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savages tell the truth—though the white men are not willing to believe them—when they say that if a diver could get down and work under the breaker on the outside of the coral reef he would find there even more shell than is to be found in the lagoon.'
Wherever sea water becomes stagnant in the Pacific lagoons, a sort of marine centipede makes his appearance, which enters and soon devours the oyster.
Of the presence of the conditions necessary to the production of a pearl inside an oyster there is one very significant and certain sign, the faculty of detecting which, however, can only be acquired by practice. While the fish is alive the two flat surfaces which appear at the back of the hinge present very beautiful prismatic colours, and the cable which attaches it to the rock is in like manner very remarkable. When the shell contains pearls, the prevailing colours of these portions is, while in vigorous life (as when just removed from the water), a certain shade of bronze, brilliant but evanescent, which is, however, not easy to describe.
In the Pacific all oysters are opened by the knife, which, if carefully performed, is the best plan. The best instrument for this purpose is a common tableknife of good steel, ground thin till the blade is flexible, and fitted into a good stout handle. A skilful operator will open a ton of shells in an ordinary day's work, and not miss the pearls if there be any. It cannot be done rapidly without frequently cutting the hands (sometimes severely), as the edges are as sharp as glass. But men working for themselves with a prospect of considerable gain do not mind such accidents. The excitement is something akin to goldmining. White men, if they can avoid it, will never let valuable shells be opened by any other hands than their own, as the natives are sure to steal them if they have the chance, and are so skilful in concealing them that detection is almost impossible.
About the year 1869, an American schooner called the Gem went ashore there at Tapepahua, under—well
- very peculiar circumstances. Messrs. Hart Brothers of Tahiti despatched one of their vessels to the scene of the wreck, in order to pick up whatever it was possible to recover, for the Gem was full of
sperm oil, and the
copper and other material remaining was of considerable value. The parties engaged in this venture anchored their vessel in the interior lagoon, and remained several weeks collecting the oil casks and burning the wreck in order to get out the boats and what else might have been worth saving. Their crew consisted of Tahitians and Tuamotu men. During their stay these men were allowed unlimited liberty to go a-fishing, and in their spare time to amuse themselves as they pleased. One day the captain's attention was attracted to a violent quarrel going on among the Tuamotans on the ship's forecastle. Upon his going forward the subsided, and he observed one of them endeavour to conceal something in the corner of his maro, or girdle, he wore about his loins. questioned as to what this might be, he replied, * Tobacco;' a palpable falsehood, as, being well supplied with that article, they had no need to quarrel about or conceal it. Being laid hold of by the
On being captain, he presently swallowed the substance which constituted the 'pearl' of contention, which the master perceived, and brought to light again by a dose of tartar emetic. An investigation followed, in the course of which the captain learned that his anchor was down upon a coral shoal, thickly covered with pearl-shell of great size and splendid quality. He never reported the matter to his owners, but some years after, having got a small vessel of his own, he engaged a number of Penrhyn islanders to fish for him at this place, under the supervision of a European, who, however, meeting some cause of contention with his men, was murdered by them and thrown into the sea, and the fishing became deserted, as it is, I believe, to this day.
When the shells are landed it is the custom of the 'boss' fisherman to sort them into two piles ; those he supposes to contain pearls to be opened by himself, and the rest by the natives. In hard times it is usual for the men to eat the fish, but they are coarse, rank, and disagreeable, although perfectly wholesome. The pearls are usually lodged in the strong muscle of the fish, out of which the cable, as I have called it, springs ; this is about the thickness of that part of a man's hand which is next to the thumb. The flesh being semi-transparent, the pearls are easily detected from their brightness, which refracts the light.
If it were in the power of a man to sift the bottom of one of the Pacific pearl-oyster banks he would be certain to obtain an enormous treasure, inasmuch as oysters after their seventh year produce most largely, then die and discharge their contents. It may be
said literally of all localities where this valued bivalve exists,
* There are jewels rich and rare
The pearl and pearl-shell fisheries of the Panmotus date practically from the time when the merchants of Valparaiso found out that the Catholic missionaries in the Gambier Islands had obtained several valuable parcels of pearls. They immediately despatched vessels to obtain some, and though they failed, so far as pearls themselves were concerned, they discovered that pearl-shell or mother-of-pearl was easily obtainable and extremely profitable ; and so the trade has continued, with the usual fluctuations of fashion and market, down to the present day. Messrs. Godeffroy on one occasion shipped to Europe in one parcel pearls to the value of £4000, the product of a few months' collection among the Tuamotus. Beachcombers also, who had been daring enough to land upon remote lagoon isles and had managed to escape the cannibals, frequently used to realise large sums of money by the sale of parcels of these gems. Thus a certain man Bird was well known to have made more than £1000 in this way, a great part of which was found in his chest by his wives after he himself had been very summarily disposed of by his own men. Another gentleman of the beachcombing persuasion, named Henry Williams, of Manihiki, amassed silver coin enough to fill a powder keg ; and on one occasion having had quite as much as was bad for him of chain-lightning gin, he broke up his keg with an axe, scattering the contents on the sand, and telling the savages among whom he lived to take as much as they wanted. The savages were of course equal to the occasion, and carrying the dollars home to their houses, exclaimed, 'Aué! aué! the white man has gone mad, and broken the barrel in which he kept his gods. Shall we give them back to him ? Oh no ! let the white man go and find more.'
Fine calm weather is of course most favourable to pearl-fishing, but not indispensable, as the amphibious natives of some groups seek the shell by swimming with their heads below the surface of the water ; and having discovered it, inhale a good draught of air, and then go down and fetch up as many as they can readily lay hold of. Polynesian divers do not use any stones to immerse themselves, or any apparatus to close the nostrils, as do the Cingalese. They will stay under water about three minutes, sometimes longer, and can bring shell from twenty fathoms depth. They want some extra inducement to go down to that depth, and of course they cannot persevere long; but Penrhyn islanders, Tuamotans, or Rapa men can do it if they like. The shells found at that depth are of enormous size, as much as eighteen inches in diameter, so that a pair when opened out by the hinge will measure a yard across. This kind of pearl-diving is very difficult, and the heat of the sun, aggravated by its radiation from the still waters of the lagoons, is very excessive. On many islands women are more skilful at this work than men; and being accustomed from early life to supply cockles and clams to the ‘lords of the creation,' they are the better divers.