Broome Pearl Luggers

Pearling Luggers Museum, Broome

A visit to the Pearling Luggers Museum in Dampier Terrace, Broome is illuminating. Timing our visit to coincide with a guided tour, we learn that the West Australian pearling industry started in the 1850s in Shark Bay, then built up quickly, exploiting indigenous, Japanese, Chinese and other nationality divers. By 1910, a substantial fleet of some 400 vessels and 3500 people harvested the valuable lustrous giant pearl shell, making Broome the biggest site in the industry. However,  the work was as hard as it was hazardous.

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An original typical hard-working gaff-rigged ketch Broome pearling lugger.

Pearl shell, main prize

Pearl shell was the main prize. Changing fashions dictated fluctuating demand but generally there was world-wide interest in the shell as a raw material for buttons, combs and other articles. Pearls were a valuable by-product, but they were never a primary target. Between 1860 and 1880, slave-master-employers conscripted indigenous divers, including indigenous women, and forced them to work down to 12 metres as skindivers. Exposed to life-threatening risks that included sharks, bad weather and even their own bosses, they had a high death rate. By 1880, most of the shallow-water shell had been harvested. Hard-hat divers followed, with the obvious additional risk of the bends.

Pearl Masters-1870s

The Pearl Masters arrived in the 1870s and organised the work force. They began diving in Roebuck Bay and quickly established Broome as the pearl shell capital of the world.They sought the biggest pearl shell of them all, the prized Pinctada maxima, or oyster of the South Seas pearl. This huge bivalve, known to the aborigines for centuries, was discovered by Europeans in 1861 and found in abundance in shallow water in the Kimberley area. The industry advanced by fits and starts but gradually expanded until about 1914. After three devastating cyclones, in 1908, 1910 and especially 1912, the industry later collapsed as fit men went off to fight in the war. There was a slow and erratic post-WW I recovery, then the Pacific War brought the industry to a complete stop.

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The traditional wooden-hulled pearl shell lugger (above, in the WA Maritime Museum) might have one hard-hat diver each side, with air supplied by hand-operated air pumps.

Fibreglass-hulled trawlers (below) have replaced the traditional lugger and engine-driven air pumps supply maybe four wet-suit divers each side.

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Luggers commandeered

The Australian Government noticed that during their conquest of Malaya in December 1941 and January 1942, the Japanese appropriated local craft to transport their troops in a series of generally unopposed amphibious landings. The RAN therefore commandeered all the better Broome luggers in January 1942, sailed them to Fremantle and burned the rest. Nearly all of the better divers were lost about the same time when the government interned everyone suspected of Japanese ethnicity.

The Pacific War had a profound effect on Broome. Less than three months after Pearl Harbor, on 3 March 1942, nine Japanese A6M2 Zero aircraft from Timor (a 964 nm round trip), led by LEUT Zenjiro Miyano, swept in low,  strafing the harbour and airfield. This remarkably successful raid by a handful of naval fighters killed between 70 and 100 people and destroyed 24 aircraft for the loss of two Zeroes. One Zero was claimed shot down, but the wreckage was never located. The other ditched due to lack of fuel, but the pilot was recovered.

Flying boats destroyed

A plaque in Broome’s main street commemorates this action. Five Dornier Do-24, eight PBY Catalinas and two Short Empire flying boats were sunk in the harbour. Other aircraft, including two B-17 Flying Fortresses, one B-24 Liberator, two Lockheed Hudsons, one Lockheed Lodestar and one KLM DC-3 were left burning on the airfield. As a bonus, a B-24 and another DC-3 were shot down during the same raid.

Most of the civilian casualties were Dutch refugees from the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) still in their flying boats after landing there earlier that morning. Many sat in the harbour, awaiting painfully slow refuelling operations. Others died awaiting delayed departure clearances.

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A Japanese air raid plaque in Broome’s main street.

“No warning” attacks

Some Australian reports, even in recent years, echo the mantra that the Broome and Darwin raids were conducted against chiefly “civilian targets without warning”. This propaganda deflects criticism from those who should have defended, dispersed or camouflaged valuable and highly vulnerable targets. In Broome, on 3 March 1942, everything the Japanese attacked was a legitimate target of war and diligent research will prove that short of an impractical leaflet drop, considerable warning had been given.

Pearl Harbor

The 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor might well have been  a “no notice” act of undeclared war, but that act itself should have served sufficient warning that Broome’s turn might not be long coming. The Darwin raid, just a fortnight before the Broome attack, should also have been another warning sign. The evacuation of hospital patients and some civilians from Broome a week before the raid was accelerated, but little else seems to have been planned to resist an air threat.

Finally, a Japanese Kawanishi H6K4 (Mavis) flying boat had been sighted the day before overflying Broome. It is difficult to understand how much more warning could have been given.

Industry revival

The pearl shell industry resumed slowly once more after WWII, but Broome found it hard to compete with the new-found plastics industry, even after introducing wet suits and hookah breathing apparatus. In recent years, the one or two surviving sailing luggers harvest tourists or a very few oysters for the cultured pearl farms.

These sturdy gaff-rigged ketch luggers were first introduced in 1879. A Broome boat building industry flourished for a while, using local jarrah and paperbark timber, but nowadays the working luggers are fibreglass, motorised and built elsewhere.

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Lustrous pearls were once just a by-product of the pearlshell industry.

Cultured pearls

Cultured pearls are another story. Those interested in the cultured pearl industry might choose to visit a pearl farm at nearby Willie Creek, about 32 km by road north of Broome. Despite early contrary misinformation, cultured pearls are almost invariably superior to those found in their natural state, say the traders.


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