Article | Updated 4 weeks ago
Stand back you shallow water man,
Let a deep sea diver through.
Micky Mathews, Yawuru musician and ex-pearling worker (dec), 1981
For centuries fishermen from the Indonesian archipelago had visited the northern Australian coast seeking trepang (sea cucumbers) and trochus (sea snails). But it was not until the very end of the seventeenth century that a European visitor, the English buccaneer and explorer William Dampier, noticed the presence of pearlshell in the waters of Shark Bay.
Commercial pearl harvesting in northwest Australia did not begin until 1866, when W.F. Tays, a struggling pastoralist, asked his pearlshell-adorned Aboriginal servants to reveal their ‘shell places’.
In the decades that followed, pearling flourished in the waters of northern Australia. Fleets from around the region made ‘lay-up’ camps in creeks and bays from Shark Bay to the Torres Strait, and later built ports at Cossack, Broome, Darwin and Thursday Island. All this activity was driven by the burgeoning demand, in the era before plastics, for mother-of-pearl buttons.
Pearlers were mariners operating with Aboriginal and Asian crews, often forced into service. They dredged and dived in the dangerous coastal waters, going deeper and deeper in their search for mother of pearl.
Enduring signs of the presence of the pearlers and their activities can be found near the coast, in rock art created by artists of coastal groups such as the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi.
Pogey Pots and Pearls in Shark Bay
In my time, the pearl boy used to come in from Broome and buy the pearls, and when the war finished, the pearlshell industry closed up in Denham.
Jimmy Poland, Nhanda-Malgana artist, 2012
The first commercial pearlers came to Malgana country at Shark Bay in 1850, after government surveyor Lieutenant Benjamin Helpman discovered the Pinctada albina oyster shell and began dredging shallow waters. His first take was 3,000 shell pairs.
In the 1870s, the explorer and infamous blackbirder Captain Francis Cadell and other pearlers such as Charles Broadhurst used small wooden boats and dredges to trawl for shell in deeper waters. Setting up camps in traditional ‘shell places’ such as Wilyah Miah in Shark Bay, they partitioned the beds, which by the 1890s had been stripped of shell. Aboriginal people worked tirelessly, boiling rotting shell meat in pogey pots to release the valuable seed pearls.
Chinese entrepreneurs, by hard work and frugal living, outnumbered the European pearlers 3:1. In 1886 the Europeans petitioned to have the Chinese excluded from Shark Bay and the Colonial Government introduced restrictions on seabed leases. The Chinese pearlers were virtually forced to sell their equipment, lose their livelihoods and leave the area in the face of growing racism.
Having dredged the seabeds bare at Shark Bay, the pearlers moved north, leaving behind the sleepy fishing hamlet of Denham with its roads fashioned by crushed pearl shell as a legacy. Aboriginal artists such as Jimmy Poland, a descendant of the pearlers, continue to collect shell for carving to this day.
We used to follow the tide, walking for miles, picking up shell all round Yalanban [Thangoo], where our people lived. You would just see the shape in the sand. They were everywhere.
Francis Djiagween, Yawuru elder, 2015
After newspaper reports of pastoralist W.F. Tays’ success in finding the bountiful beds of pearl shell spread through the colonies, the race began to collect shell. Shepherds abandoned flocks, sailors deserted; even prosperous settlers became pearlers overnight.
Paid only with rations, local Ngarluma people from stations near Nickol Bay and Roebourne adapted their traditional skills and collected the plentiful shell on low spring tides for their bosses. As a wet-season venture, dry shelling, often referred to as beachcombing, suited their masters, who could boost profits during the sheep-grazing off-season.
With no roads or ports in the Northwest, transportation proved to be a problem. Yet within months of Tays’ find, motley towns such as Cossack grew as traders of all nationalities set up shop, building timber boats and erecting makeshift jetties.
The relationships of the early days soon became strained as shallower beds were depleted and labour became scarce. Working from bigger boats in deeper waters required more divers, so the pearlers spread north, where the ruthless capture of Aboriginal people was not policed, or to the Indonesian archipelago in search of indentured labour.
Beachcombing by smaller operators continued throughout the pearling boom. As late as the 1960s Nyangumarta and Ngarluma peoples used dry shelling to support themselves after walking off the stations. They returned to traditional shell places such as Jijila, the site of some of the first pearling camps at the mouth of the De Grey River.
The method of working the dinghies is as follows: the white man stands on the after ’thwart with an oar over the stern, and sculls the dingy against the tide; the divers all go down together ... the white man must scull against the wind, so that his men may come up near the boat … the divers swim to the boat and clamber in to it to rest, each man’s shells being stowed separately.
Edwin Streeter, a pearler from Cossack, 1886
Pearling in the Torres Strait began in 1869 with Captain William Banner, who used local Indigenous divers. Successful pearlers, such as James Clark and Co., soon brought their fleets containing experienced divers to work the pearling grounds in the Northwest.
Finding shell was difficult. In the murky nutrient-rich tidal waters, the only way to find the encrusted shell was to spot the glint of the black, white or orange mantle of a gaping shell as it filter fed on the bottom. Aboriginal men and woman were rounded up because their sharp eyesight and water skills made them highly sought after as divers. Diving feet first into the water, they were required to bring back at least 10–25 pairs of shell per day. The work was hard, monotonous and sometimes deadly.
Some pearlers were considered to be ‘good masters’, while others – such as the McRae brothers, who operated the Dawn – had a bad reputation. In these remote places there was little or no government protection, so brutality and ill-treatment were commonplace. It was a violent frontier, as evidenced by the Flying Foam massacre of Aboriginal people in 1868. Aboriginal people recorded their mistreatment in songs that have been passed down over generations. Some were able to give evidence in court, but few perpetrators were charged, and even fewer prosecuted.
The ‘Dawn’ got away to sea, with the two missing natives, who had been illegally seized by John McRae and the professional ‘nigger catcher’ Hackett and re-coerced on board. I submit for the consideration of government whether this action does not bring the ‘Dawn’ under the category of a ‘Slaver’.
Colonel Edward Angelo, Roebourne’s Resident Magistrate, 1886
The effects of fatal diseases and exploitation by pearlers significantly depleted Indigenous populations. This led pearlers to venture further north and inland to uncolonised and unregulated areas to procure Aboriginal labour through ‘blackbirding’ – the use of force or deception to obtain workers. Such practices were often sanctioned by authorities, who insisted that the Aboriginal people had volunteered their services. Nevertheless, various missionaries, government officials and ordinary citizens alleged that pearling was based on slavery.
To address these criticisms, and to appease the British, who had abolished slavery in 1837, a series of pearling regulations were enacted in 1871. Fisheries inspectors were appointed to oversee the industry and protect the divers, and women were banned from diving.
However, corrupt practices persisted. Aboriginal divers were reportedly taken to remote islands, such as the Lacepedes, where the fisheries inspectors helped allocate them to pearling luggers. In this highly competitive industry pearlers such as Charles Broadhurst even experimented with using Aboriginal prisoners from Rottnest Island, although many jumped ship and the venture ultimately failed.
Forty Fathoms Deep: The Hard-Hat Divers
I been down to forty fathoms at the Darnley Deeps
Searching for the precious pearlshell
The pearls to keep.
Seaman Dan, ‘Forty fathoms’, Torres Strait musician, 2000
Diving very risky. Air stop – you die. And I nearly did.
Itsushi Shioji, a Japanese diver from Broome, 1970s
‘Hard-hat’, or ‘dress’, diving allowed divers to go deeper in search of the best pearlshell, and to work longer in the colder water. The hard hat was introduced to the Northwest pearling grounds as early as 1867 and, or a while, some boats crammed aboard both swim divers and hard-hat divers.
Many of the hard-hat divers could not swim. They walked along the sea bottom, or were dragged by the tide and currents, but they could also use the suit’s air valve to increase the air inside it in order to lift themselves over obstacles and barren areas.
Divers used manual, and later diesel-powered, compressors to provide their air supply. It was vital that the air hoses not be obstructed: these lifelines ensured a steady supply of air, but also allowed the divers to communicate with the surface. The head diver typically located patches of shell, then directed the diving tender from underwater.
Almost all divers suffered from the bends (diver’s paralysis) at some time. Lacking modern decompression chambers, they had to resort to trying to recover before surfacing.
Japanese divers were reputably the best of the divers, and they worked alongside other indentured Asian and Aboriginal divers. Except for an unsuccessful experiment with British divers in 1913, white people did not undertake hard-hat diving.
We wore wetsuits, with fins and masks and had a demand valve in our mouth instead of a hard hat. The divers get towed along at a slow speed instead of having to walk, which on a slack tide, was very tiring. You can go out on the line to pick up the shell, which was much easier to see with the mask. You could have more divers, and you no longer needed the tender. That’s when they started to build the new fleets, marking the end of the lugger era.
Nick Miller, pearl diver and captain, 2015
An entirely new phase of the pearling industry began in 1949 after the Western Australian Government repealed the section of the Pearling Act 1912 that had prohibited the production, sale and possession of cultured pearls. By 1956 a Japanese-American-Australian company began operating a new pearl farm at Kuri Bay.
No longer did divers seek out the largest pearl shell. Instead they collected smaller live shell that would then be grown to maturity in pearl farms. It was important to handle the shell with great care, as many specimens died when moved from the beds to the farm.
The early 1970s saw advances in pearl diving technology. Both small producers, such as Cygnet Bay Pearls, and the larger pearling companies, such as Pearls Propriety Limited, made the transition from hard-hat divers to modern drift diving. Divers now used neoprene wetsuits and simple ‘hookah’ regulators. While being towed divers were more flexible to explore the seabed for pearlshell and this resulted in vastly higher collection rates.
However, the fundamentals of pearling remain the same: the shell must still attach itself to the bottom in some way, and finding shell still requires expert skills and an intricate knowledge of the various types of seabeds. A more mobile labour force has emerged, but as its members are often less experienced accidents and fatalities occasionally occur.