Part Three – Cantor Island & Pearl Fishing

The Mergui Archipelago In 1905

Before leaving these strange people I must mention one rather anomalous tribe I visited who seem to have overcome very largely their nomadic propensities, and have formed a permanent settlement on Cantor Island, not far from Mergui. The settlement is not extensive. A square mile or so – the whole island has been cleared of jungle, and about a dozen families have built moderately substantial huts on the sheltered side.

Here I had the pleasure of being presented to the chief, who was very communicative on the subject of his tribe and the Mergui Archipelago in general.

Plantains, Pineapples, and cotton trees are cultivated, while, of course, fishing is carried on.  A certain amount of barter takes place with Mergui, or the Chinese merchants from whom the Moken buy rice at exorbitant prices in exchange for cotton pods, fruit and pearl shell. The Cantor Island community, the only one I believe with a chief, have progressed considerably over their purely nomadic Moken brethren. They have a sufficiency of food, a surplus of produce for barter, and they are less suspicious of strangers than the rest of the race.

Moken Women and Children

Selung Women and Children

Tropical islands and their sheltered waters yield a number of economic products, such as bech de mer, turtle eggs, tortoise shell, edible birds nests, and pearl shell. The Mergui Archipelago has a trade in all these, but the only one I can speak of here is the pearl and mother of pearl shell industry. The shell fished is the giant mother of pearl oyster, and the conditions of the industry are rather exceptional, in as much as the shell is now only to be found in deep water, which not only precludes all naked diving, but demands divers of more than ordinary skill and endurance. The Mergui divers, who are all Japanese, Malays, Filipinos, or rarely Burmese and Chinese, commonly descend to twenty eight or twenty nine fathoms, while one or two Japanese told me they could go even a fathom deeper, but this is very dangerous, and often results in paralysis.

Of course a diver who can descend even a few feet lower than the rest is in great demand among the pump owners. He can practically dictate his terms and get anything in reason, and even a little more. When a twenty nine fathom man happens to be a Jap his swagger and arrogant offensiveness would be hard to beat, but

divers of other nationalities, except when under the influence of their favourite brandy, are pleasant and friendly men.

They almost all speak English, sometimes more viral than fluent and ashore wear European dress, which is not considered complete without a black coral walking stick. When at work they demand for themselves and their tenders what they are pleased to call European rations which consist  of fresh meat, tinned foods, especially sardines, and invariably a bottle or two of brandy. The life is undoubtedly risky, but the pay is good and enables the diver during the wet season to live in idleness and luxury. A first class man, moreover, is often paid a retaining fee during the “off” season.

Moken Settlement on Cantor Island

Selung Settlement on Cantor Island

The pearling fleet consists of some eighty small schooners, which work on various banks throughout the Mergui Archipelago, returning every alternate spring tide season when diving is impossible, to refit at Mergui. On board each boat the owner has a representative who opens the shells and collects the pearls, when they occur. This is an exciting moment. As often as not there may be no pearls, or none of any great value, but every now and then a large one of rare luster and perfect shape is found. Often, however, the pearls do not occur free in the oyster, but are contained in “blisters” on the mother of pearl. Now, since these
blisters do not invariably contain pearls, there is a unique oppotunity for a little gambling.

The blister is often offered for sale unopened, and a dealer will buy it on the chance of its containing a valuable pearl.

Just before I came to Mergui three “sportsmen” had formed a syndicate to buy a large unopened blister, which they acquired for a relatively small sum. On opening it they found two pearls whose total value was over 3,300 pounds. This I think constitutes a record for Mergui, but gems worth 100 or 200 pounds are not seldom found. Considering the small number of days in the year only about seventy on which work is possible on account of tides and weather, I think one may look upon the Mergui Archipelago pearl fisheries as fairly remunerative to all concerned. They are not pefacrhaps what they once were, but there is no reason why, with careful application of scientific knowledge and a little outlay, they should not give increased returns in the future.

RIMS Investigator

RIMS Investigator

In leaving the Mergui Archipelago I must say a word about the R.I.M.S Investigator (Commander W.G Beauchamp R.I.M), the ship in which most of my journeys through the island waters were made. No one whose work whose has lain in Indian lands but has heard her name, while in a world of science she is famous. For over twenty seven years the Investigator has pursued her work of surveying, sounding, and deep sea dredging in Indian waters from Aden and the Persian Gulf to Mergui, until, I may safely say, most of our knowledge of Indian waters is due to her. This voyage in the Mergui Archipelago was her last service, for the old Investigator’s day is over, and the ship breaking yard will shortly claim her, while a new, better equipped, faster and, be it said, more seaworthy Investigator continues the work. Yet it will be long before the fine new ship, the third of her name, becomes as familiar in Indian ports, as integral a
part of Indian seas, her predecessor, the picturesque and leisurely wooden paddleboat.

Read Part One – The Mergui Archipelago

Read Part Two – The Moken

The Mergui Archipelago

By R.N. Rudmore Brown

Lecturer in Geography, Sheffield University