Cultivation of seed pearls at Labuk
Published on: Saturday, July 17, 2021
By: British North Borneo Herald
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NOVEMBER 2 1938 

This industry is now centred at Tetabuan. Up to the year 1927, seed pearls were also worked at Sesip on Sugut river delta, and at Kuala Paitan. Since then seed pearl fishery at the two latter places has been abandoned, the crop having been destroyed entirely by the heavy floods of that year. 

The Seed Pearl Beds 

At Tetabuan seed pearl beds are located in the Labuk Bay between Kanawi, Tetabuan and Lingkabo islands on one side, and the coastline from Sungei Kulayok, Samawang and Gum-Gum on the other. The seed pearl bed is called “balintang” by local people, and there are 16 beds within this area. 

They are (1) Bangkadan, (2) Mayang, (3) Kanawan, (4) Tetangah, (5) Kapis, (6) Bakal, (7) Sudok-Sudok, (8) Pianfikat, (9) Turak, (10) Tangko, (11) Tangati, (12) Batu Mapan, (13) Nasil, (14) Memanjang, (15) Karanggitan and (16) Tabid. 

Another bed named Kilong is on the approach to Tetabuan as one enters the one from the west. Most of them are in shallow water. 

Some are dry at low tide, like Bangkadan, Mayang, Kanawan and Kilong, and the deepest in Batu Mapan being 1 1/2 fathoms deep at low water. 

The “balintangs” are formed either of mud or sand, or a mixture of both. Several measure about half a mile in length, whereas the smallest are only a few chains long. 

They are ideally placed for the breeding of seed pearl shell, being in close proximity to swamps, and just out-side the limit of big expanses of fresh water; and yet at the same time being in a position to receive the deposits washed down by the floods and rain, on which it is believed seed pearl shell thrives. 

Seed Pearl Shell 

The seed pearl shell is known locally as “selisip”. The first indication of the growth of “selisip” is by the presence of numerous scale-like shells on a seed pearl bed, no bigger than the scales of a fair-size fish. They are then about two months old. 

From this time onward the young shells are often met with entangled in fishing nets, and apparently drifting about with the current. 

In the 4th month they form a colony, when they grow in clusters embedded on the bed, one on top of the other. They have grown larger. being a little bigger than a Straits dollar, and heavier. 

A colony may occupy the whole surface of a seed pearl bed. Frequently, several such colonies occur during the same season. 

The usual hatching time is towards the end of the “utara” season, or after the autumn rains, when “selisip” are to be found in great numbers scattered on the beds. 

“Selisip” will take 9 to 12 months to reach maturity. A full grown one measures 3 — 3 1/2 inches, and is very thin. Some are almost circular in shape, others like clam-shells. “Selisip” flesh is also eaten, being either fried or prepared into a native preserve called “jarok”. 

Rain and floods are important factors in “selisip” development, as it is immediately after each rainy season that seed pearl shells are found to hatch. 

The conclusion to be reached from this seems to be that the rain carries considerable quantities of food and bed-building materials for “selisip”, from the surrounding swamps and from upriver, in the shape of silt and refuse; and which in due course are deposited on the bed .

Too heavy a flood will destroy a crop, for “selisip” cannot survive long in fresh water. 

On the other hand occasional normal floods are needed during the period of adolescence, to replenish fresh wash to fatten the crop. The size of a crop very often can be determined beforehand, by the extent and condition of growth, as well as by the number and nature of beds occupied. 

Thick layers and healthy growth inhabiting a large bed of mud formation will point to a good crop, whereas sandy beds will produce a comparatively low yield. 

Seed Pearls 

A “selisip” usually contains from one to five pearls. The pearls vary in size, ranging from the size of a minute piece of dust to that of a match-stick head. The colour of larger pearls is lustre white, and finer ones resemble sago flour. 

For market purposes the pearls are sorted out and graded into 3 qualities. Coarse ones are termed “kapala” or head, or No 1 quality; the fine and uneven shaped ones met in the flesh are graded “ujong” or end, or No. 2; and those found sticking to the inside of the shell, graded as “tumpi” or base. 

The seed pearls are chiefly used, by Chinese, being valued highly by them for their supposed medicinal properties though some exceptionally large pearls are also made into ornaments.

Dangers to the Crop

During the period of colony forming and adolescence, there are many dangers to which the crop in subjected. The few known ones are big floods, disturbance caused by passing boats and nets being dragged over the bed, and “kilong” placed on the bed.

As has already been mentioned an abnormal flood is a serious menace to the young crop, which naturally cannot be avoided.

And likewise disturbances caused by boats passing and fishing on the bed are equally injurious, for the “selisip” is sensitive to noise and sound, and has been known to die or disappear after such interruptions. Hence strict precautions have to be taken against the latter happenings.

The bed is marked with bunting and white cloth on poles that can easily be seen from a distance, and all boats and every form of fishing activity are warned not to go into the locality.

Method of collection

Before work is commenced, the bed has first to be inspected, and samples of the crop taken, so as to ascertain whether it is yet old enough to be collected. When this has been done a day is fixed for people to start working. The Collection of the “selisip” from the bed is done by diving, baskets being used to transfer it from the bed to the boat. Where the bed is located in shallow water, it is a simple operation, as the worker has only to scoop the shells direct into the boat.

On arrival at the village the women do their part in opening the pearl shells.

Each man may have his wife of sister to open his collection. This is slow work, entailing the prising open of thousands of shells one by one with a knife, and lasting many hours.

Big pearls are easily picked up and put aside in the process of opening, and the smaller ones together with the shell flesh are placed in a large iron pan and boiled until half cooked, after which they are left for 3 days for the flesh to rot. 

When the flesh has dissolved, it is then washed with water to dislodge the pearls which sink to the bottom of pan, where the pearls can be readily picked out. The shells after having been emptied of pearls and flesh are discarded as they have little or no commercial value.

Payment of royalty 

Instead of paying ten per cent of the value of the seed pearls collected the pearls fisher has to pay the Government royalty in actual pearls.

Out of each fisher’s collection the Government clerk deducts one tenth as royalty and this Government share is then sent to the Sandakan Customs to be sold by tender. This method of payment of royalty in pearls is better and fairer than in cash, as there often is a considerable variance between the grading of value of the pearls in Sandakan and those arrived at in the Labuk.

To safeguard against fraud and to ensure that the correct royalty is paid to the Government, within recent years a method of arriving at the average collections of a man has been evolved.

A fisher is able to collect so many “ambongs” (rotan fish baskets having a capacity of some six to eight gallons) of shells in one day from a certain bed, and to arrive at the nearest correct figure, a sample collection amount that one man is capable of collecting in a single day.

This test is carried out before general diving for shells on any bed is permitted. Each bed ha a special test harvest carried out on it as each bed gives a different yield.

For instance, a large bed situated in shallow water with thick layers and a healthy crop will produce from 10 to 15 “ambongs” per man per day, whereas another bed having the same conditions of growth and size only situated in deep water will give less owing to the difficulty of diving.

Samples of the shells so taken are then opened to find out how much they produce, the average yield from 10 “ambongs” of shells from a productive bed being one “amas” or “Chee”.

Hence if one the shells so taken are then opened to one of these test harvests, the royalty to Government would be one tenth of an “amas” per day per fisher.

A working day is limited to only a few hours, of which only two to three are spend in diving, which may be yet further limited by the state of the tide or the conditions of the sea.

A record of the length of the working day and of absences is kept by the Government clerk, so that the nearest total in respect of the amount of seed pearls that are obtained by each worker may be reached.

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