Monday, June 23, 2014

Pearling History of the Gulf

If I were to name the most important recent book on Gulf history, it would actually be Robert Carter's Sea of Pearls.  Carter is an archaeologist who is more than competent in history, and I have previously highlighted his work on Gulf Christianity in the early Islamic period.  His objective in the current book is to push pearling to the forefront of the history of the pre-oil Gulf, given "how fundamentally the pearling industry moulded the settlement patterns and economy of the region, and how utterly the societies of the Gulf depended on it."

The book is based on archaeological work, oral history, primary sources available in western European languages (including in translation), and the work of previous scholars on particular aspects of its subject.  It has a chapter on antiquity and another on what is conventionally called the Middle Ages, but becomes more detailed when sources become more abundant on the eve of the Portuguese arrival in the region.  One central them is that for much of history, the Gulf pearling industry was centralized in a very few sites under the domination of a particular state, such as the Sasanian Empire, the Qarmatian polity of the 10th century, and the Safavid Empire.  This changed during the 18th century, when Iran entered its long period of instability and a number of new Arab tribes arrived, creating a much more decentralized industry with numerous centers.  The pearling towns which were founded during this period continue into the modern period as cities and towns on the Arabian shore, from Ras al-Khaimah to Kuwait.

The book also dedicates several chapters to explaining industry practices during the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which are clearly similar to those of earlier times.  As early as the 1300s, merchants supported the expeditions with loans designed to cover the costs of equipping the expedition and support for divers' families during the four month of the annual pearling season.  If the divers and captains could not repay these debts, they had to continue working for the merchant, which often involved more debt.  This debt chain is often described as a form of indentured servitude, but Carter situates it within a general pattern of patronage relationships throughout the region, with the wealthy often providing for the poor in exchange for forms of service and loyalty.  The descriptions of great hardship all come from the late days in which the industry was dying, and the loan system generally seems to have prevented destitution following bad years, served to spread risk and profit within the pearling community, and allowed for the easy integration of newcomers and expansion of the industry during boom times.

There is, simply put, a ton of information in this massive book, which goes right up to the present, noting aspects of the pearl/oil transition, including the rise of a more generalized jewellery business and the continuation of many economic relationships.  Another thing is that it deals with the entire Gulf littoral, as opposed to focusing just on the Arabian shore or an unwieldy unit of whole states bordering the Gulf.  Finally, although Carter reads neither Arabic nor Persian, there is a vast amount of well-presented terminology in this book which will be of use to those who do.  This book is pricey, but has a place in any academic library serving scholars of the Middle East.

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