FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s pearling industry (1907-09)

For centuries, Jolo was the undisputed pearling capital of the archipelago. Merchants from China and southeast Asia would travel to the southernmost territory to buy precious shells and pearls. Because the place is along the ancient trade route known as Pearl Road, it was easy to deduce that the popularity of Jolo’s pearls among foreigners was largely by word of mouth.

Unlike Jolo’s, the pearl fishery of Davao was not as successful.

Paul C. Freer, a director of the Bureau of Science, described in the Seventh Annual Report to the Secretary of the Interior (1908) a pearl bank in Davao:

“The bank is located in Pagquipnian (Pakiputan) Strait, the most prolific part of the bed being in the narrow portion of the strait between Points Laua and Linao (in Banaybanay, Davao Oriental). The bed seems to owe its existence to the protection of the big reef called Arboles Island in the upper part of the strait and to a strong eddy at the lower part which permits the spat [oyster larvae] to settle down and attach.

“The bed is in from 16 to 30 fathoms [a fathom is six feet] of water. The bottom is smooth, of coral sand and broken shell, the banks drop abruptly down from the fringing coral reef into 15 to 16 fathoms except in one or two places where the shore is of sand sloping at a sharp angle into deep water.”

During the first five months of 1908, Freer reported that around sixty tons of shells worth PhP43,000 were taken from this bed alone but the pearls harvested, which were small, irregular in shape but with good luster, were valued only at PhP10,000.

The 1908 yields in shells and pearls was slightly higher than the previous year, which accounted only for 56 tons and about PhP6,000, respectively.

American naturalist Alvin Seale, who worked with the Bureau of Science in Manila, made the first extensive study of Philippine pearls. His article, The Fishery Resources of the Philippine Islands’, which appeared in The Philippine Journal of Science (July 1910), provided an authoritative outlook of the pearling industry in Davao.

He identified the varieties of pearl oysters with commercial value as the gold lip pearl shell (Margaritifera maxima Jamson) and the black pearl shell (Margaritifera margaritifera Linn.)

Gathering the shells and pearls required the fielding of licensed pearl boats with armored divers, usually natives or Japanese, who are paid anywhere from PhP20 to PhP80 a month, plus a percentage from the shells. But performing such occupation was not a walk on the park as described by Seale:

“The diver has from 18 to 20.4 kilos (40 to 50) pounds) of weight attached to him in order to reach the bottom. Divers usually remain under water until they fill the net basket which they carry, this requiring from ten minutes to an hour.

“The diver of a boat… usually made about three descents in one hour; this was on the Davao bank in a depth of 20 fathoms and where the man experienced great difficulty in working because of strong currents.

“The length of time during which an armored diver can remain under water is very indefinite, depending on the depth of water, strength of current, strength of the diver, and other factors. In calm water, but a few feet in depth and of an even temperature, a man should be able to remain for almost an indefinite period. The naked diver scarcely ever stays down for more than one minute. Fishing is carried on at all seasons of the year.”

A pearl boat, on the other hand, is usually “equipped with one complete diving outfit, consisting of armor, pump, tubes, weights, etc.” It cost around PhP55 monthly, excluding wages, to navigate a pearling boat and the air pumps employed were usually handled by two men who monitored the pump’s condition while the diving was in progress.

According to the treasurer of Davao, since January 1908 a total of nine first-class licenses were taken out chiefly by local firms with the purpose to work in a newly-opened pearl bed.

Historically, according to an 1886 paper published in Bergen, Norway, the Philippine pearl fisheries was already producing great quantities of pearl shells three decades before the Davao pearl bed was discovered and exploited.

“In 1877,” the report said, “155 tons [of pearl shells from the Philippines] were exported. In 1878, 152 tons, valued at 164,720 pesos were exported. In 1879 the value of exported pearl shell was 155,802 pesos. The entire region from Tawi-tawi to Basilan is a continuous pearl oyster bed; the Sulu fisheries are the largest and most productive of any in the East Asiatic waters. The pearls are famous, and the shell has a fine luster. Labuan [Malaysia] is the chief market. The above value is of the shell alone; that of the pearls are secured during this time is unknown, but doubtless it amounted to several thousand pesos.”

Today, no pearl bed of commercial value in waters in the gulf of Davao exists since the closure of the Adecor Pearl Farm in Samal Island in the seventies.