Finding Treasures in the Port of Pearls


BROOME is a town in the northwest of Australia, surrounded by oceans of sand and oceans of water. To the southeast, the Great Sandy Desert sprawls toward the center of Australia. To the west, the Indian Ocean stretches to the shores of Africa. Cyclones often pound this northwestern corner of the continent.

At one time, beneath Broome’s tropical waves, there were pearl oyster beds so rich that Broome was known as the Port of Pearls. Pirates, slaves, and pearl barons feature in the colorful history of Broome.

A Buccaneer’s Discovery

Although the Dutchman Dirck Hartog explored this remote corner of the world in 1616, the west coast of Australia remained in relative obscurity until 1688. In that year the English author, artist, and buccaneer William Dampier chanced upon this shore while aboard the pirate ship Cygnet. On returning home, Dampier published his experiences. His writings and drawings so captivated the imagination of his fellow countrymen that the Royal Navy assigned him a ship and commissioned him to make a voyage of exploration to New Holland, as Australia was then known.

Dampier’s expedition aboard the navy ship Roebuck was considered a failure. No new land was discovered, and the voyage came to an end when his rotting ship broke up and sank. Dampier survived, and among the records of his trip, he noted the discovery of pearl shell.

Built on Blood and Buttons

It was another 160 years before anyone realized the value of Dampier’s discovery. In 1854 the harvesting of pearls began in the area that Dampier had named Shark Bay, but this venture was only partially successful. Meanwhile, in the nearby waters of Nichol Bay, the giant oyster Pinctada maxima was discovered. The shell of this dinner-plate-size oyster provided the best mother-of-pearl in the world​—a resource in great demand for the manufacturing of buttons.

By the 1890’s, some 140,000 English pounds’ worth of mother-of-pearl was being shipped to England each year from the Broome oyster beds. Although many valuable pearls were found nestled in the shells, these jewels were a fringe benefit. It was the shell itself that created most of the wealth for the early pearl barons​—wealth often paid for in blood.

Initially, the pearl barons cajoled or forced the local Aborigines into becoming pearl divers, a task the Aborigines quickly mastered. But pearl diving is dangerous work, and a number of divers drowned or were killed by sharks. Many divers also died as a result of the wretched working conditions imposed on them by their employers. To supplement the Aboriginal work force, divers were imported from Malaysia and Java. When the shallower oyster beds were exhausted, the deeper beds were reached with the aid of the recently invented diving helmet.

Bankruptcy Hits “Sodom and Gomorrah”

Broome’s pearling fleet grew to an armada of over 400 boats. Asian, European, and Aboriginal culture formed a unique and often lawless conglomerate. The social climate of the time is well described by one pearl harvester: “Broome [was] an affluent, sinful and tolerant community, in which the Clergy’s frequent references to Sodom and Gomorrah were regarded as appropriate tributes to civic progress, rather than as warnings of future divine retribution.”

 With the outbreak of the first world war, however, the world market for mother-of-pearl crashed, and Broome suddenly became bankrupt. The industry enjoyed a brief revival between the world wars, but after the second world war, Broome was dealt another blow. Plastics were invented, and plastic buttons soon undermined demand for mother-of-pearl.

Manufacturing ‘Diamonds of the Deep’

At the end of the second world war, an Australian delegation visited the pearl culture farms at Ago, Japan. There Kokichi Mikimoto had perfected the art of culturing pearls by artificially inserting grit into oysters. The book Port of Pearls says that Mikimoto told the Australians that “even better pearls could be grown in their own warm waters in the bigger Australian [oyster] shell.” His advice was followed, and by the 1970’s, Australian oysters were producing some of the world’s biggest and most valuable cultured pearls.

While pearls grown in many parts of the world reach a size of 11 millimeters in diameter, South Sea pearls can grow to 18 millimeters in size. Just one string of these large pearls can be worth over $500,000. No wonder these spherical jewels are called diamonds of the deep!

[Pictures on page 14, 15]

William Dampier

Pearl diver collecting pearl shells in coastal waters north of Broome

An expert removing a pearl from an oyster

One of the original pearl luggers restored to seaworthy condition

Pearls come in a variety of colors (photo enlarged)

[Credit Lines]

William Dampier: By permission of the National Library of Australia - Rex Nan Kivell Collection, NK550; diver: © C. Bryce - Lochman Transparencies; necklace and expert: Courtesy Department of Fisheries WA, J. Lochman; ship: Courtesy Department of Fisheries WA, C. Young; pearls close-up: Courtesy Department of Fisheries WA, R. Rose