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Chapter II.: A MUSHROOM CITY. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 7.
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A MUSHROOM CITY.
After the usual expenditure of anxiety, prudence, jealousy, wrath and cunning, the letting of the Pearl banks had been accomplished. A great speculator had offered government a certain sum for the whole fishery of the season, and had then let the different banks to various merchants, to whom the gracious permission was given to make what they could of the natives of the land as well as of the sea;—not only to appropriate the natural wealth of the region, but to bring its inhabitants as near to the brink of starvation as they pleased in their methods of employing their toil. Pearls seem to be thought beautiful all over the world where they have been seen. Empresses in the north, ladies of all degree in the east and west, and savages between the tropies, all love to wear pearls; and where is there a woman, in an Esquimaux hut or a Welsh farmhouse, who would not wear pearls if she could obtain them? And why should not all have pearls who wish for them, if there is a boundless stone, and labourers enough willing and ready to provide them? Alas! there are not only few wearers of pearls because the interests of the many are not consulted, but the labourers who obtain them are by the same cause kept bare of almost the necessaries of life, going forth hungry and half naked to their toil, and returning to seek rest amidst the squalidness of poverty, while hundreds and thousands of their families and neighbours stand on the shore envying them as they depart, and preparing to be jealous of them on their return: both parties being, all the while, the natural owners of the native wealth of their region. And why is all this injustice and tyranny? That a few, a very few, may engross a resource which should enrich the many. Yet, not many things are more evident than that to impoverish the many is the most certain method of ultimately impoverishing the few; and the reverse. If the government would give away its pearl banks to those who now fish those banks for the scantiest wages which will support life, government would soon gain more in a year from the pearls of Ceylon than it has hitherto gained by any five fisheries. If buyers might bid for pearls from every quarter of the world to those who might sell any where, and after their own manner, Cingalese huts of mud and rushes would grow into dwellings of timber and stone; instead of bare walls, there would be furniture from a thousand British warehouses; instead of marshes, there would be rice-fields; instead of rickety coasting boats, there would be fleets of merchantmen riding in the glorious harbours of the island; instead of abject prayers from man to man as the one is about to suffer the dearth which the other inflicts, there would be the good will and thanksgiving which spring from abundance; instead of complaints on the one hand of expensive dependence, and murmurs about oppression on the other, there would be mutual congratulation for mutual aid. Ceylon would over pay, if required, in taxes, if not in advantageous commerce, any sacrifice of the monopolies by which she has been more thoroughly and ingeniously beggared than any dependency on which British monopoly has exercised its skill; and Britain might disburthen her conscience of the crime of perpetuating barbarism in that fairest of all regions, for whose civilization she has made herself responsible. There are many methods of introducing civilization; and some very important ones have been tried upon this beautiful island, and with as much success as could be expected: but the most efficacious, the prime method, is only beginning to be tried, the allowing the people to gain the property which nature has appointed as their share of her distribution. Let the Cingalese gather their own pearls, exchange their own timber, sell their own dyes wherever and in whatsoever manner they like, and they will soon understand comfort, and care for luxuries, like all who have comforts and luxuries within their reach; and with these desires and attainments will come the perceptions of duty,—the new sense of obligation which it is the object of all plans of civilization to introduce.
Great pains had been taken to civilize Rayo. He had been schooled and watched over he could read, and he respected the religion of his priest; he was willing to toil, and had a taste for comfort. But, beyond the hope of acquiring a hut and a mat or two, there was little stimulus to toil, and as little to conduct himself with a view towards any future circumstances. Strangers not only carried away the wealth of the land, but they prevented that wealth from growing, and therefore the labour of the inhabitants frmn obtaining a wider field. As pearls were fished ten years before, so they would be fished ten years hence, for any probability that he saw to the contrary. A thousand divers carried away a pittance then, insufficient to bring over to them the desirable things which were waiting on the shores of the neighbouring continent for a demand; and a like pittance might such another thousand carry away in time to come; in like manner might they sigh for foreign commodities, and in like manner might foreign commodities be still waiting, wrought or unwrought, for a demand. Therefore was Rayo still in a state of barbarism, though he understood and praised the trial by jury, and could read the prayers of his church. He was in a state of barbarism, for these accomplishments had no influence on his conduct and his happiness. He was selfish in his love; fraudulent with an easy conscience in his transactions of business; and capable of a revenge towards his superiors as remorseless as his deportment was gentle and polished. No circumstance had ever produced so happy an effect upon him as his advancement to be a pearl-diver, an advancement in dignity, if not in gain. It was the last promotion he was ever likely to obtain; but, besides that it softened his heart by occasioning his immediate marriage, it gave him the new object of distinguishing himself, and opened the possibility of his profiting by some stray pearl, or by some chance opportunity of speculating on a lot of oysters. He walked to join his company on the beach with a demeanour unlike that by which Rayo was commonly known; and his young wife looked after him with a new feeling of pride.
He was sure to be as safe as on shore, for the Charmer was to go in the same boat, and no shark binder of the whole assemblage was more confident of having effectually bound the sharks than Marana's father. All were confident: and the crowds on the beach looked as joyous for the night as if the work was going on for their sakes. A city of bowers seemed to have sprung up like Jonah's gourd or like the tabernacles which, in old times of Jewish festivals, made Jerusalem a leafy paradise for a short season of every year. illegible tents, and bamboo huts dressed with greens and flowers were elustered around the sordid dwellings on the sands. Throngs of merchants and craftsmen, black, tawny, and white, with their variety of costumes, mingled in this great fair. The polisher of jewels was there with his glittering treasure. The pearldriller looked to his needles and pearl dust, while awaiting on his low seat the materials on which he was to employ his skill. The bald, yellow-mantled priest of Budhoo passed on amidst obeisances in one place, as did the Catholic pastor in another. The white vested Mahomedan, the turbaned Hindoo, the swathed Malay merchants exhibited their stores, or looked passively on the gay scene. The quiet Dutchman from the south sent a keen glance through the market in quest of precious stones in the hands of an ignorant or indolent vender. The haughty Candian abated his fierceness, and stepped out of the path of the European; while the stealthy Cingalese was in no one's path, but won his way like a snake in the tall grass of the jungle. The restless lessees of the banks, meanwhile, were flitting near the boats, now ranged in a long row, each with its platform, ropes and pullies; each with its shark-binder, its pilot, its commander, its crew of ten, and its company of ten divers. The boat-lights were being kindled, one by one, and scattering a thousand sparkles over the rippling tide. It was just on the stroke of ten, and the signal gun was all that was waited for. The buzz of voices fell into a deep silence as the expectation became more intense. Those who were wont to make the heavens their clock and the stars its hour-hand, looked up to mark the precise inclination of the Southern Cross; while those who found an index in the flow of the tide, paced the sands from watermark to watermark. Yet more turned their faces southward towards the dark outline of hill and forest that rose on the horizon, and watched for the land breeze. It came, at first in light puffs which scarcely bowed the rushes around the lagoons, or made a stir among the stalks in the rice-ground. Moment by moment it strengthened, till the sails of the boats began to bulge, and every torch and faggot of cocoa-nut leaves on the beach slanted its forks of flame towards the sea, as if to indicate to the voyagers their way. Then the signal-gun boomed, its wreath of smoke curled lazily upward and dispersed itself in the clear air, while a shout, in which every variety of voice was mingled, seemed to chase the little fleet into the distance. The shouting ceased amidst the anxiety of watching the clusters of receding lights, which presently looked as if they had parted company with those in the sky, and had become a degree less pure by their descent. Then rose the song of the dancing-girls, as they stood grouped, each with a jewelled arm withdrawn from beneath her mantle, and her jet-black hair bound with strings of pearl. Mixed with their chaunt, came the mutterings and gabblings of the charmers who remained on shore, contorting their bodies more vehemently than would have been safe on any footing less stable than terra-firma.
The most imposing part of the spectacle was now to the people at sea. As their vessels were impelled by an unintermitting wind through the calmest of seas, they were insensible to motion, and the scene on shore, with its stir and its sound, seemed to recede like the image of a phantasmagoria, till the flickering lights blended into one yellow haze in which every distinct object was lost. It became at length like a dim star, contrasting strangely in brightness and in hue with the constellation which appeared to rise as rapidly as majestically over the southern hills, like an auxiliary wheeling his silent force to restore the invaded empire of night. Night now had here undisputed sway; for the torches which flared at the prows of the boats were tokens of homage, and not attempts at rivalship of her splendours.
Sailing is nearly as calculable a matter on these expeditions as a journey of fifty miles in an English mail-coach. There is no need to think about the duration of the darkness, in a region where the days and nights never vary more than fifteen minutes from their equal length; and, as for a fair wind, if it is certain that there will be one to carry you straight out at ten to-night, it is equally certain that there will be an opposite one to bring you straight in before noon tomorrow. Nature here saves you the trouble of putting engine and paddle-box into your boat, in order to be able to calculate your going forth and your return. By the time the amber haze in the east was parting to disclose the glories of a tropical sunrise, the fleet was stationed in a circle over the banks. Every stray shark had received its commands to close its jaws, and hie back to Adam's Bridge; and on each side of every platform stood five men, every one with his foot slung on the pyramidal stone, whose weight must carry him nine fathoms down into the regions of monstrous forms and terrifying motions.
Rayo was one who was thus in readiness. He stood next to the Charmer, Marana's father, over whom a change seemed to have come since he left the land. It might be from the fasting necessary to his office; it might be from the intensity of his devotion; but it might also be from fear, that his hands shook as he fumbled among his sacred furniture, and his voice quavered as he chaunted his spells. Rayo perceived his disorder, and a qualm came over the heart of the young diver, a qualm such as assails the servile agent of a rich man's prosperity much sooner than one in whom independence brings bravery. Rayo looked keenly at the Charmer; but the Charmer avoided meeting his eye, and it was not permitted to interrupt his incantation.
It was, perhaps, not the better for Rayo that the opposite five went first, it gave more time for the unstringing of his nerves. The splash of the thousand men who descended within the circle took away his breath as effectually as the closing waters were about to deprive him of it. It was a singular sight to see the half of this vast marshalled company thus suddenly engulphed, and to think of them, in one moment after, as forming a human population at the bottom of the sea. To be a subject of the experiment was to the full as strange as to witness it, as Rayo found, when the minute of his companions' submersion was at length over, and a thousand faces (very nearly scarlet, notwithstanding their tawny skins) rushed up through the green wave. Spouting, dripping, and panting, they convulsively jerked their burden of oysters out upon the platform, and then tried to deliver their news from the regions below; but for this news their comrades must not wait. Down went Rayo, to find out the difference between three fathoms and nine. How far the lively idea of a shark's row of teeth might have quickened his perceptions, he did not himself inquire; but he was conscious of a more dazzling flash before his eyes, a sharper boring of the drum of his ear, and a general pressure so much stronger than ever before, that it would have been easy for him to believe, if he had been a Hindoo, like his neighbours, that he supported the tortoise that supported the elephant that supported the globe. He could see nothing at first in the dizzy green that was suffocating and boiling him; but that did not signify, as he had no time to look about him. He thought he was descending clean into a shark's jaws, so sharp was that against which his left great toe struck, when his descent from the ninth heaven to the ninetieth abyss was at length accomplished. (How could any one call it nine fathoms?) On meeting this shark's tooth, or whatever it was, yelling was found to be out of the question. It was luckily forgotten in the panic, that the rope was to be pulled in case of accident;—luckily, as there was no alternative between Rayo's losing all credit as a diver, and the fishing being at an end for that day, from his spreading the alarm of a shark. He day not pull the rope; he only pulled up his left leg vigorously enough to assure himself that it was still in its proper place; by which time lie discovered that he had only mistaken a large, gaping oyster for a hungry shark. Rayo's great toe being not exactly the viand that this oyster had a longing for, it ceased to gape, and Rayo manfully trampled it under foot, before wrenching it from the abode of which its seven years' lease had this day expired These oysters required a terrible wrenching, considering that there was no taking breath between. Now he had got the knack. A pretty good handful, that! St. Anthony! where did that slap in the face come from so cold and stunning? Rayo's idea of a buffet from the devil was, that it would be hot; so he took heart, and supposed it was a fish, as indeed it was. He must go now, 0! O! he must go. He should die now before he could get up through that immeasurable abyss. But where was the rope? St Anthony! where was the rope? He was lost! No! it was the rope slapped his face this time. Still he was lost! A shadowy, striding mountain was coming upon him, too enormous to be any fish but a whale. Suppose Rayo should be the first to see a whale in these seas! St. Anthony! It was one of his companions. If they were not gone up yet, could not he stay an instant longer, and so avoid being made allowance for as the youngest diver of tim party? No, not an instant. He rather thought he must be dead already, for it was hours since he breathed. He was alive enough, however, to coil himself in the rope. Then he went to sleep for a hundred years; then, what is this? dawn? A green dawn? brighter, lighter, vistas of green light everywhere, with wriggling forms shooting from end to end of them. Pah! here is a mouthful of ooze. Rayo should not have opened his mouth. Here is the air at last! Rayo does not care; the water does as well by this time. If he is not dead now, water will never kill him, for he has been a lifetime under it.
“Well, Rayo,” says the captain, “you have done pretty well for the first time. You have been under water a full minute, and one man is up before you. Here comes another.”
“A full minute!”
Even so. Who has not gone through more than this in a dream of less than a minute? and yet more if he has been in sudden peril of instant death, when the entire life is lived over again, with the single difference of all its events being contemporaneous? Since it is impossible to get into this position voluntarily, let him who would know the full worth of a minute of waking existence, plunge nine fathoms deep, not in the sandy ooze of a storm-vext ocean, where he might as well be asleep for anything that he will see, but in some translucent region which Nature has chosen for her treasury.
Rayo had re-discovered one of the natural uses of air; but he was in despair at the prospect before him. Forty or fifty such plunges as this to-day! and as many more to-morrow, and almost every day for six weeks! Forty or fifty life-times a-day for six weeks! This is not the sort of eternity he had ever thought of desiring; and if purgatory is worse, Father Anthony had not yet spoken half ill enough of it. Rayo had better turn priest: he could speak eloquently now on any subject connected with duration.
Before the end of the day's work, however, the impression was much weakened. The minutes of submersion grew shorter, fish and their shadows more familiar, and much of the excessive heat and cold were found to have proceeded from within. Before noon, Rayo could consider of certain things to be attended to on the platform, as well as on the oyster-bed.
Oysters gape sometimes in the air as well as in the water. As Rayo floated in the intervals of his plunges, (having grown so hardy as to resist the remonstrances of the Charmer,) he observed the commander take the opportunity of slipping a morsel of wood into any oyster-shell that might happen to open, to prevent its closing again, and thus to save the necessity of waiting for the putrefaction of the fish before its treasure could be extracted. Rayo also perceived, that by an unheeded touch of the commander's foot, one of these oysters was dislodged from its horizontal position, and slipped with its hinge uppermost, so as to give exit to a large white pearl, so round that it rolled on and on, till it was stopped by a piece of rope, under whose shadow it lay apparently unperceived. It would have been risking too much to mount the boat in this present interval, for the purpose of picking up the pearl. Rayo must wait till after the next plunge; and in the meantime, it was but too probable somebody would move the rope, and either discover the pearl, or let it run away to some useless place. Such a pearl as this was worth all the chanks that Marana had cast away, including the right-handed one. Such a pearl as this would build a boat as well as a house, and make Marana look like a bride indeed. Such a pearl as this was no more than Ravo believed the proper payment of his labour, considering that strangers carried away all the profit from the country people. Such a pearl—this very pearl—might have come into his possession, if he had taken the chance, like some of his companions, of a lot of oysters, instead of small, fixed wages. In short, Rayo designed to have the pearl, and found means of justifying the act of dishonesty, which he would have strongly scrupled if he had been serving a party in whose prosperity he was interested, instead of one who interfered with the prosperity of himself and his countrymen. What Father Anthony had taught served little other purpose at present than quickening Rayo's ingenuity in finding reasons for doing whatever suited him. Such instruction might confirm and exalt his integrity, when he should have any. In the meantime, his social circumstances did more to make him dishonest than his religion to render him honest.
When he came up next time, he made so much haste to scramble into the boat, and seemed so much hurried that the Charmer started up in terror lest he should have lost a limb,— an accident which the binder of sharks had been expecting all the morning, from a complete failure of confidence in his own skill. When he saw that all was safe, he very nearly forgot his dignity so far as to assist the youth in emptying his net of oysters upon the heap in the middle of the platform. He stopped short, however, on Rayo's repulsing his offers of help, and went back to his seat, commending the practice ot coming on board instead of floating between the plunges. Rayo sank down on his knees to empty his pouch. The rope was within reach, and under it still lay the pearl. It was very natural for Rayo to draw the rope towards him, if he really wanted to ascertain whether the one round his body was strong enough; but it was not equally natural for him to put his hand to his mouth under pretence of dashing the wet from his face where little wet remained. So, at least, the commander thought; and he was confirmed by observing a hasty effort to swallow when Rayo was summoned to descend again. Measures of which the youth little dreamed were in preparation for him while he was down. He was hoisted upon the platform, and before he knew what he was about, a man seized him by either arm, a third stepped behind him, flourishing a knotted rope, while a fourth presented a cocoa-nut shell of liquid, which did not look or smell very tempting. He was told of a summary sentence to be flogged for putting his hand to his mouth while within arm's-length of oysters, (a great crime in Ceylon, whatever it may be elsewhere,) and to swallow a strong emetic as the ordeal of innocence of a further crime. It would have been useless to attempt to upset the cup; for a double dose would have been the consequence, an ample stock of emetics being the part of the apparatus of pearl-fishing least grudged by the speculators. Bolting was equally Impossible. There was nothing for it but to bolt the medicine. The pearl of course appeared, in due time; and when it once more vanished beneath the lid of the commander's spring-box, the fairest of poor Rayo's hopes vanished with it. He might consider himself, not disgraced,—for his companions were wont to applaud the act of stealing pearls,—but turned off from his employment for this bout, and precluded from the means of establishing Marana in any thing better than four bare mud walls.
“Pillal Karra,” (binder of sharks,) “you are wise,” observed the commander respectfully. “I have seen your downcast looks. Doubtless you knew what should befal this youth.”
“If any doubted our power,” said the Charmer, “they should observe how a mysterious trouble comes first to foreshow the misfortune that will follow. When I was younger, I was content to keep off the misfortune; and when I was overruled by the Malabar hags, to let the mischief come without warning to myself. Now when my mind is tossed, I am learning to know that the Malabar hags are riding a coming storm.”
“Have these hags bewitched your son-in-law?”
“No doubt; and I know which of them it is. It is Amoottra, who owes me a grudge on account of Marana's beauty, If she could meet my daughter out of the line of my charms, she would touch her with leprosy.”
“Well; if you can convince my employer of this, and disenchant Rayo, he may come out again to-morrow. Otherwise, he has taken his last plunge for this season; for there parts the first boat from the circle.”
As the boats warped round into line, the sea-breeze freshened, and all were presently making a steady progress homewards. Almost as soon as they came in sight of the orange-tinted shore, apparently floating in the hot haze of noon, they saw a spark glitter, and some seconds after came the boom of the signal-gun which was to announce their return to the anxious speculators and the public at large ia the fair. The flag was next hoisted, and then every man, woman, and child was looking to seaward while hastening to secure standing-room on the margin of the tide. The Charmers began to be ambiguous about this day's success, and to prophesy magnificently for the next. The dancing girls stationed them-selves round certain matted enclosures, ready to welcome the oysters to their place of putrefaction. Father Anthony borrowed a telescope of a contractor, whose hand shook so that he could make no use of it himself; and Marana stood apart under the shade of a talipot leaf, lowering her primitive umbrella, with tantalizing constaney, as often as a gallant stranger or a curious country-woman would have peeped under it.
A talipot leaf will shelter two heads, and hide two faces, as was soon proved with Marana's. Rayo did not particularly wish to encounter Father Anthony, and had withdrawn Marana among the huts, where, screened by the umbrella, they mourned the adventure. Father Anthony's eyes, however, were keen. Keenly they peered under the shelter, and made Rayo's droop before them. In vain Rayo pleaded his father-in-law's word, that he was bewitched by a Malabar hag. Father Anthony did not allow Malabar hags to lay waste the fold of which he was the shepherd. —Rayo bowed his head submissively, and waited for orders.
“Do not insult the contractor by a plea of witchcraft.”
“I will not, father.”
“Do not seek to be employed again this season. There are many waiting for the office who deserve it better than you. For this season, I shall recommend Tilleke in your place; bv next season, I hope you will have wrestled with temptation, so that I may send my blessing forth with you.”
“Is the blessing passed away?” asked Rayo, prostrating himself before the priest, with deep sorrow in his tone and countenance. “Perhaps not, if you will freely confess.”
“I will, father.”
Marana moved away, and remained out of hearing with her back turned towards them, till the priest at length passed her. Dropping a few words of good cheer, he exhorted her to be a tender wife, but withal faithful to her religion, and then he trusted Rayo would become proof against every kind of evil instigation or influence. It really was remarkable that such influences seemed to beset him in particular places. His sins of theft took place at sea, where compunction never seemed to visit him; while no one could be more penitent and submissive than Rayo on land. Did Marana know of any instance of his committing a theft on shore, or being penitent at sea? Marana could recollect none, and was confirmed in her dread of the Malabar witch. If she could but get Rayo farther inland! she said to herself, as father Anthony gave her his blessing, and went on his way.
This aspiration was nearer its accomplishment than she could have supposed.
“Rayo, what could make you take the pearl?” she asked, when she returned to her husband.
“If there were a cocoa-nut tree here, as in the south, I should not want the money which I cannot get. We might build under its shade, and eat its fruit, and drink the milk from the kernel, and make our ropes of its fibres, and burn lamps of its oil. But as there are no cocoa-nuts where we live, I got chanks. You threw them away, and I tried to gee a pearl. If I must not have a pearl——”
“Let us go to the cocoa-trees, as they cannot come to ns.”
“If I go at all, I will go far; down among the cinnamon gardens, Marana.”
“Not to be a cinnamon peeler!” exclaimed Marana, who thought, she saw a desperation in her husband's countenance, such as a man might wear who was about to lose caste. It was now a disputed point which caste ought to rank highest, the fishermen or the cinnamon-peelers; but Marana, as a duty bound, as a fisherman's daughter, regarded the cinnamon-peelers as upstarts. “You, a fisherman, will not mix with the cinnamon-peelers?”
Rayo explained no more of his purpose in going among the cinnamon gardens than that it was not to mix with the peelers. But he gloomily hinted that perhaps Marana ought not to go, would she not there be out of the limit of her father's charms? Night not the hag Amoottra——
“Touch me with leprosy? No,” said Marana, producing the precious shall from a corner of her mantle. “My lather needs not draw out his spell at home while I carry this with me. I have shown it to you, Rayo, but you will not sell it? If we live among the cocoa-nuts, we shall not want the money. You will not take it from me to part with it?”
Rayo lot her deposit it in her mantle, and then she was ready to go. Every thing that she possessed was now on her person. Her father was certain, from the nature of his profession, of being well taken eare of; and, if not, her husband's claims upon her would have been paramount. Leaving the Charmer to discover by his spells why and whither they were gone, and old Gomgode to catch fish for himself and his daughter, the young folks stole away towards the richer country to the south. They knew that there was little danger of pursuit. There was no lack of divers to supply Rayo's place. Nobody supposed they would actually starve; and, as for living poorly, it was what thousands had done before them, thousands were doing now, and thousands would do after them. Gomgode supposed Rayo would preserve caste. The charmer trusted his daughter not to expose herself rashly to the bag's wrath, as she knew the consequences. Perhaps Father Anthony missed and mourned them most; but he had a firm faith that Rayo would prove an honester man in the jungle, or among the paddy-fields, than on a haunted sea.