Pearling in the Kimberley
Although pearl shell had been used by Aboriginal people for ceremonial purposes for centuries, it was first ‘discovered’ by white settlers to the Pilbara at Nickol Bay in 1861. John Withnell, a pastoralist and one of the earliest settlers in the Pilbara, collected up to six tonnes of pearl shell per day at the mouth of the De Grey River to supplement his income. Stocks of dry shell (shell found on beaches and low tidal flats) were depleted after three years and the larger boats were sent two kilometers offshore to collect shell in deeper water. By the 1880s, attention turned north to Broome and the rich shell beds of Eighty Mile Beach.
Boats from Torres Strait and Thursday Island arrived in 1881 bringing vulcanised suits, bronze helmets, lead boots and diving apparatus. Peering out through thick glass, the divers struggled to collect as much shell as possible per dive, as they were paid by the amount of shell collected. With the new diving helmets, divers were able to reach the deeper shell off the Lacepede Islands and Eighty Mile Beach, doubling the catch of fifty-seven skin divers (so called because they dived naked and held their breath without the aid of snorkles or masks).
A few small camps were established in Roebuck Bay in November 1883, which became the headquarters of the new fleet. The new town, gazetted in 1883, was named Broome after Frederick Napier Broome, the Governor of Western Australia, who was horrified at his name being given to the scruffy assortment of pearling camps lining the bay.
Although the shell brought rich rewards, diving was risky in the turbid, Kimberley waters; the divers faced cyclones, sharks, crocodiles, beriberi, ear and chest infections and the bends. For most of the first twenty years, the majoriy of the crew were Aboriginal skin divers, with up to 57 divers in one vesesl. Pregnant women were able to hold their breath longer than the men, however, evethe government eventually stepped in, banning women from diving and limiting the depth of the dives. Until the development of the naval diving tables, many of the divers were crippled from diving too deep and ascending too quickly, with 145 divers perishing between 1910 and 1970. The adoption of the diving tables and an understanding of a staged ascent dramatically reduced diver deaths.
The success of the Broome pearling industry hinged on the size of the Broome pearl oyster, Pinctada maxima, which was large enough to supply mother-of-pearl (MOP) for cutlery handles, buttons and buckles and inlay for furniture. Natural pearls were rare and extremely valuable, and when found, were placed in a locked box on the lugger. By 1914 Broome supplied 80% of the world’s pearl shell and had over 300 luggers and 3,500 people involved in fishing for shell. At its best, pearl shell was worth £400 per tonne.
The small wooden luggers went to sea on the neap tides and had no cooking facilities or toilets. The crew lived in cramped conditions, with piles of stinking pearl shell on the decks. Each diver had a tender (short for attender) who stayed on the surface.
Broome itself was a cosmopolitan town, with Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankans, West Australians (mainly Aborigines), Torres Strait Islanders, Manilamen and Filipinos from the Phillipines, Malays from Malaysia, Rotumah men from Roti, Koepangers from Timor, and Amboinese from the Moluccas all involved in the industry. Under the WA Pearling Act of 1913, only British citizens were allowed to own pearl luggers and a rigid class system developed, with the Japanese, seemed naturally immune to some of the ear problems that plagued other divers, working as divers, the Malays and Koepangers working as deckhands and crew, and lastly the local Aboriginal people. Eventually the Japanese made up the majority of people working on the lugger, working as indentured labour. Almost all of the Japanese divers came from the city of Taiji, now a sister city to Broome. Many of the Japanese struggled to pay off their debts, often their passage to Australia. The largest of the immigrant groups was the Chinese, who worked as pearlers, cooks and shopkeepers.
T he adoption of the White Australia Policy in the early 20th century led to the government recruiting twelve British navy divers, most of whom perished. As as a result, Broome received an exemption from the policy. During the two world wars production almost ceased, and when Japan entered the war, most of the Japanese were interned in prisoner of war camps.
Pearling post war
By the 1950s, with the development of plastic buttons, the pearl shell industry fell into a decline. The first pearl farm in the Kimberley was established at Kuri Bay, in Camden Sound, 370km north of Broome, in 1956. Kuri Bay, named after Mr Tokuichi Kuribayashi, was a joint venture between the Japanese, Americans and Australians, following the repeal of the Pearling Act. By 1973, Kuri Bay was producing 60% of the world’s large, south sea pearls.
The luggers of early times have been replaced by modern pearling vessels complete with satellite navigation, computers, echo-sounders and x-ray machines. The quota of pearl shell is heavily regulated by the Fisheries Department to ensure that the pearling beds of Eighty Mile Beach are not overfished. In addition, hatcheries are now producing spat (baby oysters), which are then transferred in panels to open water to grow out.