Broome's Sand, Sea and Pearling History
It seems ludicrous that anyone should throw pearls away. But rewind to the 1880s, and that’s exactly what was happening on the shores of Broome. The Western Australian town, which owes its existence to the pearling trade, was then an outback hamlet swarming with pioneering fortune hunters who valued only the pearlescent shell of the Pinctada maxima. Back then, the largest pearl shell in the world was punched with circles, the resulting discs used to make covetable mother-of-pearl buttons. That’s where the money was, so the pearl at the centre of the oyster was simply tossed aside.
Today, as we gaze through boutique windows at the luminous sheen and velvety lustre of pearls, we rarely connect with the organic gem’s fascinating backstory. You’ve got to head to Broome for that – and be prepared to confront a somewhat dark history. Broome was the busiest pearling port on the planet in its day, and while the trade has transformed over time, it remains a key hub both for pearlers and those travelling to see these cultured beauties. The region’s working pearl farms are positioned within the Kimberley’s vast, highlighter-blue waters, and are all accessed via Broome.
The gateway town’s airport is filled with light aircraft and helicopters that team spectacular flights with outback adventures to the ochre-hued Dampier Peninsula to visit Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm; or north along the coast over the swirling blues and whites of Willie Creek Pearl Farm’s base. Bobbing gently along the Kimberley’s waters to ogle strings of aquatic wares, then discovering what a freshly harvested, unpolished pearl looks like (hint: not so pretty) is a vastly different experience to that of the early pearl divers.
The majority were Aboriginal Australians, tricked into slavery or exploited in the haste to gather the natural riches. Historians tell of pearl shells once being found on Broome’s beach flats, but after the last was collected, attention turned to the ocean and free-diving became the solution. As guides will tell you at the Pearl Luggers centre, divers were forced off boats at gunpoint and had to prove they had reached the bottom by bringing up a shell or a handful of sand; those who failed were often beaten.
Conditions were severe: it was common for divers to be barred from returning to deck until they’d worked an entire day. Pregnant Indigenous women were favoured as divers, due to the popular belief they could hold their breath the longest. Many died in the process; a sculpture in Broome’s Pioneer Park remembers them. By the turn of the century, an influx of Asian immigrants had filled the workforce. The Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian and Chinese divers had to plunge ever deeper while sporting the latest technology – a waterproof suit and bulbous helmet that resembled an astronaut’s outfit.
To combat the sea floor’s chill, divers pulled on thick, hand-knitted woollen suits that acted as insulation beneath the impermeable exterior. To keep them rooted to the ground, they wore lead boots, each one weighing 20 kilograms. For many, a typical day meant seven hours underwater. As with the Indigenous divers before them, there were many casualties. As 1910 rolled around, Broome had become the largest pearling centre in the world, with a fleet of more than 400 vessels.
The majority of the inhabitants in the remote town were male, giving way to another trade far older than pearling. The red-light district morphed into five brothels and numerous gambling dens by the 1940s. On the more illuminated side of the street, interracial relationships blossomed, despite luggers often being at sea for two months at a time.
A legacy of the pearling boom is the still-rich level of multiculturalism, readable in the faces of modern Broome’s population. While you can observe that racial melting-pot on a stroll through Chinatown or past Dampier Terrace’s pearl boutiques, it’s most apparent during the annual Shinju Matsuri event – Japanese for “festival of the pearl”. Held over multiple days in late August and early September, the festival launches with the awakening of Sammy the Chinese Dragon, includes a poignant mass release of floating lanterns and a Sunset Long Table Dinner of pearl meat and local delicacies on the powdery sand of Cable Beach. The festival invokes a time when the return of the pearl luggers was a big event. However, by the 1950s, it was a rarity.
The advent of plastic swiftly replaced demand for mother-of-pearl buttons. The industry reinvented itself, placing value on the perfectly spherical cultured pearls that are grown in Broome’s nutrient-rich waters. No surprise that they’re the local adornment of choice. For residents, a connection to the pearling trade’s past transforms the gems from pretty embellishments to precious treasures.