During the epoch of British colonization of the ocean and the shoreline of the Gulf of Manaar , the figure of the diver came to be increasingly romanticized. The world of the underwater was played with by Jules Verne, Georges Bizet, and Jules Michelet, and materialized by the eerie phosphorescent light of the aquarium and the emergence of narratives of submarine adventures and underwater photography. More productively, administrative materials taken from the Manaar colonial archive can be entangled with photographic practices and their absence to suggest unusual and sometimes elliptical alignments of art and politics.
It also resonates with the world of sharks, shamans, and the diver. In both cases, she carefully destroys the text to fashion what she believes to be prescient constellations of words, which she carefully folds and folds over and over, to gesture towards the layers of both a pearl and the act of reading. So fragile, perhaps such pearls are untouchable; their viscerality has to operate through the photographic image.
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From Gill's ongoing Pearls series of paper necklaces, onwards. Private Collection, London. Figure 6. Sometimes worn by friends and strangers in the images, the pearl necklaces are of course criticisms of those worn by society women and maharajahs as photographed by the likes of Cecil Beaton. Perhaps intended as a critique of the kind of administrative photography associated with nacreous trafficking, they allude to a vanishing world of trading, melancholia, and nostalgia.
Wendt and Neruda toured north-west Sri Lanka together during the s and s. The major South Indian ruler. Muhammad Ali, Nawab of the Carnatic r. After his death and British conquest of Ceylon the following year, the English East India Company attempted relentlessly to extract pearls from the Gulf of Manaar as an important new resource aimed at expanding markets for luxury goods in Russia and Europe. In Strange Decor Fig. The fusion is never complete. The broken-down telegraph station, deemed not worthy of being featured whole within the image, and the brig-as-ghost ship, speak to an economy already passed.
Shark Charmers had once harnessed the telegraph wire to their huts as magical channels.
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Offset by a brooding horizon, a man with an umbrella wonders the silverine shoreline alone. Possibly a Shark Shaman chanting mantras or praying until the pearling boats return, he might—unbeknown to us—be communicating with his two fellow shamans, that is, that isolated shaman regarding an Argentine fish talisman in his beach hut; the other working with the divers twenty miles out at sea.
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Lionel Wendt, Adventures in Space , ca. Pearls and pearl diving are also at the heart of the mythical formation of fieldwork-based anthropology and the parallel evolution of photography and its prehistories. Frequently presented and kept safe in mother-of-pearl inlaid leather cases, it can be conjectured that nineteenth-century photographs are like pearls protected by a suitably shell-like lining. The inventor of the kaleidoscope was physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Sir David Brewster, who is most famous for his discovery of the photoelastic effect—a procedure which helped to bring into being optical mineralogy.
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His work was also important for later experiments to do with the photographic plate. Pressed between two plates of mother-of-pearl, a thin, iridescent film would be elicited. The effect of pearlescence could also be communicated by hammering mother-of-pearl onto a clean surface of lead or to a compound of mercury and bismuth.
To dissect iridescence was to search for grooves. Sometimes there could be perceived 2, grooves per inch square within a certain pearlescent imprint. Often there were so many grooves that they were incalculable. Taken as the mnemonics of light, pearlescence would assume a critical agency in the formation of British currency. Mr John Barton — of the British Royal Mint took mother-of-pearl to be a model for British coinage: the number of grooves should somehow be equivalent.
He devised an engine, which sought to approximate the number of grooves perceived by Brewster to be present on the inside of a shell. Perhaps mother-of-pearl could itself become coinage or become akin to perhaps even a prototype for certain forms of photography. Through these experiments, scaly, transparent laminated structures could be made into impressions. These impressions could supplement tortoiseshell or veneers from certain woods, to be the mirrors of materials.
Impressions of mother-of-pearl could, with turpentine varnish, be drawn onto films or plates. Then the shell is repeatedly brushed with strong, nitrous acid; those parts not varnished are eaten away. The varnish is then washed off with oil of turpentine.
It is possible to cut several films of shell together. They are then soaked in warm water so as to prize them apart from one another. In the early days of the daguerreotype, photographers intended to use cut sheets of mother-of-pearl as photographic plates. Although never popularized, perhaps this play with the materiality of light would have been one way to save on the costs of the expensive silver or silver-coppered plates of the daguerreotype.
Like indigo , which was sometimes used either as the base or the colorant of photographs of indigo production Fig. Collection of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Figure 9. But the shimmering nature of pearl would persist in two ways. Pearls and pearlescence really pushed photography. By this, I mean in terms of the kind of light that was involved—the search for the shimmer.
The shimmer bears within itself a slight iridescence that incites movement in and of the image. Later he would complain that pearl traders had tried to intervene in the Trobriand kula economy with their crassly made arm shells. Despite this, the pearl trader and the anthropologist playfully exchange places with their respective cameras, or Billy stands shyly Fig. Only the picture of the two of us is very bad. Unknown creator, Branislaw Malinowski and Billy Hancock , ca. Figure Whilst for Malinowski, it was Billy the creole pearl trader who helped him to experiment with his photographic practice—a practice dominated by the ocean and the shoreline—for Wendt, working a few years later, the diver off-duty opened up another way of reading the pearling economy.
A crouching figure, perhaps a fisherman or diver, dreams of a nubile girl shimmering in the watery depths below Fig. Pearl shells constituted a form of coercive currency as can be seen in the case of pioneering prospectors who flew them over the Papua New Guinea Highlands in their thousands. Kina Melanesian pidgin for pearl shell was used in complex patterns of ornament and exchange. White colonialists became enthralled to shell money and the cargo cult which they sought to inflect through the coercive introduction of paper currency from the s.
Strangely given this rich anthropological literature, the shell culture of the Gulf of Manaar in the colonial period is relatively absent from discussion, despite the devastating attempts of British colonial authorities to re-engineer the shoreline and its customary economics. Kirutuneia claimed to be seventy years old and to have laboured as a pearl diver since he was nine years old.
Ever on the relentless search for objective data on the nomadic lives of elusive oysters, Hornell wrote somewhat disappointedly that M. Hornell advocated replacing divers with dredging machines then being introduced by British colonialists in northern Australia and the Torres Strait.
A second alternative would be to lure Arab divers from the Persian Gulf—men he considered more disciplined and able. Often the British forced divers to dive way too deep—with fatal consequences. In return for their hard labour, which included having to lie on their hard-won bluebottle infested open oysters, waiting for the oyster to rot, which enabled pearls to be extracted, divers could buy small pieces of stone from the local rajahs to establish their own villages.
Fisher Unwin, , facing p. Collection The British Library T Divers would only agree to search for oysters, if they were protected by at least two charmers. Known also as shark binders kadal - kotti in Tamil; hai-banda in Hindustani, or locally as Pillal kadlar , these shamans travelled for the seasonal pearl fishing. Perceived to have extraordinary powers, which also included controlling the winds, the currents, and land animals, the nomadic Shark Charmers often worked in pairs at a distance:.
They can be glimpsed in photography, if only in terms of the gestalt. Working with the Parawa divers, the charmers encouraged these men to carry an amulet made from a dried palmyra leaf inscribed with mystical characters, which they wrapped in oil cloth. Nonetheless, they needed the charmers to be present, paying them 9 pence a day and allowing them a choice of the best oysters. Shifting sands, migrating oysters, unpredictable currents, and other difficult conditions allow us to characterize these colonial fishing grounds in terms of what Michael Taussig would call miasma—that is, that unruly, ambiguous space of the abject commons that blurs land, sea, and an invisible city.
Attributed to Mukunda, Alexander is Lowered into the Sea , folio from an illustrated manuscript, —98, ink, watercolor and gold on dyed paper, The boats bristling in the seascape, the temporary camp, and the smattering of Indian and European officials, recall the subject matter and style of Company School painting associated with the north-eastern city of Patna Azimabad in India Fig.
Unknown creator, A Muharram Scene , a Company painting made by an Indian artist for the British in India from the Patna region depicting the Muharram muslim ceremonies, ca. Although in many respects analogous to Mami Wata, the figure of the Shark Charmer eludes pictorial representation both in the vernacular chromolithographs of the bazaar and in colonial prints, drawings, paintings, and photographs.
Mami Wata perhaps naturally incites something other than visual inscription within an image, even those of the seemingly dull colonial officialdom kind.
James Hornell published a few of his own photographs of the pearl camp-city. Living in thatched mud huts, they gathered en masse through word of mouth, rumour, or after the colonial government posted annual advertisements in the press announcing the imminent opening of the fisheries. The camp-as-heterotopia soon came to be highly regulated by British colonial officials. They regularly doused the camp-city with cheap disinfectant, whilst proudly announcing the presence of a police court, jail, bank, post and telegraph offices, auction room, hospital, and cemetery.
Heterotopia, as is well known, describes spaces such as beaches, ships , brothels, and colonies in terms of rites of passage, with an emphasis on the imaginary. They opened as many oysters as possible outside of the colonial tanks into which they were forced, and then closely watched in the activity of shell chucking. Deemed to be looting if caught, the removal of shells without colonial sanction could lead to imprisonment. Not particularly efficient, this arcane device became a source of controversy.
Under pressure from the British government, colonial authorities in Ceylon and Madras had to agree to lease its fisheries out to the private Ceylon Company of Pearl Fisheries Limited in , as well as to sell them the machine. Within three years of taking over the Manaar fishery from the Dutch, the British had succeeded in depleting the number of oysters entirely, which led to an anxious spate of articles, public addresses, and reports on the rapid collapse of a potentially lucrative luxury monopoly.
In spite of this archival fervour during the nineteenth century, only thirty-six fisheries took place. Given his long-term commitment to the economy of pearls and conch shells, Hornell advocated for the disciplining and punishment of crowds. He chose to make Tondi the modular makeshift city, including a detailed plan of what should constitute the built environment of its shell auction Fig.
The Tondi camp-city, Hornell advocated, would be rigorously regulated in terms of its spatial layout. Although seemingly dissatisfied with the lighting conditions, Hornell and his fellow colonial officials did not seem too concerned with the aesthetics of these makeshift cities, or with colonial architecture generally, for that matter.
As the beacon for the returning fishing boats, casting its shadow over the shore where small girls were made to winnow the sand for pearls as they also did at Foul Point , stood The Doric. Whiteness, so exigent to the creole aesthetic of neoclassicism in the colonial cities of Calcutta, Madras, and the Anglican churches of Zanzibar and Singapore, had its origin in the use of ground and burnt shells as plaster in southern Indian temples and shrines. The materiality of seashells confounded and eluded colonial practices even though much of the British Empire was built on, or of, Madras lime chunam.
To culch is also to fill ravines with oyster shells; to make anew the ocean and the shoreline with waste:. The Manaar shoreline, which is made up of millions of half-buried shells, still dazzles and shimmers. Is it possible that waste can be redeemed? Lionel Wendt, Silence , ca. Broken circles are closed. Alipio Correia de Franca Neto offered much inspiration regarding poetry—here in the spirit of Neruda.
I would like to add special thanks to the Paul Mellon Centre and British Art Studies for their encouragement and guidance. Any errors are my own. Tauris, Currently, she is Leverhulme Trust research fellow working on art and labour in the Indian Ocean region. Pablo Neruda, Piedras del cielo London: Routledge, , Wendt learned how to develop his own film experimenting with photomontage, solarization, and brom -etching.
He was the founding member of the Photographic Society of Ceylon est. The photographs I discuss in this essay use the technique of photogravure. Wendt wrote extensively in the journal Leica News and Techniques. Thornley with L. Van Geyzel. It consists of photographs published with a print run of 5, It was initially intended to be the first of three volumes; volumes two and three were abandoned because of the financial failure of volume one. It was re-released in with additional photographs and accompanying essays as A Centennial Tribute.
Press, , 4. Pearl fishing amounts to eleven separate photographs; fieldwork, spring Famously, the Paduan anatomist, Gabrielle Falloppio, described the inner ear in as the cochea Latin for snail. Walter Benjamin , Selected Writings, — , vol. Paul Bullock and Michael W.
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As well as acting as a model for exploring the optical unconscious in modernity, there is a long trajectory of the animated, anthropomorphic, speaking shell. I discuss aspects of this text below. For Benjamin, the Arcades were like a dusty fata morgana. McCoy and James M. From , divers could no longer own their own diving stones; they had to be rented out from the VOC—a practice that continued under the British. Wendt is certainly beginning to garner attention globally. Press, Divers were male which differentiates them from Japanese divers, who were often women. For anonymous photographs of these women divers, see the collection of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London nos.
I am grateful to Sarah Walpole for bringing these rare images to my attention. As well as the risk of the bends, divers were frequently subjected to diseases of the lungs and chest, and to deafness. Blood frequently flowed from their mouths, ears, and nostrils. Each dive was around 40 to 50 seconds; divers dived up to sixty times a day, usually at a depth of 6 to 8 fathoms.
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