Shark Charmers and the Pearl Trade

1990 Painting by Kozyndan. Click to see original.

1990 Painting by Kozyndan. Click to see original.

Some historical notes to think about as I prepare to head to Qatar for another field season:

From the Sacramento Daily Union, 5 September 1898, reprinted from Lippincott’s Magazine:

In the Persian Gulf the divers have a curious way of opening the season. They depend implicitly upon the shark conjurors, and will not descend without their presence. To meet this difficulty the Government is obliged to hire the charmers to divert the attention of the sharks from the fleet. As the season approaches vast numbers of natives gather along the shore and erect huts and tents and bazaars. At the opportune moment—usually at midnight, so as to reach the oyster banks at sunrise —the fleet, to the number of eighty or a hundred boats, puts out to sea. Each of these boats carries two divers, a steersman and a shark charmer, and is manned by eight or ten rowers. Other conjurers remain on shore, twisting their bodies and mumbling incantations to divert the sharks. In case a maneater is perverse enough to disregard the charm and attack a diver an alarm given, and no other diver will descend on that day. The power of the conjuror is believed to be hereditary, and the efficacy of his incantations to be wholly Independent of his religious faith.

Further, from Eleven Years in Ceylon by Jonathan Forbes, 1840:

The superstition of the divers renders the shark-charmers a necessary part of the establishment of the pearl fishery. All these imposters 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 regularly in the head pilot’s boat, the other performs certain ceremonies 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 (sic) full of water, containing one male and one female fish made of silver. If any accident should happen from a shark at sea, it is believed that one of these fishes is seen to bite the other. The shark-charmer is called in the Malabar language, cadalcutti, and in the Hindostanee, hybanda; each of which signifies a binder of sharks. The divers likewise believe, that if the conjuror 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.

While these accounts are undoubtedly colonial and very biased, there is little doubt that something compelling was going on both on the pearling boats and ashore. The Forbes book goes on to state that shark attacks were exceedingly rare, yet the high visibility in the clear Gulf water and obvious power of the sharks made them as terrifying in the past as they are today.

It also leads me to the depressing conclusion that even if we found such a structure archaeologically, we would probably have no idea that it was used as a room for shark charmers. I mean, two fish skeletons, a brass basin and a small room? I’ll be on the lookout, regardless.

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