Information about work, life and play in Regional Australia

Friday, April 06, 2007

Kimberley Region WA 2 - The romance of pearls and pearling

Painting: Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Jan Vermeer van Delft.

Pearls have gripped human imagination for thousands of years.

Pearls were worn in civilised Middle East and Asian societies as early as 3500 BCE, and continued to grow in popularity during Roman times when pearl fever reached its peak. A pearl earring reportedly paid for one Roman general's political campaigns. Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in wine and drank it to prove her love to Marc Antonius.

When my daughter turned eighteen several thousand years later, her chosen present was a string of pearls. Her grandmother loved pearls too.

Where there is romance and value there is also human endeavour, bravery, greed and death. We can see all this in the history of the pearl industry in West Australia. The material that follows is drawn from a variety of sources. Links are given at the end of the post.

Australia's pearling industry dates from Aboriginal times. Northern Australian coastal dwelling Aborigines harvested the abundant pearl shell from the shallow waters and had a well established trading network for pearl shell. In Western Australia, an explorer saw an aboriginal wearing a pearly oyster-shell which had travelled at least 500 miles from its point of origin.

The European pearling industry began in the 1850s at Shark Bay where natural pearls were found in the Pinctada albina oyster. From 1862-68, local Aborigines worked 'dry shelling' without wages, collecting oysters in the shallow waters of the Bay.

Within three years, the supply was so low that larger boats were sent out two kilometres off shore to collect oysters in deep water. Six to eight Aboriginal men and women in a boat would 'naked dive' for shell. This meant diving deep without equipment.

In 1866, two speculators, Hicks and Tays were shown pearl shells near Broome by local Aborigines. The following year a shipment of 9 tons of pearl shell was sold for £2000. When the larger Pinctada maxima oyster producing high quality mother-of-pearl shell was discovered in areas north of Nickol Bay near present day Karratha, the industry spread rapidly along the north west coast (see graphic).

The invention of diving suits - vulcanised canvas suits with massive bronze helmets - revolutionised the pearling industry. Divers could go deeper than ever before, stay longer underwater and collect more shell and pearls.

This was still no easy task, for the suits were heavy and cumbersome. In the words of the WA Department of Fisheries:

"On the bottom they struggled about in lead-weighted boots, often almost horizontal as they peered through inch-thick faceplates into murky waters, frantically scooping oysters into bags because divers were paid by the amount of shell they collected."

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. The photo shows pearl luggers at Roebuck Bay, Broome in about 1912

Workers were gathered from all over the world. The majority of the workers were Japanese and Malaysian, but also included Chinese, Filipino, Amborese, Koepanger (Timorese) and Makassan, as well as Indigenous Australians and people from Europe. The photo (left) from the Broome Historical Society shows Aboriginal workers with diving gear in the late 19th century.

The work was always dangerous. Apart from industrial risks such as accidents, sharks or the bends, there were also major weather risks associated with the area's periodic cyclones, often resulting in major loss of life.

The industry went into into sharp decline after the First World War as the price of mother-of-pearl plummeted with the invention and expanded use of plastics for buttons and other articles previously made of shell. By 1939 only 73 luggers and 565 people were left in the industry

During the Second World War pearling virtually stopped. Japanese divers went home or were interned, while Japanese bombing of Broome destroyed many of the remaining luggers. Following the war, as few as 15 boats employing around 200 people remained.

The development of cultured pearls by the Japanese rebuilt the industry. In 1956 the first cultured pearl farm was setup at Kuri Bay, 420 km north of Broome. By 1981 this had increased to five pearl farms. Today the industry includes 19 of Australia's 20 cultured pearl farms, generating annual exports of AUD$200M and employing approximately 1000 people.

Note on Sources

The Costello's jewellery site has short introductory material on pearls. Wikipedia has a general article on pearls. Wikipedia also has an article on pearling in WA. There is a short WA Fisheries article on the history of pearling in WA, while the Australian Government's Cultural and Recreational Portal has an overview article on the history of pearling in Australia. This includes links to other sites including the Broome historical site.

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