The Pearl of Allah

The giant clam yielded its 14-pound pearl only after slaying a native diver trapped when its great jaws snapped shut.

CENTURIES of growth in this clam shell matrix may have been required before the pearl could reach its unprecedented size. Here is another of Nature’s masterpieces which Man for all his laboratory cleverness can never match.

My companions and I were in a little fishing village in the outer reaches of the Philippine Islands when news reached us of the discovery of a giant pearl, which today is the largest specimen in the world.

We had pitched camp on the seventh day of May, 1934, and that night after supper we stretched out on our cots in anticipation of a good night’s rest. I was practically asleep when suddenly pandemonium broke loose in the primitive huts of the Dyak tribe in whose fishing territory we had undertaken archaeological excavations. It seemed that every native in the village was screaming at the top of his voice, singing the quaint funeral dirge of the Dyak people. I shoved my automatic in my pocket and went out to investigate.

In the nearest shack I found “Capitan” Popong, an old Dyak who had been my guide on an investigation in the same region two years ago. It was I who had given him the title of “Capitan,” and today no Dvak would ever dare address him by any name other than this. We sat on the floor, and I asked him to tell me the reasons for the wailings and the dirge.

Diver Trapped by a Clam, from a drawing by Joseph M. Guerry

At first he was reluctant, but eventually I learned that his son, who was chief of the tribe, had brought his hungry people only a few days ago to fish in these waters. Bogtong, the young chief, had immediately organized the best divers of the tribe in an expedition to collect conch shells, which they would trade for the fishing implements they so badly needed.

Toward noon, the old man recounted, Bogtong had realized that he had missed Etem, one of his assistants, on the last three dives. All the men were alarmed. Suspecting a giant octopus, they unsheathed their knives and, as one, dove down in search of their missing comrade.

On the fourth dive they found Etem already dead. In his search for conch shells, he had failed to see the giant Tridacna clam which was partly hidden by coral rocks, its huge jaws held open ready to clamp shut with the strength of a hear trap. Etem accidentally got his hand between the shells, which snapped shut, and thus he met his death. With the aid of ropes, the men hoisted their dead comrade and his deep-sea murderer into one of the canoes.

In this locality a death must be fully and satisfactorily explained to the authorities. Bogtong knew there was but one thing to do and that was to take the boy just as they had found him with his left hand still in the grip of the giant shell to Panglima Pisi, the Mohammedan chief, who acts as the local notary public. There they would ask their old friend to sign an affidavit describing the death of the boy and absolving his six companions from any blame.

After three hours of hard paddling they reached the mouth of Boligay Creek, where they turned and headed for the little bamboo bridge just below the road leading to the Panglima’s house. After being welcomed with the usual formal greetings, Bogtong explained his mission to the old man. Offering a cigar to Bogtong and lighting one himself, the Panglima asked to be shown the body.

The scene that greeted the old man’s eyes at the creek reminded him sadly of his younger days, when he was the owner of the largest pearl fishing fleet in the Sulu Sea. He told the young men of two similar accidents that had happened in his own fleet and how he had hoped to be spared the sight of another such disaster. Motioning for Bogtong to follow, he led the way to the house.

When the old Panglima had finished writing, he folded one of the copies and handed it to Bogtong. Bogtong thanked the old man and asked him if he might leave a canoe-load of the conch shells for the service rendered. Smiling one of his rare smiles, the old man said, "You may leave me the conch shells if you wish, but please give me the giant clam that caused the death of your companion. I would like to keep it here on my porch to remind me of my pearl fishing days."

At this point in his tale, Capitan Popong fell silent for a moment, then continued:

“About two hours ago as they returned here in their canoes, they saw the light of a strange lamp in the center of the village. Bogtong motioned for silence. He thought it might be that the tax collectors had come on their annual rounds. Leaving his men with their conch-filled canoes hidden in the shadows along the shore, he crept close to the strange tent. Then he gave a sigh of relief, for he recognized your features, my friend. He was one of the men who helped you pull your motor launch free from the sand bar when you were stuck on the Iwahig River two years ago.

THE AUTHOR shown holding the fluted “jaws” of the huge Tridacna clam which took the life of a native diver and yielded the world’s largest pearl. It is not unusual for a diver to be caught in the jaws of one of these giant clams, which clamp shut with the suddenness and strength of a bear trap, leaving him helpless to drown.

Dyak dirge

“Bogtong ran back for his men, sent one of them for me, and I joined the boys at their task. Five of them gently lifted the dead Etem in their arms, and with Bogtong holding a torch and leading the way, they laid the body in Bogtong’s shack. Then my son, after telling me the story of their sad trip, picked up the old buffalo horn and blew on it the long-drawn-out death call of our tribe.”

Startled out of their sleep, the cabins had come to life one by one. Frightened, anguished faces filled the door of the hut where the body lay. At the sight of the drowned boy, the whole tribe broke out into the mournful prayer and wailing for the drowned.

“This, my friend, is the bedlam that awakened you. We will keep praying until sunrise, and then again until sunset, and yet again—for three nights. Because if we do not, the devils of the sea will keep Etem’s soul forever.”

Saddened by the tale, I watched them bury Etem the next morning under the shade of a coconut tree. His grave was fenced in with strong bamboo stakes to keep the wild boar and other scavengers from disturbing it. After harvesting the rice here in the lowlands, the tribe would come back for the remains of Etem, which would then be carried back to their mountain home and there buried properly.

I was very anxious to see the giant clam that had killed a man, so after the three nights of praying and wailing I asked Bogtong to guide me to Panglima Pisi’s home at Boligay. And that afternoon, after leaving Capitan Popong in charge of my party, Bogtong and I set out for Boligay.

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