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A city built on pearls

AUSTRALIA | Wednesday, 15 August 2007 | Views [1040]

Those copper helmets were last used in 1975

Those copper helmets were last used in 1975

So the Kimberleys were ruled out for me and I didn’t want to dwell on it. The decision was made, I had to move on. Destination Broome, and along the way, I figured I could still see a few things, like the towns of Wyndham or Derby at both ends of the Kimberleys. These two and a couple of have-a-break-and-refuel-your-car-towns didn’t really make for the most exciting trip though. Nevertheless, a visit of the Boab Prison Tree in Derby lifted the veil on one of Western Australia’s less glorious episode. This very old, huge and hollow boab tree had been used in the late 1800s as a cell for captured aborigines on their way to the coast, where they would be used as divers in the pearl industry. It was called blackbirding, probably because the word slavery had too bad a connotation.

The first European explorers to visit the Dampier peninsula back in the 17th century were struck by the mother-of-pearl jewels worn by the locals. This material is the one and only reason there is a city here today. Because the Roebuck bay is full of shells that the first aboriginal skin divers were able to bring back to the surface. It all became an industry in the 1870’s. The arrival of the deep diving suit helped in a great way to put an end to abominable practices like blackbirding. Each boat sustained then only one diver, and the best at it were the Japanese. Pretty soon, through their skills and their loyalty to one another, they began to dominate the key positions of diver and tender (the attendant to the diver, manning the life line) in the pearling fleets. But this success came with a hefty price, costing the lives of hundreds of divers. The 700 tombs of the Japanese cemetery, most of them belonging to divers, are a stark reminder of the conditions of work in those days, when the effects and reasons of the bends (nitrogen in the lungs when staying for a long time deep under water) where still unknown.

The two World Wars did their share in the downfall of the pearling industry, the first one with the enlistment of almost all the able bodied pearlers, the second by chasing away almost all of the population. The city was already declining when plastic replaced mother-of-pearl as the main button material, bringing the almost total collapse of the market along. The situation looked grim, until a Japanese entrepreneur finally found the right method to cultivate pearls. But the days of the pearling industry total domination over the local economy were over for good. Broome relies today a lot on tourism. During the season, the flow of tourists doubles the population.

After 2 days on the road, when I finally entered the city of Broome on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was expecting some animation in the streets. On the contrary, the centre was all but dead, with only a few folks who seemed to roam the streets aimlessly. I was a bit unsettled, until a charming old couple told me the reason. I had arrived on the last day, and the climax, of a week of horse races. More than 12’000 people had gathered at the race field, thus explaining my first ghost-town impression. An impression that was almost forgotten after a little dip in the ocean off cable beach, and then entirely gone by just sitting on a bench and watching people go by in a city whose history makes it apparently the most Asian city of Australia.

Tags: ambassador van, culture


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