Notch Point


Shark Bay Pearling

Though its existence was known to Aboriginal people, the pearl shell at Shark Bay was first described by William Dampier in 1699. After being requested by the Colonial Government to examine the resource in 1850, Lieutenant B.F. Helpman reported that most of the shallow banks he searched contained shell and that more were 'procured by dredges in deep water'. However, only very small pearls of limited number (c. 80) and of little value were found in the shell. Lieutenant Elliot, the officer commanding the detachment of soldiers subsequently sent to Quoin Bluff to protect the guano deposits on offshore islets, was also instructed to prevent any unauthorized removal of pearl shell in the vicinity.

Initially little came of the industry, and the 'Blue Book' of statistics for the Colony in 1851 shows that though one boat was working the Shark Bay grounds in 1851, the returns were nil. Though F.L. Von Bibra and his son, who were occupying Dirk Hartog Island from the late 1860s, also became involved in the nascent industry in a small way, Francis Cadell is recognised as the first to put it on a viable footing.

In 1872, following the example of a Mr Howlett, Cadell had obtained 44 Malays for use in the pearling industry in the North-West. Some he sent down to work out of Shark Bay and the results of his experiment with imported Malay (a term generally used for the peoples living on the islands to Australia's north) labour were anxiously awaited by others, including Charles Broadhurst. They were all becoming affected by a severe shortage of Aboriginal labour as imported diseases and the depredations of the pearlers began to take their toll and sought an alternative labour force.

The centre for the Shark Bay pearling industry was Wilyah Miah, along an 8km stretch, on the eastern shores of Useless Harbour, near its mouth. Of the 46 vessels operating around 1873, there were 39 cutters, two schooners, three luggers, one whale-boat and one junk. While one was of 15 ton (15 tonne) capacity the majority ranged from 5 tons down to ¾ ton. For their parts the first two European residents in the area, Von Bibra and Brown, had four cutters and a whale-boat ranging from ¾ ton to 2 tons, and four cutters ranging from 1 to 5 tons respectively, and Cadell had three 'luggers' which ranged from 4½ to 3 tons. Most of the others had one vessel each, though Broadhurst in contrast owned the largest fleet which comprised seven cutters and two ships' boats. With the largest fleet and as the chief employer in the region with about 75% of the total number of Malays at Shark Bay at his disposal, Broadhurst was subsequently the most successful in an enterprise which required more hard work than skill.

In September 1873 E.M. Laurence, the Resident Magistrate for the Greenough region, visited Shark Bay to examine the conditions and to rectify any problems there. In his report Laurence noted that there were 50 Europeans, 80 Aborigines and 110 Malays, based in tents and wooden huts at the four camps centred on Wilyah Miah. There was no natural water there and it had to be transported from Von Bibra's place 9 km away.

Map showing the location of Notch Point on Dirk Hartog Island
Map of Notch Point's location
Image copyright WA Museum

The pearlers in-water activities at the time were largely confined to Useless Harbour on a bank extending about 16 km north from the mouth of the inlet. The shell was bagged and taken ashore for processing. At this stage it appears that though diving was undertaken, dredges were used at other times when conditions allowed. Although efficient and cheap, dredging destroyed juvenile shells, and there were concerns for the environmental sustainability of the fishery. For this reason, pearl shell dredging was banned in 1892.

When landed, the shell was collected and then heated in 'pogey pots' under European supervision until the pearls fell from the shell, leaving a stinking residue of no value to be disposed of.

In early 1874 Broadhurst also established a well-stocked store, one of only two in the fishery and the only wooden building at Wilyah Miah where even today there are substantial remains, of buildings, ironwork, glass and ceramic sherds and shell.

The huge influx of pearlers ensured that the nearby beds were soon worked out and explorations to seemingly attractive areas such as Freycinet Harbour proved fruitless. Soon the euphoria began to dissipate. Outbreaks of fever and dysentery combined with reduced catches and the 'obnoxious' licensing fees, served to produce a general 'exodus' from the area. Boat loads of men left by the earliest opportunity, though many remained and 40 boats were re-licensed in the August of 1874.

In early May 1874, around the time Charles Broadhurst left with the shell, and Daniel Broadhurst became his agent, 37 of their Malays went on strike after registering complaints about being held against their will and beyond their agreed period of employment. In March 1875, a Lieutenant Suckling reported on the situation, noting that all the Malays had been over two to three years away from home, that the cost of transporting the Malays home was at £4 per head and that while many were awaiting repatriation, few were working for their original employers. The matter was brought to the attention of the authorities and in turn to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London resulting in demands that the abuses be stamped out.

Drawing of the schema of a pearl dredging ship
Illustration of pearl dredging under ship
Image copyright WA Museum

The Malay problem was virtually resolved, however, before the official report on the situation at Shark Bay even reached the Colonial Secretary in Perth, for the Governor of Batavia stepped in, requiring the lodging of a security of 200 guilders, the equivalent of £16–17, in case of a failure to return any one man to his home. The legislation 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. However, despite the exodus, the industry continued and many Malays stayed on, their families becoming the mainstay of the bay for generations after.

Notch Point

In 1890, a report referring to 'Dirk Hartog Island pearling camp' was possibly referring to Notch Point. Another reference described the existence of separate Chinese and European camps: "The Europeans are camped between Notch Point and another small point, and the Chinese are camped some half-a mile towards the Quoin."

The Chinese fleet at Notch Point was recorded as being 21 boats and about fifty men while the European fleet numbered some thirty boats. The Chinese camp was also known as 'Canton'. The Notch Point Chinese camp existed for an as yet undetermined length of time but possibly from at least the heyday of Shark Bay pearling in the early 1870s when Chinese labour was introduced until December 1886 when they were forced out. Individuals Chang Vong, Von Gen and Lu Vink Chow (spelling taken from Police Occurrence Book) were recorded on Dirk Hartog Island in 1885. Around 1886 a census counted 200 people involved in the Shark Bay pearl fishery consisting of 60 Europeans, 102 Chinese and 68 Malays, with the Chinese controlling 7of the 68 vessels in the Bay. There is no mention of the number of Aboriginal people involved.

Despite European pearling masters having the majority share of industry control, the emergence of Chinese entrepreneurial ventures combined with a drop in the price of pearl shell and being outnumbered almost 3:1 by an Asian population led to European fears for industry control, profitability, sustainability and racism. European pearlers formed a 'European Association' and petitioned the Colonial Government to exclude Asians from the Shark Bay pearl industry. As a result, in 1886 the Western Australian Colonial Government proclaimed the Shark Bay Pearl Fishing Act to grant a restricted number of leases (with fees payable annually) over the Shark Bay grounds.

The Chinese formed their own Chinese Association and pooled resources to put forward a higher tender for a pearling lease than the European tender in at least one instance; however, their tender was refused. By the government selectively granting leases only to Europeans the Act effectively restricted existing Chinese entrepreneurial interests in Shark Bay from operating legally. Following the proclamation of this Act there was much anger from the Chinese community that led to an incident reported at the time as The Chinese Difficulty and The Bloodless Campaign.

Following unsuccessful negotiations by Carnarvon Resident Magistrate Foss offering to buy the Chinese out by purchasing their gear and boats, the government instructed him to return with Police Inspector Rowe and eight police constables. The outcome of the appearance of an armed police party in the Chinese camp at Notch Point was described at the time:

"After much talking of which the Chinamen had much of the best of the argument the offer of the Government was accepted and preparations were at once made to hand over to the Government the property which they had just purchased. This ended a difficulty, which would have been a most serious one. The chief cause of the settlement was the appearance of the armed force. The men under Inspector Rowe were credible alike to the Department and the country. Their business like appearance with fixed bayonets terrified the men from China. Once scare a Chinaman and he cannot again be aroused to valour. The Chinese were only too willing to give in and right yielded to might." (VE, 4 December 1886)

After this incident and later the proclamation and enforcement (including deportation) of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1897, numbers of Chinese in Shark Bay dwindled to the point where by 1900 'there were very few, if any, Chinese at Shark Bay'.

A pearl net on the beach
Pearling equipment
Image copyright WA Museum


The Notch Point East and Notch Point West pearling camps are important archaeological sites that record the early history and pearling industry of Shark Bay. There is potential for sub-surface stratified archaeological deposits. The Notch Point West site is identified as a predominantly Chinese rather than Malay site, based on the historical and archaeological evidence.

The sites demonstrate Aboriginal, Chinese-Malay and European involvement in the pearling industry and have the potential to be further researched through archaeological excavation.

The Notch Point camps have unique historical significance for their direct association with significant political events and European-Chinese conflict of 1886 that changed the administrative, social, racial and industrial nature of Shark Bay pearling, and Shark Bay settlement generally.

Notch Point East

This camp has been identified as a European-controlled pearling camp with a rich surface scatter of artefacts and identifiable features on the inland area and inter-tidal zone. The survey involved five personnel walking a close visual survey of the inland camp area, beach and inter-tidal zone. The camp area is a generally flat sandy area with spinifex grass, small trees and coastal shrubs bounded by small rocky cliff ledges and backed by a sand dune.

All features such as fireplaces, middens, structures and artefacts were marked with field-numbered flags and flagging tape to enable relocation. Three stone-ringed fireplaces, a small stone-walled structure and pearl shell middens ranging from 1 to 2m in diameter were recorded at Notch Point East. The remains of an iron shell dredge lie in the inter-tidal zone (not collected). 117 artefacts were collected resulting in 85 artefact registrations (some artefacts being batch registered or part of the same object e.g. bottle or plate fragments).

Notch Point West

This camp is identified as the Chinese camp and was not as rich in visible surface artefacts and features as the Notch Point East camp. Artefacts were located in the sandy beach and inter-tidal zone, and on the land. The survey involved four personnel visiting the site for two hours and conducting a walking visual survey.

Distinctively Chinese ceramics found in the 1986 and 2006 visits include brown-glazed ceramic globular jar shards and two fragments of a dish made of pale green celadon ware. The brownware jar shards feature decorations including three incised lines and closely spaced vertically aligned grooves and ridges. Similar types of ceramics have been provenanced from other Chinese archaeological sites in Australia and New Zealand dating from the 1850s, and a number of studies have confirmed that Chinese brownware ceramic assemblages are related to Chinese ethnicity, and that assemblages may also contain European wares.

Other ceramics consisted of transfer printed earthenware (plates and a cup shard) of European origin. A piece of a wooden cask lid (c. 60 cm lid diameter) was an unexpected find given the harsh conditions for preservation of exposed organic material, and providing further information on storage and transport of goods in the camp.

An unusual small copper-alloy pot with lead weighted base has been analysed by experts in Chinese material culture, who consider that it is either a calligraphy brush washer or inkwell. This is a rarely seen vessel type, assemblages of material from Chinese sites in Australia being generally limited in type and form.