By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong
Although diamonds may be the gemstone commodity people currently associate with human rights conflicts, in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, it was the luminous, natural pearl found in the Arabian Gulf that was widely desired, yet also connected to a persisting slave trade.
Matthew Hopper, an Associate Professor of History at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo explored this world during his recent seminar talk at the Center for the Humanities, entitled “Pearls, Slavery, and Fashion: Enslaved African Pearl Divers in the Persian Gulf in the Age of Empire.” Hopper’s book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire, was published by Yale University Press in 2015.
During the pearling season of 1873, an enslaved pearl diver swam over and climbed aboard a British cruiser. What followed was a conflict between the British abolition movement, and the burgeoning craze for pearls brought about by increased wealth from industrialization in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Describing the conflict as a “diplomatic hailstorm,” Hopper noted that the case became a cause célèbre that had lasting ramifications when enslaved pearl divers or pearling ship crew members attempted to seek asylum with the British. Fearing the diplomatic impact that granting asylum would have upon the pearl trade, the British decided against a policy of helping enslaved pearl divers.
Hopper noted that while the British were proud of their work in the abolition movement from the late 18th century on, and the United States had abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, both nations had a voracious appetite for Gulf Pearls, fed by a burgeoning print culture.
In the popular press, Queen Victoria, and French Empress Eugénie de Montijo were both depicted favoring pearls. The newly wealthy from trade and industrialization sought to emulate the nobility by purchasing and wearing pearls.
The practice of enslavement of people from East Africa for use in the Gulf pearling trade persisted into the 20th Century. Some of the enslaved came from Mozambique and Tanzania. Ships often featured crews that were mixed between those owning the boat, paid employees, and their slaves. Arabian ship owners worked in a network of global trade with merchants from India, who then funneled many of the valuable pearls into American and European markets.
In America, although a small industry of freshwater pearls from rivers existed, the newly wealthy Americans sought Gulf pearls. The American craze for pearls in fashion kicked into high gear in the second half of the 19th Century to the early 20th Century. The November 6 1895, wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough at St. Thomas’ Church in Manhattan was a turning point in the craze for pearls. The New York Times coverage of the wedding, engineered despite the bride’s objections by her socially ambitious mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt, was called “the most elaborate ever in this country.” Press coverage noted that Consuelo Vanderbilt’s dress would be sewn with real pearls. After she became the Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt was frequently photographed wearing pearl chokers, and long pearl opera-length ropes. Hopper said the years 1910-1914 were the peak years of value for Gulf pears, representing the last years of the Gilded Age prior to the start of World War I.
It was an enterprising Japanese businessman, Mikimoto, whose development of the cultured pearl ultimately brought about an end to the demand for Gulf Pearls harvested by enslaved divers. In 1893, he created the first cultured pearl, and thus changed forever the value and consumption of pearls. Freed of the need to harvest oysters in the Gulf in hopes of finding priceless natural pearls, the public began to buy cultured Japanese pearls. “Mikimoto thought every woman should be able to afford a pearl necklace,” Hopper said.
Sadly, the collapse of Gulf pearling created other problems. The freed former pearling slaves now faced hunger and poverty, as they were left to their own devices in the years following World War I. In the 1920s, former enslaved pearl divers often approached British colonial experts saying that they thought they were still the property of those who had owned the Gulf pearling ships, and that such people were obligated to feed them.
Center for Humanities fellows noted after the talk issues of enslavement persist today, whether it be in sex trafficking, or the shrimp industry, which has been exposed for the enslavement of workers. Those in attendance discussed using research and apps to understand ethical concerns related to products.