Diving for the Sky's Tears: The Pearling Industry in the Dahlak Archipelago, Red Sea, 1860s–1930s

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 2:50 PM
Manchester Ballroom I (Hyatt)
Jonathan Miran , Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA
This paper explores various aspects of the evolution of the lucrative and labor intensive pearling industry in the Dahlak Archipelago off the Eritrean coasts in a period that witnessed this area’s spectacular and dynamic integration into global commercial structures. Serving as an excellent example of the ways by which commercial transformation in the wider area amplified the chain of production, trade and consumption of marine products, the pearling industry involved a distinct infrastructure of financing, labor and commercialization which married an assortment of Red Sea and Indian Ocean actors.  Pearl divers who were either ‘African’ slaves or freed slaves and ‘Arabs’ provided the labor (the paper explains the problems ambiguities with these terms), Persian Gulf, Hijazi, Yemeni, Dahlaki or Massawan boat owners handled fishing crews and provided for transportation, whereas Indian and Arab merchants financed pearl-fishing enterprises and purchased the luxurious marine products that found their way to Bombay and to consumers in the capitals of Europe, especially London, Paris and Vienna.  The Dahlak pearling industry epitomizes interregional connections across the north-western and reveals how Italian colonial intervention in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century aimed to “modernize” and render more economically efficient this economic sector in their colony. The paper includes a discussion of the exceptional case of the Archipelago’s wealthiest pearl merchant, ‘Ali al-Nahari (d. 1930), who had traded directly with Europe and and had invested his earnings in real estate in in the early decades of the twentieth century. Henry de Monfreid (1879-1974), the eccentric French adventurer, commercial entrepreneur, arms and drug smuggler and author of dozens of books, immortalized ‘Ali al-Nahari as one of the principal characters in his first and most known book, Les secrets de le mer Rouge.