Broome History - A Captivating Tale

The Colourful History Of Broome And Its Pearling Industry

Broome history is a collection of colourful and often violent tales. It's not easy to imagine what it might have been like during Broome's pearling days.

But if you want to try, and I warmly recommend you do, Chinatown is the place to start exploring the history of Broome. More specifically Johnny Chi Lane, where 20 story boards on the walls of the shops tell the whole story, and book shops boast shelves of treasures for those who want to know more. It doesn't take long for the souvenir shops, the sunburned tourists and the time to disappear, and make room for the lively, chaotic and lawless frontier town of the early 1900s:

Chinese, Europeans, Japanese, Malays, Filipinos, and Javanese piling into the opium dens, brothels and gambling houses, the alcohol and the steamy nights of the north west fuelling the swearing and bickering that often times erupts into violent clashes in the dusty streets.

Further down the road are the lower level indenture labourers, Koepangers and Manilamen, penned up in tents and shacks, hand processing thousands of pearl shells during long, hot days, and repairing the luggers lined up on the shores. Over 400 of them were operating in Broome's heydays...

On the fringe of the town live the lowest and poorest of all, displaced Aborigines in their humpies, exploited and abused by their white masters, treated like slaves if not worse...

But I get ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning. Here is a summary of the history of Broome:

Broome History - Founding Days

The first white person appearing in Broome history is Abel Tasman, the famed Dutch navigator who discovered the island state in the South of Australia. He sailed past and charted much of the Kimberley coast in 1644.

The English buccaneer William Dampier was the first European to actually visit Broome's shores in 1688, after sailing north from Shark Bay in the H.M.S. Roebuck, and landing somewhere near the Buccaneer Archipelago.

As the story goes he also landed at what is today called Buccaneer Rock in Roebuck Bay and buried a pirate treasure chest. You can see his ghost there at night, looking for his lost treasure with a lantern...

Or maybe you won't. Dampier actually never landed at Roebuck Bay...

Still, the Dampier Archipelago, Dampier PeninsulaRoebuck Bay and of course the famous Roebuck Hotel on Dampier Terrace are all named after this first visit.

An unsuccessful attempt to develop the area to graze sheep started in the 1860s and was soon abandoned. (Cattle arrived around 1885, when the McDonalds and the Duracks established the first cattle stations across the Kimberley.)

1861 was the defining year in Broome's history. A new species, the pearl oyster Pinctada maxima was discovered in Roebuck Bay and turned out to be the largest pearl shell in the world.

At the time buttons, cutlery handles and other objects were made from "mother of pearl". It was such a valuable commodity that any pearls that were found in the shell were only viewed as a bonus. A thriving industry emerged, based on the humble button...

Within only three years the industry supplied 75% of the world's mother of pearl. It was pearl shell, not pearls, that made Broome.

For the next years, from the 1860s till the 1880s naked Aboriginal men and women, called skindivers, were collecting the shells from up to 12 metres depth. These Aboriginal divers hadn't asked for work. Rather they had been rounded up, chained and marched to the shore where they were crammed onto the pearl boats. They worked in atrocious conditions, subjected to unbelievable brutality and dying in scores. Slave trading thrived throughout the north west...

Only when the shallower waters had been emptied of shells, and the pearlers eventually recognised that it was impossible to go any deeper without equipment, the demand for Aboriginal divers grew less and eventually faded away... and Broome history had added another chapter to the sorry book of our relations with the indigenous owners of this country.

Hard hats for divers were introduced in the 1880s, leading to Broome's official birth in 1883. It was decreed to be a township by Sir Frederick Napier Broome, then Governor of Western Australia.

Ironically the Governor didn't want to be associated with the new "town", which at that time wasn't much more than a few struggling camps...

Broome History - The Early Days

The next important development in the history of Broome came again from the depth of the ocean.

When in 1889 a third submarine telegraph cable was laid to connect Java and Australia, this time through Broome rather than Darwin (it was landed on what is today known as Cable Beach), things really started to happen.

The history of Broome's Cable House, the office for the telegraphists, includes another urban myth. Apparently the building was meant for Kimberley in South Africa. Instead it arrived on the western edge of the Australian Kimberley. Nice story, but not to be found in any official documents.

Anyway, the steel for the cable house arrived in Broome in kit form from Britain, the teak for the interior was picked up en route from Singapore. The Chinese who had collected and loaded the teak came with it to erect the house. Broome at the time didn't have a jetty, so those Chinese labourers had to cart everything across the mudflats...

deep water jetty was built in 1897, and the customs house that came with it is a museum today. A police station, a hospital and a gaol followed.

When a new cable station was built close to Perth the traffic that went through Broome decreased, and the Broome cable station was eventually closed in 1914. After WWI the building was converted and reopened as a courthouse in 1921.

The heritage building still stands today as the Broome Court House on the corner of Hamersley and Frederick Street, and is still an impressive building.

The Heydays Of The Pearling Industry,
Its Demise, And The Japanese Bombings

The location of Broome in the north of Western Australia and the port helped the town and pearling industry to grow. By 1900 the town supported a whole fleet of pearl luggers (the number of boats peaked at 403 in 1913) and a population of 1000 whites and 3000 people of Asians/South-East Asian origin: Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and others mixed with Europeans and Aborigines...

Chinatown was a chaotic place, especially when the luggers were in and the crews had money in their pockets, after 6 months at sea, crammed aboard a little lugger with little distractions... The pearl divers in Broome's history made it the fascinating multicultural town that it is today.

The town was booming. Before World War I Broome supplied over 80% of the world's mother of pearl. While the pearling masters and their industry prospered the occupation proved fatal for many of the pearl divers. The "bends", drowning, sharks and cyclones ended many dreams of a comfortable life. The Japanese divers had the reputation to be the best, and the hundreds of headstones in Broome's Japanese cemetery speak clear evidence of the risks that came with their work.

Enter WWI. The upheaval and the following depression devastated Broome's economy. There was now also strong competition from the Japanese. By 1939 the pearling industry survived on government subsidies.

Next came WWII during which the Japanese divers and crew were interned. Most of Broome's pearl luggers were sent south, loaded with women and children. The remaining boats were burnt on the beaches to prevent them from falling in enemy hands.

Broome and its port were undefended when they suffered the second worst air raid in Australia's history (Darwin of course suffered the worst) on the 3rd of March 1942. The Japanese shot down a plane carrying wounded which had just taken off heading for Perth. They went on to destroy 15 of the Dornier flying boats anchored in the shallow bay. Most of the flying boats were filled with refugees, mostly women and children, many of whom died either immediately or swimming through the burning oil... And finally the Japanese bombers turned to the airfield, where most of the planes were destroyed. When they finally left Broome its buildings, vehicles, and even the ocean around the bombed boats were burning. 24 aircraft had been destroyed and 70 people killed.

Three of the flying boats that were destroyed by the Japanese bombings can still be seen in the bay at very low tide today.

The only good for Broome that came from the war was the fact that the Japanese competition wasn't operating either. After the war the pearling industry recovered to some degree, but the heydays were definitely over.

Then disaster struck again. As if all that hadn't been enough, in the 1950s a crucial invention hit the market. Yep, the plastic button. Pearl shell became worthless over night...

Broome History - New Days Dawning

The plastic button sealed the fate of the Mother of Pearl industry, but not the fate of Broome. Experiments with cultured pearls had been under way for many years, and again it was the Japanese who perfected the process. The results were phenomenal.

Broome pearls mature in 2 rather than 4 years like Japanese pearls, and they are also twice as big. 20 years later the town produced up to 70% of the world's large cultured pearls. It continues to be one of the world's major suppliers for quality pearls today.

Today pearls are no longer the only pillar of Broome's economy. The 1980s saw a new industry emerge: tourism discovered Broome and is growing fast. Some say too fast. From 2,000 residents in 1980 Broome grew to 11,000 in 1999, by the far the fastest population increase in the history of Broome. Today the town has a population of over 14,000, is easy to reach and offers anything in terms of accommodation, dining, shopping and activities that a visitor could ask for.

But the history of Broome is visible everywhere. And I don't mean the statues and monuments sprinkled across the town. I mean the Broome people. The faces you see in the streets are still a vivid reminder of the wild pearling days of Broome's history. Such an impossible to identify mix of races...

Our ancients sowed their culture
Our ancients sowed their seed
So there is no pedigree
We're all one mongrel breed.
(From a song by Jimmy Chi)

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