daughter, Isabel, in 1490, Isabella ordered a trousseau of tapestries, gowns, chemises, coats, and robes lined with pearls. When her religious confessor, the Hieronymite monk Fernando de Talavera, counseled Isabella against such excesses, Isabella replied that such show was necessary to demonstrate to other monarchies Spain’s ascendant wealth and power. What Isabella neglected to say was simply that she adored pearls.

On his first voyage, Columbus returned to Spain with little to show for his New World expedition, except for fantastic stories that tantalized the royal court, as they did much of the nation.2 The admiral presented to the king and queen seven naked Indians he had seized on Hispaniola, who were ceremoniously baptized and pronounced royal vassals. The troupe, accompanied by squawking parrots, was paraded on Palm Sunday in a thousand-kilometer procession from Seville to Barcelona to awestruck crowds lining the streets, craning to get a look. The Indians bounced a strange and marvelous ball that rebounded higher than anyone in Europe had ever seen. One of the Indians was chosen to remain as a personal valet to fifteen-year-old Prince Juan; the others were to receive religious training and then to return to the New World to serve as missionaries. Columbus was accorded a hero’s welcome, and asked to sit in the presence of the king and queen, an extraordinary accommodation.

Despite the fantastic cavalcade, the king and queen were disappointed with Columbus’s New World treasure chest. They urged Columbus to return to the mysterious land he had assured them was Asia, confident that a second voyage would surpass the riches of another explorer, Marco Polo, from the city-state of Venice. For his next expedition, the king and queen pulled out all stops, authorizing Columbus to be master of a fleet of seventeen ships that would carry as many as 1,500 men. A frenzy spread through Spain, and so many men wanted to accompany Columbus that only 200 crew members were paid salaries; the rest were volunteers hoping to cash in on the certain riches to be found on the other side of the world. This time Columbus’s flotilla carried horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, all designed to sustain a settlement in the New World. With the crammed-packed ships went accountants and treasurers: Columbus was to keep for himself one tenth of all treasures, with almost all of the rest going to the Spanish crown.3

While pearls and gold may have been what the sovereigns were after, it was spices that Columbus brought back with him in the spring of 1496 when he returned from the second voyage. Spices by then had become thoroughly essential to Europeans. Salt, as well as pepper and other dried plants, was used to preserve meat and to conceal odors of spoiled foods. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, cassia, and saffron were indicators of wealth and status, and since most had to be imported through Venice and Egypt, Columbus’s discovery was welcomed by the Spanish monarchs. Along with the spices, Columbus this time returned with 1,500 Taíno Indians, who were given Catholic training; almost all died of infectious diseases within six months back in Spain.

Spreading God’s will to the natives may have been a noble undertaking, but what the king and queen particularly wanted—pearls and gold—Columbus was unable to provide his patrons. The most he could show for all the money the royals had fronted for both expeditions were several ornamental masks and belts accented with gold, along with crudely woven pieces of cotton. This time Isabella and Ferdinand did not ask Columbus to sit in their court.

The admiral returned to the New World two years later. On August 4, 1498, he sailed into the Gulf of Paria, at the mouth of the Orinoco, near the landmass now known as Venezuela. Columbus wrote in his diary that he was mesmerized by the lush lands he sailed by, believing that he had found the portals of the Garden of Eden on the forested islands he called Trinidad and Gracia, on either side of his ships. At about 9:00 a.m. on August 8, he anchored. Immediately, he was greeted by natives wearing strands of glistening pearls. Columbus promptly sent a boat ashore, where his crew was led to a chieftain’s house for a gala feast. Columbus traded small brass bells, glass beads, and sugar for three pounds of pearls. When he inquired as to the pearls’ source, the Indians told him that sumptuous, giant pearl oyster beds lay close by, to the immediate west and north, within a day’s trip. At long last, Columbus was close to the Holy Grail.

Inexplicably, though, Columbus never sailed to the pearl-rich destination. In his diaries, he writes that he left immediately to sail to Hispaniola because food stock and supplies on his ship were spoiling. He also concedes that his health was deteriorating, “as a result of lack of sleep, I was suffering in my eyes.” At the time, sunglasses had not been invented, nor had the relatively simple innovation of wide-brimmed hats; Columbus wrote that he was almost blind from nonstop squinting into the sun. He also suffered from aggravated arthritis and gout, and complained that he hadn’t slept for more than a month. The physical ailments, as well as the worsening condition of his ships and the spoiled food in the holds, prompted him on August 8 to sail to the Spanish stronghold of Hispaniola without ever exploring the fertile gardens of luminescent pearls the queen so coveted. At least, that’s what the admiral’s diaries indicate.

Within a decade, the waters surrounding the islands of Cubagua, Margarita, and Coche would be discovered to contain the richest oyster beds in the world. No one knows how many pearls Columbus ever traded for or seized in the southeastern Caribbean near the coast of Venezuela, but in October he sent back to the king and queen a map of the Paria Gulf along with a sealed small cache of pearls, in an attempt to curry favor with his benefactors. Finally, the sovereigns had something tangible for all the money they had given Columbus.

News of Columbus’s treasure chest, and his map pinpointing where to find more of what was inside, circulated to entrepreneurial European navigators and businessmen. Soon, the pearl rush was on. If there was little gold on the New World islands, pearls would do just fine. To Europeans, pearls meant the promise of staggering sums of money and opulence.

In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda, a gentleman (known as an escudero) volunteer on Columbus’s second voyage, hired Juan de la Cosa, who had been on Columbus’s first two expeditions and who had owned the Santa María, to lead a four-ship fleet to the area near Cubagua island to plunder the gulf’s oyster beds. Along with Ojeda and Cosa, the Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci joined to assay the findings for the monarchs. The flotilla left in May 1499 and took just twenty-four days to cross the Atlantic. Vespucci wrote to a friend in Florence, Pedro Soderini, that on the expedition he found “a huge quantity of very good oriental pearls” weighing 119 marks, which he traded “cascabeles, espejos y cuentas, diez balas y hojas de latón (tiny bells, mirrors, and beads, ten shots of lead, and sheets of brass)” for.4 In 1500, another pearl-seeking armada set sail, this one organized by a consortium of businessmen led by Cristóbal Guerra and Pedro Alonso Niño, who had been a crew member on Columbus’s first two expeditions. Niño’s ships were the more successful of the two flotillas, and returned to Spain with ninety-six pounds of magnificent pearls, “some as large as hazelnuts, very clear and beautiful, though poorly strung,” according to historian Carl O. Sauer.5 (One reason for the poor stringing was that the Indians did not possess Western instruments such as steel needles or drills necessary to pierce the delicate pearls without damaging them.)

In December 1499, the Spanish monarchy had authorized yet another voyage led by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, the brother of Columbus antagonist Martín Alonzo Pinzón. All told, between May 1499 and June 1505, at least eleven flotillas left Spain in search of pearls and other riches in the New World. As word spread of vast pearl beds near Cubagua, more and more ships sailed from Spain for the New World. Ultimately, the waters surrounding Venezuela, and later, Colombia, were to produce more pearls in such a short period of time than any other region in the history of the world.

But the man who supposedly sailed into the pearl-producing water first was to realize none of the bounty of his successors. Columbus made a fundamental blunder when he first spotted the pearls in the Gulf of Paria. His contract with the king and queen as Admiral of the Ocean Sea mandated that he would personally receive 10 percent of the value of all goods seized on his voyages, and that he would be granted authority over all lands he discovered. What Columbus failed to do on his third voyage was not personally set foot on land. Instead, he sent his men to barter with the Indians, and thus he never performed the singular legal act of possession of the new territory. It was a technicality that was to undermine the rest of his career, providing a trump card for the king and queen to legally extricate themselves from Columbus, allowing the monarchs to license other navigators to explore what arguably should have been the exclusive domain of Columbus.

While this second crop of Spanish navigators, all following in Columbus’s wake, was busy trading trinkets for increasingly large quantities of priceless pearls, enriching both themselves and the crown’s coffers, Columbus had fallen into disfavor with the crown. The king and queen had commissioned a prosecutor by the name of Francisco de Bobadilla to get to the bottom of the squalid conditions and Columbus’s mismanagement of affairs at Hispaniola. Bobadilla visited the island in the spring of 1500, by all accounts was horrified, and promptly had Columbus arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains. Thus, as scores of explorers, almost all of them antagonists of Columbus, were realizing huge profits from the procurement of New World pearls, the decommissioned admiral suffered the ignominy of hearing about their great fortunes while held under house arrest.

The Indians had initially regarded the Spanish as powerful, supernatural beings, who had arrived in mammoth ships never seen before, armed with such marvels as cannons, muskets, gunpowder, and axes. The Indians must have been awestruck, marveling at the enormous masts and huge sails. And metal. The Indians had never seen a substance as hard and durable, which, they were told, could be fashioned into everything, from knives, plates, cups, and utensils to needles and hooks. There was more: soft beds, finely crafted shoes, brightly colored flags. But of all the amazing items the Europeans brought with them, the most impressive to the Indians was glass.

In one of the world’s most lopsided exchanges, the Spaniards heaped on the Indians inexpensive glass objects—beads, mirrors, glass shards, clear and colored bottles—for dazzling pearls that would fetch fortunes in Europe. It was the sparkle of glass, as well as its utility, that mesmerized the Indians.

Pearls were essential life elements to the Indians, but they were also plentiful in the southeast Caribbean waters. Their lack of scarcity reduced any sense of economic value to the Indians. The natives viewed pearls as material representations of a great ephemeral spirit. Pearls not only reflected light but transported light from within, and, as such, were viewed as giving strength and power to the wearer. “Light was life, light was mind, and light was great being,” write historians Christopher L. Miller and George R. Hammell. Associated with water and life, pearls were a natural symbol of eternity to the Indians. Pearls were viewed as “sensuous, variably coloured embodiments of bright cosmic energy that energized the universe,” writes anthropologist Nicholas J. Saunders. Shiny objects embodied brilliant luminescence and dazzling colors—values the Indians held as life-giving. Brilliant light brought structure, order, and reverence. Shimmering clear lakes, for instance, were viewed as portals through which the dead ascended to a spiritual realm.6

When the Spaniards opened up their chests full of glass beads, the Indians viewed the glass as even better than pearls. The man-made “jewels” provided an even greater concentration of light than pearls. To lure the Indians to part with pearls, the Spaniards employed, as Stephen Greenblatt writes in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, “the grossly unequal gift exchange.” It went like this, writes Greenblatt: “I give you a glass bead and you give me pearls worth half your tribe.”7

However skewed such a trade seems today, to the invaders there was little sense of inequality. In exchange for giving the Indians the glory of Catholicism and the privilege of being subjects of the royal court, the Spanish had the divine right to take as many pearls and other objects of economic worth as they wanted.8 Once they realized the pearls’ worth to the Spaniards, the Indians gladly traded more and more pearls for a chance to own such novel European goods as wine made from grapes, firearms, linen, and wheat bread (by 1516, wine and guns were prohibited from trade because they had led to violence and hostility). The Spanish let nothing get in the way of their mission to bring tens of thousands of pearls back to Spain. By the end of the first decade of the 1500s, pearls had become the New World’s largest export, exceeding the value of all other goods combined. Navigators returned to present to Ferdinand and Isabella so many pearls that the king and queen took to plunging their hands into treasure chests, letting the gleaming white orbs pour through their splayed fingers.

The sovereigns’ demand for pearls, as well as the sharply escalating market for them, soon became so great that within a decade whole Indian tribes were condemned to slavery and forced to dive for pearls. Especially prized for their diving were the Lucayans, capable of submerging more than 100 feet while holding their breath. To ensnare the Lucayans, the Spanish would announce with fanfare that they had just come from the spirit world and were willing to return there so the Lucayans would be able to visit their dead family members. Wholly unaccustomed to such wholesale deceit, the Lucayans swarmed the Spanish caravels, after which the ships’ hatches would be locked, and the Indians would then be transported to outlying islands that had been transformed into labor camps, where they would be forced to dive for pearls.

Thousands of enterprising Spaniards sailed to the Gulf of Paria, by now known as the Golfo de Perlas (Gulf of Pearls). As an incentive to stay, the Spanish crown rewarded settlers with homesteads that included Indian slaves, provided the settlers converted the Indians to Catholicism. If the Indians resisted, they would be declared slaves by Spanish rule; to expedite matters, settlers reported that the Indians were cannibals and sodomites, and when so informed, the Spanish throne mandated that such infidels be legally taken as slaves anyway.

The descriptions of exploitation and subjugation of the native Indians to secure pearls is numbing. The most complete account comes from the Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish colonist whose father had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage. Las Casas turned into a well-known chronicler of Indian abuses in the New World, although scholars for years have contended that his account was exaggerated; perhaps because of that, it served as much-needed agitation for social reform.9 In many ways, Casas is the forerunner of today’s liberation theologists in Latin America. Here’s just one paragraph of his numbing account, published in 1552, of pearl divers off the island of Trinidad—today the nation of Trinidad and Tobago:

One of the cruelest and most damnable things in the whole of Creation is the way in which the Spanish use natives to fish for pearls. The life of a pearl-fisher in these conditions is worse than any other on the face of the earth; it is even more dreadful and more terrible than that of the native gold-miner, ghastly though that undoubtedly is. They are in the water from dawn to dusk, often operating at depths of four or five fathoms. Seldom are they permitted to surface for air but must spend their time swimming under water and tearing at the oysters in which pearls grow. Once they have filled their nets they surface, gasping, and hand the oysters to the Spanish taskmaster who sits in a smak or canoe. If they spend more than a few seconds at the surface to get their breath back, he will punch or grab them by the hair and push them back under, making them dive once more. Their only food is fish—and then only oysters—plus, perhaps, some cassava bread (they bake with cassava flour of the region), the oysters providing little in the way of sustenance and the cassava being extremely hard to make. They are kept perpetually hungry. At night they are shackled to prevent them from escaping and they have to sleep on the hard ground. Often, when out fishing or searching for pearls, a man will dive never to resurface, for the poor wretches are easy prey to all manner of sharks, the most ferocious of sea creatures, capable of swallowing a man whole. One can see how closely the greed of those Spaniards involved in this profitable enterprise of pearl-fishing induces obedience to God’s commandment to love Him and to love one’s neighbors, for they place their fellow-creatures in peril of both body and soul (the wretches dying without learning of Christ and without the benefit of the Sacraments). On top of this, their victims are forced to spend their last days in agony, and the nature of the work is such that they perish in any case within a few days, for not many can spend long under water without coming up for air, and the water is so cold that it chills them to the marrow. Most choke on their own blood as the length of time they must stay under water without breathing and the attendant pressure upon their lungs makes them haemorrhage from the mouth; others are carried off by dysentery caused by the extreme cold to which they are subjected. Their hair, which is naturally jet black, takes on a singed appearance more typical of sea-wolves, and their backs come out in great salt sores, so that they look more like deformed monsters than men, or like members of another species altogether.10

All those pearls meant a continuing stream of fortune flowing back to the Spanish monarchy. When Charles V became king in 1519, the demand for pearls soared more as the Spanish court required more and more pearls be used as jewels and in clothing, to decorate churches, and as exchange for manufactured goods from more industrialized European nations. Spain’s coffers so swelled that pearls helped underwrite a series of expansionist battles to seize lands belonging to France and Brittany.

From 1513 to 1530, an astonishing 113 million oysters, yielding more than twelve tons of oysters, were harvested near the island of Cubagua.11 To regulate the commerce of pearls, the Spanish sovereignty officially founded Nueva Cádiz in 1528 on Cubagua, although the settlement dates back to 1509. Most of the pearls were shipped to Seville, which became Spain’s center of pearl trade. One observer, Garcilaso de la Vega, noted that there was such an abundance of New World pearls in the Seville marketplace that, “they were sold in a heap … just as if there were some kind of seed.”12

Columbus ultimately became a disgrace to the king and queen, his island outposts overrun with disease, filth, hunger, mutiny, and violence. But his discovery of New World pearls signaled a new chapter in Europe. The mariner who had opened Europe’s eyes to the wealth and plenty of the New World died in 1506 at age fifty-five, broken in spirit (but financially well-off), after being released from house arrest for allegations of failure to declare all the treasures—most notably pearls—he had seized.

In less than thirty years, pearls had become a prime symbol of Spanish colonial dominance in the New World, a manifest Christian destiny that resulted in gaudy displays of pearls in thousands of European churches and scores of royal courts. Pearls had turned into a necessity for the well-dressed aristocratic woman and man from Lisbon to Copenhagen. Highly polished Venetian glass and imitation gems eventually put a dent in pearl consumption, but while skillfully made, the glass lacked the lustre and cachet of pearls. Glass beads (then and now) were no match for the real thing.

Pearls had become integral to fashionable European nobility, near-nobility, and the upper middle classes. Portraits and engravings of the era show members of the Hapsburgs, Medicis, Borgias, Tudors, and Stuarts all prominently wearing pearls to the exclusion of other gems. No longer accessories, pearls were essential elements that proclaimed success. The allure of pearls was a marketer’s dream: their presence conferred instant status on the wearer. Europe couldn’t get enough of them.

 

Copyright © 2009 by Stephen G. Bloom

Meet the Author

STEPHEN G. BLOOM, the Bessie Dutton Murray Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa, is the author of Postviile: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Inside the Writer's Mind, and The Oxford Project (with Peter Feldstein). For more than 20 years, Bloom was an award-winning reporter for The Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Jose Mercury News. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

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Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Please do more
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is 'Discontinued' due to lack of people. If you want me to go on please say so.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cool
Anonymous More than 1 year ago