The Book of the Pearl – George Frederick Kunz



The bordring Hands, seated here in ken,
Whose Shores are sprinkled with rich Orient Pearle,
More bright of hew than were the Margarets
That Caesar found in wealthy Albion.

ROBERT GREENE, Orlando Furioso (1594).

FROM the point of view of the Spaniards of his day, the greatest result of Balboa’s immortal journey in 1513 across the Isthmus of Panama to the broad waters of the Pacific, was the discovery of the pearl resources of the Gulf of St. Michael, now known as the Gulf of Panama.

Probably the best description of this is given by Lopez de Gomara in his “Historia general de las Indias,” published in 1554, from which we  translate the following account. After Balboa had reached the Pacific in 1513, he proceeded a snort distance along the coast until he met with an Indian chief by the name of Tomaco.

Being questioned about the gold and pearls which some of riis people wore, Tomaco sent for some gold and 240 large pearls and a great number of small ones—a rich present, which filled the Spaniards with pleasure. Seeing the Spaniards so delighted, Tomaco ordered some of his men to go and fish for pearls. These went and in a few days obtained 64 ounces, which also he gave them.

The Spaniards were surprised to see such pearls, and that their owners did not value them ; they not only gave them away, but their paddles were decorated therewith, for the principal income and wealth of these chiefs was the pearl fishery. Tomaco told Balboa that these riches were nothing in comparison with those of Tararequi, which had pearls larger than a man’s eye, taken from oysters the size of sombreros.

The Spaniards wished to go there at once, but fearing another tempest, left it for their return. They dismissed Tomaco and rested in the country of Chiape, who, at the request of Balboa, sent thirty of his men to fish. These did it in the presence of seven Spaniards, who looked on and saw them take six loads of small shells. As it was not the season for that fishery, they did not go into very deep water where the  shells were.

Not only did they not fish in September and the following months, but they did not even travel by water, on account of the stormy weather which then prevails in that sea. The pearls which they extracted from those shells were like peas, but very fine and white. Of those received from Tomaco, some were black, others green, blue, and yellow.

On the return of Balboa’s expedition to Darien in 1514, the sight of the pearls and the wonderful reports made by the men, caused his successor, Pedrarias, to fit out another expedition, an account of which we likewise translate from Gomara.

By command of Pedrarias, Gaspar de Morales went in the year 1515 to the Gulf of St. Michael, with 550 Spaniards, in quest of the island of Tararequi, which was said by Balboa’s men to be so abundant in pearls and so near the coast. The chief of that island sallied forth with many people to prevent his entrance, and clamored and fought three times with our people on equal terms, but the fourth time he was defeated.

He then made friends, carried the chief of the Spaniards to his house, which was a large and good one, gave him food to eat, and a basket of pearls which weighed 110 marcs [880 ounces]. The chief received for them some looking-glasses, stringed beads, bells, scissors, axes, and small wares of barter, which he valued more than he had the pearls.

He promised to give as tribute to the emperor, in whose guardianship he placed himself, 100 marcs of pearls every year. With these the Spaniards returned to the Gulf of St. Michael and from thence to Darien. Tararequi is within five degrees of the equator. It possessed a great fishery for pearls, which are the largest and best of the new world.

Many of the pearls which the cacique gave were like filberts, others like nutmegs, and there was one of 26 and another of 31 carats, pear-shaped, very lustrous, and most perfect, which Peter of the Port, a shop-keeper, bought of Gaspar de Morales for 12,000 castilians.

The purchaser could not sleep that night for thinking on the fact that he had given so much money for one stone, and so he sold it the very next day to Pedrarias de Avila, for his wife Donna Isabel de Bovadilla, at the same price, and afterwards the Bovadilla sold it to Donna Isabella the Empress.

Pedrarias, who delighted in such fishery, requested the cacique to make his men fish for pearls in the presence of the Spaniards. The fishermen were great swimmers and divers, and seemed to have spent all their lives in that employment. They went in small boats when the sea was calm, and not in any other manner.

They cast a stone for an anchor from each canoe, tied by strong, flexible withes like boughs of the hazel. They plunged to search for oysters each with a sack or bag at the neck, and returned loaded with them.

They entered four, six, and even ten fathoms of water, for the shell is larger the deeper they go, and if at times the larger ones come in shallow water it is through storms, or because they go from one place to another in search for food, and having found their pasture they stay there until they have finished it.

They perceive those who search for them, and stick so close to the rocks or ground, or one to another, that much strength is needed to detach them, and many times the fishermen cannot raise them and leave them, thinking they are


Then, too, the pearl from out its shell,
Unsightly in the sunless sea,
(As ‘t were a spirit, forced to dwell
In form unlovely) was set free,
And round the neck of woman threw
A light it lent and borrowed too.

THOMAS MOORE, The Loves of the Angels.

PEARL-BEARING oysters are found at various places on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and especially along the coast of Lower California, where extensive pearl fisheries are prosecuted. The pearls are noted for the great variety of colors which they display. A large percentage are black, others are white, brown, peacock green, etc.

Generally they are small and of irregular form, yet sometimes very large ones are secured, weighing 100, 200, and even 300 grains. European knowledge of the pearl resources of Mexico dates from the conquest of that country by Hernando Cortés about 1522. The diary of his lieutenant, Fortuno Ximines, tells of finding native chiefs living in primitive huts along the sea-shore, with quantities of beautiful pearls lying carelessly around.

From a tribe near the present site of Hermosillo, in the State of Sonora, Cortés secured great quantities of the gems. It appeared that the  fishery had been in existence for centuries. The location of the pearl reefs was prominently noted on Cortés’ map of this coast, made in 1535, a copy of which was procured by the Rev. Edward E. Hale when in Spain in 1883 Following Cortés’ explorations of the Pacific coast of Mexico (1533-1538), a number of expeditions were fitted out for securing pearls by trading with the natives, by forcing them to fish, and by even more questionable means.

Several of these expeditions found record in history either by reason of their unusual success or through the extreme cruelty with which they were conducted. The contact of the Spaniards with the Indians resulted in very bitter feelings on the part of the latter, so that it became risky for small traders to venture among them.

From time to time, successful expeditions were made, especially the one of 200 men sent in 1596 by the viceroy of Mexico to “the rich Isles of California,” mentioned by Teixeira. (1) Antonio de Castillo, a Spanish colonist, with headquarters south of Mazatlan, was one of the most successful of the early adventurers, and Iturbide Ortega and José Carborel were also among the fortunate ones of that period. (2)

Ortega marketed his pearls in the city of Mexico, and the reported sale of one for 4500 dollars had considerable effect in stimulating the industry. The advent of the Jesuits to western Mexico in 1642, developed amicable relations with the Indians; and although the missionaries were agriculturists rather than fishermen, the restoration of harmony resulted in a more favorable prosecution of the fisheries.

The colonists of Sinaloa and Nueva Galicia, who had formerly, in small vessels and with great danger, made occasional visits to the pearl beds, built larger vessels and made more frequent visits without apprehension. The skilful Yaqui and Mayo Indians were employed or impressed as divers, just as natives of the Bahamas had served in the fisheries of Venezuela. Great profits resulted from the operations.

Venegas wrote that “it was certain that the fifth of every vessel was yearly farmed for 12,000 dollars.” (3) So profitable was the fishery that the Spanish soldiers and sailors stationed in the Gulf of Cortes—as the Gulf of California was then called—were frequently charged with devoting more attention to pearling than to their official duties.

In order to put a stop to this evil, in 1704, Father Silva-Tierra, who was in authority in that part of the country, ordered that no soldier or sailor should engage in the fishery. With a view to removing the demoralizing influences of promiscuous adventurers among the Indians, the industry was later  restricted to persons specially authorized.

(1) Hakluyt’s “Voyages,” Glasgow, 1904, Vol. IX, pp. 318, 319.
(2) “Venegas, “Noticia de las Californias,” Madrid, 1757, p. 454.
(2) Clavigero, “Storia della California,” Venezia, 1789, Vol. I, p. 161

Probably the most successful of the early pearlers was Manuel Osio, who is credited with having marketed “127 pounds’ weight of pearls in 1743,” and “275 pounds’ weight” in 1744. 1 He operated in the vicinity of Mulege and northward, employing the Yaqui Indians ; Probably the most successful of the early pearlers was Manuel

Alvarado 1 at 12,000 dollars per year; but this was disputed by Jacob Baegert, a Jesuit priest. Baegert spent seventeen years in Mexico and, returning to Europe on the expulsion of his order from that country in 1767, published a report in 1772, containing rather an unfavorable view of the fishery. He stated that each summer eight, ten, or twelve poor Spaniards from Sonora, Sinaloa, and elsewhere on the mainland, crossed the gulf in small boats to the California shore for the purpose of obtaining pearls.

They carried supplies of Indian corn and dried beef, and also a number of Indians who served as divers, the Spaniards themselves showing little inclination to engage in the work when native fishermen could be employed so cheaply.

Provided with a sack for receiving the oysters which they removed from the bottom, the fishermen dived head first into the sea, and when they could no longer hold their breath they ascended with the gathered treasure. The oysters were counted before opening ; and, when the law was complied with, every fifth one was put aside for the king’s revenue.

Most of the oysters yielded no pearls ; some contained black pearls, others white ones, the latter usually small and ill-shaped. If, after six or eight weeks of hard labor and deducting all expenses, a Spaniard gained a hundred American pesos, he thought he had made a little fortune, but this he could not do every season. “God knows,” said Baegert, “whether a fifth of the pearls secured in the California sea yields to the Catholic king an average of 150 or 200 pesos in a year, even without frauds in the transaction.

I heard of only two persons—with whom also I was personally acquainted—who had accumulated some wealth, after spending 20 or more years in the business. The others remained poor notwithstanding their pearl fishing.” (2) Father Baegert’s statement of the returns seems to be substantiated by the reports of the royal fifth a few years later.

For the period from 1792 to 1796 this was placed at “2 lbs. 2 ozs.” by some writers; and according to others, from 1788 to 1797 it amounted to only “3 lbs. 9 ozs.,” which is the quantity assigned by some accounts to 1797 alone. (3) These returns apparently indicate that a great decrease had occurred since the days of Osio ; but it seems very doubtful whether, under the conditions existing in Mexico at that time, the royal treasury received its due share of the proceeds.

Shortly following the independence of Mexico in 1821, and after a period of little activity, several attempts were made to exploit the pearl resources. The great prosperity in England, ensuing upon the

(1) Pedro Alvarado, “Historia California,” Vol. I, p. 10.
(2) ‘Arch. Cal. Prov. St. Pap. xvi. Ben. Mil.  xvi, xvii, xviii.
(3) Baegert, “Nachrichten von der Amerikanischen Halbinsel Californien,” Mannheim, 1772.