Indigenous History

The history of Broome and the Kimberley region dates long before the arrival of Europeans. Indigenous persons have inhabited the region for at least 27 thousand years.

Language is very significant to Aboriginal culture and social structure. Five family language groups comprise the Kimberley Region. Within each group several languages are spoken. Aboriginal culture is survived through oral traditions, which promote the heritage, culture and learning of the region’s indigenous inhabitants.

Sadly, since the arrival of Europeans there has been a breakdown in this traditional structure. Language skills among the region’s indigenous inhabitants have diminished significantly, leaving the bulk of the region’s indigenous culture and history knowledge in the hands of a few remaining elders.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal people had developed a complex social structure, which included strict law and culture traditions. Among the language groups on the Dampier Peninsular there was extensive trading, which also extended to local island groups. Moreover, there were trade routes between the east and west Kimberley, which were known as ‘winan’. Family groups would move around on a semi-nomadic basis.

Traditionally, the Yawuru and Jungun language groups inhabited the Broome area. In 2006 The Yawuru people were awarded Native Title over an area in excess of 5000sq km around the Broome area, giving them greater access rights and land management control.

The Yawuru people are closely connected to country. This is perhaps best illustrated by their seasonal calendar. They recognize six climactic seasons throughout the year. The seasons are broken down according to prevailing winds, ecological cycles (such as when certain fruits are prevalent or when the dugong and kangaroo are fat) and temperature. The Yawuru people would undertake different practices relative to the season’s riches.

The connection to the landscape is as much practical as it is spiritual. For those of us that regard Cable Beach as a sacred place for its white sands and sun, some thought should go to the local indigenous people who believe that Minyirr Park (Minyirr meaning ‘birthplace’), which is located behind the Cable Beach dunes, is the site where Aboriginal people were created. It is their traditional belief that three groups of people formed by spirits came from the sea and moved inland, singing life into existence and creating language groups, tribes and sacred law and culture.

The history of indigenous people in the region is long and complex. It cannot be done justice here.

The Pearling Era

When Europeans arrived in the north-west and carved up the land for pastoral leases, the landscape, traditions and culture were never to be the same again.

But the cattle industry would never define Broome in the way that the pearl would. From an apparently lackluster shell, the simple beauty of a pearl grown within would spawn a vibrant and multicultural township, which was unique Australia wide.

The pearling industry caught hold in Western Australia’s Shark Bay in the 1850’s. In the late 1870’s government officials suggested that Roebuck Bay be set up as a pearling port. With this in mind, John Forrest selected a town site, which was eventually to be called Broome after the colony’s governor, Frederick N. Broome.

By the late 1880’s the pearling industry was establishing in Broome. Concurrent with this period, a new telegraph cable was established linking the colony to England, (hence the name ‘Cable Beach)’ providing essential communications to world markets. Propelled by the bravery of mostly Japanese, Chinese and Islander divers who risked their lives daily in search of the elusive pearl shell, Broome quickly became the biggest pearling centre in the world. By 1910, 400 pearl luggers worked the waters around Broome.

Divers would don vulcanized canvas suits, lead-weighted boots and the now iconic hard hats, and spend hours underwater in the murky local conditions. Shark attacks, storms and the bends (diver’s paralysis) were the ultimate price for many. The Japanese Cemetery in Broome is a memorial to over 900 of these divers who lost their lives in this risky and often ill-fated industry.

At around the time of the First World War the industry suffered a blow as pearl shell products (such as buttons) were replaced by newly developed plastics. By 1939 the industry was less than a quarter of its original size.

The Second World War brought yet more disruption to the industry. Japanese residents of Broome were either interned or went home, and what was left of the pearl lugger fleet was largely destroyed by a cunning and poorly defended bombing raid on Broome.

The pearling industry, as it originated, had ceased. However, the industry re-emerged in the 1950’s on the back of advancements in artificial pearl cultivation technology. Although cultured pearls remain the basis of the industry today, it is the characters, the cultures, the hardships and the triumphs of the early pearling industry, which are still celebrated today for forging the heart and soul of Broome.