Travels and Discoveries in the Levant/Volume 1/Letter XXVII

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Calymniote Divers—The Sponge Trade—Character of the Population of Calymnnos


Calymnos, December 8, 1854.

The first sheet of this letter has been at the bottom of the sea in several fathoms water. The caique in which it was despatched to Rhodes was capsized by the carelessness of the captain, and sank. The Calymniote divers, notwithstanding the coldness of the weather, contrived to descend several fathoms, fasten ropes to the caique, and drag it into shallow water. The inhabitants of Calymnos, like those of Syme, Chalce, and other small islands near Rhodes, are celebrated as divers, and spend the whole summer in fishing up sponges on the coasts of Asia Minor and Syria. In the month of May a little fleet of caiques sets sail from Calymnos, manned by the greater part of the able-bodied male population. The profits of the sponge-fishery are very considerable. The divers in each caique enter into partnership. They are generally poor men, and the money for rigging out the caiques and for the maintenance of the crew during their voyage is lent to them by the richer Calymniotes, who stay at home and trade in sponges. On the return of the caiques in the autumn, the merchants who made the advances to the divers reimburse themselves by purchasing the produce of the season at a price very much below the real value of each cargo. The sponge-merchant then sends his sponges direct to Smyrna, Syra, or Trieste, where they are repurchased by the great traders who supply the European market; and thus, when the sponge arrives in England, the price, after passing through so many hands, is very much raised. But the cause of the dearness of sponges is the great risk of life and capital incurred in the first instance. The diver descends, holding a flat stone in both hands, to assist him in sinking, on which stone a cord is fastened. When he gets to the bottom, he puts this flat stone under his arm, and walks about in search of sponges, putting them in a net hung round his neck, as fast as he uproots them; he then pulls the cord as a signal, and is drawn up again. It is said that the best divers can descend to a depth of thirty fathoms, and that they can remain under water for as long a period as three minutes.131 From inquiries which I have made, it does not appear that they are often cut off by sharks, though these monsters are not unfrequent in the southern part of the Archipelago. It is possible that the rapid descent of the diver may scare away this fish, who generally seizes his prey on the surface. A Calymniote told me that the most terrible sensation he had ever experienced was finding himself close to an immense fish at the bottom of the sea. Under the root of the sponge is a parasitical substance of a caustic nature. This often bursts when the sponge is suspended round the diver's neck, and the liquid it contains causes deep ulcers in his flesh.

Before the sponges are exported, they are cleaned and spread out in fields to dry. In fine weather, many acres of sponges may be seen at Calymnos thus exposed. Part of the process of preparing them for the European market is the filling them with sand. The reason assigned for this singular practice is that, the sponges being always sold by weight, it was the practice fraudulently to increase the weight of the fine sponges by surreptitiously introducing a little sand. To meet this fraud, the sponge-merchants require all sponges to be filled with as much sand as they can hold; and as the quantity which each sponge can contain may be calculated, this amount is always deducted from the weight. The sand thus serves as a common measure.

Rather more than half the sponges from Calymnos are exported to Smyrna, and the rest to Syra, Trieste, and Marseilles. The annual value of the export is reckoned at about two millions of piasters (about £16,949). The number of caiques which go to fish for sponges is about two hundred, with a tonnage of from one to three tons each.

Latterly a rich and enterprising Calymniote merchant, by name Antonio Maillé, has built a ship of 200 tons, which he sends out every year to the more distant sponge-fisheries laden with a number of caiques and their crews. On arriving at their destination, the caiques are launched from the ship, which remains there till the fishing-season is over, and carries tliem back. A great saving of time is thus effected, and the risk of shipwreck of course much diminished. On the coast of Crete the Calymniotes have to pay 600 piasters each for permission to fish in the Cretan waters. On the Syrian coast this permission is granted on payment of from 100 to 140 piasters each caique.

The finest and best-formed sponges in the Archipelago are found round the island of Astypalæa, near Calymnos. The sponges of the northern part of the Archipelago are fine, but not well-formed; above the Dardanelles, sponges are found in small quantities but of bad quality. The Cretan sponges are much esteemed for their fineness; those of Syria, known in the trade as Paracham, for their forms. The sponges of Barbary are diflicult to cleanse, and are therefore not durable. Professor Forbes, in his account of the Archipelago sponges,132 quotes Aristotle as stating that the best kinds grow on the coasts which become suddenly deep, and that the superior fineness of texture in these deep-sea kinds may be attributed to the greater uniformity of temperature of the water in such places. The Calymniotes do not agree to this. They think that sponges grow best where the bottom is level, but do not believe that they are affected by the change of temperature in shallow water. Where, however, they are subject to the action of the waves, this movement must affect their shape and growth.

The fine sponge without sand is worth at present from 100 to 260 piasters the oke (a weight equal to two pounds and three-quarters avoirdupois); the ordinary sponge from 15 to 50 piasters the oke. Before the Russian war, the fine sponge was worth from 70 to 80 piasters the oke, and the coarser sort from 10 to 25. The annual value of the sponges exported by the island of Syme is reckoned at about 2,500,000 piasters (£21,186). The small island of Chalce exports to the value of from 500,000 to 600,000 piasters (£4,237 to £5,084), and the island of Castel Rosso rather less.

The Calymniotes call the sponge frutta di Calymno. Their island, the greater part of which is very barren and does not produce more than one-third of the corn it consumes, has, since the Greek revolution, been constantly increasing in wealth and population from the development of the sponge trade. The present number of inhabitants is reckoned at about ten thousand, of whom about half are males. The roving and varied life of the sponge-divers, and the address and courage required in their calling, render them very much more intelligent than the ordinary peasantry of the Sporades. On the other hand, the large profits of the sponge fishery in good years rather lead them to despise agiricultural pursuits, and they leave much of the operations of husbandry to be performed by women, passing their time in winter in the cafes, where they sit smoking over a pan of charcoal, and recounting the singular adventures which they have met with in the course of their rambles, and which give an Odyssean character to the lives of some of them. Most of the seafaring men bring back a pocketful of Greek coins after the summer cruise, and, from the variety of remote and unfrequented places which they visit, they often pick up very rare and curious specimens. There is no better place in the Archipelago to buy coins than this island immediately after the return of the sponge-divers in the autumn. I bought an interesting coin of Cilicia which was found in a cargo of wheat from Tarsus.

In the old times, when the Archipelago swarmed with pirates, the Calymniotes dwelt in a fortified city perched on the top of a steep rock, as the inhabitants of Astypalæa do to this day. Sentinels were perpetually stationed on the hills to give a signal in case of the approach of pirates. This custom is curiously commemorated in the names of two of the highest mountains in the island, one of which is called Vigli, "the watch," the other Mero Vigli (ἡμερόβιγλι), "the day-watch."

Since the Greek war of independence, the greater security of the Archipelago has led the Calymniotes to desert their old fortified city, and to build a new one a little lower down the mountain-side. This town is situated on the neck of land half-way between Linaria and the harbour of Pothia. At this latter place a second town is growing up, which will probably some day be the capital.

The houses are very studiously whitewashed outside, and from their extreme regularity and uniformity of size, look, at a distance, like those cubes of chalk which are given to beginners to draw from. Inside, I missed the neatness and comparative cleanliness of the Rhodian peasant's house. Generally the house in Calymnos has two stories, in order to have more room for the stowage of sponges. There are hardly any shops. Each man lays up his own stock of provisions for the winter, so that a stranger has difficulty in existing at all, unless he has some friend to purvey for him.

As from the scarcity of fodder there are very few beasts of burden, most of the necessairies of life imported into the island, such as corn, fuel, wine, and even timber and stone for building, have to be carried on the backs of men, and oftener of women and children, from the port to the higher town, a distance of about two miles. There are no fountains in the town of Calymnos; the wells are very deep, and at some distance from the town. When the supply of water gets low, the women descend to the bottom of the wells, inserting their hands and feet in the crevices between the stones on each side with great dexterity.

Nothing would be easier than to make a road for wheeled vehicles; but the Calymniotes are still very far from this stage of civilization. The constant labour of transport presses very heavily on the women, who are puny and undersized. They are usually married at the age of fourteen, and sometimes as early as twelve. It is a common sight to see a young girl, herself a mere child, tottering under the weight of a sack of flour or load of wood, under which, slung in a kind of scarf, is a bambino so tightly swathed as to be no more than a flexible cylinder. Many of these children die ofl" when they are very young, from imperfect nourishment, dirt, and general neglect. Those who are strong enough to pass the ordeal of so rough a nurture are left to shift for themselves at a very early age, and very soon take to the water like young spaniels. On my first visit to Calymnos in the summer time, I saw four young ladies of about seven years old lying in a row on the sand, drying their bodies in the fierce midday sun, after having taken a plunge in the sea.

The women of Calymnos, from always remaining in the island, are very much less civilized than the men. Their dialect is very barbarous and difficult to understand; but since the establishment of schools is gradually disappearing. Their dress resembles that of the Rhodian peasantry; but the direct trade with Smyrna and Syra has introduced the printed cottons instead of the more picturesque homespun garments, and the sound of the loom is seldom heard in Calymnos.

Much of their time is spent in pounding barley in a mortar with an iron sharp-pointed pestle, which gradually removes the external husk. This process is called κοπανίζειν; and thus may be explained the expression, ἄρτος τρισκοπάνιστος, in the Battle of the Frogs and Mice. "With the flour of this barley an excellent biscuit is made, which retains its crispness for many months, and is therefore very good provision for the Calymniote diver in his voyages.

Their industry is great: I find them excellent as an auxiliary force in my diggings. The monotonous toil in which they pass their days is occasionally relieved by the excitement of a death-bed, which is regarded as a public spectacle, where all have a right to be present who can elbow their way into the house. They seem to like it nearly as much as a play. Another occasional excitement is the punishment of a thief, who, when detected, is, by the custom of the country, hunted like a mad dog through the town, the whole population following him full cry up and down the steep narrow streets till they are weary of the sport. The punishment of a four-footed thief is also singular. One day I saw a man shoot three pigs in his field, and, inquiring what this meant, was told that, by the custom of the country, a pig found trespassing might be put out of the world, without judge or jury, by the person on whose land he had strayed. By the same ride, one ear of an offending donkey may be cut off.