I only ever had a single pearl in my life. As I recall it was a small cultured pearl received as a 21st birthday gift and I treasured it for many years. Now I have the good fortune to be in possession of a veritable pearl amongst books and with it the bonus of a wonderful addition to my permanent Australiana collection.
In 1887, during the halcyon goldrush days of Western Australia, a Singhalese gold dealer and jeweller, T B Ellies, sailed to Australia to establish a business. After the Pilbara goldfields were exhausted, he saw the opportunity to utilise his skills in Broome, and, from his original occupation of pearl skinner and dealer, became one of the most respected citizens in the region and the great great grandfather of what amounted to a pearl dynasty.
Pearling in Australia extended back hundreds of years prior to European settlement with the aboriginal tribes trading in pearlshell, both within Australia and with the Indonesian beche de mer, trepang and pearl fishers. From its beginnings in 1879, Broome (named after a less than flattered West Australian Governor), thrived as a multicultural town, attracting islanders, Indonesians, Chinese, Europeans, amongst others. There was as much a thriving world market for pearlshell as for pearls themselves up until the advent of plastic, so there were fortunes to be made.
The earlier periods had their share of shame whereby indigenous people were quite literally kidnapped, chained and traded at slave markets for the purpose of diving. Similarly Japanese divers were indentured which was barely any better. Few earned wages and many died from occupational hazards – sharks, crocodiles, jellyfish, diving hazards, weather conditions- in addition to the large scale deaths occurring during cyclones. In 1935 a cyclone cost the community scores of luggers and the lives of 200 men. In 1935 it was 21 luggers and 140 men. More than 2000 Japanese are buried in the Broome cemetery. The situation gradually improved as the (shallow) inshore resource diminished and diving suits replaced bare diving. Today of course most pearls are cultured and harvested using scuba equipment, racks and the latest in technology, but there are still accidents.
This book is based around a magnificent collection of high quality photos and reproductions of originals. The text accompanying the pictures tells the fascinating story of TB Ellies rise to notability within the region, the wild west aura surrounding this thriving but dangerous outback town, the story of the immigrants, the indentured and the indigenes. In its heyday, there were over 400 pearl luggers operating off Broome in addition to normal fishing boats and cargo/passenger ships, as water was the best means of travel.
By all accounts T.B. Ellies was a considerate employer and paid the crews of his luggers fair wages irrespective of their status, as well as being scrupulously honest in his pearl dealings. His funeral in 1937 was attended by most of the town ad he entertained notables from both Australia and worldwide including the WA Governor.
Broome's fortunes took a massive downturn following the Japans bombings of 1942. The Japanese families were all interned, the luggers were sequestered for the war effort, forcing pearl masters into bankruptcy. The Ellies family along with the majority of the remaining residents fled south, leaving their stores to be ransacked. By the end of the war there were only a dozen luggers still operating and over 100 pearl masters never returned from the battlefield.
After the war the Ellies sons, William, and Charles, returned to Broome to start a bakery and general store before returning to pearling once again. However the recovering industry was dealt yet another blow with the imposition of the white Australia policy and the forced repatriation of many of the divers…some to a land they had never seen! Due to strong protests from industry who claimed diving conditions could not be endured by Caucasians, the government sent a large consignment of Navy Divers to perform the harvest. Unfortunately they almost all died and Broome became the only Australian city that had the terms of the White Australia policy rescinded, in order for the harvest to go on.
The book then moves on to the process of modern Pearliculture and the process of pearl seeding and harvesting as practised today, followed by some amazing contemporary photos of the present Broome and its environs. Broome is still a thriving pearl town and has also become a major part of the tourist hub in the far North West as travellers flock to its pristine beaches, relaxed lifestyle and wonderful scenery.
If I have any criticisms to make of this book, it would be that it lacked autobiographical depth when relating to the Ellies family. The material exists here for a magnificent family saga, telling the stories behind the headlines if the author is ever moved to begin writing again. It touches briefly across a wide swathe of Broome's history and so succeeded in whetting my appetite for more that I spent a great deal of time on the internet filling in the gaps. I would have liked to have had a few more photos captioned, but indeed, if that had happened, the author would have had to sacrifice material that was intrinsic to his portrait of an industry and an era. The photos of pearls alone are unmatched. This book is excellent value for money as a collector's item for lovers of Australiana, history, travel, photography and precious gems. I am proud to have a copy prominently displayed on my shelves.
Heather Stone lives and writes in Melbourne. Raised on a farm in Tasmania, and having worked and lived around Australia, with Terry Pratchett she believes : ‘Them as can do, has to do for them as can't. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.’