The photographs in the book also gave the wrong impression that ama divers, in modern times only worked in skimpy g-strings, and were all young and pretty. But many ama divers work up to their 70s and in the latter part of the 20th century ama divers have had to wear clothing.
This book influenced Ian Fleming, who traveled to Japan to see ama divers in action. Then in his book You Only Live Twice he created the love interest for James Bond in an ama diver called Kissy Suzuki. This wasn’t the first time Ian Fleming had a woman diver in his books. In Dr No, he had a woman diver called Honey Ryder, who again was romantically involved with James Bond, and made a living diving for shellfish, totally naked. (Ursula Andress played this role in the film, unfortunately in a bikini). It is of interest that the book was set in the West Indies where Ian Fleming lived, it could be that he knew of women divers still doing this job in the 1950s.
Back in the 19th century ama divers worked naked, and as this was a tradition in these fishing villages this wasn’t a problem, but tourism changed all that. In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto discovered how to create cultured pearls and used ama divers to look after the oysters. But his oyster farm also attracted tourists who were shocked at the ama diver’s open nakedness. So Mikimoto designed a cotton costume for the ama divers to wear that covered the whole body. Then after the Second World War, many of the occupying troops coming into the coastal villages saw the ama divers working without clothing and this caused problems, so the ama divers were made to cover-up. This is still true today in areas where there are tourists. In the late 1950s when Fosco Maraini wanted to film ama divers he had problems in finding ama divers not affected by tourism, he had to go to the remote island of Hekura to find real working female divers, who had not yet been forced to cover-up.
The problem is that these cotton costumes create drag when swimming in the water. Also, it cannot be a good idea to have wet clothing on, when coming out of the water. On cold windy days it would make the body far colder than wearing nothing. Dr. Jolie Bookspan, who dived with the ama divers using their cotton clothing, discovered this. She found that not only was the wet cotton clothing colder out of the water, it was uncomfortable and difficult to change and keep clean. She found diving without clothing a lot easier. The ama divers told her they could better tolerate the cold, without either clothing or wet suits.
So why do the ama still continue to wear such impractical clothing? It could be they don’t want to be seen as naked bimbos, and want to be looked upon as serious workwomen. But more than this; they may see wearing very unglamorous clothing as a protection from being pestered for sex, or even being raped, by outsiders.
Australian Anthropologist Josephine Wright who lived among the women divers of Cheju, gives another point of view on this. She reported that the divers of the younger generation didn’t like the older divers talking about the times when they dived naked as young women. This was because people in Korean society who don’t like haenyo divers, denigrate them, by claiming that nudity proves that they are backward and underdeveloped. This criticism is so strongly felt by the young haenyo divers that some insisted that Josephine Wright should wear both a singlet and underwear under her wetsuit, because they feared being called old fashion, if it was known that some were naked under their wet suit. (Criticism like this is similar to what mermaids once had from Christian priests, where many cried having receiving verbal abuse from them. These priests also an issue about the mermaid’s nudity, claiming it was ‘immoral’).Josephine Wright also makes the point that on a eighteenth-century Korean Map that also shows Cheju women divers at work in the sea, they have white cloth outfits that are seen today by Ama divers in Japan when they show their skills to tourists. She goes on to speculate that perhaps both ama and haenyo divers have had to dress up in times when there has been social pressure against them, like today. Or were able to undress, which is more practicable for swimming underwater, when changing social environments allowed it. Another point is that working outdoors without clothes, for long periods, makes the skin go darker, for Japanese and Chinese people, so keeping covered up allows the skin to be lighter and won’t identify ama divers as working women. This is probably why some modern ama divers not only cover their bodies but faces as well.
[Photograph of Kotoyo Motohashi at the age of 68, on a seashore near Shirahama city, 100km southeast of Tokyo, she has been a diver since the age of 18. She is wearing the clothing modern ama divers now wear. Which is crazy, as no one in their right minds in the West would want to wear clothing like this, when going for a swim. In it only social pressure that forces ama divers to wear this very uncomfortable and impracticable clothing. It demonstrates just how tough ama women are, when ama women passed retirement age, will still swim in cold water and wear cold wet clothing, out of the water. Photo taken by Francois Kadri. From web-site.]
[Photograph by Fosco Maraini from his book, Hekura, The Diving Girl’s Island of two ama divers and a child, this was still at the time when public nudity was acceptable in Japan.]
Another reason for wearing cotton is that in some parts of Japan ama divers are allowed to wear wet suits, but this seems to allow male divers to compete with women divers on equal terms. For centuries ama divers have successfully held out against the patriarchal influences of Japanese society, because they could do an important job better than men. Mostly because diving was the best way to collect Abolone considered to be a great delicacy, which made good money for the ama families. The introduction of the wet suits undermined the advantage women had over men in cold-water, resulting in men in wet suits also diving and collecting Abolone. So ama divers have got together in a strong sisterhood and successfully banned wet suits for ama diving in some parts of Japan. It seem that most men are not willing to wear the uncomfortable and impracticable cotton clothing, that makes the diver even more colder out of the water. Unfortunately, social pressures like this are making ama diving unattractive for the younger generation of Japanese women. As fewer and fewer of young people want to become ama divers. With the rise of feminism, many young women are finding they can make more money in less demanding jobs and professions.
There are reports of women divers in other parts of the world besides Japan and Korea In 1793 Rear Admiral Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, commanding the Recherche, and Captain Huon de Kermadec, commanding the Esperance, explored Tasmania. They found the aboriginal people living there very friendly and observed the women diving for shellfish. They commented on how icy the waters were and how they were able to stay underwater for lengthy periods. At one time the aboriginals treated the French to a feast. The women collected the food by diving for shellfish, crayfish and editable seaweed and then cooked the food on fires while the male aboriginals sat down and done nothing. This behaviour shocked the French sailors who even attempted to encourage the men to help out, which they refused to do.
The exploration of Tasmania by the French made it imperative for the English to settle in Tasmania before the French could claim it. They arrived in 1803 and they also observed aboriginal women diving for shellfish along the coast and in rivers, as well as their friendly and hospitable nature. Unfortunately the English settlers were not so friendly, and began to shoot Native Tasmanians from the time the first boatload of settlers arrived. Then as the Aboriginals were driven away from the coast and their supply of marine food, some aboriginals started to kill the white settler’s livestock. This started a war, Aboriginal women were raped and tortured and their children used in forced labour while the men were shot.
[Drawing called; “Natives preparing a meal from the sea” Drawn by Jean Piron, an artist in the Rear Admiral Bruni D’Entrecasteaux French expedition to Tasmania. Engraving by Jacques Louis Copia, 1764-1799. National Library of Australia. Note, the women diving in the foreground and cooking on a fire on the left of the picture.]
As UCLA professor, Jared Diamond, recorded. –
Tactics for hunting down Tasmanians included riding out on horseback to shoot them, setting out steel traps to catch them, and putting out poison flour where they might find and eat it. Shepherds cut off the penis and testicles of aboriginal men, to watch the men run a few yards before dying. At a hill christened Mount Victory, settlers slaughtered 30 Tasmanians and threw their bodies over a cliff. One party of police killed 70 Tasmanians and dashed out the children’s brains.
In 1828 the governor of Tasmania declared martial law, permitting Europeans to shoot on sight any aborigine found in European-settled areas. That was followed by roving search-and-capture parties (five convicts of good character led by a field police constable) and by a bounty established in 1830 of £5 per Tasmanian adult, £2 per child.
[Aborigine women diving for shell fish in Tasmania in the early 19th century. Sketch by D. Colbron Pearse. Note, the bag the woman on the rocks has around her neck. Native Tasmanians were considered so primitive that they were unable to make clothing, but the fact they could make woven bags suggests they had the skills to make clothing if they wanted to.]
By 1830s only a few Native Tasmanian survived. Then George Augustus Robinson a bricklayer and Christian preacher decided to mount a friendly mission to help them. He made friends with half-cast aboriginals living in the towns who had relations still living in the bush. Somehow he convince them that he could be trusted and managed to talk with a aboriginal woman called Truganini who was the leader of the remaining aboriginals. He succeeded in forging a relocation agreement with her with promises of food, shelter, housing and freedom from persecution. She trusted him and led 300 aboriginals out of the bush into the hands of their enemies. They were all shipped out to Finder’s Island but the conditions there was not what they were led to believe. To quote Jared Diamond again-
On Flinders Island Robinson was determined to civilize and Christianize the survivors. His settlement–at a windy site with little fresh water–was run like a jail. Children were separated from parents to facilitate the work of civilizing them. The regimental daily schedule included Bible reading, hymn singing, and inspection of beds and dishes for cleanness and neatness. However, the jail diet caused malnutrition, which combined with illness to make the natives die. Few infants survived more than a few weeks. The government reduced expenditures in the hope that the native would die out. By 1869 only Truganini, one other woman, and one man remained alive.
George Robinson it seems, did resign in protest at the lack of funding but doing so left the Native Tasmanians at the mercy of people who regarded them as little more than animals. Truganini ended up as the last full-blooded Tasmanian aboriginal alive. She died at the age of 73 in 1876, so she was born just before the first English settlers arrived and her lifetime she witnessed the complete destruction of her people. A settler stabbed her mother to death, and other settlers kidnapped her sister. Settlers also killed her intended partner by drowning him in her presents, as he tried to protect her they then raped her. The suffering of these peaceful people is unimaginable as some of the settlers invented extremely cruel and sadistic ways to ill treat and kill them.
One of the justifications of the genocide of the original people of Tasmania was that they were that they were the most primitive and backward people on the planet. This has been a ‘scientific fact’ since the 19th century and even Jared Diamond as a scientist has accepted this, when he wrote –
Unlike mainland Aboriginal Australians, Tasmanians couldn’t start a fire; they had no boomerangs, spear throwers, or shields; they had no bone tools, no specialized stone tools, and no compound tools like an axe head mounted on a handle; they couldn’t cut down a tree or hollow out a canoe; they lacked sewing to make sewn clothing, despite Tasmania’s cold winter climate with snow; and, incredibly, though they lived mostly on the sea coast, the Tasmanians didn’t catch or eat fish. How did those enormous gaps in Tasmanian material culture arise?
This is the prevailing view of many scientists who have studied Tasmanian Aborigine culture but their reasoning seemed to be still strongly influenced by 19th century sexism and racialism. To disparage the Native Tasmanians like this, under the disguise of, ‘objective science’ is to add insult to injury. It suggests a very strong bias against the Native Tasmanians to suggest they were incapable of making fire, spear throwers, stone tools, clothing, and watercraft.
The French sailors of the Recherche and the Esperance had observed the Native Tasmanian women using fire to cook their meals. It is true that Australian aborigines have been observed both in Tasmania and on the mainland carrying fire around with them. Yet because of this, no one has accused the mainland aboriginal as incapable of lighting fires, so why make this distinction with the Tasmanian aborigine? In the damper conditions of Tasmania it would be more difficult to light fires than in the drier conditions of the mainland, so it would make sense, to carry fire around with them, but in no-way is this proof that they lacked the knowledge to make fire. Also if the Native Tasmanians were incapable of lighting fires how did they get fire in the first place? Did they just wait for bush-fires created by lighting strikes, and then keep the fire going until this happened again? The whole idea is absurd.
Criticism of the fact that they didn’t use boomerangs and spear throwers is another example of bias. These weapons would be very useful to hunt kangaroos and emus on the open plains of Australia. They wouldn’t be much use in Tasmania, which was still mostly woodland, when the first Europeans arrived. Throw a boomerang in a forest and you will only hit a tree, while a spear thrower is used to throw a spear a long way, which again would be useless in woodland, where you cannot see further than the trees or bushes in front of you.
Shields are made of vegetable material so wouldn’t be preserved in the archaeological record as they would rot away. They would have been totally useless in their war against the white settlers, as they cannot stop a musket ball or rifle bullet, so they wouldn’t have been used. Also shields are only used in intertribal wars, we cannot assume that the Native Tasmanians were like this, as reports suggest they were peaceful people.
It is also claimed that the Tasmanians didn’t have stone axes. Yet in the first European to visit Tasmanian, Abel Tasman wrote. –
That they had heard certain human sounds, and only sounds nearly resembling the music of a trump or a small gong. That they had seen two trees about 2 or 3 fathom in thickness, measuring from 60 to 65 feet from the ground to the lowermost branches, which tree bore notches made with flint implements, the bark having been removed for the purpose; these notches, forming a kind of steps to enable persons to get up the trees, were fully 5 feet apart, so that our men concluded that the natives here must be of very tall stature.
So we can assume that a stone axe cut the notches cut into the tree. Also reports of Native Tasmanians using stone axes come from the first European to encounter the Tasmanian Aboriginals, the French sailor Marion Dufresne. In 1772 he and some of this crew came ashore in Tasmania where they met a party of the Natives. At first the relationships between them were cordial but then the Aboriginals panicked when they saw another boat approaching the shore and threw both stones and hatchets at the French sailors, who retreated after killing one or more of the Aborigines with muskets. So it means that the first European to see Native Tasmanians did witness them with stone axes. Just because archaeologists haven’t discovered stone-axes in Tasmania it doesn’t mean they are not there.
It is also claimed that Tasmanian Natives didn’t make dugout canoes or even have rafts, but again these things being organic matter wouldn’t show in the archaeological record. It is true that, as far as I know, we don’t have any record of early English settlers witnessing any Natives using a canoe but most of these early settlers didn’t have any interest in the aborigines anyway. So there is no real proof either way that the Tasmanian Aborigines did or didn’t have dugout canoes or wooden rafts.
Because the Tasmanian Natives were completely nude in a cold climate it was assumed they were so backward they didn’t every know how to make clothing. Yet if they were obtaining most of their food from the sea through diving, then it wouldn’t make sense for them to wear clothes. The swimmers who swim the English Channel have to not only trained themselves to swim long distances, but train their bodies to endure cold water. One of the methods of doing this, is to get used to the cold all the time, by wearing the minimum clothing in cold weather and sleeping in a cold bedroom with the minimum covers over the bed. This constant exposure to the cold, changes the human body physically, as it increases its metabolic rate and changes its blood circulation to better protect its vital organ, in cold conditions.
This means that wearing warm clothing will undermine a women’s ability to swim and dive in cold waters. It is not a good idea to be kept warm, wearing warm clothing most of the time and then suddenly take them off to jump into icy water. It is true the men didn’t have to swim in these cold waters, so in theory they could wear clothing. But making clothing has been traditionally women’s work all over the world, so if the women didn’t see the need to make clothing for themselves, they would be unlikely to make them for their men folk. Bone needles awls and reamers have been discovered in Tasmania but these date back to 3,500 – 7,000 years ago but no more recent finds have been made. Which proves they were more than capable of making clothing, they just didn’t choose to do so.
[Photograph by Fosco Maraini from his book, Hekura, The Diving Girl’s Island of two ama divers diving to the bottom of the sea.]
The original Tasmanian aboriginals were also condemned for not finding ways to catch fish. Yet we cannot be sure of this, as they were never studied properly before they were wiped out, and archaeology is unlikely to find remains of nets, fishing lines or wooden fish traps as they are all organic, and will quickly rot away. It could also be that if it was far easier to dive for shellfish, crustaceans and seaweed than catch fish, then why bother with fish? Some of the tribes of present day sea gypsies do not bother hunting for fish either, as they too can find enough food foraging on the bottom of the sea.
They were sensible not to over fish the waters around the island, and take more shellfish than was sustainable. (Unlike white people, who have irresponsibly over fished all over the world, collapsing fish stocks). So the women divers found all the food they needed from the shallows around the coast, and in the forest gathering fruits when they were in season. The Australian Aboriginals knew far more about birth control than the 19th century Europeans, they even knew about herbs that acted like modern birth control pills. So they knew how to keep their population in check and not over exploit their habitat through uncontrolled population growth.
Unfortunately we don’t know the history of Aboriginal diving on the mainland as the white setters had very little interest in Aboriginal culture, but we do have some knowledge in the North of Australia because it was the last place invaded by white settlers and because of pearl diving. To quote an official Australian Government web-site–
Australia’s pearling industry began long before European settlement. Northern Australian coastal dwelling Aborigines harvested the abundant pearl shell from the shallow waters and had a well established trading network for pearl shell. Within Australia, pearl shells travelled further perhaps than any other item. In Western Australia an explorer saw an aboriginal wearing a pearly oyster-shell which had travelled at least 500 miles from its point of origin. (Blainey, G., 1975, Triumph of the nomads: a history of ancient Australia, p. 203-204.)
Aborigines also traded with the Macassan fishermen from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi who harvested beche-de-mer, trepang (sea-slugs), tortoise and pearl shell. Folklore, songs, cave paintings and the diaries of Matthew Flinders tell us of links between Australia and Indonesia dating back 500 years with traditional visits from Indonesian fishermen continuing until the 1970s.
When pearls were discovered along the Western Australia coast in the 1860s many of the pearling luggers began to use aborigine female divers. As they discovered that female Aboriginals were better divers than men because they could stay underwater longer and work longer hours before they were completely exhausted. This practice became known as ‘blackbirding’.
From the 1860s till the 1880s naked Aboriginal men and women, called skindivers, were collecting the shells up to a depth of 12 metres. These divers hadn’t applied for the job; they had been rounded up, chained and marched to the shore where they were crammed onto the pearl boats. They worked in atrocious conditions, were subjected to much brutality, and were dying in scores. Only when the shallower waters had been emptied of shells, and the pearlers acknowledged that it was impossible to go any deeper without equipment, the demand for Aboriginal divers decreased and eventually faded away.
To quote the official Australian government web-site again. –
From 1862-68, local Aborigines worked ‘dry shelling’ without wages, collecting oysters in the shallow waters of Shark Bay. Within three years, the supply was so low that larger boats were sent out two kilometres off shore to collect oysters in deep water. Six to eight Aboriginal men and women in a boat would ‘naked dive’ for shell. This meant they had to dive down deep with no oxygen, no snorkel and no mask.
In the Torres Strait, employment conditions were regarded as dangerous as well as ‘unspeakably squalid and dirty’ and contributed to a high degree of accident and death. (John Singe, The Torres Strait: People and History, 1979) Attempts to regulate the marine industry and to prevent improper employment of Aborigines and Islanders were made by the Queensland parliament and wages were required to be paid in front of an inspector after 1893.
The West Australian government reacted to this by instead of giving the Aboriginals legal protection against being exploited and used as slaves; they instead banned the use of Aboriginal women for diving. So in Western Australia a law was passed that prohibited the employment of women as divers, (Perth Gazette 23 December 1870). This also happened in the Torres Strait Islands where again women divers were banned, because they were also being exploited as used as slaves by blackbirders. This law demonstrates both sexual and racial prejudice; they clearly didn’t like the fact that black women could do a hard physical job better than white men. Though having black men do this job was seen as being slightly more acceptable.
Though this law may of saved the lives of many Aboriginal women because diving Suits were introduced. With the total disregard for the welfare of their divers by the pearling companies, a lack of understanding of the problems of the bends and shark attacks, the death rate of divers was 50%. Japanese and Chinese divers were brought in and to quote from the official Australian Government web-site again. –
In the early 20th century, Australia’s White Australia Policy restricted immigration to mostly white Europeans. This was a problem for Broome and the pearling industry who relied on cheap, ‘expendable’ labour from Asia. As a solution to this, the government recruited 12 divers from the British Navy as pearl divers. Unfortunately, nearly all of these divers died, so Broome was made an exception to the White Australia Policy.
Greek sponge divers were also brought in because they were white men but came into conflict with the pealing companies, because of the appalling way they were treated. The Greek divers even accused the pearling companies of murdering a diver who complained too much. So the Greek divers left Broom forcing the pealing companies to use non-white labour.
White pearl traders also used female divers in the Pacific. In Manihiki island there was a custom that only women could do diving Pearl diving can be dangerous, as pearls like to grow in undersea caves or hollows or where they are most plentiful, was on the roof of undersea caverns. So the diver has to go into these caves and caverns and cut them off the rocks with knifes. This is difficult and dangerous for a breath holding diver. Female diving still goes on today in the Pacific in places like Fiji, Somoa and Marian Islands, where women have traditionally gathered for shellfish and seaweed in shallow lagoons throughout the Pacific islands, while the men go off fishing in boats. Though to what extent women go out further and dive for these foods, is unknown, because, typically, all studies have concentrated on the men’s fishing, and what women do is unrecorded. In some Pacific islands there is a cultural ban on women diving, as well as a superstition against women going on fishing boats for fear of bringing ‘bad luck’. (Which is similar to a superstition European fisherman used to have about women.)
In Southern India women diving still goes on in the Chinnapalem a village in Tamil Nadu, where it seems the women gather from the ocean floor, a sea kelp called “shewal”. It seems that even in the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean women divers still have the advantage over men, because even in this tropical ocean, men are still more likely to suffer hypothermia than women if immersed too long in the water. This is why professional male scuba divers will still wear wet suits in tropical regions. Next to Tamil Nadu is Kerala, a southeastern state in India, which also still has women divers. Like the diving communities of the Korea islands of Mara, Udo and Cheju the people live once lived in a matriarchy.
[Why this statue was erected has never been explained, although like the Little Mermaid statue at Copenhagen harbour it also has legs and not a fish tail and has become a major tourist attraction. The statue could be a statement about the women divers that once existed along the Indian coast and that these women divers were also mermaids of legend.]
Kerala is a south-eastern state in India, which was once called; “the Malayala land of women.” Up until the beginning of the 20th century it had matriarchal customs. As in most of the east there, they had extended families where uncles, aunts and cousins all lived under the same roof or close together. In a normal Indian family, when a woman got married she had to live with her husband’s family. This meant in any dispute it was more likely that the family would take the side of the groom. So women mostly found themselves at a disadvantage when they got married.
In Kerala the opposite was true and it was the custom that men had to live with their wife’s family. This put men at a disadvantage, and they could be thrown out of the wife’s family if they showed dissension. Also in the royal family that ruled this state, inheritance was passed down the female line and resulted in many Queens becoming the rulers in the past before British rule.
Then at the beginning of the 20th century the British imposed the nuclear family onto Kerala. Matriarchy was deemed “backward,” and “medieval.” the nuclear family was hailed as the “modern way.” This resulted in the matriarchal system being broken up. Yet despite this, Kerala women enjoy more equality with men than most of India. The Indian state of Meghalaya, on the Northwest coast of Indian next to Bangladesh, is also referred to as a matriarchy. This is because inheritance even today is still passed down the female line, keeping the wealth and positions of power in the hands of women.
The same is true in Taiwan. The aboriginal people, (aborigine, means, ‘first people’), traditionally fed themselves by gathering and diving for shellfish and seaweed but repeated invasions from China has dispossessed these people, so now they only make up 2% of the population. Yet these aboriginal tribes also have a tradition of matriarchy that still exists today in the Ami tribe, where property is still passed down the female line.
Another people like this are the sea gypsies, known as the Salone, Orang Laut, Moken and Bajau. They live on boats and houses built on stilts, on the coast and in many islands throughout South East Asia. They range from the Myeik Archipelago in Burma, to Thailand, Malaya, Borneo, Sumatra and the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines. Some still live in matriarchal communities, and this is not that uncommon in this part of the world. The biggest is the Minangkabau people in Western Sumatra which numbers about 4 million people and is the largest and most stable matriarchal community in the world today. They still retain their matriarchal customs even though they live in a Islamic country. There are also Minangkabau people in Malaya, and the Malaysian government finds their matriarchal customs an ‘embarrassment’ and tries to censor all knowledge of these people and their matriarchal customs.
Although it was admitted that the first prince of Malaya married a mermaid.
[Pictures of the, sea gypsies: The Salon People of Myanmar, (Burma) showing the boats they use and the houses they build on stilts out of the shallows. Picture from Shan Yoma Travel & Tours Co.Ltd.
Archaeologists have found the remains of similar houses Scottish lochs in Pre-Roman times. Where likewise ancient people had houses on stilts built on these lochs. Archaeologists have been puzzled why ancient people would want to do this, instead of building houses on land. But if they were sea people; then living on the water where the women would dive for shellfish and other forms of seafood, it would make sense to live on the water. Also, as the archaeologists have speculated, living on the water would be good protection against, looters and robbers. This also makes sense of the stories of mermaids who lived in houses in the sea. The houses wouldn’t be under the sea as later mythmakers imaged, but built on stilts in sheltered estuaries, harbours, or salt and freshwater marshes and on lakes and lochs.
This then raises the question; what happened to these people and their way of life? As we can see with the South East Asian people their way of life was sustainable and there was no reason why the sea-people in Europe couldn’t of continue their way of life up until modern times. The fact that they didn’t, suggests that there was strong interference from people who lived on land who persecuted them for no other reason that their way of life was so different, and the females were the main breadwinners. We can get and idea of what happened through the Highland clearances of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The ‘landowners’ of the Highlands decided that the Highland lands were unprofitable and it would be better to graze sheep there. So the families who had been living there for probably thousands of years, were simply moved off the land, and if they resisted then, force and violence was used. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly moved to poor land on the coast where they were expected to make a living by fishing and seaweed harvesting. Most were unable to do this and many immigrated to England, USA, Canada and Australia. The irony was that sheep herding didn’t make as much of a profit as the ‘landowner’ thought and was soon discontinued in many places, leaving the Highlands uninhabited.]
[Picture shows the sea gypsy women foraging for food at low tide. From Shan Yoma Travel & Tours Co.Ltd.]
[Mayo Mermaids by Irish songwriter and painter Percy French 1854 – 1920
Mayo is a county on the North West coast of Ireland. Again we find an artist painting them as real life women. The scene is very similar the photograph above of Sea Gypsy women foraging for food on the beach and in shallow water. So again the question we have to ask; was Percy French painting a real life scene that he himself witness? All his other paintings are contemporary and scenic, it seems he didn’t paint mythological scenes from the past.
The painting had a reputation for being risqué at the time, (late 19th century), which is interesting. Painting of nude women was acceptable at the time, and they are not very clearly seen in the picture. So in theory this shouldn’t be a problem. So perhaps the subject matter of nude women still foraging in the ocean was a taboo subject at the time, and it was this that made it risqué. ]
Foraging at low tide or in the shallows is an easy way for people to obtain food, though the sea gypsies also dive underwater to forage for food as well. Some commentators have suggested that the sea-gypsies have only been doing this only for the last few hundred years, theorizing they were displaced people, driven off their land and forced to live on the beach and in the sea, and had to learn ways live and feed themselves to survive. But as I will show in this book this is a very ancient way in which people fed themselves and the sea-gypsies way of life may of gone back millions of years in human evolution.
The sea gypsies live off, what they can gather in the sea, so like the ama and haenyo divers, they live on shellfish and editable seaweed. They also gather sea slugs and sea cucumber that they mostly sell to buy rice, fruits and berries. They also did once dive for pearls before the cultivated pearls took over the industry. The Moken refuse to hunt for fish but the Orang Laut and Bakau will do so. It is claimed that the children of the sea gypsies learn to swim before they can walk, and mothers give birth underwater. This is something western women have only recently discovered, as a better way of giving birth.
It also seems that sea-gypsy children have become adapted to be able to see clearly underwater. Intrigued by stories about sea-gypsy children collecting sea food from the sea floor, vision researcher Anna Gislén of Lund University in Sweden decided to investigate how such kids can pick out small objects while diving without goggles. Unfortunately most sea-gypsies are very suspicious of strangers, and it took her some time before she found a tribe willing to be studied. Finally the Moken allowed her to study their children.
Her studies showed that compared with the children of Europeans the Moken children did have superior underwater vision though it seems they paid for this by having impaired nearsighted vision out of the water. Further research revealed that European children could be trained to see better underwater, but not as well as Moken children.
This raised the question whether the Moken children’s better underwater sight was genetically inherited or was learnt behaviour through diving underwater and collecting seafood from a very early age
The Moken received much media attention in 2005 after the Southeast Asia tsunami, where hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the disaster. The Moken’s knowledge of the sea managed to spare all but one of their lives. This was because they saw the signs before anyone else. Those close to the beach made for the higher ground before the main Tsunami struck, while those out at sea took their boat further out into deeper water. However their settlements and about one-fifth of their boats were destroyed. Even local fishermen failed to see the warning signs, because although they had an intimate knowledge of the sea, it seems, not to the same degree as the Moken. The sea gypsies live a separate existence to the people of the mainland, living in boats, which they construct without nails but are strong enough to withstand the monsoon winds. As mentioned before, when not living in boats they live in stilt-built houses erected between high and low tide. Unfortunately they are treated with suspicion by the mainland peoples, who regard them as pagans. Piracy is still commonplace in this part of the world and the sea-gypsies get the blame, even though they have a reputation of being gentle and peaceful people. In the Myeik Archipelagos of Burma, fishermen are destroying the coral reefs by using dynamite to kill fish. Again the sea gypsies get the blame, even though it would be against their own best interests to destroy the reefs where they traditionally gather food. This might be to do with changes in the sea gypsy communities, like the Gypsies in Europe they once lived in matriarchal communities. Up until the 19th century Gypsy queens ruled families, but in the last two hundred years Gypsy kings have replaced them. The same thing is apparently happening to the sea gypsies, where under pressure to ‘fit in’ with the normal patriarchal society men are now ruling sea gypsy communities. The men are not so responsible in their behavior and have used both dynamite and poison to catch fish.
The problems of the sea gypsies are not unique. Other wandering people are the Berber and Tuaregs of North Africa who also have a matriarchal tradition, like the sea and European Gypsies, roam all over North Africa.. This creates problems for the governments of countries they move through, as they don’t belong to any one country.
It is of interest that the fishing villages in Japan who still use ama divers are also called sea-gypsies and it seems in the past they did travel around the coast in the same way the Moken do today. But this practice was discouraged and banned by successive Japanese governments, forcing the ama people to settle down in villages.
There was a race of people like the sea-gypsies on the west coast of South America. When the Spanish invaded the area in the 16th century, they found people living and trading on large sailing balsa rafts. The Spanish were amazed to find that the rigging and sails of these rafts were nearly the same as their own sails and rigging. The Spanish were so impressed with these rafts that they commandeered some of them and their crew, for their own purposes. The crews didn’t like this and fought back, so when they were far out at sea they would cut the lashing that held the balsa logs together, resulting in the raft falling apart. The Spanish not being able to swim, and some wearing armor, quickly drowned, but the native crew were completely at home in the water and were able to swim and repair their rafts at sea. It seems that these sea-people used to do the same trick on the Incas when they tried to commandeer their rafts.
Because of the influence of the Spanish, this way of life slowly died out and the last balsa rafts were reported in the 19th century. These people told the Spanish of journeys they made to Galapagos and the Polynesian islands. 20th century scholars decided these stories were fiction because they thought the balsa rafts were too primitive to make long ocean going voyages. But one scientist Thor Heyerdahl believed that these rafts were sea-worthy and to prove his point he sailed one from Peru to Tahiti. Having proven it could be done, other tried to do the same and one crew managed to sail a balsa raft all the way from South America to Australia.
There were once Greek female and male sponge divers up who dived in the sea naked. Then in 1865 the diving suit was introduced allowing a diver to stay underwater as long as he liked and breath holding diving quickly declined. Unfortunately the early divers had no knowledge of decompression sickness, causing the deaths of 10,000 divers up until 1910.
The waters around the Korean and Japan are fairly cold but women divers have been reported in operating in the Arctic Ocean! And near the Antarctic! Female divers in the Ussuri Territory of the Bering Sea coast. once dived in these cold waters to harvest scallops. They mostly worked in the summer months but continued even in the colder autumn months, before the sea iced over. The Ussuri Territory is on the east coast of Russia whom fought over the ownership of this territory with China at the beginning of the 20th century. The Bering Sea is a shallow sea in the Arctic circle, that was above sea level during the last Ice Age. It is very rich in marine life and is extensively fished.
Then in the 1920s the Russian authorities began to use modern diving gear and motorboats equipped with dredges. Needless to say when they adopted modern equipment, the scallpops became over fished and fishing of them in the area was banned in 1960. It was for this reason that the more sensible Koreans and Japanese banned the use of modern scuba gear for shell diving to make sure the local waters were not over fished in the same way.
Then in the 1920s the Russian authorities began to use modern diving gear and motorboats equipped with dredges. Needless to say when they adopted modern equipment, the sea became over fished and fishing in the area was banned in 1960. It was for this reason that the more sensible Koreans and Japanese banned the use of modern scuba gear for shell diving to make sure the local waters were not over fished in the same way.
Female haenyo divers from Cheju, (also spelt Jeju) worked in Vladivostok a Russian port on the Sea of Japan. This port freezes up in the winter and has to be kept open by icebreakers. Even in summer it still snows and these divers had to work in these conditions, as they continued to work from May to August. It seems that female divers from Cheju since the 19th century have worked in China, Japan and the Korean mainland. It seems that they have been employed in Japan since the 5th century, though the Cheju divers did complain that the local seaweed dealers exploit them. It seems there are family ties between the haenyo divers of Korea and the Ama divers of Japan. It might come from the time when they were all sea gypsies and there loyalties were with other sea gypsy communities rather than the rulers of the countries they happen to be in.
The Japanese authorities ruthlessly exploited the Cheju divers when Cheju was conquered by Japan in the 1930s. The divers got together and led a mass protest against this exploitation, and at first the authorities agreed to their demands but then more policemen were shipped from Japan and the haenyo leaders were arrested and tortured, and the exploitation continued to the end of the Japanese occupation.
We would assume that the people of Cheju had ended their nightmare when the Japanese left, but worse was to follow. During the Japanese occupation the Communists became a powerful political force on the island. Also the women of this island organised themselves to form, The Cheju Women’s Association in 1947 to fight for women’s rights in Korea’s male dominated society. The Cheju police had collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation and were unpopular with the Cheju population. This was made worse on March 1, 1947, when police fired into a crowd of demonstrators killing six people, and wounding many others, which resulted in a general strike. Demonstrators then began to attack police stations, so the governor of the island called the mainland for help.
The mainland government sent over 3,000 troops to restore order, but this only made the situation worse as the Communists led the resistance and fought back. Then several hundred of the soldiers mutinied and handed over their arms to the Communist. The commander of the troops Lt. General Kim Ik Ruhl attempted to negotiate with the Communist leader Kim Sam-dal, but they failed to reach any agreement. It was then that the South Korean government then lost patients with their commander and replaced him with a hard line commander Tak Sung Rok. He brought with him anti-communists para-militaries and thousands of more troops and set about an extremely brutal crackdown. Villages were burn to the ground, and people tortured with electric wires, publicly humiliated and executed, many by being buried alive. Because the Cheju Women’s Association sympathised with the Communists, the women were treated as harshly as the men. Much of the islander’s property was confiscated and ended up in the hands of the oppressors. Cheju women were not only gang raped but many were also forced to marry the men who had murdered and tortured their relations.
American sources claimed that 15-20,000 islanders died in this massacre but other sources put the figure much higher and claimed that 60,000 to 100,000 people were murdered. The real number will probably never be known though it is estimated that one fifth of the population died in the massacre, while many others managed to escape to Japan, and built their own villages on the Japanese coast. Yet in spite of this brutal crackdown of the Cheju people, the haenyo women still managed to survive and continue their way of life.
As mentioned before, women divers have been not only been reported operating in the Artic ocean but near the Antarctic as well, on the most southern point of the South American continent on islands near Cape Horn. As we can see in this following report from the late Jacques Cousteau, about ama divers.-
For 1500 years in ancient Japan, as well as neighbouring Korea, these women have traditionally dived for pearls. At least 30,000 of their kind remain. Today they mostly dive for food. Wearing only a loincloth, they have begun to wear masks and snorkels within the 20th century. They dive both during the warm summers and the cooler winter months when temperatures can reach 50º F. They plunge to depths of 20 to 80 feet – sometimes 100 – to gather food, in the form of shellfish and seaweed, which they place in a net around their waists. They learn to dive around puberty and do not stop till they are about 60 years old. They are known to dive right up to the point of childbirth and having given birth, resume shortly after, nursing their infants between dives!
A similar group of women once dived in the wave tossed waters off Tierra del Fuego. They descended completely naked, through waters averaging 42º F to collect clams and crabs for food.
[19th century photograph of an Yamana woman. Photos courtesy of the Martin Gusinde Museum, Puerto Williams, made available on the web site .]
The Tierra Del Fuego are islands at the most southerly part of South America. The orginal inhabitants were the Ona and Yamana tribes, though anthropologists found them to be similar to the Chono and Alakaluf peoples of Chile. The Ona tribes live inland while the Yamana or Yagan are like sea gypsies, they were nomadic people, moving along the coast and on offshore islands gathering and diving for shellfish and fishing from canoes.
E. Lucas Bridges in his book; Uttermost Part of the Earth, Indians of Tierra del Fuego, reported that; there was a division in the sexes in the Yamana tribes.
There was a fair division of labour between the sexes. The men gathered fuel and fungus for food, while the women cooked, fetched water, paddled the canoes and fished. The men tended the fires, made and mended the canoes and prepared material for them. They also attended to the hunting – otter, seal, guanaco, foxes and birds – and speared the large fish. Being in charge of the canoes – for it was only on long journeys, or when in a hurry, that the men helped with the paddles – the women were also good swimmers, but it was a rare thing to find a male Yamana who could swim. The women were by no means slaves, for what they caught was their own. The husband used only what the wife gave him, and she did not ask his permission before making gifts to her friends. Members of this tribe often lived in places where for many miles there were no beaches on which it was possible to haul up their canoes. They were compelled, therefore, to anchor them off the rocks in the best shelter to be found. This anchoring was done by the women. After the canoe was unloaded and the husband had gone up into the forest to collect fuel for the fire, the wife would paddle off in the canoe a few fathoms into the thick kelp (a large species of seaweed), which makes a splendid breakwater. She would grasp a handful of the kelp’s rope-like branches and secure them to the canoe, which was thus safely anchored by their roots, then slip into the water, swim ashore and hasten to the fire to dry and warm herself. The Yamana women swam like a dog and had no difficulty getting through the kelp. They learnt to swim in infancy, and were taken out by their mothers in order to get them used to it. In winter, when the kelp was coated with a film of frost, a baby girl out with her mother would sometimes make pick-a-back swimming difficult by climbing onto her parent’s head to escape the cold water and frozen kelp.
So it shows women divers were able to dive in the very cold waters of the Barents Sea and the Tierra del Fuego. These conditions would kill a normal man within twenty minutes. The women were the main breadwinners of the Yamana as the majority of their food came from the shellfish, crabs and seaweed they collected by diving. The Yamana women even fished and made fishing lines from their own hair. They didn’t need fishhooks, because they had the skilfulness to catch fish without them. They would tie bait and a stone weight to their lines, and when a fish bit on the bait, they would bring it to the surface so carefully it didn’t startle the fish. Then with the fish so near the surface they would scoop it up with their hand. The men also caught fish by spearing them.
The nudity of the Yamaha in the very cold conditions of the utmost southerly part of South America was seen, like with the Tasmanian Aborigines, as a sign of their ignorance and backwardness. As it was assume they were so primitive that they were unable to make any clothing. Yet studies of these people have demonstrated that the women were very skilful in making baskets, if you can weave baskets you can also weave clothing. Also the women of their neighbours the Ona did make very warm clothing for their tribe. So it wasn’t a matter that they couldn’t make clothing, it was that they didn’t choose to do so, for the same reasons why the Tasmanian Aborigines didn’t want clothing. To maintain their way of life the women had to condition their bodies to withstand the freezing waters near the Antarctic continent.