Pearling in Western Australia

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Main pearling areas in Western Australia

Pearling in Western Australia existed well before European settlement. Coastal dwelling Aborigines had collected and traded pearl shell as well as trepang and tortoise with fisherman from Sulawesi for possibly hundreds of years.[1] After settlement the Aborigines were used as slave labour in the emerging commercial industry.[2] Pearling centred first around Nickol Bay and Exmouth Gulf and then around Broome to become the largest in the world by 1910. The farming of cultured pearls remains an important part of the Kimberley economy, worth $67 million in 2014 and is the second largest fisheries industry in WA after rock lobster.[3]


Early history[edit]

In Australia, the harvesting of pearl shell began millennia ago with the Aborigines.[4] They did not dive but were so successful in harvesting the shell that the ‘patterns of distribution’ or trade in the shell that they harvested have been traced throughout many parts of the continent.[5] They also had enough surplus to engage in an overseas trade. This phase began with the visits of the Makassan trepangers to the northern coasts in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. The trade resulted in the exchange of trepang, turtles and pearl shell for tobacco, rice and axes. There was also violence, including the abduction of men and women. As a result, both groups were often armed and the Aborigines learnt to treat any newcomers with suspicion.[6] From a European perspective, William Dampier and then the French explorers saw (Pinctada albina) at Shark Bay and Dampier, Stokes, Grey and F.T Gregory found (Pinctada maxima) on the north-west coast. While anchored at Nickol Bay, waiting for him to return from his explorations, Gregory's crew obtained a quantity of shell and a good pearl. While Gregory reported on this in his widely read journals and accounts, it appears that others were more secretive. Some visiting whalers, for example, also knew of the shell, having either harvested shell themselves, or having acquired it in trade with the Aborigines. Recorded as being on the coast in great numbers after the 1840s, they also frequented areas where shell is found, including Nickol Bay and Shark Bay. Pragmatic, and keen to guard any potential lucrative return, they kept few historical records. North-west shell was found on the wreck of the American whaling barque Cervantes that was lost while sealing about 120 nautical miles north of Fremantle in 1844, for example.[7]

The first stage of the European pearling industry: Wading for shell[edit]

The European pearling industry began in the 1850s at Shark Bay where pearls (called the 'Oriental, or Golden' Pearl) were found in the Pinctada albina oyster in relatively large numbers. The industry soon folded however.

At Nickol Bay, decorative pearl shells (Riji) made by local Aborigines from Pinctada maxima, were noted by European explorers. The industry began in the mid-1860s with pastoral workers who collected shell in shallow waters, either from shore or in small boats. In 1866, a former shareholder of the defunct Denison Plains Company, WF Tays (who apparently had some prior knowledge of pearling) proved very successful as a full-time pearler. Others followed and in these instances, the boat provided transport for personnel and shell to and from remote beds, or across deeper water to drying banks and reefs. There was no diving at this time, as the shallow waters initially provided enormous returns to the Europeans and their Aboriginal labourers, who waded and recovered shell as the tide receded.

During the late 1860s many more boats left Fremantle and the pearling industry at Torres Strait, Queensland for the new fishery at Nickol Bay with its port of Tien Tsin Harbour (later known as Cossack). Thus new technology, in the form of small boats, large containers (in the form of bags and sacks) and then larger vessels operating independently, or as 'mother boats' to a number of dinghies, were the first major advances that the Europeans applied to the pearling industry. Walter Padbury, the noted Perth-based merchant, pastoralist and ship owner, then sent a large boat north up to the early pastoralist John Withnell in partnership with others. They also proved successful, as did many others, including (to name but a few) Charles Harper, who built his own boat, the Amateur; Charles Broadhurst a noted entrepreneur and at least two sons of Government Resident RJ Sholl.[8]

This eventually caused over-harvesting of the shallows and a shortage of shell. This led the industry into its second stage and a transition took place from wading in the shallows into the use of "skin divers" (unassisted by the emerging technology of breathing apparatus). In most cases, however, the transition from wading to diving took place during 1868.[9] While Broadhurst and a few other proprietors experimented, during the 1860s, with the use of breathing apparatus by professional divers, it proved at the time to be expensive, unreliable and dangerous.

While local Aborigines were excellent swimmers, known to have covered great distances over water, sometimes to escape imprisonment, unlike their counterparts in some other parts of Australia they had no cause to dive in conditions where the tidal range provided all they needed. Many were also succumbing to diseases to which they had not previously been exposed, as well as accidents. This led to recruitment from the convicts on the "Native Prison" on Rottnest Island. Broadhurst was criticised for harsh treatment of at least one indigenous employee, while some pearlers abducted and/or forcibly retained their divers.

The second stage of the European pearling industry: 'Naked Diving'[edit]

By September 1868, soon after the beginning of the warm weather, the shell harvesters were operating in depths of around 10 metres. Then, inured to hardship, supremely fit and with wonderful eyesight, the Aborigines began to emulate and sometime surpass the feats of the others already engaged in the industry elsewhere throughout the world. At the time the following was said of their skills and abilities: The powers of the natives in diving, especially the females, are spoken of as something wonderful, they go down to a depth of seven fathoms [c.13m] and remain below a time that astonishes their white employers.[10] Called 'naked diving', the methods used are described in two primary sources, one the diaries and official dispatches of Government Resident and pearler R.J. Sholl and the other the better-known and widely published accounts of E.W. Streeter.[11] He wrote that right up until the late 1880s, harvesters were operating from dinghies, the largest containing six to eight divers. They often went up against the tide and, when ready the divers went overboard. The leader, most often a white man, then stood in the stern of the dinghy, drifting along with the divers until good beds were found. There he would try to hold the boat in position against the tide or make repeated ‘runs’ over the bed. Everyone worked hard and traveled great distances for they could end up kilometres from the ‘mother boat’ and had to return to it at the end of the day. The tides were an advantage in this instance, allowing the divers to be carried relatively effortlessly across far more ground than they could ever cover on their own. The majority entered the water feet first, turning as their head submerged towards the bottom. They did not use stones to speed up their descent, nor did they use other aids. A ‘fair days work’ for a ‘naked diver’ in the north-west industry was considered to be the recovery of 10-25 pairs at a general rate of one ‘pair’ of shells in eight dives. Two to three pairs were frequently brought up in the one dive.[12]

Experiments with alternative labour sources and with Diving Apparatus (The 'Hard Hat' )[edit]

In June 1868, Charles Broadhurst, in partnership with James Dempster and the firm of Barker and Gull of Guildford introduced Diving Apparatus. The diving gear, a ‘Heincke’ system, proved a dismal failure. They had not learnt how to use the gear in any but a still water environment and when they applied it to the waters of the Flying Foam Passage at Nickol Bay they almost lost the unfortunate diver in the fierce currents. They also had problems finding the shell beds because the diver was tethered to the boat which was itself anchored and as a result he could not move very far at all. They had not learnt to drift along with the diver walking across the seabed as became the norm in the Broome era that built upon these experiences (see following). In the meantime 'naked diving' continued with most producing exceptional results especially at the Flying Foam Passage where they used the tides to allow themselves to travel over great distances. As the demands on the local Aboriginal populations increased and as many died due to disease and maltreatment, a Mr Howlett was the first to experiment bringing eight ‘Malay’ ( as the peoples inhabiting the islands north of Australia were then generally, but incorrectly known) divers from Batavia in early 1871. At around the same time the notorious Queensland ‘blackbirder’ and River Murray explorer Captain Francis Cadell left for Macassar for the same purpose. He obtained forty four ‘Malay’ men and set them to work at his bases at Condon and at the newly re-opened beds at Shark Bay. Though it was generally expected that they would not equal the Aborigines they were expected to provide the answer to the growing labor shortage. In attempt to introduce both steam power and more imported labour to the industry by the end of 1872, Broadhurst imported over 140 ‘Malays’ on the SS Xantho at a cost of over £10 per head. In early 1873 there were 24 ‘large boats’, 47 smaller boats, 291 Aboriginals and 134 ‘Malays’ at work with 50 ‘followers’ ashore. This gave a total population of around 550 at work there. The ‘Malays’ had proved ‘tractable...quick to learn...pleasant,’ excellent on the land, though not the equal of the Aborigines in the water. Despite that they were doing well, except for Broadhurst's men who were again a dismal failure producing results far worse than those around.

The Shark Bay pearling industry[edit]

Frank Cadell was also operating at Shark Bay in this period and in this era 'dredging' rapidly became the most efficient means of obtaining the shell, which was noted more for the pearls rather than the shell as was the situation further north. When SS Xantho sank beneath him late in 1872, Broadhurst joined Cadell at Shark Bay there, proving extremely successful at one stage recovering over 200 ounces of pearls. The publicity surrounding the successes resulted in a virtual gold rush centred on Wilyah Miah ( Place of the Pearl).[13]

The importation of 'Malay' indentured labour ceases[edit]

The use of ‘Malays’ on the north-west coast grew dramatically and reached its peak around August 1875. At the beginning of the 1875/6 season, 22 large vessels arrived in the north of Western Australia, mainly from Kupang and Macassar. On board the vessels were around 75 white men, about 770 ‘Malays,’ an unspecified number of Port Essington Aboriginals, 17 Chinese, 24 women and a few children. Cadell then began to cause problems for all the employers by mistreating his ‘Malay’ labourers. Calls were made for his apprehension and both he and Broadhurst became embroiled in a great scandal for the abuse, non payment and non repatriation of the labourers at Shark Bay. The matter was eventually resolved by the Dutch Governor General at Batavia in August 1875 by enacting what a Western Australian administration unable to control the excesses on its own coast dubbed to be ‘wise and humane’ regulations. They also led to the near abandonment of the use of ‘Malays’ on the North coast. In 1874 there were 225 ‘Malays’ employed in the fishery, in 1875 there were 989, in the following year none, and in 1876 there were only 24 in the industry.

The pearlers move further afield[edit]

As an indicator of the mobility of the fleet, Government Resident R.J. Sholl, made a visit to Flying Foam Passage in Nickol Bay in the first week of February when ‘the yield was good,’ and recorded the numbers of people and boats above. By the time of the writing of his official report on the same subject at the end of March 1873, however, the supply had ‘diminished’ indicating the rapidity with which beds were exploited and abandoned. Several boats moved elsewhere, some to the west of Nickol Bay or further still to Exmouth Gulf, and others east to Condon or to Peedamurra near Port Hedland. A few went much further. Eventually the centre of activity drifted away from Nickol Bay and its Cossack and from other centres such as Condon, Bannangarra (on Pardoo Station) on to Roebuck Bay, where modern day, Broome is situated.[14]

The Broome era[edit]

As the centre of activity drifted away from Nickol Bay and its port of Cossack, and from other centres such as Condon, Bannangarra, where the drying beds were once prolific, the industry came to centre on Roebuck Bay, where modern day Broome is situated.[15] There 'diving apparatus' (standard dress or 'hard hat') was used and E.W. Streeter by his own account became acknowledged as its first successful operator.[16] In 1884 nine vessels had the diving gear. By the end of the 1885-6 season 34 of the 54 vessels operating on the pearling grounds were using 'standard dress' and in the 1887-8 season of the 120 vessels, only two used the 'naked diving' or method. With the exception of Shark Bay, where diving had long since ceased to be a feature, and where in 1886 the Chinese also proved very efficient, the advent of apparatus diving produced a change in the recruitment of ‘Malays’. It became biased specifically towards those more capable of handling the technology, with Manilamen preferred over those less capable of handling the gear. Aboriginal divers also ‘disappeared from the industry almost overnight’. Soon the Japanese divers came to dominate the industry. By 1910, nearly 400 pearling luggers and more than 3500 people were fishing for shell in waters around Broome, making it the world's largest pearling centre.[17] The majority of the workers were Japanese and Malaysian, but also included were Chinese, Filipino, Amborese, Koepanger (Timorese) and Makassan, as well as Indigenous Australians and people from Europe.

Pearl luggers at Roebuck Bay, Broome in about 1912

By the 1930s, pearl luggers were mainly motorised and the use of mechanical air pumps allowed boats to use two divers. The industry suffered from a high death toll, with hazards from shark attack, cyclones and frequently, the bends. Four tropical cyclones hit the area between 1908 and 1935 and over 100 boats and 300 people were lost during that time, as evidenced by the numerous graves in the Japanese cemetery in Broome.

At the time of the World War I the price of mother-of-pearl plummeted with the invention and expanded use of plastics for buttons and other articles which had previously been made of shell. Broome had been the centre of an industry that supplied up to 70% of global demand for the shell.[18] Concerns regarding over-harvesting by the industry led to the voluntary Northern Territory Pearling Ordinance in 1931. Pearlers such as Jiro Muramats continued to operate out of Cossack. By 1939 only 73 luggers and 565 people were left in the industry and during the World War II, pearling virtually stopped. Japanese divers discreetly went home or were interned and Broome was bombed, destroying many of the remaining luggers. After the war, as few as 15 boats employing around 200 people remained.

Post WW2: indentured labour[edit]

After World War II, workers were brought from Malaya and Indonesia on bonds to work in the pearl shelling industry and returned to their country of origin when no longer needed.Sumatran-born Samsudin bin Katib was a pearl diver who was recruited and deployed in the Z Special Unit Commandos in the Australian Army and worked behind enemy lines. Returning to work in Broome, Samsudin protested at a 10% cut in wages and poor conditions for the migrant labourers, organising a general strike. He also applied to be allowed permanent residence, but this was against the provisions of the White Australia policy. Despite the backing of some unions and individuals, he was deported in 1948.[19]

Legacy of the 19th century[edit]

In April 2019, the skeletons of 14 Yawuru and Karajarri people which had been sold by a wealthy Broome pastoralist and pearler to a museum in Dresden, Germany, in 1894 were brought home. The remains, which had been stored in the Grassi Museum of Ethnology in Leipzig, showed signs of head wounds and malnutrition, a reflection of the poor conditions endured by Aboriginal people forced to work on the pearl luggers.[20]

Cultured pearls[edit]

Due to the prospect of an adverse reaction in the natural pearling industry, the Australian government through the "1922 Pearling Act" prohibited anyone in Australia from artificially producing cultivated pearls. The Act was repealed in 1949.[2] In 1956, a joint Japanese-Australian venture was set up at Kuri Bay, 420 km north of Broome as a cultured pearl farm, named Pearls Proprietary Ltd. The company was owned by Male and Co, Broome Pearlers Brown and Dureau Ltd, and the Otto Gerdau Company (New York). The Japanese-owned Nippo Pearl Company handled distribution and marketing. The principal was Tokuichi Kuribayashi (1896–1982) who became highly influential following the death of Kōkichi Mikimoto (1858–1954). Mikimoto, Kuribayashi and another man, Tatsuhei Mise (1880–1924) had all been involved in the invention of cultured pearls around 1900. Kuri Bay was named after Mr Kuribayashi.

By 1981, there were five pearl farms operational: Kuri Bay, Port Smith, Cygnet Bay, and two in Broome's Roebuck Bay.

The industry today includes 19 of Australia's 20 cultured pearl farms and generates annual exports of A$200M and employs approximately 1000 people.


  1. ^ "Australia's pearling industry". Australian Government Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Archived from the original on 2006-10-07. Retrieved 2006-09-29.
  2. ^ a b "Early Years". Archived from the original on 2006-07-17. Retrieved 2006-09-29.
  3. ^ "Pearling". Retrieved 2017-06-08.
  4. ^ Blainey, G. (1975). Triumph of the Nomads - a History of Ancient Australia. Melbourne: Macmillan. pp. 203–204. ISBN 0-333-17583-2.
  5. ^ Akerman, K., and Stanton, J., 1994. Riji and Jakuli: Kimberley Pearl Shell in Aboriginal Australia. NT Museum of Arts and Sciences. Number 4 1994 : Frontispiece; 19
  6. ^ MacKnight, C.C., Voyage to Marege. Macassan Trepangers in northern of Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1976.
  7. ^ McCarthy, M., 2009. Naked Diving for Mother-of-pearl. In Early Days, Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, Vol 13, Part 2 : 243-262.
  8. ^ "Port Walcott". The Inquirer & Commercial News. 25 December 1867. p. 3. Retrieved 19 Dec 2013.
  9. ^ McCarthy, M. (1995). "Before Broome." The Great Circle:, Journal of the Australian Association for Maritime History. 16(2):76-89.
  10. ^ The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Times, 25/9/1868, page 2
  11. ^ Streeter, E.W., (1886) Pearls and Pearling life, Bell and Sons, London
  12. ^ Streeter, op. cit. & McCarthy, M., 2009. Naked Diving for Mother-of-pearl. In Early Days, Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, Vol 13, Part 2 : 243-262.
  13. ^ McCarthy, M., 2007. Pearling at Shark Bay: the early beginnings. In Green, J., (ed.) Report on the 2006 Western Australian Museum, Department of Maritime Archaeology, Cape Inscription National Heritage Listing Archaeological Survey. Report—Department of Maritime Archaeology Western Australian Museum, No. 223 Special Publication No. 10, Australian National Centre of Excellence for Maritime Archaeology: 157-161
  14. ^ For details see McCarthy, 1995; 2009 op.cit.
  15. ^ Bain, M.A.,1982, Full Fathom Five. Artlook Books, Perth
  16. ^ Edmonds, Carl (1996). "Pearl diving: the Australia story". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 26 (1 Supplement). Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  17. ^ "The History of Pearling in Western Australia". Western Australian Department of Fisheries. Retrieved 2006-09-29.
  18. ^ "Rare Pearls - Precious Memories". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 2006-09-29.
  19. ^ "Stories: Cameleers and hawkers". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  20. ^ Parke, Erin (21 May 2019). "Indigenous bones returned to Australia century after black-market trade reveal cruel treatment". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 22 May 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Broome Pearls". 175th Anniversary of Western Australia. Retrieved 2006-09-29.
  • Edwards, Hugh. Port of Pearls.
  • Bain, Mary Albertus. Full Fathom Five.
  • Chapple, Thomas Dampier. Broome The Exciting Years (1912-1930).
  • "Pearl Farms". Kimberley Cruising. Retrieved 2006-09-29.