The Fascinating History of Pearl Farming in Broome


Today, pearl farmers still harvest natural oysters (Pinctada maxima) from Broome’s waters for harvesting; however, cultured pearls dominate the industry.

Pearling in Broome once provided up to 80 percent of the world’s mother-of-pearl supply. Luggers used in this industry were crewed by both Aboriginals and indentured Asian workers from countries like Malaysia, China, West Timor or Japan – these crew members formed what became known as a pearling crew.

The Early Years

Dampier Terrace today may be home to Broome’s Chinatown pearl boutiques, but just 160 years ago the area was quite different. Back then it was an anarchic frontier town located 2,000km from Australia’s closest capital Perth – effectively making it virtually invisible to lawmakers and police forces of Australia. At that time Broome became home for an industry in which women from Yawuru (Broome) heritage were sold as sexual slaves while Aboriginal men recruited to dive for shell on luggers that often plied its seabed beds annually – as well as indentured workers from Asia that came specifically for that task.

Pearling was an immensely profitable industry at this time. Mother-of-pearl buttons created from circular holes punched into Pinctada maxima oyster shells were highly sought-after worldwide; its shell was also utilized for various other items ranging from combs to cutlery handles. By 1914, Broome provided approximately 80 percent of world pearl supply and its luggers boasted crews representing different ethnicities – many Asian workers were indentured workers who worked without pay while paying back debts that had covered their travel from their homeland into Australia.

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But Broome’s boom was short-lived; during the 1950s a shockwave rocked the pearling industry: plastic buttons became cheaper and stronger than shell, diminishing demand for pearling shell. Broome thus lost much of its pearling past.

Japanese pearl farmers had made significant advances in cultured pearl production. This revolutionised their industry, cutting costs while enabling pearl farmers to continue harvesting wild oysters from ocean beds for their natural lustre while using some for cultured pearls to craft more costly pieces such as necklaces and rings.

Henly Fong arrived in Broome from Guangdong Province at around this time and immediately headed south toward Cossack where local pearlers were recruiting Chinese indentured labourers for their luggers. At 20 years old he found employment as an indentured labourer on one of these pearling luggers.

According to reports, coloured divers were more tolerant than European divers of the harsh working conditions aboard luggers. They had to endure three-month-long stints underwater diving for up to seven hours a day on six consecutive days – often working from sunup until sunset with little rest in between shifts.

Underlying this was still risky work and there were casualties: 22-year-old Australian Jarrod Hampton drowned while drift-diving for Paspaley less than a week after starting – it is estimated that fatalities due to pearling have exceeded 100 over its long history; during its boom years some 50,000 Asian workers were employed; with time their role declined as it became more professionalized and safer – today it remains one of the primary sources of jobs in northern Western Australia while having gained global renown for quality work.

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World War I

Broome is famous today for its stunning Australian South Sea Pearls, but in the late 1800s fortune hunters came seeking something completely different – buttons punched from world’s largest oyster, Pinctada maxima. Their mother of pearl shell was prized as buttons or used for fine cutlery; as word spread that fresh beds could be found nearby this industry took off rapidly.

By 1910, Broome had grown into an important pearling port with over 300 luggers plying its 10m tides, transporting fortune seekers including European settlers, merchant seamen, whalers, sailormen, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents as well as skilled Asian divers.

Pearling was often described as having a Wild West feel, with plenty of gambling, fighting and drinking taking place on oyster beds 20 to 25 fathoms underwater (36 to 45 metres). Diving could be dangerous work due to nitrogen bubbles entering their tissues through bloodstream and creating painful bends; sometimes these bends could even prove fatal for divers coming up too quickly after diving too quickly.

European pearling bosses in the 1880s sought to maximize profits. They needed men who would dive and catch oysters for them in this remote, isolated environment; Aboriginal men were readily recruited, sometimes through violence or threats of physical harm, to fill this role; white captains frequently relied on drugs such as opium to keep their crews calm.

But the introduction of hard hat diving suits truly revolutionised pearling in Broome region. Equipped with this protective equipment, men were able to dive much deeper for shell and work for longer hours; leading to greatly increased yields.

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At its height in the 1920s, pearling was an immensely lucrative industry in Broome and produced 80 per cent of world mother of pearl shell. But World War II saw foreign labour sent into indentured camps while plastic invention in the 1950s led to sharp decreases in oyster demand and caused its business to crumble quickly.

These days, Broome is an increasingly fashionable holiday destination, known for its iconic Cable Beach. Yet there remains a unique character to its landscape as evidenced by rugged jettys, rusting luggers, and Chinatown; which now hosts chic pearl boutiques that stand in stark contrast to its former gold rush history.