Study of pearling trade to shed light on cultural histories of the material world

December 16, 2014

The historical and cultural importance of the international pearling industry is the focus of a new four-year investigation led by Murdoch University.

This Australian Research Council funded project, worth $438,058, will provide the first major comparative history of pearling in the Indian Ocean World (IOW).

This region is comprised of series of maritime pearling zones stretching from the coast of East Africa and the Middle East, to the shores of India, northern Australia and the southern Philippines.

Professor James Warren and Dr Joseph Christensen from the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University will collaborate with the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University and the Western Australian Museum on the project.

Professor Warren said pearling was one of the principal industries of IOW since antiquity, a maritime global economy based on the long-distance exchange of commodities, peoples and technologies especially between the 10th and 19th centuries.

“The repercussions of this global consumption resulted in the mass movement of peoples across the IOW to the pearling grounds,” he said.

“There were conflicts between local rulers and imperial powers over the control of pearling industries and the conduct of trade in mingled commodities such as opium, textiles and tea, which were inextricably linked to the production and circulation of pearls and shell.”

During the four-year project, the investigators will follow the trajectory of pearls and/or mother-of-pearl, looking at production, trade and exchange, consumption, and the associated cultural dimensions of pearling.

“By using pearling as an approach to illustrate larger-scale processes of social and economic change, this project will provide new insights on the economic and cultural unity of the IOW and new understandings of the impact of European imperialism,” Professor Warren said.

The successful grant marks a major new phase in the collaboration between Murdoch University and the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University.

Plans for the project were laid at the international conference Dimensions of the Indian Ocean World Past, organised by Professor Warren and Dr Christensen on behalf of the Asia Research Centre and the Indian Ocean World Centre, and held at the Fremantle Maritime Museum in November 2012.

This research will contribute to a number of planned Western Australian Museum exhibitions and displays and also be developed into a major documentary film by Academy Award nominated director Dr Martin Mhando.

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