History of Pearling in Australia

| by Dan and Wendy McLay

From about 1720, but possibly earlier, it is known that pearl fishers and trepang fishermen from Indonesia were the first people from the outside world to discover the northern coast of Australia.

They could make good hauls of shell and sea-cucumber (trepang) in the Torres Strait. They were trading with north coast Aborigines for hundreds of years prior to Australian colonization.

How pearls are formed

Pearls are mostly found in certain varieties of oyster, though they also occur in other shellfish. The oyster shell is lined with a smooth coating of a material called ‘nacre’ or mother of pearl, which shows a rainbow of color as the light falls on it at different angles.

If something gets inside the oyster shell to irritate the delicate flesh of the animal, the oyster protects itself by coating the object with layer after layer of nacre, so that in time a pearl is formed. Sometimes this is loose inside the shell and almost perfectly round. At other times it is misshapen or attached to the shell. In such cases skillful technicians cut it free and ‘skin’ it of the rough outer layers, producing a smaller though more valuable gem.

Why the oyster forms a pearl instead of expelling the irritant is a mystery. Some of the scientists believe that only sick oysters produce pearls and that they are symptoms of a disease, as are gallstones in the human body.

The pearl trade

Pearl oysters are found in most tropical seas of the world and the gems have been sought since ancient times. There is evidence that Indonesian and Chinese sailors fished Australian waters for pearls in former times. There are Australian pearls in the treasuries of Indian princes, which are believed to be seven hundred years old.

The Aborigines do not appear to have placed any value on pearls. But they fished for oysters, which they ate. The pearl shell with its changing colours was used in their religious ceremonies and traded far to the south of the continent.

William Dampier, on his second voyage to New Holland in 1699, noted the existence of pearl shell and pearls which the natives used to trade with. They had an abundant supply. His report aroused little interest. Europeans did not begin to search for pearls in this area until nearly two hundred years later.

Pearl fishing as an industry in the colony began in 1861. In that year a ship, the Flying Foam sailed from Fremantle to Nickol Bay, not far from Roeburn. The crew collected oysters from rock pools at low tide, returning to port with 910 shells and 150 pearls.

The voyage must have scarcely have paid for itself, for many of the pearls were small and of little value. But there is a certain magic about seeking gold or gems, and it was not long before other ships were probing the north coast seeking pearls.

Landowners in the area got aborigines to collect the pearls and pearl shell for them. An early centre of the industry was at Cossack, near Nickol Bay.

Pearl divers

At first the oysters were gathered from the rocks or reefs, but Captain Taye, an American, soon ‘improved’ on this method. He employed some aborigines to go skin diving (bare pelt diving). They worked from small boats, diving into the water naked except for string bags around their waists.

Both men and women were employed. Sitting in the boat, they took a number of deep breaths, then slid into the water and allowed themselves to sink. In their hand they clasped a heavy stone and were able to descend to a depth of 20 metres. On the ocean floor the diver dropped the stone and grubbed up as many oysters as he could stow in his bag. Some could stay down for as long as two minutes.

At the end of the dive the diver rose slowly to the surface, dribbling air from his lungs and paddling with hands and feet. He could not rise fast, because of the weight of the oysters, but this was probably a good thing. It helped the diver to become adjusted to the difference in pressure between seabed and surface. Many of the divers were women, who were better than men at this work.

During the 1870's the employment of Aborigines was discouraged. The government passed regulations to protect them and forbade the use of women as divers.

Malay and Japanese men took their place. They also worked as deckhands because white people were very reluctant to undertake the difficult, dangerous and exhausting work involved in pearling. The conditions were harsh and the death rate high. Diving in particular was brutally exhausting work. Bad weather was an ever present danger. In 1876 a cyclone drowned 69 men in Exmouth Gulf. 

During the 1880's diving suits were introduced so that fishing could go on in deeper water. Now many divers became crippled by the ‘bends’ which are caused by diving too deep and coming up too fast. Working in a suit in deep water causes nitrogen from the air to be dissolved in the blood and coming too fast causes the blood to ‘boil’ as the nitrogen is expelled in a froth of small bubbles. If this does not kill at once it caused the joints to stiffen and lock. The diver is then crippled for the rest of his life.

Pearl shell

It was soon found that pearl shell was of greater value than pearl. In the early and mid 1900's a great deal of use was made of pearl shell for decorative purposes.

Pearl handled knives and pearl inlaid articles of all kinds were produced, especially in India and China. In the days before plastic was invented an enormous amount of shell was required just to produce pearl buttons. Large well formed shells were required for these purposes, though it was found that misshapen ones were more likely to produce a pearl. This gave strength to theory that the pearl is produced as a result of disease.

Many fishers were soon diving for shell alone, though they did not despise any pearls they found while doing so. The beds around Nickol Bay became exhausted and the pearling capital moved to Broome.

Pearl shell was selling for as much as $1,600.00 a tonne in the 1890's. Men from all over the Pacific were engaged in the industry. Many came from Indonesia, Malaya or Japan. White Australians were a rarity in that part of the world.

The industry flourished, in spite of the many deaths among Asian divers, to which the tombstones in Broome cemetery bear witness. Then World War II, together with the use of plastic and the beginning of the cultured pearling industry in Australia almost brought the pearling industry to a standstill.

Water mussel

Many centuries ago Chinese fishermen discovered the secret of making the water mussel produce a pearl. They learned to introduce an irritant into the body of the mussel, then leave it in suitable conditions so that a pearl was produced. They made little statuettes of the Buddha in bright tin and inserted them into the oyster and so produced the most beautiful pearl statuettes.

In 1891 KĊkichi Mikimoto, a Japanese scientist, experimented to find out if oysters could be farmed and made to produce a ‘crop’ of pearls. He inserted a small bead of mother of pearl into the body of the oyster hoping to induce the animal to cover the intruder with nacre. He had many failures at first but improved his technique until a large number of his treated oysters produced near perfect pearls.

Cultured pearls

Cultured Pearls, these are called, are not artificial but are real pearls. Artificial pearls are of thin glass, either coated or filled with a substance resembling nacre, often made from the scales of fish. Cultured pearls are both cheaper and more perfect than natural ones, and as a result the demand for the natural gem has fallen.

The demand for shell in the button industry has also fallen. The cultured pearl beds also produce shell, but today most buttons are made of synthetic resin (plastic), which has greatly reduced the demand for shell.

Pearl fishing today

Made by the National Film Board, this classic short film looks at pearling in Broome WA during the late 1940's.

Pearl fishing today is as dangerous as it was a century ago. The aqua-lung has replaced the cumbersome diving suit and we know a great deal more about such matters as the ‘bends’ than once was the case.

A diver may be saved from the worst effects today by being placed in a decompression chamber or an iron lung. So there are fewer incidents in the industry today, but those still engaged have a far better chance of living a normal life span.

Because of the high number of deaths and injuries from diving, Heinke & Co (suppliers of diving helmets and associated gear) were instrumental in the development of the decompression chamber and Broome was the first place to have one in use, which has saved many lives over the years.

Most pearls today are produced in the cultured pearling industry and the meat is harvested for our tables.

From its early days, Indigenous Australians have been crucial to Broome's long and industrious pearling industry. The Nero siblings from Walminyaru remember a lively, exciting and diverse Broome WA.


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