Pick from the Past
Natural History, November 1939

Diver Trapped by a Clam, from a drawing by Joseph M. Guerry
The Pearl of Allah

The giant clam yielded its treasure only after slaying a native diver
trapped when its great jaws snapped shut. Worshipped as the gift of
Allah, the 14-pound pearl was finally presented to the author by a
Mohammedan chief whose son he saved from death.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

The Panglima speaks

The Panglima laid his hand on the pearl and said, “Mr. Cobb, one week before you came, I knew that my son was mortally ill. I have seen so many of my tribe die of the disease, I was terrified. Quinine, the only remedy that we know, did not seem to do any good. I was helpless, I did not know what to do. That night, holding this pearl in my hands, I prayed to Allah for help. In my prayers I vowed to Allah that however much I valued this pearl I would willingly give it to anyone that he could send to help me save my son. As though to test my sincerity, you came.

“I remembered that two years ago you tried to buy the pearl. I wondered then if you were the man that would save my son from his affliction, but you were a Christian, and it hardly seemed possible. Then I took you to the sick boy’s room, and when Pula, who had been delirious for three days, saw you, recognized you and asked you to help, I thought that you might be the one.

“Well, my friend, you saved my son’s life. Mr. Cobb, we are just on the outskirts of the jungle, where generally life is bought with life. This pearl was dearly paid for with the life of a young man. Now you have bought the pearl from me with the life of my only son as your payment. What more could a father ask? You have saved my son, and you have earned your reward. Here, my friend, claim this, your pearl.”

Today the pearl is on display at Ripley’s exhibit on Broadway, where it may be seen for perhaps a month longer.

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.

A remarkable specimen

As Dr. Roy Waldo Miner of the American Museum, who has examined it, explained, this specimen, while so many times larger than any of the pearls we are familiar with, can be truly called a pearl. It was formed on the inside of a shell as all pearls are, presumably by some foreign body being imbedded in the shell material, perhaps when the shell clamped suddenly shut. The natives who found it, who are keen observers of natural history and have good opportunity as pearl divers to observe undersea life, believe that the foreign body which started the pearl growing was probably a small piece of brain coral. Some such origin as this is not contradictory to what is known about the formation of pearls. Where it was joined to the clam shell the successive layers can be seen in cross section.

As in any pearl, the surface appearance of this one gets its quality from the inner layer of the clam shell that was its host. The color of this giant pearl is pure lustrous white.

No one can say how old the pearl may be, for, as Doctor Miner points out, no scientific study has yet accurately determined the rate of growth of one of these giant clams. The natives thought that possibly 450 years had passed since the clam was the size of a fist, and that the pearl may have started growth when the clam was 100 years old.

That such a phenomenal pearl should have been found is surely exciting enough, but I constantly wonder over the strange coincidence that the clam which produced it should have taken the life of a native diver and that, even in a part of the world that is surrounded with so much romance and mystery, its story should also have been so remarkably connected with the saving of another life.

Read a recent commentary about the pearl at Pearl-Guide.com.

Another giant clam record-size pearl: Five Pound Pearl

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