At what period pearls were first found and began to be used for personal adornment is not known to history. Certain it is, however, that pearls have been fished for off the north-west coast of Ceylon from time immemorial. The pearl banks lie twelve miles out at sea and under ten fathoms of water, and it is strange that no legend exists as to when or by whom they were discovered.
The reasons why pearl-oysters are to be found here in millions are obvious : the banks lie in a great sheltered bay, where the water is shallow, the currents are almost imperceptible, and the minute organisms on which the oysters live exist in abundance.
The Portuguese, Dutch, and British Governments have, each in turn, derived great revenues from the pearl fisheries. They are not held annually, but only after examination of the banks has shown that a large number of mature oysters are ready to be fished. Sometimes, owing to the ravages of voracious skates which feed on the young oysters, or to the oyster-beds being covered with drifting sand or mud, and to other causes, no fisheries take place for years.
The fishing always commences about the middle of February, and lasts from six to eight weeks. At that time of the year the weather is generally most convenient for the operations. Soon after sunset a gentle land breeze springs up and blows all night, and by it the fishing fleetóconsisting, it may be, ot one hundred and fifty boats, each of about ten tons burdenósail out to the banks, and anchor at their stations. At sunrise the wind drops, and the divers begin work. They use heavy stones to take them down, and on reaching the bottom rake into bags attached to the ropes as many oysters as they can find, and then ascend to the surface.
The pearl banks are infested by sharks, but the divers do not fear them, as they all wear amulets purchased of professional shark-charmers, which they believe will protect them. What makes their work safe, however, is the presence of so many boats and the noise, which drive away the terrible creatures.
The diving is continued, with intervals for rest, till noon, when a sea-breeze springs up, which takes the laden boats back to land. On arrival, the oysters are all carried into the kottus, or stockaded enclosures, and there counted, the divers taking away their share. The Government share is then put up to auction by the officer in charge of the fishery amid much excitement. Scores of traders attend from all parts of the East, and the bidding is often brisk. The price paid per thousand oysters depends on the reputed out turn of pearls ; but at the best the whole business is a gamble, and much money is made and lost at it.
The contents of the oysters are emptied into dugout canoes or tubs, and washed, and the pearls sifted out. The vast majority of them are seed-pearls of little value, but a good number of large ones, perfect in shape aud lustre, are obtained at every fishery. What may be called " freak-pearls," such as a large and a smaller one joined together, called by the natives a " cock-and-hen pearl," are much valued.
Other strange sea-products are to be found off the north-west coast of Ceylon. Among these are the dugongs, or sea-cowsówarm-blooded creatures something like seals. Their habits of sometimes floating upright in the sea and of carrying their yo mg under their flippers are supposed to have given rise to the belief in the existence of mermaids, held in the Middle Ages. They are called " sea-pigs " by the Tamils, who are very fond of their flesh. The Moormen are equally fond of it, but, being Mohammedans, are prohibited by their religion from eating " pig>" as unclean meat. They have accordingly given the creature another name, avariya, under which name they indulge their appetites with clear consciences !
Quantities of bcche-de-mer,or sea-slug, are collected in the shallows along the coast. They are dried and exported to China, where they are esteemed a delicacy, being chiefly eaten in the form of a thick glutinous soup.
Conch-shells are also fished tor, but the demand for them is not very great. They are chiefly used for making the weird wind instruments used in heathen temples during worship.
Beds of growing coral may be seen at several places along the coast. Glowing with brilliant colours, they present a beautiful appearance through the clear, still water to anyone gazing over the gunwale of a boat gliding over them.
To the north of the pearl-banks lies the island of Manaar, about twenty-two miles long, covered with brushwood, interspersed with groves of grim black palmyras. Here and there may be seen ancient baobabs, or monkey-breadfruit trees, planted probably by Arab traders many generations ago. Some are over sixty feet in girth, though only thirty feet in heightóveritable monstrosities of the vegetable kingdom.
The railway which is shortly to be made, connecting Ceylon with India by way of Adam's Bridge, will pass through this island. When completed, it will probably be one of the engineering wonders of the world.
A large proportion of the people living at Manaar and along the north-west coast are Roman Catholics, their ancestors having been converted to that faith by Portuguese priests over three hundred years ago. Some thirty miles in the interior, in the heart of the forest, is a famous Roman Catholic place of pilgrimage, and another of equal sanctity stands on the shores of the great Putlam lagoon. To these crowds of natives flock at certain seasonsónot only Roman Catholics, but Buddhists and Hindus, all of whom believe they will gain merit by the pilgrimage. Many go in anticipation of miraculous cures of diseases they suffer from.