Master Pearlers

Article | Updated 3 years ago

They were sea pioneers … in their fleets of little luggers they charted the entire northern coast from Shark Bay to the Great Barrier Reef.

Ion Idriess, author, 1937

Master pearlers – or pearling masters, as they called themselves – dominated the social and political life of Australia’s remote north: Cossack, Broome, Darwin and the Torres Strait. As powerful colonial entrepreneurs of the pearling industry, they drove the growth and character of these northern centres, but their influence on state and federal governments was considered by the rest of Australia to be disproportionate to their marginal economic value.

Australian pearlers fed the European and American demand for large pearlshell buttons, and for mother-of-pearl shell, which was used for furniture inlay, musical instrument dials, buckles, combs, cufflinks and the handles of cutlery and revolvers. Until the development of the cultured pearl industry in the 1950s pearls were a lucrative but unreliable side-trade.

A lugger fleet.

A lugger fleet laid up on Broome foreshore, 1914. Prior to World War One, pearling was the primary industry of the northwest coast.
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 754B/12 

Master pearler and crew as they haul in their diver.

Master pearler and crew as they haul in their diver. Master pearlers did not generally accompany the crew; although, sometimes, they would base themselves on the fleet motherships.
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 4323B/39 

Who were the Master Pearlers? 

Like old seadogs they used to live hard. A lot served in the mercantile marine and made their homes and reared their families here. They’ve passed on now.

Herbert Kennedy, Broome pearler, 1962

The popular image of master pearlers is of Anglo-Celts in ‘pearling whites’ and pith helmets overseeing their ‘coolie’ labour. But, in reality, they came from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and some were women. They exerted power and influence at all levels of government.

Some of the early master pearlers – the McRae brothers, for example – were settlers and pastoralists; others were merchant seaman. Many were opportunists keen to exploit a lucrative trade for profit, even if this meant engaging in slaving.

Some Asian pearlers owned pearling operations until their ownership was banned; others formed ‘dummying’ partnerships with white pearlers. Other Asian and European pearlers operated from East Indian ports, such as Dobu (Aru Islands). Under foreign flags of convenience, they exploited pearlshell outside the three-nautical-mile exclusion zone around Australia’s coast, thereby evading the fees, duties and regulations imposed on those based in Australia.

In the Torres Strait, the London Missionary Society set up Papuan Industries, which allowed communities to build and own their own luggers. Each with its own colours, these ‘company boats’ were a source of pride and income for the Islander communities.

Some pearlers founded pearling dynasties, but only the Paspaley family has survived into the twenty-first century.

A group of people under a shelter.

Beachcombers such as Frenchy D’Antoine (pictured here) and Harry Hunter set up small pearling and shelling (including trochus) operations with local Bardi–Jawi people.
Courtesy WA Museum DA 9312.157 

An image of a group of men.

A group of Broome master pearlers in their ‘pearling whites’. Most were influential businessmen or held positions of power in local government.
Courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHD 373/085b 

A group of people on a boat.

The Torres Strait Islanders owned and managed their own pearling ‘company boats’.
Frank Hurley, courtesy National Library of Australia 1571416  

A group of men sitting around a table.

Stalwarts of the Empire: a group of master pearlers at dinner, with the British flag behind them.
Courtesy Aji Ellies, The Pearls of Broome (2010)   

Inside a master pearler's home.

Inside Hugh Richardson’s residence. This photograph depicts a typical master pearler’s home.
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 4323B/18  

A portrait of a family with servants.

Captain Hilliard with his family and Aboriginal domestic servants c. 1900s. Hilliard’s wife often stayed on her husband’s boats, bearing several children at sea. To evade government taxes he operated out of Koepang under the Dutch flag.
Jordan Collection, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHP 0058/31 

A group of people on a jetty.

A flurry of activity on Broome’s old jetty as master pearlers and their families arrive and depart on the flat-bottomed steamers.
Bourne Collection, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHL 463 

A portrait of a woman.

After her husband died, Mary Dakas entered the male-dominated domain of Australia’s pearlshell industry. From 1948, she operated four luggers out of Broome and Port Hedland.
Courtesy Broome Historical Society and Museum 2006-349d 

Managing the Pearlshell Fishery

King Sound was … the great Eldorado of the Nor West – the home of the Shells and the Pearls. [Some pearlers] had been successful beyond their most sanguine dreams – by loading their] vessels up to the deck beams with shell and making almost a fortune in the one season.

George Brockman, pearler, 1880

The expansion of the Northwest was driven by pearling. By 1900 it was the fourth largest export industry after gold, timber and wool. Western Australia’s pearling grounds extended from Shark Bay to King Sound, where jetties, roads, hospitals, stores, jails and courthouses were developed to meet the demands of the pearling fleets.

Concerned about the sustainability of pearlshell beds, the government tried to control the pearlers, who were stripping the pearling beds for short-term gain, a problem exacerbated by the foreign-flagged ‘floating stations’ that were beyond government control.

Legislation passed in 1871 sought to improve labour conditions for Aboriginal workers in Western Australia, and a revenue Act passed in 1873 imposed license fees, duties and taxes in an attempt to fund pearling inspectors. But both Acts, in the remote north, were impossible to enforce.

In 1902 the pearlers formed the Master Pearlers’ Association to lobby government, and many gained positions as members of parliament, councillors and presidents of local councils to ensure they had a voice at all levels of government. Today the pearling industry is regularly reviewed and managed by strict licensing and quota systems.

Image of a pocket watch.

Master pearlers were appreciative of their head divers; and the divers proud of their achievements. This pocket watch was presented to Masajiro Sakaguchi by his company for his great diving skills.
Ms Yoshiko Sagaguchi, courtesy Taiji Historical Archives

Portrait of a man.

Master pearlers were appreciative of their head divers; and the divers proud of their achievements. Portrait of Masajiro Sakaguchi.
Ms Yoshiko Sagaguchi, courtesy Taiji Historical Archives

Image of a person standing outside a shed.

Master pearler outside the shell shed, with bags of shell ready for grading and packing.
Bourne Collection, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHL 582

Aerial image of Broome.

Broome, c. 1960. For most of the 20th century Broome was considered by many to be the pealing capital of the world, its fortunes and style linked to the demands of the pearling industry.
Courtesy Landgate CL 10/200 


Packing shell at the end of Port Hedland jetty, c. 1910.

Packing shell at the end of Port Hedland jetty, c. 1910.
E.L. Mitchell, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHA 1717/09

Pealers and White Australia

Miss Universe came to Broome and my boss Sam Male, who was president of the Broome Road Board, asked me to take her out on the lugger. We got on well and she asked me to the ball that night, held in her honour. I accepted and arrived dressed in formal wear, only to be turned away at the door by Mr Archer, another pearler. That was Broome in 1960.

Kunihiko Kaino, Japanese head diver, 2006

We have a boss at the Malay camp. Samsuda (‘Wak’) – he was the bosun, the leader, to represent our interests and to help if someone got into trouble.

‘Larry’, Mohamid Bin Larry, tender, 2006

The pearling industry flourished during a time of strong anti-Asian sentiment and a ‘White Australia’ movement that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The Australian Immigration Restriction Act 1901 introduced a dictation test to exclude ‘undesirables’ from entering Australia. The master pearlers sought exemptions for their workers, who could not speak, read or write English.

Asians were permitted to work on the pearling grounds for up to three years, but pearling masters extended this time for their best divers. On shore, workers lived in segregated boarding houses. Any misdemeanor, particularly contact with Aboriginal people, resulted in deportation.

Crews could take disputes with their masters to court, but master pearlers and their associates sat on the bench and justice was often one-sided. Each cultural group appointed a leader with a good command of English to represent its interests and issues and manage cultural affairs.

Open-minded pearlers, such as Captain Ancel Gregory, formed discreet partnerships with Asian pearlers. Gregory and Yasukichi Murakami built a large fleet and engaged the best of the Japanese divers. Gregory shocked Broome society by allowing Murakami to stay in his house. 

A man sitting on the steps of a house.

Yasukichi Murakami on Captain Ancel Gregory’s front verandah, 1916.
Courtesy Murakami Family Archives 

A group of people sitting outside a club.

Members of the Japanese club of Broome. Most of these people were divers, some were also businessmen and pearlers in their own right, but were unable to officially own a pearling licence.
Ms Michiko Okada, courtesy Taiji Historical Archives 

Image of a map of Broome.

A detailed map on which Ernest Mitchell, Inspector of Aborigines, colour-coded the Aboriginal and Asian populations in Broome. Note that personal names have been concealed for privacy reasons.
State Records Office of WA, Series 2030, Cons. 993, item 1927/0248 

Boom and Bust: Marketing Pearlshell

The Broome pearling fleet peaked at 403 in 1913, but with the advent of [the First World] War a European economic downturn and a surge in patriotic fever saw the fleet halved as owners and crew rushed to enlist. Many vessels rotted in the mangroves. After the [Second World] War the government wanted to build up the industry again so they made it tax free industry. When they took away the tax benefits in the early 50s my father’s brother abandoned the industry because it was becoming unviable without tax breaks.

Nick Paspaley, executive chairman Paspaley Pearls, 2014

Pearling is a volatile industry, swept by the forces of over-supply, over-fishing, good and bad seasons, cyclones, market trends and new technologies.

Forty years’ shelling at Shark Bay denuded the beds, despite belated conservation measures. Intensive shelling stripped the Torres Straits grounds and the pearlers moved to Darwin then Western Australia, but the surplus of shell reduced its value.

After the First World War fashion favoured small buttons, which led to a drop in demand for pearlshell. In response, pearlers fished harder, flooding American and European markets. Japanese pearlers in the Arafura Sea only made things worse by introducing superior diesel-driven ‘luggers’ with diesel pumps.

Australian pearling ceased in 1941, when local Japanese were interned. Pearling luggers were either burnt or requisitioned for the war effort. After the war a glut of pearlshell and the spread of mass-produced plastic buttons hindered the resurrection of the pearling industry.

The introduction of cultured pearls, using Japanese investment and technology, revived the industry in the 1950s ­­­– once again, as with pearlshell, Broome produced the world’s finest pearls. Since 2008 the world market has been flooded with cheap freshwater pearls, but once again pearlshell has become a staple of the pearling industry. 

A person observing pearlshell.

Broome pearlers were driven by international demand for pearlshell for the production of buttons.
Beilby Collection, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHP 0058/15  

Image of pearls scattered on a business ledger.

Pearlers were resourceful and savvy business men and women. Most pearling masters were also pearl dealers, selling pearls and pearlshell as markets ebbed and flowed.
Courtesy Aji Ellies, The Pearls of Broome (2010) 

Image of the aftermath of a cyclone.

Devastation on Broome’s foreshore after the 1927 cyclone.
Bourne Collection, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHL 153

The worst blow was down south [from Broome] the centre was at La Grange – we lost 50 luggers and 250 men. In Broome [the] 1910 blow was the worst; 70 luggers in the bay, all lost, only one held anchor; 50 men lost.

Herbert Kennedy, Broome pearler, 1962

The Pearlshell Trophy

The crown and glory of the West Australian section [is] the trophy of giant mother-o’-pearl shells, a Simeon Stylites of nacre, glistening and glinting in silvery sheen, no less than one thousand shells being used in its construction.

The Inquirer and Commercial News, 18 August 1886

In 1886 Queen Victoria named a Royal Commission to organise ‘an Exhibition of the Products, Manufactures and Resources of the Colonial and Indian Empire’. The Prince of Wales was appointed its president, and he sought to gain ‘a more intimate knowledge of the vast fields for enterprise which exist throughout the British Dominions’.

Each colony’s ‘court’, or section, highlighted their region by building trophies, using their produce, to present to the Queen – but also designed to encourage migration to the colony and foster a spirit of enterprise. A pearlshell tower of over 1,000 shells, constructed by the North-west pearlers led by Edwin Streeter, was a highlight of the West Australian court.

The fate of the lustrous pearlshell tower, likened to the column that Simeon Stylites, the Syrian fifth-century AD ascetic saint, lived atop for many years, remains unknown.

The pearl shell trophy.

The pearl shell trophy dominating the Western Australian court at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886.
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 1147P