Once upon a time maritime trade served as the foundation of Kuwait’s livelihood. The economy depended almost solely on trade from the Indian subcontinent and pearl diving. Kuwait was a gateway to the rest of the Peninsula and into Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The advent of cultured pearls and the opening of other routes effectively killed off Kuwait’s competitive advantage as an importer and source of pearls. But with the discovery of oil, which became the main source of income, the majority of the people in Kuwait turned into employees of public institutions and the old professions were gradually forgotten.
Kuwait Times met a researcher in Kuwait history, Mansour Al-Hajri, who spoke about that period of Kuwait’s history. Mansour Al-Hajri’s father was a sailor, and later became a captain (nokhitha).
“In old Kuwait, people lived in two environments – the sea and desert. The latter were seasonal nomads, while the original Kuwaitis worked at sea and in the city. There were seven or eight maritime professions, and the Kuwaitis built the country from these,” he told Kuwait Times. Some excerpts:
Kuwait Times: What were the main maritime activities?
Mansour Al-Hajri: There were two main maritime activities – pearl diving and sailing. In the beginning, Kuwaitis imported various types of big sailing dhows from India, such as Bghala, Kutiya and others. Later, Kuwaiti ship makers built Boom dhows. Pearl diving had different seasons that involved sailing to the Asian subcontinent or Africa, and dhows reached India, Zanzibar and other parts of these continents. Merchants imported wood, spices and other goods from India.
Every dhow had a name, and the owners were businessmen from Kuwaiti families such as Al-Ghanem, Al-Saqer, Al-Kharafi, Al-Hamad, Al-Khalid, Al-Othman, Al-Nisef, Buqamaz, Bin Nikhi, Hilal Al-Mutairi, Marafie, Al-Sabah, Makki Jumaa and others.
Kuwait City’s coast stretched from Dasman up to Watiya, and the Maqsab Gate was where the church currently stands. Kuwaitis of yore built a ‘nigaa’, which is a part of the sea surrounded by stones, which used to serve as a port for the dhows after they come back from their journeys, which used to be around nine or 10 months long.
KT: Who worked on the dhows?
Al-Hajri: Every dhow had a captain (nokhitha), two navigators (sikuniya) and two supervisors (mijadma), who controlled the unloading of goods, especially when travelling to Basra in Iraq, as they traded in dates. They used to transport the dates to India and Karachi. They sold the worst kinds of dates to businessmen there who used it in making wine and colors for walls and houses. The other dates, the better ones, were sold to poor people.
KT: How many dhows were there in Kuwait?
Al-Hajri: Pearl diving was even more important than sailing. During the period of the late Amir Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, there were 800 dhows in Kuwait of all kinds, including diving, sailing and Qataa dhows. The last type was only used for traveling between Gulf ports including Basra, Ibadan, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharqiya in Saudi Arabia. These dhows sailed for only one month, trading in goods, and returned to pay the sailors.
Diving journeys were four months and 10 days long. Pearl diving was the toughest profession in the sea. Diving was an inspiration for families to write poems. Divers worked in diving areas (hiraat) to collect oysters that contained pearls. They used to open it with a curved knife to remove the flesh and get the pearl.
There were basically three main kinds of pearls – dana, lulu and hasba. The best pearl should be plain white – if there is any other color or sand on it, its price will drop. The pearl buyer (tawash) bought pearls from the dhow owner (nokhitha) by checking it under sunlight. In 1935, the late Amir Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber bought a dana pearl for 30,000 rupees and presented it to the queen of Britain when he visited her. This pearl is still preserved at the British Museum. The most expensive pearl was sold for 120,000 rupees at that time.
KT: What difficulties did people face in the sea?
Al-Hajri: Pearl diving witnessed many accidents. Many dhows sank – the most popular ones were Bin Nikhi, Bin Sadiq and Bilal Al-Saqer. In 1770, the dhow of Buti bu Taiban sank. On the Bilal dhow, there were 36 sailors, and 24 of them died in 1942. I had the chance to meet three of those who survived, and one of them is still alive now.
By Nawara Fattahova