This blog should have a soundtrack. I suggest you go on utube find the Pigram Brothers song “Going Back Home” from their Saltwater Cowboy album to listen to as you view this. We met Stephen Pigram in Port Fairy and this song has the feel of this town.
We were in Broome briefly 16 yrs ago and it has grown a lot since we were last here. It is more developed, but not in a bad way (except for the appearance of a McDonalds) and to be in such a remote town with a main street full of pearl shops is just so strange. It’s pearl heaven if you are in the market for one. The pearling history is what makes Broome interesting today and the reason this town is here to begin with. M
There are many things that make Broome and this area interesting. One of them is the National Heritage listed coastline of the Dampier Peninsula. It preserves one of the most diverse collections of dinosaur tracks in the world. Tracks of more than 20 different types of dinosaurs occur in the 130 million year old rocks of the Broome Sandstone and tracksites are scattered over 100km of coastline. The easiest to get to near town are at Gantheaume Point. They are not sign posted so you have to wait until they are uncovered at very low tide and walk along the slippery rocks looking in the general.
The history of Broome is the history of the pearl shell. Without it Broome may never have been born.
THE FIRST INDUSTRY
It was here in the 1870’s that the worlds largest mother of pearl oyster the Pinctata Maxima pearlshell was found. Nowhere else in the world can you find this species in such numbers and size. Pearl shell was used for buttons, inlay for furniture and many other things. At one time 80% the world buttons came from Broome! In 1910 this industry was at it’s peak and there were 400 plus pearl lugger boats in the area.
Most of the divers and workers in this industry were Asian. These men were good at this work and also the only people willing to do this high risk job. The Japanese cemetery in Broome has 900 divers buried in it from this time. Such was the power and influence of the pearl shell that Broome was the only town exempt from the “white Australia Policy” allowing for the employment of this important workforce.
The great depression and WW2 saw the industry slow and then shut down and in 1949 the development of plastics ended the demand for pearl shell for buttons.
Above are photos from the Broome Japanese Cemetery where so many of the pearl shell divers ended up in this dangerous job. The regular cemetery was interesting in that many of the sites has chairs and benches around the graves with very happy colourful graves many with personal items included.
THE SECOND INDUSTRY
It took the collapse of an industry to see the birth of the cultured Australian pearl.
In 1899 Mikimoto opens his first store in Japan selling his Akoya cultured pearls. He is the first person to successfully culture pearls on a commercial scale. He guards his secrets closely.
It wasn’t until 1959 that an Australian pearl farm (Cygnet Bay) conducted experiments to develop cultured pearl techniques. Until then only the Japanese could culture pearls and in 1960 Lyndon Brown from Cygnet Bay became the first non Japanese person to culture loose pearls commercially and is the first to be granted a licence by the WA govt. Once he mastered the art of pearl cultivation he started training his colleagues. The first were 3 Aboriginal men Tom Wiggan, Gordon Dixon and Aubrey Tigan. These 4 men were the first non Japanese people to be able to hold the highly secretive intellectual property of pearl cultivation. We will be staying at Cygnet Bay Pearly farm this week which is a beautiful area on the Dampier Peninsula near Cape Leveque. M
It is the pristine waters of the Kimberly Coast and the huge tides that bring them the nutrients that keep these pearl shells growing so well and happy and producing the world’s most highly regarded white south sea pearls. We didn’t know until coming here that many of the world’s pearls are bleached and enhanced but Australian pearls never are because they don’t need to be. It pays to be an island away from the mainstream in so many ways! M
Broome airport is right in the middle of town and you need to drive around it to get from one side of town to the other. You can look up and see a landing plane low in the sky as you are walking around the town and check out it’s landing gear. The prison built last century is also right in the middle of town and you must drive/walk past it just going about your business, which is a bit unusual. You can supposedly sometimes see prisoners on the football oval playing football while prison guards watch them play which is also a bit quirky.