Pearls of Panama

Pirates, Plunder and the Precious Peregrina Pearl

The History of the Island and its Treasure

The picturesque tranquillity of these beautiful islands hides a thrilling history of buccaneers, explorers, pirates and epic battles in pursuit of prized treasure. Over many centuries, some of the finest pearls in the world have been discovered here and taken across the Atlantic to adorn kings, queens and the upper echelons of the European aristocracy.

The story begins around 1513 when Vasco Nunez de Balboa – Spanish explorer, governor and conquistador – learned about the existence of an island archipelago brimming with pearls from a group of natives, who were allegedly paddling pearl-encrusted boats. Balboa wrote to the King of Spain, “the sea is very tranquil to cross in canoes, there are many islands with many pearls of large size and the Indians have basketfuls of them.” Balboa never actually made it to the islands but he named them ‘Islas Las Perlas’ and vowed to return to claim them for the Spanish crown.

Two years later, Spaniards Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro led an expedition to conquer the archipelago. The Indian chief, hoping to avert fighting the Spaniards, presented Morales with a basket of lustrous pearls but this only served to steel their resolve. Determined to lay claim to these precious islands, the Spaniards began to massacre the indigenous people.

The islands’ local population of Cueva Indians was entirely eradicated over the next few years and African slaves were brought in to take their place. The new pearl industry relied upon these Africans who harvested the pearls for centuries to come. To this day, their descendants still live on Pearl Island. The island that was used for counting the pearls before shipping them back to Spain was named Contadora, Spanish for ‘counting house,’ and is situated approximately 10 miles from Pearl Island.

It was during the early 1500s that the legendary La Peregrina Pearl was discovered by an African slave, who was rewarded with his freedom. At nearly 56 carats, it was the biggest pearl ever to have been found and remains to this day one of the largest perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearls in the world. Its unbelievable 500-year history starts when it was given to Philip II of Spain in the early 16th Century. He presented it to his bride, Mary I of England, who is depicted wearing the pearl in a portrait by Hans Eworth (to the right), a year after her coronation.

After her death in 1558, La Peregrina was worn by numerous members of the Spanish royal family including Queen Margarita (wife of Philip III) and her daughter-in-law, Isabella. They are both immortalised with the jewel in paintings by the revered sixteenth century artist, Velázquez. Queen Margarita allegedly chose it to represent the celebration of the peace treaty between Spain and England in 1605.

In 1808, the elder brother of Napoleon, Joseph Bonaparte, became king of Spain. He took La Peregrina (‘the wanderer’) with him when he was forced to leave the country and left it to his nephew, Charles Louis Bonaparte (later Emperor Napoleon III), in his will. On exile in England, Charles sold it to James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn, who purchased the precious jewel for his wife.

Watch out for Part II where there will be more on the precious Peregrina pearl’s most recent owner, Elizabeth Taylor…

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