Pearling in Western Australia existed well before European settlement. Coastal dwelling Aboriginal people had collected and traded pearl shell as well as trepang and tortoise with fisherman from Sulawesi for possibly hundreds of years. After settlement, Aboriginal people were used as slave labour in the emerging commercial industry in a practice known as blackbirding.Pearling centred first around Nickol Bay and Exmouth Gulf and then around Broome to become the largest in the world by 1910.
In Australia, the harvesting of pearl shell began millennia ago with the Aboriginal people. 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. 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 Aboriginal people learnt to treat any newcomers with suspicion.
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 Aboriginal people. 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 (220 km; 140 mi) north of Fremantle in 1844, for example.
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 Edward Broadhurst a noted entrepreneur and at least two sons of Government Resident RJ Sholl.
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. 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.
By September 1868, soon after the beginning of the warm weather, the shell harvesters were operating in depths of around 10 metres (33 ft). 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. 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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
In April 2019, the skeletons of 14 Yawuru and Karajarri people which had been sold in 1894 by a wealthy Broome pastoralist and pearler to a museum in Dresden, Germany, 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.
The boats used for pearling from the 1870s, known as pearling luggers, were unique to Australia. There were at least two types: the Broome or North-West lugger, and the Thursday Island or Torres Strait lugger. The styles are each adapted to their respective areas and modus operandi. Around Broome, the boats had to cope with the extreme tidal range and the shallow sandy shore, on which they had to spend extended periods lying on their sides. The Torres Strait luggers spent longer periods at sea, based around schooners as mother ships.
The design of these two types changed after the engines were developed for the boats, and over time they began to look more alike. The last of the pearling luggers were built in the 1950s, and were over 50 feet (15 m) long. They were some of the last wooden sailing vessels in commercial use in Australia.
Michael Gregg, curator of maritime history at the Western Australian Museum says there were four different types, and also pointed out that the Broome pearling lugger was not actually a lugger. The name derived from the first boats used for pearling in Australia, which were often ship's boats, and used a lugsail, and so they were called luggers. But as boats began to be designed specifically for pearling, they kept the name luggers though they stopped using lugsails, and were actually gaff-rigged ketches.
At the peak of the pearling industry, in the early 1900s, there were 350 to 400 pearling luggers operating out of Broome each year. By 2005, there were just two still afloat in Broome. In 2007, one of them, Ida Lloyd, sank off Cable Beach, and in 2015, Intombi, built in 1903, was burnt. However as of 2019, there were still about 40 luggers of various types still afloat around Australia, and there is a collection of luggers at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Due to the prospect of an adverse reaction in the natural pearling industry, the Australian government through the Pearling Act 1922 prohibited anyone in Australia from artificially producing cultivated pearls. The Act was repealed in 1949. In 1956, a joint Japanese-Australian venture was set up at Kuri Bay, 420 kilometres (260 mi) 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 K?kichi 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$200 million and employs approximately 1000 people.