Sheba Lane, Broome
Broome, A town in which lanes lined with noodle stalls and opium dens, and the slum dwellings of hawkers and prostitutes were more reminiscent of Asia than Australia; and where pearl shell mattered more than human life.  Tales of murder, rape, theft, brutality and treachery are found side by side with courage, honesty, and pioneering vision – quote from Kevin Lawton’s book, “A walk down Johnny Chi Lane”

In the late 1880s the small settlement of Broome located on Roebuck Bay in the north of the Colony of Western Australia consisted of two stores and a few scattered houses. It had no road or rail connection to the south of the Colony and depended on limited sea transport for its supplies and communication.

Captain Barnes Camp
In 1888 one visitor to the settlement described it as: ‘The only water was a native well…The Mangrove swamps were full of mosquitoes, and high up on the sandhills a few struggling camps were pitched.’

Two years later everything had changed. The submarine telegraph cable, which had been connected to Darwin, was rerouted through Broome because of volcanic activity in the Arafura Sea and in February 1889, was landed on what is today known as Cable Beach.

Streeters Pearl Shell Sorting Shed
Suddenly the town was much more than a collection of tents. The firm of Streeters set up a store trading in pearls and mother of pearl shell and built the famous Roebuck Hotel. The store still stands in Short Street near Streeters Jetty and the Roebuck Hotel is around the corner in Dampier Terrace.

The town grew rapidly driven by the search for pearls and the search for pearl divers was unceasing. Without the benefit of modern underwater equipment the divers were forced to dive only to resurface when they ran out of breath. The pearlers had no compunction about kidnapping local Aborigines (black-birding) and forcing them into virtual slavery as divers.

Old Pearl Divers Boot
By 1887 the Broome Pearling Fleet had changed from skin-diving to apparatus-diving with the distinctive canvas suits, copper helmets and boots, and rubber air hoses.  The town thrived on the hugely profitable, and extremely dangerous pearl-shell industry, using Asian labour that was cheap to hire and easy to replace.
Pearl Divers Helmet
Cyclones, the Pacific war, sharks and the dreaded bends have left many bones in the local graveyard, and more on the bottom of the sea. There was an appalling death rate among the early divers where ignorance of the hazards of deep and prolonged diving resulted in a painful death or at best, incapacitation, through what became known as decompression sickness or the “bends”. There are tales of divers brought to the surface bereft of life, squashed out of recognition.
Broome Pearls
Despite Broome’s chequered past or more likely because of it, Broome now boasts a multicultural population which have all blended to create a captivatingly welcoming and colourful personality that is the heart and soul of Broome.

Cultured pearls from Broome are now the best in the world.

The Master Pearlers

A group of Pearling Masters in their "pearling whites"
The popular image of master pearlers is of Anglo-Celts in ‘pearling whites’ and pith helmets overseeing their ‘coolie’ labour. But, in reality, they came from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and some were women. They exerted power and influence at all levels of government. (Excerpt from the WA Museum)
Great article and old photos by the West Australian Museum

Why is Broome named Broome?

Matthew Forrest grave overlooking Reobuck Bay at Pioneer Park, Town Beach
Broome is named after Frederick Napier Broome who was the the Swan River Colony’s Governor. Broome was not pleased to be named after a town that was really just a collection of dilapidated pearlers camps scattered throughout the sandhills. At the time the governor wrote to the Colonial Secretary stating “I believe the township named after me by the Hon. Surveyor General (John Forrest) to remain a mere dummy townsite inhabited by the tenants of 3 graves .. my present idea is to have the name cancelled”. He was unaware that one of the 3 graves belonged to Matthew Forrest, the Surveyor Generals, recently deceased younger brother, who had died from measles and pneumonia just before his 28th birthday while diving for pearl shell at Roebuck Bay. Mathews grave can be seen today at Pioneer Cemetery, Town Beach overlooking Roebuck Bay.

Women of Pearling Statue
A statue commemorating women’s contribution to the pearling industry sits proudly on the foreshore of Roebuck Bay.

She appears to be bursting out of the water, offering a pearl shell but a closer look reveals a less romantic story, as she is pregnant and is gasping for air.

Excerpt from the Western Australian

She pays homage to the resilience and suffering of the forgotten women of pearling in Broome – both early divers and those who supported the industry from land.

In the first instance, it acknowledges the horrendous early 19th century practice of “blackbirding” – the forcible kidnapping of Aboriginal women to pearl luggers, where they dived for pearl shells in deep water, often without breathing apparatus. Unsurprisingly, many of the women drowned.

Djugan and Yawuru woman Mary Theresa Torres Barker, 72, said she had heard painful stories from her grandmother Polly Drummond, about the “sad time” in Broome’s history.

“In the early days, there was no-one to do the job and they found the women had the lung capacity to stay underwater longer – they were the best,” Mrs Barker said. “Sometimes they used to go a little bit further and they would put the woman in respirators but tie stones to their legs to keep them down … they were knocked around, tied on the dinghies. “It was very cruel – just talking about it makes me sad.”

The practice died out in the 1890s, several years after Broome was gazetted, when men brought in to build the wooden jetty brought male skin divers with them. But the statue also acknowledges the on-shore women who helped Broome’s pearl shell industry to thrive, during its heydays in the late 1800s and early 1900s. From the early days, women worked for pearlers as domestic help – and in many cases, bore their children. Mixed families were often torn apart when Asian indentured workers were suddenly deported, leaving their women to raise children alone.

Researcher Sarah Yu said the statue’s location on the foreshore placed the spotlight back on a rich part of Broome’s heritage which was often ignored. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, hundreds of pearl luggers would pass through the area en route to Streeter’s Jetty.

The mothers, wives and children of lugger crews would also assemble there, gazing out over the water and waiting anxiously for the return of their loved ones on the spring tides. Hearts sank when they arrived with flags at half-mast, indicating that more of their men had died at sea. Despite the area’s rich cultural history, only bare traces of the once-thriving industry at the site can still be seen, including three crumbling buildings, the jetty and remains of several pearlers’ camps, Mrs Yu said.

“The focus now is on pearls and camels on the beach and sunsets – whereas the true heritage of Broome lies within the stories of pearl shell,” she said. “There was a whole life around the foreshore and the luggers – so (the statue) is trying to draw attention to that history.”

Johnny Chi

Johnny Chi Lane
Many people have asked me about the history of Johnny Chi Lane.  Who was Johnny Chi and why was a lane in the heart of Chinatown named after him?

The tale begins with Captain Reddell, who along with his son, first mate and several crew members, were murdered, by his Koepanger crew who mutinied and sailed his brig Ethel to Koepang in Timor. They scuttled her out of sight of land, coming ashore in the dinghies, with a tale of being shipwrecked sailors.

John Chi, the Chinese cook, gave them away.  The Dutch authorities arrested them and sent them to Fremantle where they were convicted of murder and hanged. Johnny Chi became a pearler himself in time and invested in property in Broome’s Chinatown, giving his name to Johnny Chi Lane, where he ran a long-soup kitchen.

Diamond Jack Palmer – The Diamond Mystery

Diamond Jack Palmer gravestone
Russian WW1 Ace, Ivan Smirnoff was handed a a sealed cigar-box sized container on the 3rd March 1942 as he was taking off from Bandung in Java. He was headed for Australia and onboard his Douglas DC-3 were nine Dutch refugees fleeing the imminent Japanese invasion, one of which was an 18 month old baby. Smirnoff threw the box into the Dakota’s First Aid box, not being aware that the contents of the box contained the equivalent, in today’s market, of $19 million worth of diamonds. He was however, told to “Take good care of this, it is quite valuable”. He was told that the Commonwealth Bank would take delivery of the box on arrival in Australia.

At about 10.30am, when the DC-3 was still 80 km from its destination, Smirnoff saw billowing clouds of smoke over Broome. The town of Broome was under attack. Nine Japanese Zero had been strafing flying boats and other aircraft, destroying 22 of them altogether and claiming more than a hundred lives.

The lonely DC-3 was quickly spotted by three Mitsubishi Zeroes who were returning to their base in Timor. The Japanese pilots, who were at a higher altitude than the DC-3, dived at it and fired at its port side, scoring numerous hits. The port engine caught fire and Smirnoff was wounded in his arms and hip, but managed to put the aircraft into a steep spiral dive.
Knowing that the DC-3 would likely flip over in a conventional, wheels-down landing on soft beach sand, Smirnov decided to make a belly landing at Carnot Bay. He achieved this, with the aircraft coming to a halt in shallow surf.

The Zeroes then strafed the DC-3. Four passengers, including the baby, were killed or seriously injured by bullets. The following day, as the survivors awaited a rescue party, a Japanese Kawanishi H6K flying boat spotted the wreck and dropped two bombs. The Kawanishi later returned and dropped another two bombs. None of the bombs caused any damage or injuries.

After taking care of the wounded, he sent one of the passengers back onboard to recover the mail, the log book and the package. But as the man was climbing out of the wreck, he was hit by a wave and lost his cargo. The log book and some of the mail were recovered, but the package had disappeared.

After the ordeal, Smirnoff was questioned by the police about the package. He had no idea, that the package contained diamonds. Meanwhile, a mariner from Broome named, Jack Palmer had sailed his lugger to the wreckage, salvaging what he could. And probably finding the package. It is said that he latter bragged that he “no longer had to work, only sit down and smoke cigars”. By mid-April, he was enlisting in the army, bringing back around £20,000 worth of diamond that he said he found on the wreck. He claimed it’s all he had, since the package had opened itself when he touched it and all the content had fallen in the sea… He was immediately taken into custody for interrogation.

Jack Palmer and 2 other accomplices were tried in Broome in 1943, but all of them were acquitted. Over the years, diamonds started showing up at different locations, but it all accounted for a little more than £30,000 of the original £300,000. The rest, they say is still missing?

I came across an interesting article on the above story .. read more

The Wet Season

Knut Dahl - Dutch naturalist
A description of the awakening of the land as described by a Norwegian Naturalist Knut Dahl in a visit to what is known today as Roebuck Plains pastoral station, in January of 1896.

“Before Christmas, no green straw, except the spinifex grass, was to be seen anywhere. Everything was grey and withered, swept by grassfires, eaten by animals and insects. The trees certainly carried some brownish-green leaves, but all annual vegetation was completely suppressed, annihilated, and the eart was strewn with debris of dry remains of plants, droppings from animals, remains of insects, etc. which mingled with the loose sand of the soil. I had certainly expected the rainy season to produce an alteration. But in these parts the wet season is only of short duration, and the biggest annual rainfall previously registered did not much exceed twenty inches. I anticipated, therefore, that no excessive change could be expected to take place in the character of the landscape and of the flora and fauna. I have never made a greater mistake, and never in my life have I witnessed a more striking development of flora and fauna than that which took place in this region as soon as the rainy season set in, in real earnest”.

“At Christmas time and during our march to Loomingoon (Roebuck Plains Station – 64 kms from Broome towards Derby), it had rained a good deal, but this rain was immmediately absorbed by the thirsty soil, and soon after the rain had ceased and the sun had come out, the landscape appeared as dry as ever. Certain signs, however, seemed to indicate that enormous forces were slumbering in this apparently barren soil. Everywhere in the sandhills, in the plains, and in the pindan, minute green sprouts began to appear, almost like what one sees in a sprouting field in Europe”.

“During our stay at Loomingoon, the rains became more and more frequent, until finally it poured day after day with only small interruptions. When these rains were followed by a few days of sunshine, the whole land became one steaming hotbed. All vegetation shot up with incredible rapidity. Very soon, the grass stood as high as a man, the leaves of the forest took on luscious blue-green colour, and in the plains, and along the shores of temporary lakes, grasses and water-weeds sprang with irresistible force from soil which a couple of weeks before, might have been that of the Sahara desert”.

“In a surprisingly short time an enormous wealth of lower organisms developed, the water was soon teeming with minute crustaceans. As the rains increased, the toads and frogs came to life, cicadas sang their eternal song and a vast variety of birds arrived in order to feast on this easily obtained food and also to breed in the profuse vegetation along the shores of the temporary lagoons. And as the waters of the plains increased in area and the wealth of lower organisms was augmented, the number of migrating birds also grew, until the whole landscape finally teemed with a life as over-overwhelmingly prolific as I can remember ever seeing anywhere. If anybody had seen this land as it was a month ago, had fixed its appearance firmly in his memory, and then after the interval had suddenly been faced by the same landscape in its altered appearance, he would have said that the whole thing was a deception, a lie, a shameless and elaborate lie which almighty Nature jestingly wanted to impose upon him”.

“Some weeks ago these plains were desert. Dry and fine sand rose in little clouds at every step of the horses, while the wind swept the sand away and played with the dry debris of the withered vegetation. Now it might happen that the grass and rushes rose higher than the saddle as one rode among the glittering lagoons, and every step of the horses might flush a profusion of waterfowl”.

Where did it all go?

Pearlers  pearl shell sorting shed
An excerpt from Kevin Lawtons, “Tales from Broome”
Broome at the turn of the century was as well known on the streets of London as any Australian city.  Ships from all over the world called in to this tropical port to take on cargos of pearl shell.  The streets of Chinatown were alive with a cosmopolitan population that lived crowded along the foreshore.

Today tourists in Broome often search in vain for evidence of this pearling hey day.  The same foreshore where hundreds of asians lived and worked is now deserted.  Empty lots in Chinatown once housed large commercial emporiums. Sheba Lane is now a sandy track. What happened?

Chinatown in the 1920's
The answer is of course that the Broome of old was built with pearling in mind, not posterity.  Men after quick rewards came to Broome, tacked together buildings of timber and corrugated tin, then sailed off in search of shell. When the pearling industry collapsed they left and the structures they abandoned fell into rapid decay.

Today it is the men, women and children walking along Broome’s pindan verges who define the legacy left by the pearling industry.  Their faces are reflections of those who established the town, their stories the living history of the area.

The Japanese Influence

Pearling Pioneers
In a far away fishing hamlet known as Taiji on the southern shores of Japan, a village known for its whaling, had in 1878, a female right whale give birth to a calf near its shores. Although it was local taboo to hunt a female with calf, the whaling industry was in decline due to foreign intensive whaling and the income for Taiji from whale meat had fallen considerably. Excited with their good fortune, almost the entire adult male population, set out in their boats and captured the whale in a large net. The mother fought with great fury to protect her calf and dragged the boats out to sea. It became dark and the men became cold and exhausted, struggling with their oars to tow the whale. By morning the fleet was scattered, the whale was finally cut loose but the storm worsened.

Within a few days, the cream of the Taiji whalers, and the best of their boats, had been swept far out to sea and had died from exposure or drowning, 130 men killed and only a handful of survivors, leaving the tiny village in deep mourning.

Unable to survive through whaling, the fatherless, young boys of Taiji heard through the crews of foreign ships seeking whale oil, of money to be earnt in the Pearling Industry in the Northwest of Western Australia and so Broome gained some of the best divers and tenders in the Pearling Fleet.

The Japanese Cemetery lays testament to the high toll of Japanese life to the Pearling Industry. In the centre of the cemetery, stands a tall obelisk, built by the survivors of the 1908 cyclone, to commemorate those who died on April 26th, when 41 luggers were sunk and 40 men died. Many of the tombstones are in date order, portraying a death rate from month to month that would indicate the bends (decompression sickness) and in 1914 there were 33 deaths from this excruciating and little understood condition, that arises when a diver surfaces too quickly from the oceans depths.

Three life-like statues, in the heart of Chinatown, commemorate Mr.Tokuichi Kuribayashi, Mr Hiroshi Iwaki and Mr Keith Francis Dureau, who were pioneers in the cultured pearling industry in Broome. These men foresaw the impact of plastic buttons on the pearling industry and began working towards introducing the cultured pearl industry to Australia. With the co-operation of Japanese experts an experimental pearl farm was established in 1956, today known as Kuri Bay, famous for producing the “biggest pearl in the world“.

Pearl Shell Packing Crate
I have recently received a comment from a lady wanting to know about an old wooden shipping box marked “Produce of Australia”, with “Broome” and “Donovan” on the side and “New York” on it. She said the box was made of a very heavy thick wood, with metal straps and of an overall size approx. 3 feet long, 18 inches high and 2 feet wide.  The Broome Historical Society very kindly donated this image of an old pearl packing crate to see if this is what she has.

A voyage of No Importance

Front cover of the Book "Voyage of No Importance"There are so many fascinating stories about Broome’s History.  One I came across recently “A Voyage of No Importance” is a true story of an epic 350 kilometre voyage along the West Kimberley coast made by two intrepid seafarers in their 3.5 metre wooden dinghy in late 1920.

The pearling lugger, HENRY, on a voyage from Wyndham to Broome was wrecked on a jagged rock off Cape Voltaire in the far northwest. The six crewmen on board made it to the mainland and set up camp. It was then decided that two men should row the dinghy south to get help but nobody expected the voyage to last a month and cover such a vast distance.

This one small lugger, the HENRY became involved in three separate incidents in which five white men lost their lives, four to the natives on the red coast and one to a crocodile.

The crewmen made it to a mission, battling huge tides, crocodiles and harsh weather, only to find out that the mission lugger was in Broome getting repairs! They made it to the next mission and this lugger was also in Broome for repairs.  They must have felt so devastated, knowing their success was crucial to the survival of their mates.

The dinghy voyage from Cape Voltaire to Cape Leveque was likened to that of Bass and Flinders in a letter describing the voyage, written by Reverend Richardson, of Broome, to the editor of The West Australian. However, the editor wrote back and described the voyage as of no importance.

Buy the Book