James Cordiner.

A description of Ceylon online

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ing out with buoys the situation of the beds of oysters, and the
places where they are to be found in greatest quantities. In
the first place, a small sloop is anchored in the centre of the
banks, and remains there during the fishery as a guide to the
boats, and a guard to the buoys. The pilot boats sail round
this vessel in a circle of twelve or fifteen miles, sounding and
diving all the way; and whenever they find a spot rich in
oysters, they place a buoy over it. The buoys are rafts of
wood of a triangular shape, having flags of different colours
raised upon them, and are fixed to the place by a cable and
wooden anchor, with two large stones attached to it. Draw-
ings of the flags are inserted in a book, and a particular de-
scription is given of the quality, age, and denomination of
the oysters found where they are laid. The pearl banks are
situate about fifteen miles, or three hours sailing, from the
shore of Condaatchy. The hill called Coodaramaly Point, ap-
pearing like an island, is the only land to be seen from them;
and it is at so great a distance, and so little elevated, that its
bearings from the different banks cannot be ascertained with

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sufficient accuracy to supersede the labour of the pilots and the
divers: it therefore costs them several daya before they can de-
termine the positions of the banks, and the places where the
greatest number of oysters are to be found. The buoys are not
allowed to continue permanent, as they would either require a
vessel constantly to guard them, or, if not watched, would leave
the beds exposed to the ravages of pirates^

The pearl oysters in these banks are all of one species, and
of the «ame regular form, but of different qualities and deno*«
minations, from the nature of the ground to which they are
attached, and the appearance of curious zoophytes which ad*
here to the outside of the shells. The shape of the oyster isf an
imperfect oval, pretty nearly the same as that of a cockle, about
nine inches and a half in circumference, with a segment cut off
by a straight line at the hinge or point of union of the valves.
The body of the animftl is white, fleshy, and glutinous. The
inside of the shell is brighter and more beautiful than the pearl
itself: the outside is smooth, unless when covered with corals^
sponges, and other marine productions.

On one bank the oysters are found with a zoophyte upon
the outside of one of the shells, apparently of the class of
sponges: it grows in general in the form of a cup or wine-fun-*
nel; sometimes one edge tums in, and winds round in a spiral
form. It completely shades the oyster, and is called by the
natives coda, from its resemblance to a spread-out talipot leaf^
' which is the common umbrella of Ceylon. The oysters of* an-
other bed are rather of a smaller size, and have a red substance

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on them, which resembles the spittle which follows the chewing
of the betel-leaf, and has given them the name of codapakka-
chippy, or betel oyster. These two classes are considered as
producing the most beautiful and most valuable pearls. Many
of them are quite plain, and unincumbered with exterior loads:
others have trees of coral on them, five times their own weight:
others sponges of tubular and branching forms, full of small
holes. A large cluster of young oysters is often brought up,
with one old one in the midst of them. They are attached
firmly to the tocks, or to one another, by a bunch of hair; and
are sometimes swept about by the waves, in chains or clusters,
adhering to one another, or to pieces of rock. It is certain,
however, they have a locomotive power; this is determined by
the microscope : a number of young oysters, which, when taken
from the parent oyster, had the appearance of small sand, were
placed on the receiving -glass, and were seen to stretch out what
is commonly denominated the beard, and to draw themselves
along by it, with almost incredible ease and rapidity.

The apparent quantity of oysters on the banks varies con-
siderably at different seasons. Sometimes the waves at one
monsoon bury immense colonies of them in the sand; and those
of the other, acting in a contrary direction, bring them again
to view.

The pearls are most commonly contained in the thickest
and most fleshy part of the oyster, contiguous to one of the
angles of the shell cjose to the hinge. An oyster, in general,
contains several pearls: one has been known to produce a

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hundred and fifky, including the seed or dust pearls ; and one
hundred oysters have been opened without yielding one pearl
large enough to be discernible, while the substance of the ani-
mal remained undecayed,

The pearl oyster is said to attain its maturity at the age of
seven or eight years; after which its existence soon termi-
nates, and its contents are washed away by the waves. The
uncertainty which prevails in ascertaining the exact situation
of the different banks, and recollecting the spots which have
been fished at different periods, must occasionally lead to errors
in the conduct of this concern; In March 1804 the fleet of
boats accidentally discovered on a bed clothed with oysters,
the greater part of which were dead, and useless. A diver put
into his basket at one dip one hundred and fifty; but of these
not more than ten were found alive, the rest being empty shells.
Either by negligence or mistake this bank must have been al *
lowed to pass the season of its maturity. The; fishery in general
having been indifferent, the divers at first thought that they had
met with an instance of extraordinary good fortune, and were
much grieved when they found themselves disappointed.

If the short existence attributed to the pearl oyster be well
founded, the Dutch lost the benefit of three entire generations;
their last fishery having taken place in 1768, and the first of the
English in 1796.

The pearl oysters are of so delicate a naturfe, that it hjis
been found impossible to transplant them alive from one place
to another. Mr. North tried several experiments of this kind;

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but it is not probable that any of them will prove successfu).
Were planting colonies of them practicable^ it would open a
rich field both for speculation and increase of revenue.

As the boats arrive at Condaatchy to be employed in the
fishery they are regularly numbered, and their description and
the names of their crew are registered in a book.

The fishery for the season of the year 1804 was let by go-
vernment to a native of Jaffnapatam, who had resided for some
years previous to it on the coast of Coromandel. For thirty
days fishing with one hundred and fifty boats, he came under
an obligation to pay three hundred thousand Porto Novo pago-
das, or one hundred and twenty thousand pounds sterling. He
sold the right of fishing to some of the hpA equipped boats for
three thousand pagodas each, and that of others for two thoxi*
sand five hundred; but kept by far the greater part of them to
fish on his own account. After the commencement of the
fishery he could not have sold them for nearly so high a price,
as tlie general expectation was greatly disappointed by the
small quantity of oysters which they brought on shore.

Although it would occasion more labour to the servants of
government, it is probable that a gredter revenue might be
gained by renting the boats individually to a multitude of ad-
venturers. By their paying two thirds of the price, according
to custom, in advance, and the other third on the expiralion of
twenty days fishing, there could be no risque of sustaining any


Mr. North arrived at the government-house at Aripo on the

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11th of Februarj^, attended by a small body-guard of cavalry
lately raised, having travelled from Columbo in six days. Tiro
hundred soldiers of the 51st regiment, Ceylon native infantry^
and Bengal volunteers, with four English officers, and two six-
pounders, had reached Condaatchy about a week before, and
were stationed there during the fishery. An extensive square
of temporary buildings, formed of sticks and palmyra leaves,
was erected for their accommodation, and for public offices;
and the renter reared a house for himself in one comer of it, of
the same perishable materials. He brought a large family with
him, and thirteen palanquins, to each of which were attached
thirteen bearers well dressed, also a few sepoys with rusty
muskets, some of whom constantly attended him, and ran by
the side of his palanquin, when he went abroad in that convey*-
ance. The renter soon went and waited on the governor, and
paid him many compliments in the figurative style of his coun-
try. He is the only native, belonging to the British territories
in the island, who enjoys the privilege of sitting in his excel-
lency's presence.

A part of the Manaar independent company was posted in
the old fortress of Aripo, about a quarter of a mile north of the
governor's house.

The hussars, consisting of twelve Europeans and six natives,
were stationed in a temporary barrack close to his excellency's
quarters: and a seijeant's guard of infantry, furnished from the
different details of native troops, relieved each other daily there,
for the protection of the governor's person.


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Major Herbert Beaver, of his Majesty's 19th regiment o^
foot, aide de camp to the governor, commanded all the troops
at these stations.

The Candians never attempted to make any descent in the
district of Aripo during the period of the fishery, although they
frequently threatened the mud fort of Putlam, at no great dis-
tance from it.

Square palisades were erected close to the sea-shore for the
purpose of receiving the oysters, extending in a line, about
half a mile in length, parallel to. the beach. At this time no
other buildings, nor any other appearance of population, were
to be seen in the neighbourhood of Condaatchy, besides what
have been mentioned : but in a few days the speculators began
to assemble, and to erect their huts in regular streets marked
out for them. Every man carries with him the materials neces-
sary for this purpose, which consist of sticks, mats, pieces of
cotton cloth of various colours, rice-straw, cocoa-nut, and pal-
myra leaves: and he raises hi& simple shed almost as easily and
as speedily as he could pitch a tent.

The natives of the diflFerent countries in India, which send
people to the fishery^ were dilatory in repairing to it; and af-
forded in this instance an example of that general procrastina-
tion, which marks their character in all other concerns. On
the 20th of February, the day advertised for the fishery to
commence, not one boat appeared. On the 27th eighty had
arrived, and, with that number, fishing began on the 28tb.
On the third of March the boats were nearly completed to one

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hundred and fifty: on the eighth, two hundred and fifty were
permitted to fish; and soon after, the number employed was
increased to three hundred. At the same time three hundred
other vessels of various descriptions, some fit for the fishery,
some employed in commerce, lay. at anchor along the shore.

The beach, extending upwards of three miles, from the bay
of Condaatchy to the fortress of Aripo, is admirably adapted
for the convenient riding of the boats, the water being deep
close to a sandy beach, and not agitated by any surf. They
drop one anchor, and turn their prows to the sea; their crooked
sterns line the shore, and the vessels are securely moored, only
a few steps from land, by a rope fastened round a pole.

As thirty successive days of fine weather are scarcely to be
expected, a greater number of boats than that mentioned in the
agreement is permitted to fish. The people employed on the
part of government keep a regular account of the boats which
go to sea every day, so that the contract with the renter may
be faithfully fulfilled, and he allowed the amount of one hun-
dred and fifty boats fishing for thirty days. If only seventy-
five boats went out, their fishing was counted as half a day ;
and when three hundred fished, it stood for two days.

The boat-people are raised from their slumbers by the noise
of horns and tom-toms, and the firing of a field-piece, gener-
ally before midnight^ when the land-wind is favourable. The
noise and confusion of collecting and embarking upwards of
six thousand people in the darkness of night, may be more
easily conceived than described. After going through their

voL^ II. h:

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various ablutions and incantations, they set their sail, guided
by the pilot boats; and when they have approached the banks,
they cast anchor, and wait the dawn of day. With the first
appearance of light they again get under weigh, and every
boat chooses its own ground, and drops its anchor around the
sloop and the different flags.

About half past six, or seven o'clock, when the rays of the
sun begin to emit some degree of warmth, the diving com*
mences. A kind of open scaffolding, formed of oars and other
pieces of wood, is projected from each iide of the boat, and
from it the diving-tackle is suspended, three stones on one side
and two on the other. The diving-stone hangs from an oar by
a light country rope and slip-knot, and descends about five
feet into the water. It is a stone of fifty-six pounds weight, of
the shape of a sugar-loaf. The rope passes through a hole in
the top of the stone, above which a strong loop is formed, re-
sembling a stirrup-iron, to receive the foot of the diver. The
diver wears no clothes, except a slip of calico about his loins ;
swimming in the water, he takes hold of the rope, and puts
one foot into the loop or stirrup on the top of the stone. He
remains in this perpendicular position for a little time, support-
ing himself by the motion of one artn. Then a basket, formed
of a wooden hoop and net-work> suspended by a rope, is thrown
into the water to him, and into it he places his other foot.
Both the ropes of the stone and basket he holds for a little
while in one hand. When he feels himself properly prepared,
and ready to go down, he grasps his nostrils with one hand to

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prevent the water from rushing in, with the other gives a sud-
den pull to the running-knot suspending the stone, and in-
stantly descends: the remainder of the rope fixed to the basket
is thrown into the water after him at the same moment: the
rope attached to the stone is in such a position as to follow him
of itself. As soon as he touches the bottom, he disengages his
foot from the stone, which is immediately drawn up, and sus-
pended again to the projecting oar, in the same manner as
before, to be in readiness for the next diver. The diver, in the
bottom of tlie sea, throws himself as much as possible upon his
face, and collects every thing he can get hold of into the basket.
When he is ready to ascend, he gives a jerk to the rope, and the
- munduc, who holds the other end of it, hauls it up as speedily
as possible. The diver, at the same time, free of every incum-
brance, warps up by the rope, and always gets above water a
considerable time before the basket. He presently comes up
at a distance from the boat, and swims about, or takes hold of
an oar or rope, until his turn comes to descend again : but he
seldom comes into the boat until the labour of the day is over.
The basket is often extremely heavy, and requires more than
one man to haul it up, containing besides oysters, pieces of
rock, trees of coral, and other marine productions. •

The manner of diving strikes a spectator as extremely simple
and perfect. There is no reason to believe that any addition
has been made to the system by Europeans; nor, indeed, does
there appear the smallest room for improvement.

The superstition of the divers renders the shark charmers a

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necessary part of the establishment of the pearl fishery. All
these impostors belong to one family, and no person, who does
not form a branch of it, can aspire to that office. The natives
have firm confidence in their power over the monsters of the
sea ; nor would they descend to the bottom of the deep without
knowing that one of those enchanters was present in the fleet.
Two of them are constantly employed. One goes out regu-
larly in the head pilot's boat. The other performs certain cere-
monies on shore. He is stripped naked, and shut up in a room,
where no person sees him from the period of the sailing of the
boats until their return. He has before him a brass bason full
of water, containing one male and one female fish made of
silver. If any accident should happen firom a shark at sea, it
is believed that one of those fishes is seen to bite the other.
The shark-charmer is called in the Malabar language Cadal-
cutti, and in the Hindostanee Hybanda, each of which signi-
fies a binder of sharks. The divers likewise believe that, if the
conjurer should be dissatisfied, he has the power of making the
sharks attack them, on which account he is sure of receiving
liberal presents from all quarters. Sharks are often seen from
the boats, and by the divers when they are at the bottom of
the sea, but an accident rarely occurs. Many fisheries have
been completed without one diver being hurt; and pethaps not
mote than one instance is to be found in the course of twenty

The prejudices of the natives, however, are not to be com-
bated with impunity: and any infringement on their esta-

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folished customs would be impolitic, if it were practicable.
Their superstition in this particular is favourable to the in-
terests of government, as, from their terror at diving without
the protection of the charms, it prevents any attempt being
made to plunder the oyster banks.

When a young diver is training to the business, he descends
in the arms of a man completely experienced in the art, who
takes great care of him, and shews him the manner of proceedr
ing; and the pupil at first brings up in his hand a single oyster,
a stone, a piece of coral, or a little sand, merely to shew that
he has reached the bottom.

Many of the divers are trained to the business by diving for
chancques, which are found in more shallow water.

I observed with attention the length of time that many of
the divers remained under water, in the depth of seven fathoms.
Some of them performed the dip within the space of one mi-
nute; others came up in one minute and twenty seconds. Some
gentlemen, who have frequently superintended the fisheries,
and accompanied the divers to the banks, consider one minute
and a half as the longest period that any diver remains under
water. Other gentlemen, who are willing to allow the greatest
.atitude, say that they certainly never knew a diver exceed two

In ground richly clothed with oysters, a diver often puts
upwards of one hundred and fifty into his basket at one dip:
but, when the oysters are thinly scattered, he as frequently col-
lects no more than five.

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The men after diving generally find a small quantity of
blood issue from their nose and ears, which they consider as a
favourable symptom, and perform the operation with greater
ease and comfort after the bleeding has commenced. They
seem to enjoy the labour as a pleasant pastime, and never mur-
mur nor complain, unless when the banks present a scarcity
of oysters; their fatigue is then the same, and their profit is
greatly diminished.

There are two divers attached to each stone, so that they go
down alternately; and the one rests and refreshes, while ^the
other plunges. The period allotted to the operation of diving
continues from five to six hours. When three hundred boats
are anchored on the banks, fifteen hundred divers may be sup-
posed to descend every minute. The noise of their going down
prevails without interruption, and resembles the dashing of a

When the day is suflSciently advanced, and the sea-breezd
has set in, the head pilot makes a signal, which is repeated by
his assistants, and the fleet set sail for the shore. They gener-
ally leave the banks between the hours of one and two P. M.
and arrive at the beach of Condaatchy between four and five.
They come into view in a regular line, and the number that can
be counted increases gradually as they advance. They cer-
tainly afK)rd an uncommon sight; but the size of the vessels is
not large enough to add grandeur to the scene. Many spec-
tators are continually looking out for their appearance; and as
soon as they heave in sight flags are hoisted at the difierent^

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banksals, or enclosures along the shore, and at the head-quar-
ters of the troops. All descriptions of people, whose duty does
not prevent them, hasten to the water's-edge to welcome the
arrival of the fleet. The concourse of people, stir, and noise,
are then immense; a crowd, through which it is difficult to pass,
extending for half a mile along the sand. Every boat comes
to its own station, and the oysters are immediately put on the
shoulders of the divers, and carried into the inclosures. The
two divers attached to each stone keep their oysters in separate
parcels, and they are put into nets and baskets in the boat.
The oysters of each stone, when landed, are counted by the
divers into four heaps, and a person employed on the part of
the renter points out to them One of these, which they carry
away as their own wages. But after the diver leaves the bank-
sail with the fourth part of his oysters, he is subjected to a mul-
titude of small exactions, which gredtly diminish the amount of
his profit. The inunducs receive one sixth of the divers' share:
each of the other persons belonging to the boat is allowed
twenty oysters per diem, and the renter's peon is allowed ten.
Two native servants employed in the g^ieral conduct and re-
gulation of the concem are authorised to demand ten oysters
each. The two jshark-binders are allowed, between them, ten
oysters; and the two pagodas of Ramissepam and Nagore each
the same number. What remains of his share the diver imme-
diately exposes for sale in the bazar or market-place; and most
commonly exchanges his oysters for money before sun-set. The
first day the oysters sold at two for one fanam, but afterwards

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fell greatly in value. They are purchased in small quantities
by a variety of speculators, with a view of profit, and by a few
merely for amusement. There is scarcely a gentleman or ser-
vant of any description present at the scene^ who does not
every day lay out a small sum in an adventure of this nature.
The oysters belonging to the renter are piled up in large heaps
within the inclosures, and he does not wash or open any of
them until the fishery is considerably advanced. He sells
none of them, and trusts to receive his profit from their pro-

The boat owner receives for the use of his boat the shares of
all the divers, without any deductions, every sixth day. They
never fish on Sundays^^ AH the pilots, and many of the divers,
are Christians, and attend th^ Romish chapel in the village of
Aripo., The Hindoos also have places of worship in the neigh-
bourhood, to which they resort. But independently of these
circumstances, the labour is so incessant and fatiguing, that,
without the intervention of a day of rest, the work could not
be* carried on.

From the period that the diver disposes of his oysters, until
near midnight, is all the portion of time allotted him for refresh-
ment and rest. He, however, as well as the greater part of the
crew, generally sleeps on board the boat on its passage to the
banks. But when it is necessary to ply the oars, as sometimes
happens, all hands are employed.

Notwithstanding the many exactions and drawbacks im«
posed on the divers, when the fishery proves successful, each

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man carries home at the end of the season from forty to fifty
pagodas to his family. But when oysters do not abound on
the banks, the reward of his toil is not more than sufficient to
a£ford him daily subsistence.

Government allows the fishing of two boats to the temple of

Online LibraryJames CordinerA description of Ceylon → online text (page 4 of 24)