|Bahrain: The last 100 years
Page 2 of 3
One of the regrets common to all of the older generation interviewed was the change in the culture of proximity and communication. Saleh Al Tarradah comments “the community spirit is now broken, neighbours no longer talk to each other. We never used to call in advance before seeing each other”. The fact that large families used to live together in one house was seen as the best way to live. There is no lack of understanding as to why children and grandchildren want to be independent, but sadness at the fragmentation of families now. “I always listen to the day’s obituaries after the news every day, otherwise how would I know who has died and I could miss the condolence” says Saleh Al Tarradah.
Employment was in agriculture, fishing and pearl diving and of course trading for the lucky few. There was no deep water harbour, so any kind of boat trip always necessitated wading to shore. With the advent of larger boats such as steamers, they would have to anchor up to 3 miles offshore, with freight and passengers being ferried to shore by smaller boats. There was no infrastructure as such.
There were only a few immigrant workers, some from the east coast of Saudi Arabia who did some of the more menial work and Omanis who came to work in agriculture.
The abundant date plantations allowed for excess to be exported to the western coast of Africa, Tanzania and Kenya where these goods were exchanged for the wood needed for building, mangrove and bamboo for roofing and various chests for storage.
In 1905 the ruler of Bahrain was Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, he abdicated in 1923, making his son Hamad deputy ruler. In 1932 Isa died and then Sheikh Hamad then ruled for the next 10 years until he died in 1942.
It was the pearl trade that had brought wealth to the merchants of these islands. A National Geographic article of 1946 writes that Bahrain once sent out 20,000 pearl fishers in 1,000 boats. Not only were pearls abundant in the clear, shallow, calm waters of the gulf but they were prized for their quality. Says Ahmad Al Fardan whose father was a “doctor” of pearls who could taste the origin of the pearl by placing it in his mouth, “Bahraini pearls have seven layers, as against those of the Red Sea that have five, and those from Sri Lanka that have only two”. It is this layering that gives Bahraini pearls their much sought after lustre.
The Maharajahs of India had an unending appetite for these very high quality pearls, making Bombay a world market place for trading. Demand for pearls was also high in Paris where Cartier used them in many exquisite pieces and in China where they were adorned the finest ladies garments.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, demand for pearls escalated as they were seen as an easy, safe and transportable way to invest money. The political upheaval at that time creating the modern nation of Saudi Arabia, and the division of the Levant between the Turks, French and English did not affect Bahrain directly, although developments in neighbouring countries were watched with interest. There had long been a close relationship between Britian and Bahrain with the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship, and 1902 the first resident political agent had arrived. British rule of the Eastern region was run from Bombay and it was for this reason that the currency of Bahrain at the time was the rupee. It was not until 1965 that the dinar was established as the national currency (Following the formation of the Bahrain currency board in 1964).
The worldwide depression of the 1920’s took its toll on Bahrain’s pearl exports as demand fell substantially. Further the Japanese cultured pearl, although certainly a far inferior product, had further captured a sector of the market.
It had long been believed by an Englishman, Frank Holmes that there was oil in the Gulf, causing him to remark in 1918, “I personally believe that there will be developed an immense oilfield running from Kuwait right down the mainland coast”. When it was discovered in December 1932, close to Jebel Dukham, not only was Holmes ecstatic but it marked what would become a whole new phase of development for Bahrain and its residents. Charles Belgrave had arrived in Bahrain in 1926 to act as adviser to Sheikh Hamad who wanted to encourage change, his British approach to organization combined with oil revenues allowed Bahrain to modernize at an accelerated rate.