lustre: radiance or brilliance of light


THERE IS ANOTHER boom-and-bust resource industry in the West, one with a long and near-forgotten history. The exploitation and artistic use of the pearl shell Pinctada maxima, one of the largest and most lustrous nacre-producing bivalve shells found along the northern shores, is an ancient craft dating back over twenty thousand years. Its story is full of wonder, intrigue, romance and greed – yet to be fully appreciated in Australian history.

As authors, we have close associations with the pearling heritage of Broome. Sarah Yu married into the Yu family, whose patriarch was a hard-hat, deep-sea diver who worked in the industry for over thirty years before becoming a citizen of Australia. Bart Pigram is part of the Pigram–Puertollano families, who have a long tradition of pearling workers and musicians. Maya Shioji is the daughter of Itsushi Shioji, one of Broome’s last Japanese hard-hat divers. We weave together stories of the intersecting strands of northern Australia’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal pearling history and its quest for pearl shell and, much later, pearls; of the enduring influence on the cultural and economic character of the north from Shark Bay across to the Torres Strait; and of the changing qualities and cultural meanings of pearl shell and pearls. The pearling tradition of northern Australia is a fascinating mosaic of encounters and relationships.

Most well-known pearling stories have been presented from the perspective of the pearling masters[i] or their daughters,[ii] wives[iii] or divers,[iv] summoning exotic and romantic notions of a northern colonial Australia flavoured by close links with the ‘Orient’. These histories tend to hide or disguise the significance of Aboriginal people, as well as Asians, in pearling. That Aboriginal people may have been the world’s first people to appreciate the beauty and associated power of pearl shell is often overlooked, as is an appreciation of the antiquity and ingenuity of this trade.

In the archives, Aboriginal people are identified but not named,[v] or they figure in the background of images of lugger crews, pearling sheds and master pearlers and their families. And yet, as our oral histories confirm, almost every Aboriginal family along the west Kimberley coast contributed to the pearling industry in some way. As the pearlers arrived in the traditional coastal countries of the Ngarluma, Jaburara, Kariyarra, Yindjibarndi, Martuthunira, Nyangumarta, Karajarri, Yawuru, Jabirr Jabirr, Nyul Nyul, Bardi, Jawi and Worrorra, they needed supplies of fresh water and wood for their boats and, in the early contact history, Aboriginal workers to harvest shell from the seabed.

Wherever the pearlers went, it was always in someone’s country. As the industry rapidly expanded in the late nineteenth century and there was a large-scale influx of Asian indentured labour, Aboriginal people continued to work on the luggers alongside their Asian counterparts as guides, deckhands and shell-openers, and as tenders and divers. Their intimate knowledge of the tides, currents and weather was essential for the pearling fleets operating on a cruel and unpredictable sea. On shore, many were employed to repair and build luggers, unload and grade shell for export, or as servants in the pearling masters’ homes and businesses.

The Aboriginal story, including their contribution to the pearling industry, has a tradition dating back more than twenty thousand years. It reveals the spiritual connection of Aboriginal people to the sea country where the shell is found, their respect for the forces that created the sought-after creatures, and their ongoing sense of responsibility to look after and care for the species. The late Aubrey Tigan,[vi] a Mayala pearl shell carver of world renown, spoke of how the rainbow serpent Aalinggoon created shell in the waters of Strickland Bay, where his people have been collecting shell for thousands of years:

He [Aalinggoon] came down here…from the mainland, down. He came into the bay and lives beneath the sea. He comes every full moon, when it’s a big tide. As he floats on his back, as he drifts, the scales fall off his back and turn into goowarn (pearl shell) as they drift down to the seabed below. The tides came and chucked them everywhere, on the reefs, all around the islands. This way he always gives us more shell.

THE ALLURE OF mother-of-pearl crosses time and cultures, as peoples from around the world share a fascination and appreciation of its lustre both as shell and as pearls. In universal mythologies, pearls and pearl shell are powerful objects, often associated with the moon and water. The Chinese depict dragons who follow the ‘pearl of wisdom’, re-enacted every year in Broome’s Shinju Matsuri festival. Melanesians of the Solomon Islands inlay pearl shell in larger wooden funeral vessels, where the iridescence invokes the shadows, or spirits, of the deceased. In the highlands of New Guinea, pearl shell is a currency for bride price.

Pearl shell has been used throughout the world, and particularly in the West, to enhance material objects with beauty and lustre. Prior to the invention of plastic, pearl shell was crafted into beautiful buttons and buckles to fasten shoes, bodices, coats and dresses. It was used as inlay in furniture and musical instruments, binoculars for the opera, cigarette holders, evening purses, brooches, hair clips, knives and forks, and beautifully crafted handles for muskets and pistols. The shell was intricately carved with filigree designs to become the fronds of fans, indispensible to the toilette of nineteenth-century bourgeois women.

In world literature, pearls inspire analogy to the moon, or as tears of the moon, and are often linked to virtues of purity and perfection.

When natural pearls were first fished in the Arabian Gulf (around 10,000 BP), they were traded and worn by the ruling monarchs of Europe and the Orient, and through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fleets were sent across the oceans in search of the world’s pearling beds. In the twentieth century, pearls continued to adorn the rich and famous.

MOLLUSCS ARE ANCIENT beings, and the pterioidean bivalves, which include the nacre-producing Pinctada maixma, date from four hundred and seventy million years ago and follow evolutionary pathways that malacologists continue to research and reassess using DNA and fossil records.[vii] There are only a few nacre-producing molluscs and, while most molluscs are able to produce pearls, few species produce pearls that are considered worthy as gems. Pinctada maxima, both gold-tipped and silver-tipped, is the largest and most lustrous. Nacre of pearl shell and pearls is made from tiny hexagonal plates of aragonite (calcium carbonate) that are arranged in layers at a thickness close to the wavelength of light then infused with a silk-like protein called conchiolin, and possesses a sense of unique beauty. These substances combined produce a strong, flexible, material that is resilient, tough, porous and beautiful as it refracts light. Thus, the resulting lustre, which means radiance or brilliance of light, as with all iridescence is not actually a substance but an event of light that is experienced as the light passes through the nacre.[viii]

Six species of the Pinctada family are found in northern Australian waters but P margaritifera, commonly known as the black-lip pearl oyster, P albina of Shark Bay, harvested for their pearls, and P maxima, the queen of the family, are most common.

The beds of Pinctada maxima, particularly those adjacent to Eighty Mile Beach and Cape Bossut, south of Broome, flourished in a unique environment created by the strong tidal movements and the Leeuwin Current that sweeps along Western Australia’s Indian Ocean coast. These pearl shell beds are considered some of the best and the most extensive in the world and, despite historic degradation from extensive harvesting, they are resilient with an inspiring capacity to regenerate.

IN THE WEST Kimberley, riji (engraved shell), guwan (plain shell) and binji-binji (smaller blades of pearl shell) are given to Aboriginal boys during initiation to be used as phallocrypts and displayed in ceremonial dances.[ix] These public performances celebrate key tenets of our coastal country – salt water, cyclones, fish traps and sea life – brought to life with the engraved shell imbued with a power to embody the country. The tradition of recording story in shell continued beyond the catastrophic colonial encounter, into the present.

Archaeological evidence from sites along the north-west coast demonstrates the ancient treasuring by Aboriginal people of the lustre of pearl shell. In a cave at Winjingarra (opposite Montgomery Reef), archaeologist Sue O’Connor[x] found evidence of pearl shell dated at 19,000 BP when the case site was located two hundred kilometres from the sea. Another piece of shell, found at Koolan, was dated at 26,500 BP. These are rare finds because pearl shell, being a form of calcium carbonate, is a relatively soft substance that deteriorates easily. A much hardier marine shell product, dentalium – also used as decorative and ceremonial beads – was discovered in a cave in Riwi, five hundred kilometres inland and dated at 29,000 BP, indicating the trade in shell began before this date.[xi]

Ancient Aboriginal trade networks that crossed the Australian continent still exist today. Known as wunan in much of northern and eastern Kimberley, or as yinyali in Yawuru, pearl shell and other artifacts were passed on by trading partners, always moving along in one direction. In inland areas pearl shell was used in powerful rainmaking ceremonies. Regarded as an emblem of life, the iridescent shell embodied water, rain and lightning. Elders from our region – the country of the Karajarri, Yawuru through to Bardi and Jawi – have been engraving shell with ochres, creating intricate designs inspired from Bugarrigarri (the creator or Dreaming) for at least three thousand years.[xii]

Since the arrival of the Europeans, shell artists such as Joe Nangan, Bigge Albert, Sandy Paddy, Aubrey Tigan and countless others have also decorated shell with designs and imagery to depict historic events such as the coming of pearling fleets, missionaries and violent encounters, as well traditional coastal life. These ‘story shells’ were traded locally, and many are now found in museum and gallery collections around the world.

FINDING PEARL SHELL became a major preoccupation of early explorers and colonists in the north-west. In the late 1600s William Dampier, the buccaneer mariner, was probably the first white person to note the presence of pearl shell in Australian waters, in Malgana country around Shark Bay. It wasn’t until after colonisation of the north-west began that surveyors and pastoralists confirmed Dampier’s reports. In 1861, after explorer FT Gregory discovered pearl shell in Nickol Bay, Western Australia’s pearling industry began. Early settlers also noticed Aboriginal people wearing shell, and were quick to exploit their knowledge and labour as battling sheep graziers formed economic partnerships with pearlers for their mutual benefit.

Pearler-pastoralists were quick to adapt methods to suit the supply and type of shell, collecting shell in the off-season from their pastoral activities, using the traditional method of beachcombing or ‘dry shelling’ on the low tides. From the 1860s, pearling was to become the maritime equivalent of the Western Australian gold rushes. However, as the in-shore shell beds were depleted, pearlers looked to deeper waters where they used boats and began forcing Aboriginal people to dive for the shell. Diving to depths of up to seven fathoms, five to six divers would work off dinghies from a mother ship, harvesting shell. This free-diving phase quickly became an inhumane process characterised by coercion, brutality, kidnapping and enslaving of Aboriginal people from the Kimberley coast and inland, who were forced onto boats and imprisoned on barracoons on the islands.

Police, magistrates and fisheries inspectors often supported blackbirding, creating de facto government-supported slavery. In the competition for labour, shell, water supplies and women, conflict between the pearlers and Aboriginal groups was inevitable. The increasing brutality against Aboriginal workers forced the British government to intervene in 1873, with pearling laws that gave some protection and banned female divers.

As shell stocks in shallow waters were depleted, alternatives to free-diving were explored and, after some experimentation, diving apparatus (also know as ‘hard-hat’ or ‘dress diving’) was introduced, operated first by hand pumps and later by diesel motors. As Aboriginal divers would not use the diving suits, pearlers began to indenture Asian workers from as early as the 1870s. They were exempt from the 1901 White Australia legislation, and this practice continued until the 1960s. Over the last century, thousands came to work in pearling via Singapore from Malaysia, China, Japan, Philippines, Timor and Sri Lanka, on three- to five-year contracts. Conditions were harsh. Long weeks were spent at sea in cramped, unsavoury conditions as the shell dried on the decks of the luggers and cockroaches infested the cabins. No refrigeration meant a diet of fish and rice, and with no radio communication to advise on approaching cyclones many boats were lost at sea. Divers worked the seabed from sun-up to sundown, dependent on the commitment of their tenders and engineers who operated the lifeline of air from small platforms. Low pay, restricted rights and limited tenure meant divers could be sent home at any time, especially if they transgressed the racial laws preventing ‘cohabitation’ with the ‘natives’.

Prior to World War I, up to a third of indentured divers lost their lives through disease, diver’s paralysis or drowning during natural disasters such as cyclones. There was no compensation for families who lost loved ones at sea. Maya’s father Shioji, a hard-hat diver in the ’60s, told us, ‘Diving very risky. Air stop – you die,’ and he almost did once, in 1969. He said every diver got the bends (diver’s paralysis) in their working lives, often made worse by the competitiveness between the divers. The more shell a diver collected the more money they made, increasing their job security with the pearling masters, so the more risks they took. Fear of death didn’t stop Maya’s father. He kept diving until 1973.

Pearling was a dangerous business, not just because of the diving conditions, but for the risk of cyclones – which destroyed many fleets and many lives. The fleets depended on local experience and knowledge of weather, tides and currents. The coastal people brought these skills to the pearling fleets. Alongside their Asian counterparts, they were deckhands, shell openers, navigators, cooks, tenders and divers. Luggers were usually skippered by the head diver, who directed the drift of the lugger over pearling grounds from the seabed. Close relationships formed between divers and crew, and there was mostly camaraderie and friendship in their competition to get the most shell, which contrasts to the strict racial hierarchies often presented in the popular histories of pearling. Many divers now lie in unmarked, ‘lonely’ graves that dot the Kimberley coast, and in every pearling port local cemeteries have separate sections for Chinese, Japanese, Malay and the other groups. Today, local communities such as the Chinese and Japanese in Broome continue to honour those who died with annual ceremonies such as Hung Seng and Obon.

RACIST PARANOIA OVER the dependence of the industry on Asian labour led to a brief attempt to ban Asian workers. In 1913, Broome pearlers trialled British divers but most died within a couple of seasons.[xiii] Pearling was not considered suitable employment for white men until the advent of hookah diving in the 1960s – a further phase of diving, and also the time when the industry shifted focus from collecting shell to culturing pearls. Even then, labour was not unionised and the conditions were questionable.

These ‘saltwater cowboys’, immortalised in song by Stephen Pigram, lived and worked on luggers, the workhorse of the pearling fleets. Beautifully crafted wooden vessels, purpose-built with innovative designs, they were adapted to suit the particular conditions of the area in which they operated and featured many locally inspired technological innovations. Operating in tropical waters, luggers had to withstand the onslaught of tropical storms and cyclones and the impacts of ten-metre tidal movements and, in areas where there were no jetties, be able to ‘lay up’ in creek beds or along the foreshore.

They required constant maintenance, such as caulking and repairing, to keep them afloat. In a highly regulated fishery, those lost at sea would be resurrected as new boats in the fleets, thus many luggers, such as Redbill,[xiv] had long stories. In Broome, Aboriginal men including Robyn Hunter, Doug D’Antoine, Donnelly McKenzie, Dickie Chi and Nipper Roe were builders and carpenters who did this work. They worked onshore to keep the pearling industry profitable, tending to sails, sorting and packing shell for market and making divers’ boots.

Lay-up, which occurred from November to March, was a time for repairs and rest. From the 1860s, when the first luggers headed along the Kimberley coast in search of shell, the pearlers needed water and wood, which they collected from traditional water sources, located on the edge of tidal creeks. These areas also served as safe ‘lay-up’ areas for fleets of luggers when cyclones approached or boats needed careening. Relations between the early pearling crews and coastal groups were defined by this need. The north-west coast was peppered with such lay-up camps as pearlers, including Harry Hunter and Frenchy D’Antoine, set up long-term outposts with Aboriginal groups.

The other ‘trade’ was that of women; sometimes this was with consent, sometimes not. In the context of colonial encounters, women’s relations with members of the crew of the pearling fleet were sanctioned in Aboriginal society and close relations were formed between their families and the divers. This provided an important source of food and supplies to coastal groups like the Karajarri, who were able to use this independence to stay away from threatening pastoralists and police. Edna Hopiga, a Karajarri woman, said: ‘I used to call the Malays uncle and many of us knew who our fathers were. That was a good idea for people to help one another.’[xv] However, the spread of venereal disease, fear of Asian dominance in pearling and the growing ‘coloured’ population meant that Western Australia’s Aboriginal Administration was swift to legislate against these interactions, although human nature meant these laws were destined to fail.

On the spring tides, crews and boats returned to town for lay-up and, as the wet season approached, the end of the pearling season. Until the 1980s, these were exciting times when the small coastal towns would ‘come alive’. Lugger picnics were a highlight. In defiance of the restrictive laws of White Australia, Chinatowns quickly evolved in towns such as Broome to service the needs of the pearling crews. Asian businesses, boarding houses, gambling dens, cafés, laundries, general stores, discreet brothels and even photographic studios flourished.

They were places where cultural traditions were shared between Asian divers and Aboriginal people. Relationships ran the full extent of human connection: love, enmity, friendship and death, enriched by shared values of family, culture and respect, creating the distinct multicultural communities that spread with the pearling industry across northern Australia. Torres Strait Islander Charles Passi explained how pearling had created family across the north for most Torres Strait Islander families: ‘I come to Broome and feel at home because of pearling, because my family is here.’

In Broome and other pearling towns, the ramshackle foreshore pearling camps were rich with good food, music and parties as crew members looked after their extended Aboriginal families. These relationships proved to be enduring, with many local Broome families now reconnecting with their Asian relations. Sister-city relationships – such as with Taiji, Japan – provide support for the pearling communities.[xvi]

PEARL SHELL WAS the backbone of the industry, as it was exported for button manufacturing. Discovering pearls was a rarer, more exciting, occurrence. There are many tales of deception, thievery and murder surrounding the theft and sale of pearls. Master pearlers tried to control this by appointing trustworthy ‘shell-openers’ and inventing a special safe box to hold the pearls, but still most pearls were ‘lost’ and traded as ‘snides’ in the underground markets of Chinatowns.

In the late 1950s, when plastic replaced pearl shell buttons, pearling appeared doomed. In the late 1880s British biologist William Saville-Kent developed a method of culturing pearls that was perfected by Mikimoto Kōkichi, who become synonymous with women’s pearls. From the 1950s pearl farms such as Kuri Bay were established on the north-west coast and from them came strands of the highest quality cultured pearls, which may take years to construct and can sell for millions of dollars. The world’s highest quality pearls, now marketed as South Sea pearls, grown from Pinctada maxima, are produced in Australia. The modern industry is dominated by Paspaley. The company has led a campaign to market Australian South Sea pearls as superior, while smaller operators such as Cygnet Bay Pearls survive through diversification with tourism, selling pearls on-site and engaging in marine research. The current pearl producers maintain that pearling in Australia has a future and that their pearls will survive competition from the cheap, mass-produced freshwater pearls of China. They continue to invest in an industry that they estimate is worth about $300 million a year.[xvii]

Similarly, Aboriginal people, including younger pearl shell carvers Tigan and the Sibosados, are determined to keep the traditions of their grandfathers alive, and are adapting to new opportunities, including integrating their designs into pearl jewellery.

THE PEARLING MAP of the Kimberley is extensive and includes trading sites, art sites, lay-up camps, archaeological remains, pearl shell middens, water sources used by the pearlers, pearl shell beds, cultured pearl farms and the leases in the pristine waters of the Kimberley. This continues across the north, creating a trail of sites from Shark Bay to Thursday Island. These sites, and the many associated intangible, cultural values, tell a compelling and unique Australian heritage story worthy of world recognition.

Despite the world’s love affair with pearls and the significance of pearling to northern Australia during the last century and a half, the story of place can be quickly eroded. In Broome, as the few surviving buildings connected to pearling bow to the ravages of time and weather, pearling heritage is disappearing. The focus is now on tourism and beach destinations.

The changing identity of place is reflected in how children see their place. In 1963, when Queen Elizabeth visited Broome, the children of St Mary’s School were asked to draw pictures of their town for their royal visitor. The resulting artworks depict the pearling industry in great detail, sensitive to the harsh conditions divers and crew endured, with luggers sailing into the wind and the underwater world of the hard-hat divers, threatened by sharks. Broome children today have no such clarity about the contemporary town. As the last of the hard-hat divers pass away, the challenge is to remember this diverse, multicultural history. Beyond the shell and the pearls is an intricate web of connectedness between the shell, its habitat, the people who harvest it and our responsibility to ‘look after it’. Just as nacre, applauded for its qualities of lustre, lightness, strength and porosity, inspires other diverse innovations – such as artificial bone, hardening of glass or treating burns – we hope that this salute to our pearling traditions will inspire ways of protecting our heritage. We hope you agree. Galiya mabu.


[i] Norman, J E de B & Norman, GV 2007, A Pearling Masters Journey, in the wake of the schooner Mist, private publication, Strathfield.

[ii] Hemphill, R 2004, A Master Pearlers Daughter, Macmillan, Sydney.

[iii] Norman, GV 2013, A Pearler’s Wife, revised edition, private publication, Strathfield.

[iv] Norman, GV 2013, A Pearler’s Wife, revised edition, private publication, Strathfield.

[v] Boyd, A 2014, Koombana Days, Fremantle Arts Press, Fremantle.

[vi] Yu, s & Brisbout, J 2011, In Mayala country with Aubrey Tigan, report for Indigenous Heritage Project of the DEWHA (now SEWPaC).

[vii] Tëmkin, I 2010, ‘Molecular phylogeny of pearl oysters and their relatives (Mollusca, Bivalvia, Pterioidea)’, BMC Evolutionary Biology, vol. 10, pp. 342.

[viii] Sutton, P 1988, ‘Iridescence,’ unpublished manuscript, South Australian Museum.

[ix] Akerman, K & Stanton, J 1994, Riji and Jakoli: Kimberley Pearlshell in Aboriginal Australia Darwin, Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences.

[x] O’Connor, S 1999, ‘Thirty thousand years of Aboriginal occupation in the Kimberley, Northwest Australia’, Terra Australis, vol. 14, Australian National University, Canberra.

[xi] Balme, J 2000, ‘Excavation revealing 40,000 years of occupation at Mimbi Caves, south-central Kimberley, Western Australia’, Australian Archaeology, vol. 51, pp. 1–5.

[xii] Akerman, K, Skyring, F & Yu, S 2010, ‘The Indigenous cultural heritage values associated with pearl shell and pearling for the West Kimberley coast’, prepared for Kimberley Land Council for National Heritage Listing for the Kimberley region, Kimberley Land Council, Broome.

[xiii] Bailey, J 2001, The White Divers of Broome, Macmillan, Sydney.

[xiv] Lance, K 2004, Redbill, Fremantle Arts Press, Fremantle.

[xv] Yu, S 1999, ‘Broome Creole: Aboriginal and Asian partnerships along the Kimberley Coast’, Proceedings of Asians in Australian History workshop, October, 1999, Queensland Review, October, UQP, St Lucia.

[xvi] Taiji Historical Archive, Taiji on Distant Shores, Taiji Historical Archive, Taiji.

[xvii] Hills, B 2013,Pearl jam’, Sydney Morning Herald, September 7, <>.


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