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: 4 : Making “A Machine of Pearls” in the Seventeenth Century Custom and Innovation in Iberian Pearl-­ Fishing Ventures By the turn to the seventeenth century, the Iberian crown ruled over an empire that was wealthy and wide ranging in its geography and subject base, but it was also fractured and fractious, facing severe economic and political crises within Iberia and throughout its far-­ flung domains. Soothsayers denounced the king and predicted end times; wars raged on distant and domestic frontiers ; the Portuguese chafed at an uneasy political union they viewed as a captivity . Even as American silver poured in from mines on the mainland, it fled Iberian coffers for Spain’s European creditors. What place was there, in this moment of sharpening crisis, for pearls—either the memory of their early-­ sixteenth-­ century bonanzas or the paltry harvests that continued to emerge from South American waters? Facing competition throughout its global empire as well as bankruptcies and tumult at home, the Iberian crown saw experts of various pedigrees (known as arbitristas) propose solutions to the financial crisis facing the empire. In the context of difficulties and schemes for recovery, pearls surfaced in plans to restore Spain’s maritime wealth, either through new pearl fisheries along the Pacific coast, or in innovative approaches to harvesting oysters in the Caribbean, or in the ingenious employment of pearl divers to rescue sunken treasure from beneath the waves.1 Metaphorically, pearls remained symbolic not onlyof the wealth of empire but also of the impulse to categorize and order the chaotic wealth of the New World. Elenco, the term once used by Pliny to describe an elongated pearl, had, by the early seventeenth century, come to mean “index.” Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco, the author of the 1611 monolingual dictionary Tesoro 1. The literature on Spain’s late-­ sixteenth- and seventeenth-­ century crisis is vast. For two fascinating case studies and an overview, see Richard L. Kagan, Lucrecia’s Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-­Century Spain (Los Angeles, 1990); and Erin Kathleen Rowe, Saint and Nation: Santiago,Teresa of Avila, and Plural Identities in Early Modern Spain (University Park, Pa., 2011). For a discussion of arbitristas, see Daviken Studnicki-­ Gizbert, A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492–1640 (Oxford, 2007). Custom and Innovation in Pearl-Fishing Ventures { 129 } de la lengua Castellana o Española (Treasure of the Castillian or Spanish language), offered an explicit reflection on the jewel’s shifting conceptual utility, from precious pearl to an equally precious tool of categorization, a way of making sense of something large and complex: “Tables and indices of books are known as elencos, which by another name, which is the same, they call margarita, and for good reason, as there is no pearl as precious as these indices, which indicate to us, as if by pointing a finger, that which we seek, without turning every page of a lengthy book, through which we would otherwise move blindly.” Pearls became synonymous with the urge toward order and mastery, the imperial impulse that their profusion in the early Caribbean provoked.Yet, pearls’ long-­standing association with contradictory binaries persisted; as elenco came to symbolize the categorization of knowledge, the barrueca, or baroque, would come to represent the rejection of standardization and control, the unfettered expression of independence in action and taste.2 In the uncertain climate of the seventeenth century, Iberian plans for, and reflections on, pearl fishing from the Pacific coast of California to Sri Lanka drew on custom and innovation, revealing an ambivalent recognition of the need for expert labor alongside the enduring hope that somehow the independence of those involved in this wealth creation—like the pearls they harvested —could be curbed through a variety of mechanisms intended to facilitate crown control. The legacy of the Caribbean pearl fisheries, the lessons learned and ignored, informed these visions and the mixture of personal and imperial initiative they reflected. The “Great Inconveniences” of Private Practices on the Pearl Coast Far away from the moneyed corridors of Rome’s diplomatic residences, or the damp customhouses on the shores of the Thames, the Venezuelan Pearl Coast continued to be a source of frustration as well as investment for the Spanish crown, with pearls and people both circulating in ways that defied royal edict. Divers continued to live and labor under appalling conditions. The Jesuit Bernabé Cobo, traveling along the Pearl Coast in the early seven2 . Of elenco...


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