Dry Venezuela island lived boom-to-bust pearl rush
By Pascal Fletcher
CUBAGUA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Those who fear the world’s
economy will crash the day the Earth’s oil reserves run dry can
cite the “pearl island” of Cubagua as a lesson in how not to
exploit a natural resource.
This parched, almost uninhabited, scrub-covered islet off
Venezuela’s eastern coast was once a booming Spanish colonial
trade depot that sent shiploads of glittering pearls to Europe
to adorn the rings, necklaces and robes of monarchs and popes.
Nearly five centuries later, all that remains of one of the
first capitalist export centers of the New World is a dusty and
crumbling patchwork of stone walls, strewn with garbage and
littered with the husks of oysters and other shells.
“These are the ruins of New Cadiz … Now it’s just a
cemetery of sea shells,” said boatman Emilio Suarez, as he
showed visitors around after a bone-jarring one-hour ride
through choppy seas from the nearby island of Coche.
After discovering the Americas in 1492, Christopher
Columbus encountered native Indians wearing strings of pearls
in what is now eastern Venezuela.
Spanish adventurers started using Indian divers to bring up
pearls from the rich oyster banks off Cubagua and founded a
city there, New Cadiz, which was granted its own charter in
1528 by Spain’s King Charles V.
After starting out as a frontier camp of palm thatch huts,
New Cadiz blossomed into a thriving commercial settlement of
1,000 inhabitants, complete with two-story stone houses laid in
a gridiron pattern, a church and a Franciscan monastery.
Such was the fame in Europe of Cubagua’s pearls, reported
to be “the size of hazelnuts,” that Italy’s aristocratic Medici
family even kept a permanent representative there.
But in an orgy of greed and unbridled exploitation lasting
two decades, the Spanish exhausted Cubagua’s pearl banks at the
cost of the lives of hundreds of Indian and black slave divers
who died from fatigue and drowning or were devoured by sharks.
“Cubagua had a fleeting life … By 1540, its production of
pearls had plummeted because of irrational exploitation which
did not allow oysters to reproduce,” said Graziano Gasparini,
one of Venezuela’s leading historians and architects.
In 1541, after the city had survived attacks by pirates and
Indians, a Caribbean hurricane destroyed New Cadiz in what some
contemporary observers saw as divine punishment for the abuses
committed against nature and humanity.
Since then, Cubagua, which has no fresh water source, has
been largely abandoned, populated only by a few fishermen.
Local islanders still sell natural pearls to visitors.
“As the whole city was drowned, no one else has wanted to
settle here,” said Suarez.
He and other locals say a section of the old city of New
Cadiz was submerged under the sea in 1541 and that its outline
can still be made out in the sand and coral.
Gasparini, who took part in one of the first major
excavations of New Cadiz nearly 50 years ago, dismisses this as
a popular myth. “People say you can still hear the bells of the
city ringing underwater … It’s pure fantasy,” he said.
He complained that despite appeals made to successive
Venezuelan governments and local authorities, it had been
impossible to obtain even the most minimal protection for what
was one of the first European cities in the New World.
“It’s little better than a public latrine now,” he said.
While important artifacts like the city shield, seals and
elaborately carved gargoyles have been preserved in museums,
the ruins have suffered heavy pilfering by souvenir-hunters.
Archeologists and historians have studied the rise and fall
of New Cadiz as a one of the first documented examples of how
European capitalism, based on a trade monopoly and slave labor,
devastated a natural resource in the Americas.
“It was the most expensive city in the world,” Gasparini
said. Fresh water for Cubagua was fetched by boat from a river
on the mainland and a fort was built to protect this source.
Fruit and vegetables came from the island of Margarita nearby.
“To sustain a city like that, completely artificially, was
only justified by the production of pearls,” Gasparini said.
In their scramble for the pearls, the Spanish adventurers
paid far less attention to a small spring of dark oily liquid
that dribbled into the sea from a tip of the island.
One traveler, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, said local
inhabitants called the viscous liquid in Latin “stercus
demoniz” (devil’s excrement), or “petrolio.” Fernandez reported
some people said it could be drunk as a cure for gout.
“They didn’t really know what it was … they used it to
caulk their ships,” Gasparini said.
Centuries later, the development by U.S and European
companies of Venezuela’s vast reserves of this “petrolio” has
made it one of the world’s leading crude oil producers.
But that’s another story.