by Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert

“. . . commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.” — K. Marx, The Capital: Part 1.
“Merely for a broken earthenware plate that a sailor gave to an Indian woman she gave him four rows of pearls. The almirante said: ‘We have reached the richest country in the world!’” Giralamo Benzoni, La Historia del Mondo Nuovo.

As Benzoni’s short quote reveals, commodities do not have any value in and of themselves. At a basic level of analysis, they acquire their value in relation to other commodities through the mechanisms of exchange. That is a ‘mere’ Pot to the Spaniard can be traded for what are ‘merely’ the by-products of an otherwise useful source of sustenance. However, as Marx would have it, the nature and value of commodities is more complicated than simple relations of exchange. Each commodity hides within itself its provenance, the labour used to produce it and the social relations that surrounded its production. This short essay will explore some of these ‘imperceptible’ facets of the Iberian pearl trade as a way of lending some context to the trade of this, the simplest of gems. To begin with, I will quickly compare the place of pearls in the Portuguese East Indian trade with their role in the Spanish West Indian trade. Secondly, I will examine the social and economic factors underlying the Venezuelan pearl industry in order to tease-out its place in the establishment of colonial forms of production in the sixteenth century.

      Emerging as they did from a medieval context which saw trade with Asia as essential, a trade in sumptuary goods, both Portugal and Spain paid close attention to securing access to spices, gems, rare textiles and precious metals. The Portuguese Carreira da India was a success from this point of view. Quickly forcing their way into the local trading networks of the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese managed to reap a rich supply of many of the aforementioned commodities. Although spices, particularly pepper, cloves and cinnamon, dominated this trade, there was also a small trickle of pearls, gems and drugs that made its way back to the European markets.1 These mercadorias meudas, as they were termed, would never be able to carry the Portuguese trading enterprise. This was in large part because the Portuguese traders, as outsiders, were never able to by-pass the web of local trading interests that controlled production to their profit. The Portuguese managed to draw profit from the East Indian pearl trade, but it was always profit off the margins.2

      In the Atlantic basin, however, things were markedly different. During the sicteenth century, pearls would constitute one of the principal pillars of the Indies trade, a trade which, according to contemporary proverbs, was comprised of oro, plata y perlas. Indeed, some have claimed that revenues from the pearl trade surpassed those derived from the precious metals.3 Though more cautious with their verdict in this regard, Huguette and Pierre Chaunu seem to concur on the critical role of pearls in the early years of the Indies trade. It would appear that the flow of pearls across the Atlantic galvanized the resolve of merchant interests to develop a West Indies trade at a time when capital and state support for these ventures was hard to come by.4

      Indeed, this period in the development of the Spanish colonial economy was marked by the crown’s soft stance on national control of the Indies trade. Charles V was more than willing to hand out trading licenses to non-Spanish merchants. One of the most famous examples, and it is an example that directly concerns our story here, is the Welser contract, in which the Emperor, in 1528, accorded the Welser family of Germany the right to exploit the region around Venezuela as a means of paying off his rather substantial debts to them.5

      Two things attracted the Welsers to Venezuela, labour and pearls, and it is the entwinement of these two ‘resources’ that is the key to understanding the difference between the Portuguese and Spanish pearl trades. In contrast to the Portuguese experience in the Indian Ocean, the Spaniards in the Caribbean were able to exercise a strong degree of control over the actual pearl production. This control did not only guarantee the supply but also increased it, eliminated the place of indigenous middlemen, and directly co-opted the labour-value component of this commodity.

      To be sure, this Spanish incursion into the native economy was a process that unfolded over time. In the first stage, the pearl trade was a barter trade in which the relative difference in value (from the Spanish perspective) between commodities offered and commodities gained comprised the principal source of profits.6 In the second stage, Spaniards sought to increase their control of production by using coerced Native labour. The abuses this relation engendered were as sharp as the profits it allowed were steep.7 Essentially, this was slavery, a system in which human beings were used as so much fuel to be spent in the production of a given commodity. At this point, the Spaniards had reached a ceiling in the amount of profit they could extract from the pearl industry given its form at that moment. What was needed was a change in the means through which pearls were extracted. This drive would constitute the third stage in the development of the colonial pearl industry.

      Up until 1528, pearls had to be gathered through the use of Native or African divers who, weighed down with rocks, would comb the bottoms of the pearl beds picking up oysters while keeping an eye out for the ever present sharks. In 1528, Spaniards began to invest in new forms of technology in order to maximize the production of their work-force. At first these forms consisted of long weighted rakes that would scour the sea bottom for oysters. In the 1570s, however, much more sophisticated technology was being developed and patented for underwater work in the Indies. While it is unclear whether such devices were ever used in the Venezuelan pearl beds, it would appear that these were proto-typical diving helmets which used pumps to supply the wearer with air.8

      Part of the reason why such devices did not see a large amount of use lies in the growing decline of the pearl industry in the latter half of the sixteenth century. That one has here is a case of contradictory trends. On the one hand there is a growing capacity for production through the coercion of labour and use of technological implements. On the other hand, there is a decline in the two ‘resources’ upon which this industry was predicated, labour and the pearls themselves. It should be noted however that this declining curve was cyclical, as specific labour pools or pearl beds were exhausted, procurement and production simply moved on to new regions. In terms of labour, one sees a shift from the use of local Indigenous peoples, to the use of natives from as far afield as Brazil or the northern Caribbean, and finally to the use of black slaves brought in from Africa.9 Insofar as the pearl beds were concerned, the center of production shifted from the island of Cubagua (1504-late 1520s) to the Marguerita islands (1535-1600s) with an intermediary stage (1528-1535) in which production appears to have been shared by the two islands.10

      By the last quarter of the century, the resource which once comprised a healthy share of the Indies trade had been exhausted and the labour supply, by this time increasingly African, had been directed to the new poles of the colonial trading system, the mining economies of Peru and Mexico. Nevertheless, the role of pearls in the development of the trans-Atlantic system should not be underplayed. At one level it provided the seed of attraction for European investment. At another level, it was a prototype for the subsequent mining economies insofar as the role of labour coercion and technological change in the extraction of commodities was concerned.


      1. Artur Tedoro de Matos, “Some aspects of the Portuguese trade in the Malabar Coast: Cochin and the ‘Mercadorias meudas’” Indica 26/1-2 (1989): 93-102.
      2. K. S. Mathew, “Indian Merchants and the Portuguese Trade on the Malabar Coast during the 16th Century” in Teotine R. de Souza ed. Indo-Portuguese History: Old Issues, New Questions. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Co., 1985: 7-10.
      3. Manuel Luengo Munoz “Inventos para acretar la obtencion de perlas en America durnate el siglo XVI” Anuario de Estudios Americanos IX (1952): 51.
      4. Huguette et Pierre Chaunu Seville et l’Atlantique. Tome VIII: Les structures, Structures geographiques, 1504-1650. Paris: Institut des Hautes Etudes de l’Amerique Latine, 1959: 614.
      5. Eduardo Arcila-Farias Econonia colonial de Venezuela. Vol. 1, Caracas: Italgrafica, 1973: 64-65.
      6. See for example Americo Vespucio’s account, “Las riquezas que en esta neustra Europa y en otras partes usamos como oro, joyas, perlas y otras riquezas, no las aprecian en nada, y aunque las poseen en sus tierras no trabajan por obtenerlas ni las estiman” in Descubrimiento y Conquista de Venezuela. Bibliteca de la Academia Nacional de la Historia, Vol. 54 (1962): 45.
      7. Sanford A. Mosk, “Spanish Pearl-Fishing Operations on the Pearl Coast in the 16th Century.” Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 18, No. 3 (August , 1938): 396.
      8. Manuel Luengo Munoz “La Obtencion de perlas”: 66-67.
      9. Huguette and Pierre Chaunu, Seville et l’Atlantique: 618.
      10. Ibid.