Tamara Fernando

Death at the Pearl Fishery


The world underwater is different from that of the air. This would have been clear to the unnamed pearl diver in 1858 who found himself submerged five meters below the waves in the Gulf of Mannar. His diving stone emitted a soft thud as it made contact with the seafloor. Splashes echoed around him as a thousand other men and boys plunged into the water. The currents did not throw up sand to cloud his vision that day, and the high noon light was strong. He pried off fifteen oysters, each one firmly crusted to a rugged coralline mass. Soon, his lungs started to burn; feeling lightheaded, he took hold of his basket and kicked up off back to the surface.

And yet, much of the underwater world also remained hidden from view. In each gallon of seawater that the diver’s body plunged through, billions of microscopic life-forms thrived, intimately connected to those creatures the diver did see: file-fish, rays, oysters and coral. The bulk of the ocean’s biomass–in the form of minute plankton, crabs, copepods, diatoms and foraminifera–went unnoticed. Amongst these life forms were the larvae of parasitic tapeworms, such as Tylocephalum, which invaded and infected oysters, stimulating pearl production. Present also were vast numbers of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, attached—for now—to crustacean hosts but capable of moving from aquatic reservoirs to human insides. Of the impacts of the latter, however, the diver was soon to become all too aware.

The recent rapid proliferation of a type of Coronaviridae amongst humans has thrown our notions of work into disarray. But this is not a new reality; microbial cultures circulating in the water or the air, passing from intermediate hosts to humans, through gastric barriers into intestines, lungs, and blood have long inflected labor relations. The leftist toolkit of strikes, petitions, mass movements, and city politics may tempt us to take the body for granted, as the corporeal is swallowed up by amorphous forces of anti-capitalist resistance, trade unionism, or class consciousness. COVID-19, however, calls for a strengthened attentiveness to the body. The working body carries an archive written on the skin, in the form of callused hands and sun-weathered faces, but the effects of work penetrate deeper, to the internal organs and even to the microbial and microscopic world within.


Until the dominance of pearl-culturing technology in the 1930s, thousands of men in tropical waters worked as pearl divers in order for glass-fronted New York and Parisian jewelry houses to sell strands of pearls. Divers worked without recourse to urban politics or union protections, or indeed, any kind of labor law. In the Gulf of Mannar, a shallow strip of water between South India and Ceylon that produced a quarter of the world’s pearls, British colonial authorities rigorously controlled and surveilled the bodies of the divers they employed and did not hesitate to use force to extract labor. Policing the body was key to ensuring that a recalcitrant and dangerously mobile labor force was anchored in place. But the body acquired a new salience—as both a threat and a potential site of resistance–in the form of illness and epidemic disease.

Without divers, there would be no pearls. Diving was seasonal: fishing took place over the course of six weeks in the lull between monsoons when communities of boatmen, haulers, and divers from mobile seafaring groups along the Indian coast arrived in Ceylon. Often, the divers who fished for pearls had trained for years by collecting whorled chank (Turbinella pyrum). The expertise and skills required to harvest pearls were often literally embedded in the body: scientists working with communities of pearl divers in the twenty-first century would confirm that a particular aptitude for underwater work is evident in bodily adaptations such as larger spleens and better eyesight underwater. At the time, however, the colonial state justified the divers’ labor in terms of nascent race theory: the bodies of inferior racial groups were closer to the underwater realm, “amphibious,” and thus better able to carry out the arduous work of diving.

If the divers’ bodies held the secrets of the trade, they also bore the brunt of the colonial state’s avarice for pearls. A naval patrol boat with policemen on board floated alongside the vessel of a European overseer, ensuring that divers did not take more than their share of oysters. If divers refused to work and ran away, policemen “retrieved” them and compelled them to go to sea; if they were suspected of secreting away pearls, they were imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor; and if, as they sometimes did, divers desisted from working, those presumed to be “agitators” were locked up and thrown in jail. That is, until cholera struck.

On 17 March 1877, a fishing vessel overstayed its beached position in front of the government sheds where oysters were being sorted. Searching the craft, the boat guards raised a cry of alarm: lying under the hull of one of the boats was a diver, fatigued and ill. The official colonial archives note that the diver was sent to the hospital and the boat “disinfected, removed to opposite the quarantine ground and scuttled.” The camp officials condemned the crew of the boat for having hidden the case of illness, likely cholera, but this was of little use, since the divers had dispersed into the crowd at the fishery and could not be found.

As many historians of medicine have pointed out, imperialism often posited the eradication of disease in the tropics and the civilizing mission as coterminous. The concerns around contagious disease were undergirded by an economic imperative: the need to keep labor working at full capacity in the mines, plantations, and factories to produce gold, rubber, cotton, coffee, and jute from Sumatra to South Africa. Similarly, at the pearl fishery, the threat of cholera hung like a sword above imperial overseers’ heads, not owing to a concern for coastal communities but rather for fear that the disease would close the pearl fishery early—as it did in 1822 and 1858–causing (as crown officials were keen to note) huge losses in revenue.

The conditions of labor at pearl fisheries considerably intensified the effects of epidemic diseases. The work sites concentrated a large number of bodies (15,000-30,000 people at the largest fisheries) within an enclosed and highly regulated “camp.” Workers shared water facilities for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Poor nutrition, low pay, and arduous work made workers weak and vulnerable. The process of removing pearls from the oysters also generated an unhealthy environment: once divers had hauled millions of bivalves onto shore, the oysters were stacked in large open pens for their fleshy bodies to decompose. After a few days of rotting, hired laborers were paid to sift through the remains for the pearls. This process drew flies, rats, and other vermin to the camp, increasing the likelihood of vector-borne diseases spreading.

That the structures and provisions for work themselves engendered a higher rate of infection was not something colonial administrators considered: rather than incur additional expenses in providing better facilities such as a larger campsite or investing in expensive technology to clean pearls, officials chose to employ “sanitary crews,” groups of impoverished workers tasked with cleaning the camp. These workers were often the first to fall victim to disease, and their deaths lay scattered through the fishery records.

Disease also had a particular salience at the Mannar pearl fishery because most of the workforce were migrants from the opposite coast. Once humoral and miasmatic theories of medicine were replaced by a “Pasteurian revolution” in the middle of the nineteenth century, disease was located in microbial pathogens carried in human and non-human hosts. Soon, immigration and disease became almost synonymous. The British established a regulatory infrastructure that sprayed potential migrant bodies with chemicals, took their temperature, cross-examined their reasons for leaving, and ensured that they had adequate paperwork on hand. In the event of economic exigency, however, these measures fell away: when the state was short on divers, skilled pearl fishers from particular towns were allowed uninterrupted passage, without the burdens of quarantine. Disease was to be stopped—but not at all costs. Some balances could be borne out in the imperial ledger.

The advances in bacteriology also drew the state much more forcefully into divers’ private lives. Living quarters were inspected twice a day by a team of medical staff. Persons working in the camp as shopkeepers, servants, cooks, or sanitary staff might be forced to undergo random checks and ferried off to a quarantine hospital with no advance warning, separated from family and peers. Many were subject to “Western” medical treatment even when they asked for indigenous medicine such as ayurvedic, Siddha, or Yunani treatments. Standards of “adequate” sanitation were enforced with the same rigor of policing labor to extract maximum profit.


On a routine police inspection of the fishery camp at Silavatturai in 1887, two officers discovered a sick diver lying on the road outside the bazaar. The man, a Muslim diver from the Indian town of Kilakkarai, was taken away to the quarantine hospital, where he died, and his body was disposed of. A few days later, the fishery superintendent noted a huge disturbance in the camp. He was soon interrupted in his bungalow by a group of divers and haulers, who were protesting the treatment of the sick diver. The inspector insisted that the divers had “no right to complain of the removal of patients to the hospital” because “it was the order of Government that all cholera patients were to be removed to hospital or otherwise isolated.” But the Muslim divers were not to be daunted, couching their complaint in the language of local practices specific to death and dying: “We do not like our friends attended on by pariahs and to be buried without the rites of their religion,” they said. “But we require a Lebbe [priest and frequently also a practitioner of Yunani medicine] to attend on the dying!’” the Superintendent records the protesters repeating, over and over. Soon, the same community of divers argued that if the treatment was not altered, they would leave the fishery. The altercation over the treatment of a dying man was bundled together with other economic grievances and became a tipping point in terms of whether labor chose to work or to resist.

Knowledge about infections and their spread was profoundly social. Pearl divers often spent their evenings drinking. Several taverns sold fermented coconut water, known as arrack, and these establishments offered respite from an arduous day of diving, unloading oysters, and selling them in the bazaar. In 1889, one of these cool evenings was interrupted by an agitated conversation which had sprung up around some latecomers to the tavern. These divers spoke Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam respectively, but the crews were able to communicate using fragments of Tamil. Several members of the police, stationed at the camp, had come down with cholera, including Malay and European soldiers. In the ensuing weeks, the divers as a whole cited the rapid spread of cholera as the reason for their refusal to work at the fishery. The superintendent recorded repeated appeals and threats he made to convince the divers to stay, but to no avail. Just as sickness allowed the state to flex its muscle, it did the same, in some instances, for divers.


The unnamed diver at work plunged through the water, moving from the air into the waves, encountering and engaging with worlds at different scales, both visible and invisible. The work of diving was in the body—in its submersion underwater, deprivation of oxygen, inadequate food and rest. A policeman’s baton, used to force someone to go to work, left its mark on the skin. But the dynamics of work penetrated deeper—to the lungs, the blood, and even to the level of the genetic and microbial. These effects then filtered back, in turn, into negotiations between labor and capital around issues of remuneration, care, sickness and infection. The fate of the body of workers was fundamentally tied to the worker’s body. In that body lie the possibilities for control–or resistance.

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