On the way in which the Indians and even the Christians collect or fish for pearls.

Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

This island of Cubagua, the subject of this book, is where fishing for pearls is predominantly practiced in these Indies, and it is done in this way. The Christians engaged in this enterprise have Indian slaves, great swimmers, and their master sends them in a canoe, six or seven of them, more or less, to where they think or know that there is a quantity of pearls. And they stop the canoe there and the swimmers jump in and dive to the bottom while one remains in the canoe, charged with keeping it as still as possible as he waits for the ones underwater to surface. And after an Indian has been underwater for a long while, he comes up and swims back to the canoe and hands in or places in it the oysters he has brought up. It is in oysters, clams, or scallops that pearls are found, or in nacres, as was told in the preceding chapter. He brings the oysters up in a net bag, made for this purpose, which the swimmer ties around his waist or neck. And getting back in the canoe, he rests a bit and eats a bite, if he wishes, and then returns to the water and remains there as long as he can, and returns with more oysters he has found, and does as told above, and all the Indian swimmers engaged in this work do the same. When evening comes or it seems that it is time to rest, they return to the island and their houses, and turn over the oysters gathered during their workday to their master, to whom the fishermen belong, or to his overseer, and the latter gives them dinner and puts the oysters in a safe place. As soon as he has a sufficient amount, he has them opened and in each of them he finds a pearl or seed pearl—a single grain or pearl in some clams, and in others two or three or four or five or six or ten grains more or less, according to how nature distributed them, and they secure the pearls and seed pearls and eat the fish in them or throw it into the sea, since there are so many that they get sick of it, and it gets tiresome. Moreover, as I have said before, they are hard to digest and do not taste as good as those of our Spain. Sometimes, when the sea is higher than the swimmers and managers of this industry would like, and also because naturally when a man is deep under water his feet lift up and it is difficult to remain at the bottom for a long while, the Indians deal with it in this way. They place on their backs two stones, one on each side, tied to a rope, so that there is about a handspan or more, as they prefer, between them, with the Indian between them, and they drop down into the water; and since the stones are heavy, they keep him down at the bottom; but when they feel like surfacing, they can easily discard the stones and rise. And some of these Indians have such swimming abilities that they can remain under water for about a quarter of an hour by the clock, and there are some who can stay more or less time, according to their aptitude and preparation in the skills they bring to this business.

Another important and very notable thing about this island I recall is about my once asking some of the masters of the Indians working these fisheries if the pearls ever become scarce or run out, given that the site or place where they are found is small and the ones fishing for them are many. They told me that when they run out in one place, the swimmers move to another place on the other side of the same island or opposite location; and that when they run out there they return to the original place or thereabouts, where they had first fished and left denuded of pearls, and found it as full as if they had never taken any out before. From which one can infer and suspect that they are a transient species, as Pliny suggests,[1] just like other fish, which are born, and bred, and produced in specific places. But just in case, the Christians have been in a rush to search for these pearls, and not content to rely just on the swimmers for fishing them, have found other devices of tools and nets, and they have extracted such a quantity that they have begun to observe a scarcity, and they have become less abundant than at the beginning; but after the people take some time to rest, they return to find many oysters in large quantities. The fishing for pearls in Cubagua takes place at a depth of four fathoms or less, and deeper only in a few places around that island. But on the island of Terarequi in the southern sea the depth is that of ten to twelve fathoms, as will be told when we speak of that island and that of Otoque, and about matters related to the Mainland. I said above that they are a transient species, because at the place cited Pliny says that pearls have a king like a beehive, a king or guide the oysters follow. And that this principal shell is larger than the others, and more beautiful, and very keen to protect itself, and that all the ingenuity of the swimmers is directed at taking that guide, since once it is taken it is an easy thing to put into their nets the others they had missed, once they are deprived of their guide and king. I say that if what Pliny says in indeed the case and it happens likewise in other parts, there is no notice here in our Indies of such oyster guides among Indians or Christians. The pearl is tender in the water where it lives, but as soon as it comes out of the water it suddenly hardens, according to the author mentioned. This cannot be denied, because the same thing has been observed here, and this is why some think that it hardens little by little as they form in the manner described in the second chapter, which has been understood from experience. In my opinion, the other important thing of note, one on which all those who have lived sometime in the island of Cubagua will agree on, is that at certain times the pearl oysters produce a certain red or blood-like humor that dyes the water, clouding it up in that same color. This is why some say they menstruate, as is the habit of women, when they say that they “have their shirt.” Most of the pearls that grow among rocks are larger than those found in sandbanks and sandy shores, and they have at the head of the scallop some threads like duckweed, some green and some in other colors, with which they attach themselves to the rocks, like being pulled by the hair, some of them so tightly that it is necessary for the Indian to be very strong to detach them or to carry with him something to tear them off. They are found in many forms and shapes; some formed like pears, others are round, which are the best, and others half round and half flat; the latter are button pearls, known in these parts assientos, while some call them bread buns; Pliny names them lipanie. There are some that are twisted, and others belong to every possible variety of pearls there can be, which are known here as stones or pedrerías. There are others that have a nice luster on one side, and others that look like a cluster, and many other shapes, some hollow as a bladder underneath, and these Pliny calls phisemata.

It is the conclusion of all jewelers and those who write about these margaritas or pearls, and more particularly determined by Pliny, that pearls have many layers and as they are rubbed they wear out; which is what our eyes teach us if we want to see it, that they are like the eyes of a sea bream, or like an onion, or puff pastry, or like one shirt over the other, their thickness diminishing up to a half-way point, a bed or layer above the other, and it is this property that allows for the art of some experts to work and polish them when there is a blemish or crack or any flaw in the pearl and it has the size for it and its interior is suitable and clean and unblemished. But very seldom even the hand of the most subtle craftsman who understands this work can leave them as perfect as they emerge from nature’s art and craft.  And I can say the same thing about gold, because I never ever saw it as well worked or of a color like it has when it is taken from the mines. It is true that pearls should be washed from time to time because they lose their luster as they are worn, and they like being treated well.



[1] Pliny, Book IX, Chapter XXXV