Fri, Jul 17th 2009, 12:30
Broome in Western Australia produces some of the finest cultured pearls in the world. This town has a long association with the pearl industry.
The first white settlers arrived in Australia's North West in 1860. After the discovery of the giant pearl oyster which thrives in the waters of Roebuck Bay and is the largest pearl shell in the world, the settlers turned their attentions to the pearl industry. The focus was on mother of pearl - used extensively to make buttons. The first tonne of pinctada shells collected would pay for the ship, the rest was profit. And any pearls found were considered a bonus.
From 1860 to the 1880s, Aboriginal men and women were pressganged and crowded onto the ships to dive for these shells in depths of up to 12 metres. They worked naked, hence the term skin-divers.
Oysters in the shallow waters were soon fished out and the pearlers could not continue their trade without diving equipment. The 1880s saw the introduction of the diving helmet, which enabled divers to reach the deeper oyster beds.
This saw a boom in the pearling industry and the town of Broome was established with a harbour to service the pear luggers, the traditional boats used to ferry pearl divers and their booty. The town was a multicultural melting pot of pearl divers mainly from Japan and China. The 900 graves in Broome's Japanese cemetery is testimony to the treacherous conditions that these pearl divers worked in.
Broome had its golden age from 1900 and by 1914 the town was supplying 80% of the world's mother of pearl. Broome harbour was crammed with over 400 pearling luggers.