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.

PANGLIMA Pisi, the Mohammedan chief who first owned the pearl. He saw in its shape a resemblance to Mohammed and out of religious veneration refused to sell it.

The sacred pearl

Nearing the Panglima’s house, we were greeted by sounds that seemed to be the climax of some Mohammedan celebration. Mingled with the beating of gongs could be heard the singing of women, while the men, who must have lost their voices because of incessant shouting, were doing the spear dance to the rhythm of the brass gongs. I knew it would be dangerous for a Christian to venture forth while such a celebration was in progress, so I sent the young chief ahead to investigate. He was gone for about two hours. It was late in the evening when he returned with the story of the celebration.

It appeared that when they left the giant clam on the Panglima’s porch a few days before, a strange incident had occurred. As the aged Mohammedan chief watched his men remove the meat from the shell, he suddenly saw an enormous pearl. Seizing it in his hands, he examined the surface and discerned the image of a turbaned face, formed by nature on one of the sides. In this image the Panglima was startled to discover a resemblance to Mohammed. Then as his excited servants stood in awe, the old man prostrated himself before the pearl and began to pray. It was this act of religious devotion that incited the frenzied celebration throughout the whole tribe which we were now witnessing.

Having at first merely expected to see a clam that had killed a man, you may imagine my eagerness to glimpse the pearl that it contained, with the image of a turbaned face. I never dreamed how big it might be. But Bogtong restrained me from going into the midst of the celebration. He suggested that I let him keep an eye on the settlement, and he would let me know when it would be safe to approach the Panglima. I agreed to this and we returned to our camp.

About two weeks later Bogtong presented himself in my tent. He was ready to take me to Boligay, the celebrations having subsided and the Mohammedan having returned to their usual daily chores. Upon arriving at the Panglima’s house, I found preparations had been made for me to pay him a prolonged visit. The etiquette of the Mohammedan people would prevent me from talking business until four days of festive hospitality had passed.

It was in the early afternoon of the fourth day of my visit, while having tea with the family, that I asked to be shown the pearl. The Panglima called an attendant, who came out and laid the pearl before us on the table. When I first saw the pearl I could hardly believe my eyes. There on the table in front of us lay the largest pearl ever beheld by human eyes. The gigantic gem weighed fourteen pounds, one ounce. It was nine and a half inches long and five and a half inches in diameter, and glowed with a highly reflective, satiny sheen. Two more attendants entered, carrying the half of the shell in which the pearl was found, and the old Panglima laid the pearl in its former bed. It seemed as though I were looking at a pearl that might have been taken from the pages of the Arabian Nights.

I asked my host to name his price, but was kindly but firmly told that the pearl was not for sale. Smilingly, the Panglima said, “It would be a sacrilege for me to part with this pearl. A pearl with the image of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, is earned by devotion, by sacrifice, not bought with money. I may not be a millionaire but I defy the richest man in the world today to show me a similar pearl. Please excuse my words, my friend, but the satisfaction of owning the largest of all pearls is to me worth more than mere money.”

THE SON AND HEIR of the Mohammedan chief surrounded by attendants. When author Cobb cured the boy of malaria, the chief pressed upon him the sacred pearl as reward.

I was disappointed at not being able to purchase the pearl. Still, I could not help but admire the old Panglima’s logic. We bade farewell then, and soon after I prepared for my return to Manila.

Two years passed. I had long been away from the Panglima’s land. The giant pearl had not passed from my mind, but I remembered it now only as a fabulous experience I had once had which survived in my tales to friends. Sometimes I was piqued because I could see that my audience did not believe the gem to be as beautiful, as large, and as mysterious as I tried to depict it, and then the old longing to possess it came over me.

But on this April day in 1936, I was not thinking of the pearl. I was celebrating my birthday with my brothers in our home in Manila, wondering where I would spend my vacation during the hot season, when a postman arrived with a letter. It was from Bogtong—no doubt written for him by some village school teacher—telling me of the discovery of an ancient burial ground located just south of Panglima Pisi’s residence. This seemed the answer to my vacation plans and I prepared to leave for Boligay Creek immediately.

I had hardly arrived and was in the midst of preparing to start my digging, when Bogtong came to visit me. He said in a very excited manner that Pula, the Panglima’s son, was mortally stricken with malaria and that he wished my help. Leaving the party in charge of my head boy and giving Bogtong my first-aid kit to carry, we hurried to the old Panglima’s residence.

We were met on the porch by the Panglima himself, who with tears in his eyes led us into the room where the boy lay. Looking at Pula, I hardly recognized him. He lay in what I thought to be an unconscious state, but he was aware of our entry, for opening sunken, staring eyes, his face a ghastly greenish yellow, he said, “Mr. Cobb, help, please help me. I am dying!”

I felt the boy’s forehead and pulse. He was burning with a severe malarial fever, a type very often mistaken for the dreaded blackwater fever. Leaving Bogtong with the sick boy, I asked the Panglima to step outside with me.

Confronting the heart-broken father, I gave him the bare facts of the case, and told him that if they were to continue the old quinine treatment, the boy would be dead inside of a week. There was only one remedy known to science that would cure such an advanced case of the disease, and that was the drug atabrine.

“But where will you get this atabrine?” cried the old man. “My son would be dead before we could have it sent from Manila.” I relieved him with the information that I had a large quantity of the compound with me. Hearing this, the Panglima knelt and pleaded with me, saying that he would give me anything he owned if only I would help his beloved son.

Assisting him to rise from his knees, I promised aid on the condition that I would be given a free hand and would not be interfered with by any of his local medicine men. With a smile of hope on his face, the old man agreed to my terms and went into the sick boy’s room.

An attendant showed me into my quarters. I told him that Bogtong would be my assistant and asked him to bring the young chief to me. As he left my room, I realized into what a predicament I had plunged myself. If Pula were to die after I had so much as touched him with the tips of my fingers, my death was assured. These Mohammedans would kill me, thinking, of course, that I had been responsible for his death. However, I had already given my word, so it was too late to change it. I decided to go ahead with the treatment, hoping the boy was not so far gone as to be beyond help.

SHOWN IN THE FULL LUSTER of its natural sheen, the world’s largest pearl is compared to one on an expensive jeweler’s ring.
AMNH photo

About seven that evening the periodic fever of my patient had subsided a little, but he was still too weak to take atabrine by mouth, so I gave the doses by intramuscular injections. We took turns watching the boy day and night. For four days he seemed to hover between life and death. But on the fifth day the fever abated and from then on he steadily improved. The fever had burned him to skin and bones, and he was still helplessly weak. I had to devise some way of helping him to recover his strength, so I ordered him to be carried to the sea in front of his house for a daily three-minute dip. At first he seemed exhausted by this routine, and I could feel the strong though silent disapproval of the Panglima. But I persisted, and my luck held, for with this daily stimulant, Pula began to look more like himself. Finally he was able to join Bogtong and me in fishing and hunting, perfectly restored. Later they both took an interest in my digging and often joined me at the site.

But at length my work drew to a close. My patient was well again, and nothing could hold me longer with my pleasant friends. At dinner that night I announced that I must return to Manila. They all expressed sorrow at losing me, and the Panglima asked me how much he owed me for treating his son. I told him that he did not owe me anything, that he was my friend, and so was his son, and to me the continued friendship of the entire family was compensation enough. This surprised the old chief, and he became silent. He called an attendant and whispered something to him. The man left the room and a few minutes later returned holding the largest pearl in the world in his hands. He placed it in front of the old man.

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