It is a curious fact, and one much remarked upon by strangers, that along the Belfalas coast certain fishing-boats are crewed by women. The exact origins of this custom are long since lost. Some say the Faithful took it from the tribes thereabouts, others that they brought it with them, having learned it of the Elves. Whatever the truth, to this day while the deep-sea boats are crewed by men the inshore boats used for shell-fishing are always crewed by women.
It is generally opined in those parts, that a man may go upon the water but only a woman may go under it. Those of superstitious sort aver that Ossë is jealous; a man may sail, but he dare not dive lest it be thought he seeks too near an acquaintance with Uinen Seawife. In consequence of this, all divers are women, even in the Prince's dockyard in Dol Amroth.
In Belfalas, shell-fish are not only caught, they are also tended as farmers on land tend their crops, and since so much diving is involved in this work, it is the women who are given the task. The crews of the shall-boats are a kind apart. They choose the life between the ages of ten and twenty and take a vow of chastity. If they would wed, they must leave the sea; though some return if mischance leaves them widowed.
Though they only fish inshore, these women still face no small dangers. The Bay of Belfalas is, in certain seasons, notorious for sudden storms and squalls, which are as much a hazard to those close to the shore as to those in deep water. Indeed, the risks may be greater, since winds and waves that a large boat well out at sea may ride out with little difficulty, can easily fling a small one close to shore upon the rocks. Even in their diving these women face hazards. They plunge into rough and rocky waters as many as a hundred times a day, holding their breath for over three minutes in each dive.
Below the waves they may face sharks, poisonous jellyfish, or epileptic rays, so deadly that one touch can send a diver into convulsions. Sudden changes of current, or great waves affecting the waters far below the surface, may hurl a diver against the rocks like a twig in a millrace. It is by no means uncommon for diving-women to be injured or killed in the course of their work. They have their own sea-shanties, and many of these songs tell of courageous divers and the perils they escaped - or were slain by.
If they face hazards, and deny themselves the common life of women, the divers do not go unrewarded, for such women are accounted in all things equal to men. The taboos that keep all other women from the fishing-boats do not apply to divers - they may come and go as they will. In the village assembly their voice has a man's worth, and none will refuse them speech. They have full rights over their own earnings and property, and what they have won as divers remains theirs should they choose to wed. Any property they have inherited will indeed fall under their husband's hand, but their own monies and anything bought with that coin remain theirs. A diver who has come to he respected by the menfolk of her village is likely to still be allowed to speak in the assembly if she marries, and her words will still be listened to - though in courtesy, most stay away from the deep-sea boats thereafter. If a family has no son, a shell-diver woman can be its head with every legal right.
It may be that this strange state of affairs came about because of the great importance of shellfishing and shellfish farming. The early colonies of the Faithful relied heavily upon the sea for their sustenance, yet the Bay of Belfalas is notoriously stormy and unpredictable. Collecting shellfish on the shore, between the tides, was always women's work. Since diving was also women's business, the farming of shellfish inevitably fell into female hands, and then shellfishing in general. Even in the early days, shellfarming was important to the people of Belfalas.
Dyewhelks grow most luxuriantly in the colder waters of the north side of the Bay: much of the material for the famous 'Purple of Umbar', so prized in Númenor, came from the rocky coasts of Belfalas. Unless the whelks had been farmed by the skilled women divers, they would soon have been driven to extinction, and the trade lost. The north was also, then as now, the home of the oysters which supply the finest mother-of-pearl. They too could be grown, and while the shells were sold on, the meat went into cooking-pots in the fishing villages. Besides the export of dye and of pearlshell, oysters and other shellfish were grown for the market in the local towns and villages.
Other creatures were caught or collected by the divers. Octopi, crabs, shrimps and lobsters have always been valuable catches. Shellfarming takes place mostly in more sheltered waters, and has always been less likely to be affected by the weather. In the days before the Downfall, the best places for shellfishing were also in more sheltered waters, among the many little isles that formerly fringed the Belfalas coast. Once freshwater pearls were introduced to those parts, their care also fell to the divers, who understood such matters, and that of course required no going to sea at all. So these women could always win food and coin for their families, though storms might keep the men in harbour.
The women divers, then, had no small part to play in the livelihood of a fishing village, as indeed remains the case. More, they in some wise take the place of the many men who are lost at sea and offer a family some assurance of continuity in the face of such disaster. A storm that leads to the loss of all a family's grown men - as has too often happened, down the long years - need not mean starving poverty and legal difficulties if one of the women is a shelldiver. She can lead the family and provide for it, at least until the boys come of age - and often enough, a respected shelldiver may remain the family head though her brothers have grandsons of their own.
Such are the reasons that have led to and still shape the existence of the women called "Uinen's Daughters", the Mermaids of Belfalas.