A review: The History of Pearls in the Gulf of California, Mexico PART 2

The arrival of the Iberian Conquerors

The Native Nations had no real interest in establishing a commercial venture in pearl fishing and we understand little to nothing of the way they fished for pearls, since most of the information was either lost or destroyed during the conquest of Mexico. The rich plunder of the Conquistadores was sent to Spain and later dispersed all over Europe. The most significant information we have on the subject comes from the period of colonization of northwestern Mexico in the late 1600s.
Queen Isabel de Valois and Borbón - Queen Isabel de Valois and Borbón
Figure 7: Queen Isabel de Valois and Borbón, third wife of King Phillip the II of Spain, wearing abundant pearls from the Gulf of California, México, including the famous “La Peregrina” pearl (hanging from the bonnet on her head, notice near her ear), at the time it was the largest and most perfect pearl in the world. Image Source: Wikipedia “Élisabeth de Valois”, by Rodrigo de Villandrando).

When the Spaniards arrived at the Northwestern region (comprised today of the Lower California peninsula and the States of Sonora and Sinaloa), they already had an idea of the bounties they would find, all due to stories and legends told by others. Instead, what these Europeans found and faced were fierce warrior tribes, living in a vast desert land. The area today is a haven for mining operations, but in those times, it was impossible to fathom this and the most valuable gem available was the pearl.
Coronado sets out to the North by Frederic Remington - Coronado sets out to the North by Frederic Remington

Figure 8: “Coronado sets out to the north”, depicting the Expedition of the Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and the beginning of the northward expansion of the Spanish conquest of Northern Mexico and the Southern part of the United States of America. Oil painting by Frederic Remington (circa 1890s). Image Source: Wikipedia.

These new lands offered little in the way of ready-to-use resources. There was no established agriculture, and the natives were nomadic (unlike those in Central Mexico). Also, fresh water was scarce. In all, the initial reason to colonize these lands was the lure of pearls. And this was a fact, for in the first 50 years after the conquest of Mexico, the most valuable export product was the pearl. The yearly value of pearls exported to Spain more than doubled that of all other exports including gold, silver, spices etc.

The local natives were put to work, either by force or under promise of payment, as divers in the pearling armadas of the Spanish Crown. Later, introduced diseases decimated the populations of native Californians, thus Yaqui Indians from Sonora were forcefully introduced into Lower California. The Yaqui immigrants proved to be hardier and better suited to this perilous activity. Yaqui pearl divers were capable of diving to depths of 20 to 25 fathoms, equipped only with a loincloth, a knife, and a catch-bag as their diving gear. Diver mortality was high due to both exhaustion and shark attacks.
Yaqui Pearl Divers - Yaqui Pearl Divers
Figure 9: Four Yaqui Pearl Divers on their fishing boat. This was the traditional fishing method used in the Gulf of California for hundreds of years. Original photo edited by the Author.

Pearling armadas consisted of a sailboat (the ‘flagship’) that could pull several smaller boats or canoes. Each canoe had two or three occupants, consisting of a sailor and two divers. The activities of the divers started early in the morning when they would plunge repeatedly into the waters until noon. They would then rest for three hours and start diving again for another three or four hours. Hoisted bags of oysters were transported to the ‘flagship’ for harvest of the shell, their inspection for pearls, and the cleaning of pearl shell. This activity continued -for the most part- unchanged for several centuries.
Guaymas-Pearl-Fishing-Fleet.jpg - Gulf of California Pearl Fishing Vessel and boats
Figure 10: A Pearl fishing vessel deploying its fishing boat. This was the traditional fishing method used in the Gulf of California for hundreds of years. Original photo edited by the Author.

During the establishment of the Mission system in the region, the Jesuit priests tried to curtail the unofficial slave trade of natives by the Iberian pearling armadas, while still taking advantage of the natural ability of the natives and the available resources. As with the “King’s Fifth”, the Jesuits gave the natives a Madonna, a Patron Saint to protect them whilst diving and to whom one-tenth of the pearls should be given: the Virgin of Loreto, in the Mission of our Lady of Loreto (1742) Some of the pearls the figure was bestowed were placed on her long veil and it is said it was covered in its entirety with pearls. Unfortunately, this was common knowledge, and her robe was stolen several times in the coming centuries.

One of the Spanish soldiers -by the name of Manuel de Osio- in charge of the Mission’s security saw the natives coming in with pearls and decided to leave his station and become a Pearling Entrepreneur. His first tactics involved changing the established fishing patterns: most fishermen would dive for the larger black-lips, found in shllow waters and De Osio and his men would instead dive into deeper waters for the smaller, yet highly productive, rainbow lip oysters.

He would have his divers go down to locate “macollos”, which were large conglomerations of these mollusks, attached to each other by means of their byssus. These groupings could have from a few hundred to thousands of pearl oysters. Once located, other divers would go down equipped with hooks on lines, which they would position in a way that, once aboard the boat, they could pull on the ropes and hoist a huge load of pearl oysters. The catch was sometimes so large that could not inspect every oyster and they would allow many to simply rot on the beach, until they could come back to inspect or wash the meat away to reveal the pearls. It was reported by Clavijero, that in the year 1774 De Osio reported fishing 275 pounds of pearls, and the same source reports that De Osio sent a present to the Queen of Spain: a pearl necklace made entirely of “balas”: roundish pearls the size of musket bullets.
Pearl Oyster Macollo Pteria sterna - Pearl Oyster Macollo Pteria sterna

Figure 11: Photo of a small section of a “macollo” or “pearl oyster carpet”, made entirely of Rainbow lip oysters (Pteria sterna). This photo was taken in 2011 by Federal Fisheries Biologists in the State of Sonora, near Guaymas. The length of the pearl bed was estimated at 21 Km, with millions of pearl oysters. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jorge Torre of CoBi.

Manuel de Osio’s methods were so efficient that he became the first millionaire in the Baja California territory, and attracted many others that wanted to attain his same degree of fortune. Most could not equal his skills, but the nascent industry attracted other entrepreneurs, as well as bandits. De Osio was killed by a band of robbers, but they had to leave almost empty handed, since it is said he had hidden his pearls underground, inside jars. In the 1990’s I heard of people that were still looking for this hidden pearl treasure.

An average estimate used throughout the world affirms that that “only one oyster out of every 10,000 will produce a fine pearl”. But, the Gulf of California seemed to defy this estimate, since many localities were able to produce anywhere between 4-14 pearls out of every 100 opened oysters. Mother-of-Pearl (MOP) shell was another valuable commodity at that time, as MOP was used throughout the world for the decoration of jewelry, inlays, and other ornaments. From 1827 to 1874 some 500 metric tons of pearl shell was exported from Mexico to Europe every two years.

In 1874 a technological breakthrough was introduced: the diving helmet and diving suit. This improvement allowed divers to fish for longer periods and at depths of up to 20 meters. Thus, the richer pearl beds – the ones barely touched by the previous diving efforts- soon suffered from overfishing as well.
Helmet Diver.jpg -  Drawing of a “helmet diver” (Escaphandra Denayrouze)

Figure 12: Drawing of a “helmet diver” (Escaphandra Denayrouze) drawn by Carlos Goethe and printed in the late 1880s.

These pearl fisheries were regulated in Law, but not under control nor scrutiny by authorities despite many attempts to regulate them. These attempts at control - initially by the Spanish Crown and later by the new independent Mexican State - were defeated by the impossibility of maintaining reliable inspectors on site. Under this a “industry regulated” regime, the commercial pearl fishery gradually came to a standstill by the end of the 19th century.