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Artifact Description

A total of 6,639 pearls were recovered from the “Tortugas” wreck through the use of Odyssey Marine’s SeRF sieve system. When recovered from the dredged sediments, many were a dark gun-metal gray color, but after conservation reverted to a range of colors and lustrous finishes. Pearl shapes include round, pear, egg, drop, button, baroque and blister, and vary in color from white to cream, rose, pink, silver, yellow, blue and black. Some 636 of the pearls are drilled. From a sample of 6,494 well-preserved pearls, the sizes range from 1-10mm and five classes were identified.

Despite the heyday of Spanish-colonial exploitation having long ceased by 1622, the Venezuelan oyster beds were still visited  with some success in the first quarter of the 17th century. Three ships from the 1622 Tierra Firme fleet visited these waters: the 115-ton Santa Ana sailed for Margarita Island, the 110-ton San Francisco for Cumana, while the "Tortugas" ship, the 117-ton Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario headed to Nueva Cordoba, the antiquated name for Cumana. The destination of two additional vessels, the 100-ton Nuestra Señora del Rosario and the 180-ton Nuestra Señora de los Reyes, is listed generally as ‘Venezuela’.

The volume of pearls harvested from the Venezuelan Pearl Coast was colossal, even though records suggest that only one pearl was found for every 1,000 oysters collected. In the space of just one or two weeks, six divers working from a single boat could recover around 35,000 oysters in the heyday of resource availability. Between 1513 and 1540 an estimated 120 million pearls were fished up from the Pearl Coast. Shipments could be impressive: one of the largest cargos destined for Spain listed in June 1533 carried at least 340kg of pearls.

Historical accounts estimated that over half of the total pearls harvested were never declared. Vast volumes were used at source as currency, even to purchase slaves delivered to the fisheries. Many Spaniards avoided the peninsular markets by offloading their wares in the smuggler-friendly Atlantic islands. The complex web of exchange models through which the Pearl Coast products reached Seville, and increasingly Lisbon, Venice, London and Amsterdam, demands the question of whether 6,838 pearls were being transported on the Tortugas shipwreck through official trade or as contraband?

The "Tortugas" shipwreck’s pearls reflect the end of the line – one of history’s earliest examples of hyper-exploitation resulting in the depletion of species, changes in ecosystem structure, displacement and extermination of local human populations and their culture. Before the establishment of the silver mines at Potosi in Peru in 1545 and Zacatecas in Mexico in 1547, pearl exports from the American continent exceeded the value of all other exports combined. The depletion of the oyster beds along the Pearl Coast is considered to be the first documented case of unsustainable natural resource depletion by Europeans in the American continent. These massive harvest overkills caused irreparable damage to societies and species, from which the Caribbean pearl fisheries never fully recovered.

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