Broome is a cosmopolitan town that has an interesting history which is inextricably linked to the discovery of pearls and the associated pearling industry. Broome owes its beginning to the discovery of pearls as well as it's interesting social, economic and cultural success. The influence of pearling on Broome has been so significant that a discussion of one without the other is almost impossible.
William Dampier was the first European to visit the shores of Roebuck Bay in 1688 aboard his ship the H.M.S Roebuck. The discovery of the Pinctada Maxima (the largest pearl shell species in the world) in the waters off Roebuck bay led to the establishment of Broome's pearling industry in the 1880's. The town was officially gazetted in November 1883 .
Pearling peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century, with Broome producing 80% of the world's mother of pearl shells. Around this time the pearl shells were almost exclusively used for making buttons and knife handles.
The commercial development of the plastic button after the Second World War killed the Mother of Pearl shell industry. The industry was revitalised in the early 1950's with the marketing of cultured pearls as jewellery.
Tourism now plays a part in Broome's social and economic prosperity and it is expected to continue, as the Kimberley continues to grow as a popular holiday destination. Most of Broome's prosperity however is stilled linked to producing the worlds finest cultured pearls.
Broome owes its beginning to the giant North West pearl oyster the Pinctada Maxima which grows in Roebuck Bay and the banks of Eighty Mile Beach. This new species was first discovered in 1861 The size of the shell was huge in comparison to any other shell available and caused a sensation in European and American markets. The average size of the 'pinctada shell' was six to twelve inches across. The nacre of the shell also had a shimmering interior which also set it apart from the rest. At this time a host of objects were made from 'Mother of Pearl' and it was a valuable commodity.
In 1860 the first settlers came to the North West and struggled to make a living from sheep. They faced drought, dingos and sometimes hostile Aboriginal tribesmen. Most quickly found that there was more money to be made in the pearling industry. The first tonne of pinctada shell paid for a vessel. Ten tonnes of shell a season was then collected by divers and any pearls found were considered a bonus.
1881 modern pearling began and so did the history of Broome. Boats from the Thursday
Islands and Torres Straits arrived bringing helmet and diving apparatus. A settlement
of a few rough camps in the sand dunes began in November 27th 1983.
It was risky work, lugger fleets were subject to cyclones and the divers faced the hazards of sharks, currents, ear and chest infections. For almost twenty years the divers were male and female Aboriginal skin divers sometimes crammed fifty seven to one vessel. The Government eventually banned women from diving and reduced the depths to which the divers were sent.
The Hundreds of headstones in the Japanese Cemetery show the price many people paid for Broome. They died in cyclones, from beriberi, 'the bends,' or decompression sickness. Many divers were crippled by working too long at depth and ascending too quickly. 145 deaths occurred between 1910 and 1970. However once the relationship of time spent underwater to depth was understood, a series of diving tables dramatically reduced the death rate.
The years 1900 to 1914 were Broome's golden age and Broome was supplying 80% of the worlds Mother of Pearl. Broome was the most cosmopolitan town in Australia and pearl shell was selling at a world record price.
The first World War provided a disaster with trade. Many tonnes of shell were left to rot in warehouses and although the industry resumed after the war it never regained the momentum of the early years.
In the 1930's Broome was badly affected by the Depression which was compounded by a horrific cyclone in 1935. 20 luggers were destroyed in the Lacepede Channel and another 16 were badly damaged. 142 men were drowned, 1 survived.
By the Second World War the Northern Australian Pearling Industry was barely alive. It survived mainly through government subsidies in the face of Japanese competition in oceans north of Australia. Ironically it was the war that saved Broome pearling from bankruptcy. During the war 500 Japanese divers and crew who worked in the Broome fleet were interned. If luggers fell into the hands of the enemy they were either sent south or burned. On March 3rd 1942 Broome was attacked by Japanese aircraft. They struck at 9:30am and found a group of 16 Australian flying boats in the water along with 7 aircraft.
The Japanese aircraft used tracer bullets to set all aircraft on fire. Only one plane escaped and tragically many flying boats were carrying women and children. It is still uncertain, but the death toll probably exceeded 100. The wrecks of some of these aircraft can still be seen at low tides at certain times of the year.
However, the war did have one beneficial result. It put all the pre-war fleets of the Japanese out of operation. With no major competition Broome Pearling Industry boomed and a record price was paid for pearl shells on world markets. The boom continued until the end of the 1950's; until the plastic button was invented in America. Overnight, the pearl shell became worthless because the plastic button was stronger and cheaper.Many of Broome's luggers were left on the beaches to rot.
Whilst many pearling masters were leaving, Broome's future was once again secured by the pearling industry but this time by the pearls themselves rather than the shells. Since 1956 Kuri Bay had been under experimentation with cultured pearls. After it was discovered the Japanese had perfected the art of culturing pearls, Japanese experts were brought to Australia to try their skills on "pinctada maxima".
Pearls cultured in Australia matured in two years instead of four and grew twice the size of the Japanese pearls, some even reaching up to 18mm in diameter. In the 1970's the pearling industry in Broome was producing 60-70% of the worlds cultured pearls.
Copper helmets were replaced with modern equipment and many Japanese divers were replaced with Australians. By the 1980's romantic wooden luggers were replaced with more efficient and functional steel and aluminum ships.
Most of Broome's future lies in producing the worlds finest cultured pearls however tourism remains a major source of social and economic prosperity.
Tourism is expected to grow as the Kimberley region becomes a popular travel destination