Excerpt from the chapter “The Sea of Cortés” in Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico by C. M. Mayo.
There were no Amazons, no Seven Cities of Cíbola, no hoards of gold — only pearls, which the Pericú wore in necklaces strung with red berries and bits of shells. The pearls were ugly blackened little nubs because the Indians had no knives; to open the oyster shells they threw them into a fire. The Spaniards slipped in their sharp and slender knife points: many of these yielded good Oriental pearls, white and gleaming.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, pearl fishers from the mainland crossed the Sea of Cortés to work the rich beds around the Bahía de La Paz, Isla Espíritu Santo and points north — Loreto and Bahía Concepción as far as Mulegé. The divers worked most efficiently during the warm months from May to September. Usually enough pearls were found to make the crossing profitable, but never enough to support a settlement. None of the colonies at La Paz had survived: Cortés’ failed in 1535; another headed by Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1596 also failed; Admiral Atondo’s failed in 1683; even the Jesuits' Mission La Paz failed, its poor thatched adobe huts smashed and burned in the Rebellion of 1734. By the time the rebellion was quashed, too few Indians survived to justify a full-time missionary. And already the pearls, heavily fished for more than a century, had apparently become scarce.
But then in 1740, perhaps because of a chubasco, an immense quantity of pearl oyster shells was thrown up on the beach north of Mulegé. The Indians there, hoping to please the soldiers, brought some of the shells to the mission at San Ignacio. Manuel de Ocio was one of those soldiers. Abandoning the mission, he left for the pearlbeds at once. Bane of the Jesuits, within a few years Ocio had sold hundreds of pounds of pearls and parlayed his fortune into properties in Guadalajara, silver mines in the mountains south of La Paz, and, grazing over the mission territories of the cape region, that voracious herd of 16,000 head of cattle.
Pearl fishing continued over the next century, primarily in the beds around the Bahía de la Paz and Isla Espíritu Santo. When the U.S. forces invaded in 1847, as many as a hundred boats were pearl fishing in the area. As lieutenant E. Gould Buffum recalled in his memoir, in those heady days before the battles with the Guerrilla Guadalupana, he sailed out to the pearl fisheries off Isla Espíritu Santo one “clear and beautiful moonlit night” with “a delicious land breeze which blew our little boat so rapidly over the water.”
In the daytime he watched the Yaqui Indian divers at work, naked but for their loin cloths and a sharp stick which they used to dig out the oysters and fend off sharks.
It was a primitive method of production for so precious a commodity. From the crude little canoes bobbing in the Bahía de la Paz, the pearls found their way into coronets and scepters, velvet robes and satin gowns. (“We attended a gala event at the theater with the most beautiful ladies of Mexico," boasted the Empress Carlota in one of her letters, “who arrived covered in pearls from the Gulf of Cortez [sic] and dressed in the latest fashions from Paris.”) “The most esteemed ones,” according to the Jesuit historian Clavigero, “are those which, besides being large, white, and lustrous, are spherical or oval; and especially valuable are those which are pear-shaped.” As was the 400 grain Pearl of La Paz, made a present to the Queen of Spain.
By the early twentieth century, when journalist Arthur North came through, La Paz had become chief producer in the world's pearl fishing industry. In his 1908 book The Mother of California, North noted that the peninsula’s “annual output is valued at a quarter of a million dollars, gold, and is promptly marketed in London, Paris and other great European marts.” Using modern diving apparatus, the divers could dive deeper now, and dig out more shells from more beds. With the ensuing glut of pearls, pearl prices fell, and so the divers dove yet deeper and brought up more pearls. Each diver harbored the hope of a treasure — a egg-sized find, perfectly round, or perfectly oval, brilliantly lustered, a pearl that would be, as
Steinbeck called it in his novella The Pearl, “the Pearl of the World.” But most oysters, cracked open, were empty, nothing but quivering gray tongue. As time went by, the pearls, when the divers found them, were increasingly unremarkable specimens, tiny things to be strung on a simple necklace or glued to the end of a hat pin. By 1940, when Steinbeck and Ricketts came through on their collecting expedition, almost all that was left were stories. An unknown disease had decimated the sparse remaining beds, and though the large companies based in La Paz attempted to limit pearl fishing, individuals — often women in nothing but a loin cloth and a helmet with an air tube — continued to work isolated stretches of coast.
By the end of World War II, Baja California's pearl oysters had all but disappeared, and La Paz's pearl industry, the economic engine of the peninsula for nearly four centuries, was dead. Like the Pericú themselves with their burnt little pearls strung together with berries and shells, a world is gone.
Excerpt from the chapter “The Sea of Cortés” in Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (University of Utah Press, 2002). © C.M. Mayo. All rights reserved. Posted by permission of the author.