Travelling Australia
History of Broome, WA
The story of Broome, on Roebuck Bay, is inextricably entwined with pearling. When pearling thrived, so did Broome; when pearling was in decline; Broome languished.

In fact, pearling began in Roebuck Bay before Broome existed. In the 1870s local pastoralists used their aboriginal workers to gather pearl shell during slow periods; the profits from this occasional shell collecting were so good, and the shell so easy to collect, that some mariners took up the work permanently. They used aboriginal forced labourers as skin divers for shells along the 80-Mile Beach. At that time there was no settlement at Roebuck Bay. A typical professional pearler based at Cossack to the south,would have operated a schooner of 15 to 18 tons and up to 40 or 50 aboriginals to dive for shell from five or six ocean-going dinghies.

From the late 1870s pearl shell collecters based at Cossack or Thursday Island worked in Roebuck Bay. Cossack-based pearlers used aboriginal skin divers but Thursday Island pearlers employed luggers with Asian crews and suited divers. The suited divers wore canvas diving suits, weighted boots and copper helmets; air was pumped down to them through a hose from a parent boat. Suited divers from Thursday Island worked in deeper water than skin divers and discovered vast pearl shell beds off the Kimberley coast. They needed a shore base to store harvested shell and established depot camps at Roebuck Bay but shell collecting from Cossack was an important source of revenue for the Western Australia government and luggers operating in Roebuck Bay from another colony were seen as a financial threat to Western Australia. The township of Broome was declared on 27 November 1883. One of the first building was a customs shed but there was no real progress in Broome because shellers from Thursday Island and Cossack lived on their boats while they were in Roebuck Bay.

At this time mother of pearl was an important social commodity. Not only did it provide buttons for clothing (before zip fasteners and velcro) but was made into handles for cutlery and grips for walking sticks. Mother of pearl inlay was used on tables, candlesticks, church altars, ladies fans and around mirrors. Mother of pearl was valuable and collecting pearl shell for the mother of pearl (MOP) in them was a well-paid activity. Any pearls discovered were a bonus supplementing regular income from the large, high-quality Australian shell.

The shelling industry flourished in the 1880s but Broome itself languished for nearly ten years after it was surveyed in 1883. Then Broome was selected as the site for a second undersea cable to Java. The first cable, laid from Darwin to Java in 1871 connecting with the Overland Telegraph from Darwin to Alice Spring to Adelaide, had proved vulnerable to undersea volcanic eruption and a second cable was planned from Java to the north-western part of Western Australia. This cable came ashore (at Cable Beach) in 1889. In April of that year construction began of the prefabricated Cable House in Broome to house the offices and quarters for the Eastern Extension (Australasia and China) Telegraph Company. This was the first substantial building erected in Broome and provided a prototype for the development of Broome architecture. It has been claimed that the presence of the British Cable House staff contributed substantially to the highly class-conscious social structure that developed in Broome in subsequent decades.

In the same year as the undersea telegraph came ashore at Cable Beach, Edwin William Streeter built the first jetty through the mangroves providing access to three aboriginal water wells. A general store, insurance and shipping agency were established as well a butcher shop and the Roebuck Arms Hotel. Streeter made these facilities available to other pearlers and offered to buy shell from other shellers.

During the 1890s Broome based helmeted and suited divers working from luggers replaced skin divers completely. Suit divers could exploit the newly discovered deeper water beds of shell and were far more productive than skin divers in the inshore beds which had been pretty well fished out. An influx of Japanese, found to be the best suit divers, began at this time. The 1890s world-wide economic recession slowed demand for pearl shell but the markets had recovered by 1896.

Recovery of Broome's mother of pearl industry was further assisted by construction of a deepwater jetty built in 1896 and 1897 at Mangrove Point. Before the jetty was available, all mother of pearl being exported and all goods being landed at Broome had to be carried over the deep and sticky Roebuck Bay mud; the extra handling increased freight costs. The new jetty was 2,953 feet long and 15 feet wide and included a cattle ramp, cattle yards and goods shed. A 2-foot gauge tramway was available to carry good along the jetty and through the growing township to the foreshore camp. The deep water jetty allowed Singapore steamers to readily call at Broome to load shell and deliver supplies but Cossack Creek to the south was too shallow for larger steamers and the availability of Broome's new jetty marked the end of Cossack as a serious base for the pearl shell industry.

The recovery in shell price combined with the freight cost savings associated with the new jetty led to higher prosperity in Broome. The better off pearling masters sought to build residences worthy of their social status but there was no suitable local rock or other building material. They selected the newly available corrugated iron on a timber frame for their houses and bungalows; Japanese carpenters who repaired luggers during the lay-up period worked on the residences while the pearling fleet was at sea. Corrugated iron on timber frame remains a traditional building material contributing to Broome's unique atmosphere.
History of Broome - page 2
In 1901 the Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia; the new federal government initiated the White Australia policy which would have destroyed Broome which relied nearly exclusively on Asian workers, especially on Japanese divers. At that time there were 132 Europeans and 1358 Asians in Broome which was granted an exemption from the provisions of the White Australia policy. The new century marked the beginning of a period of economic growth and prosperity which was later described as Broome's Golden Age. In 1901 the pearling industry included 232 luggers and 23 schooners harvesting more than 996 tons of pearl shell valued at 104,000 pounds in London. By 1904 the number of luggers using Roebuck Bay reached an all-time high of 404 and the 1,246 tons of pearl shell collected earned 124,000 pounds.

During this period Broome supplied up to eighty percent of the world's pearl shell. The master pearlers, mostly calling themselves 'Captain', lived in spacious bungalows with wide verandahs. There wore white suits, changed twice daily because of the red dust and laundered in Singapore which was the source of Broome's furniture, crockery, fruit and fresh vegetables. They were at the top of Broome's rigid social structure. Other levels of society lived in "Jap Town" - now known as "China Town" - where up to 3,000 indentured Asian workers lived their own lives paying little regard to Australian laws. Total European population was 250 to 300. Across Dampier Creek a shifting population of aboriginals lived in squalor.

The First World War ended the prosperity with a crash. In August 1914 pearl shell was selling at an all-time high price of 440 pounds a ton but the war collapsed the market. Some shell was collected but it remained unsold at Broome. Banks refused credit and there was no money to pay pearling crews. Younger pearling masters went south to enlist and many other declared bankruptcy. Government assistance was negotiated to pay crews and to purchase pearl shell at a fixed price but the industry would never return to pre-war prosperity.

After the Armistice, shell prices slumped further and the market fluctuated severely. Finances were so tight in the 1920s that some owners took the engines out of their luggers and went back to hand pumps for the divers to save money. Other masters sent their luggers to sea with engines but no fuel in their tanks for the same reason. The local newspaper, the Nor'west Echo, printed its final edition on 31 May 1930 stating that the decline in population following the shrinking of the pearling fleet had made its uneconomic to continue operating.

In the 1930s things got worse when Japanese companies introduced a pearling sampan able to keep the sea for sixty days supporting six divers. These sampans could work in Australian waters while based in Japan. In 1935 there were 28 of these sampans working in the Arafura Sea west of Darwin and the numbers and tonnages of pearl shell collected increased in following years. By 1938, when the Broome pearling fleet comprised 50 luggers and Darwin had 20 vessels, the price of pearl shell had slumped to 92 pounds a ton - the lowest price ever recorded.

Shell collecting ended when Japan entered the Second World War in 1941. Broome was designated the primary aircraft refuelling point during the evacuation from Java and was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 3 March 1942 when 24 aircaft and flying boats were destroyed. Broome was evacuated by civilians; up to 20 luggers were lost in an attempts to sail some to ports further south, many other luggers were burnt on the beach in Roebuck Bay as part of the scorched earth policy. When Broome was raided again by the Japanese on 20 March, the town was largely deserted.

After the Second World War the Broome pearl shelling fleet was rebuilt and had grown to 50 luggers by 1950 when the price of shell reached a record high of 600 pounds a ton. But plastic buttons were marketed in America in 1958; these were far superior to mother of pearl buttons and rapidly replaced the traditional product. Pearl shell was unsaleable by 1959. Luggers were offered for sale in Broome at stupid prices, but there were no buyers. Broome, still relying on pearl shell as its sole industry, faced extinction.

A small group of men involved in pearl shell collecting had foreseen the impact of plastic buttons on their industry and had been working towards introducing the cultured pearl industry to Australia. This change represented a fundamental shift in the industry; previously the concentration had been on pearl shell with pearls as a by-product. Now the pearls themselves would become the basis of the industry, if the process could be implemented in Australia.

With the co-operation of Japanese experts an experimental pearl farm was established in 1956 in Brecknock Harbour north of Derby. The harbour had been renamed Kuri Bay as a compliment to Tokuichi Kuribayashi, the patriarch of the Japanese cultured pearl industry, and one of the main players in establishing cultured pearling in Australia. The trial was an immediate success with the first round pearls produced in 1959.

The cultured pearl industry needed pearl shell from the wild for seeding; divers, luggers and their crews were still in demand and Broome survived. Divers in traditional hard helmet and canvas suit and breathing air pumped down from a lugger on the surface continued collecting shell from the seabed. But this shell was taken ashore, seeded with a pearl nucleus, then returned to the sea in growing racks for two to three years to grow a pearl. Japanese divers had begun returning to the industry in Broome a few years after the war and by the late 1960s most of these divers were Japanese who saw no reason to abandon traditional diving suit in favour of more moderm diving equipment.
History of Broome - page 3
But in 1971 experienced Australian skin divers were employed to gather shell on a trial basis; next year they implemented lessons learned in 1971 and gathered far more shell than Japanese divers using helmets. In 1973 the Japanese divers adopted the wet suits, flippers, breathing masks and air hoses of the Australian skin-divers. The hundred year era of the the hard helmet and canvas suit had ended. In succeeding years Australian divers nearly completely replaced Japanese divers.

During the 1960s and 1970s collected living shell was not handled with particular care enroute to the seeding facilities ashore; film footage of the operation shows shell being handled carelessly and roughly. In 1983 oyster farms experienced up to 50 per cent mortality of oysters. The cause was traced to a bacteria called Vibrio harveyii which is a threat to any aquaculture enterprise. Oysters were found to be weakened and in shock after being collected; they were transported ashore in crowded conditions with poor water circulation and bad hygiene. As soon as more hygienic conditions were provided the mortality rate declined. Eventually floating laboratories were introduced; these took the seeding process to the oyster which was carefully returned to the ocean after seeding.

A bitumen all-weather road was completed in 1979 to connect Broome to the rest of Australia. Earlier roads were often impassable in the Wet and Broome relied more on sea transport from Singapore and southern Australian ports than on road traffic. Tourism quickly became an important element in Broome's economy.

In the 1980s the wealthy Englishman Lord MacAlpine took a great interest in Broome. He developed the Cable Beach Resort as well as restoring many of the older pearling masters' residences which had fallen into disrepair. His plans for Cable Beach to become a major Australian resort competing with Cairns or Port Douglas did not come to pass. The prolonged airline pilot strike of the 1980s had a serious impact on any tourism venture relying on commercial aircraft and is sometimes blamed for Cable Beach not developing quite as much as hoped. MacAlpine has now withdrawn from the Broome tourism industry but is widely acknowledged for the boost he gave Broome's tourism industry.