Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 63.djvu/233

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By Professor W. A. HERDMAN, B.Sc, F.R.S.,


THE celebrated pearl 'oysters' of Ceylon are found mainly in certain parts of the wide shallow plateau which occupies the upper end of the Gulf of Manaar, off the northwest coast of the island and south of Adam's Bridge.

The animal (Margaritifera vulgaris, Schum. Avicula fucata, Gould) is not a true oyster, but belongs to the family Aviculidæ, and is, therefore, more nearly related to the mussels (Mytilus) than to the oysters (Ostræa) of our seas.

The fisheries are of very great antiquity. They are referred to by various classical authors, and Pliny speaks of the pearls from Taprobane (Ceylon) as 'by far the best in the world.' Cleopatra is said to have obtained pearls from Aripu, a small village on the Gulf of Manaar, which is still the center of the pearl industry. Coming to more recent times, but still some centuries back, we have records of fisheries under the Singhalese kings of Kandy, and subsequently under the successive European rulers—the Portuguese being in possession from about 1505 to about 1655, the Dutch from that time to about 1795, and the English from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. A notable feature of these fisheries under all administrations has been their uncertainty.

The Dutch records show that there were no fisheries between 1732 and 1746, and again between 1768 and 1796. During our own time the supply failed in 1820 to 1828, in 1837 to 1854, in 1864 and several succeeding years, and finally after five successful fisheries in 1887, 1888, 1889, 1890 and 1891 there has been no return for the last decade. Many reasons, some fanciful, others with more or less basis of truth, have been given from time to time for these recurring failures of the fishery; and several investigations, such as that of Dr. Kelaart (who unfortunately died before his work was completed) in 1857 to 1859, and that of Mr. Holdsworth in 1865 to 1869, have been undertaken without much practical result so far.

In September, 1901, Mr. Chamberlain asked me to examine the records and report to him on the matter, and in the following spring I was invited by the government to go to Ceylon with a scientific assistant, and undertake any investigation into the condition of the

  1. Abstract of discourse before the Royal Institution of Great Britain.