The town of Broome, gateway to the Kimberley, is known for its stunning beaches, luxurious living and thriving pearl industry.
Long before European settlement, indigenous Australians harvested pearls from the shallows to trade with the Indonesian Macassan fishermen. Indigenous cave paintings reveal a 500-year-old partnership between the Indigenous Australians and Indonesians. Recently, a two-thousand-year-old pearl was found in an Australian Aboriginal archaeological dig in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
After European settlement, Broome became the largest pearling centre in the world. Attracting people from all corners of the globe: Chinese, Europeans and South Sea Islanders. The largest of these immigrant groups were the Chinese who came not only as pearlers but cooks and shopkeepers.
A dangerous job, the early days of pearling were done without any diving equipment. The invention of the diving suit was ground-breaking. Made of vulcanised canvas with heavy bronze helmets pearlers could dive deeper and for longer.
On the bottom they struggled about in lead-weighted boots, often almost horizontal as they peered through inch-thick faceplates into murky waters, frantically scooping oysters into bags because divers were paid by the amount of shell they collected.
Unsurprisingly, the mortality rate in the early days of pearling was as high as 50%. Even today with modern equipment and technology pearling is a risky business- battling sea life and cyclones divers put their life on the line for the sake of the pearl (watch: The Secret Life of Pearls).
Today Broome is recognised as a “pearl capital” producing pearls worth $150 million from their hatchery and culturing facilities. A technique introduced by the Japanese. But even with the Japanese practise of cultivation, South Sea pearls are incredibly rare. By way of comparison, the weight of diamond production each year is about ten times greater than the weight of the annual Australian South Sea pearls harvest
Modern Broome was moulded from the early days of pearling. Influenced by their Chinese and European settlers Broome’s architecture and culture is eclectic. Every year Broome celebrates its multiculturalism with the festival: Shinju Matsuri (Japanese for festival of the pearl).