The Snail Trail

Travelling with my home on my back and in no hurry to get anywhere

Broome Museum


Broome – Buttons and Bombs

You’re probably wondering what the connection is between buttons and Broome. Well, before Broome became famous for its beautiful pearls it was just as famous for its mother of pearl shell. As a matter of fact, Broome used to provide up to 70% of the world’s pearl shell.

The Broome Museum is a wealth of information about the pearling industry that put Broome on the map and it is both a romantic and tragic history. For the romance, read Di Morrissey’s book, Tears of the Moon, which although a novel has been researched well and captures the spirit of Broome’s history. For the tragedy, dig a little deeper on the internet – or visit the Broome Museum – and learn how the pearling industry claimed hundreds of lives as it evolved from ‘naked diving’ to the sophisticated methods used today.

The industry suffered from a high death toll, with hazards from shark attack, cyclones and frequently, the bends. Four tropical cyclones hit the area between 1908 and 1935 and over 100 boats and 300 people were lost during that time, as evidenced by the numerous graves in the Japanese cemetery in Broome.                                                                                        (Source Wikipedia)

I found this great, very readable site about the history of Broome that you might like to visit – Broome History – A Captivating Tale

The museum also opened my eyes to the devastation Broome suffered as a result of World War 2. Many people died in Broome  and one of the saddest stories is of the women and children evacuated from Indonesia who were aboard the flying boats when they were bombed by the Japanese at the Broome wharf. Here’s how it’s described in the website recommended above…

Broome and its port were undefended when they suffered the second worst air raid in Australia’s history (Darwin of course suffered the worst) on the 3rd of March 1942. The Japanese shot down a plane carrying wounded which had just taken off heading for Perth. They went on to destroy 15 of the Dornier flying boats anchored in the shallow bay. Most of the flying boats were filled with refugees, mostly women and children, many of whom died either immediately or swimming through the burning oil… And finally the Japanese bombers turned to the airfield, where most of the planes were destroyed. When they finally left Broome its buildings, vehicles, and even the ocean around the bombed boats were burning. 24 aircraft had been destroyed and 70 people killed.

Can you remember having mother of pearl buttons? The advent of plastic buttons killed off this major Broome industry and led to the growth of cultured pearls.

The plastic button sealed the fate of the Mother of Pearl industry, but not the fate of Broome. Experiments with cultured pearls had been under way for many years, and again it was the Japanese who perfected the process. The results were phenomenal.

Broome pearls mature in 2 rather than 4 years like Japanese pearls, and they are also twice as big. 20 years later the town produced up to 70% of the world’s large cultured pearls. It continues to be one of the world’s major suppliers for quality pearls today.

When I catch the bus in to Broome from the caravan park at Roebuck Bay we pass a beautifully haunting statue erected as a tribute to the aboriginal women divers and indeed all women who waited for their pearl divers to come home and who made a contribution to the Broome pearling industry.

Women of Pearling Statue    The statue of an Indigenous woman coming out of the water with a pearl shell also seeks to acknowledge those who were exploited as divers along the coastline south of Broome during the ‘blackbirding’ phase. “Blackbirding” was  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.

In the heart of town there is also a statue of 3 men who contributed to the foundation of Broome’s pearling industry. Broome Statues

The statues commemorate Broome’s pearl divers, pearling masters and crews and pay tribute to their contribution to Broome’s multicultural history.  The three statues are a tribute to the establishment of the Kuri Bay pearl cultivation project. The figures depict Mr T Kuribayashi (founder of project), Mr Keith Dureau (1st managing director) and Mr H Iwaki (searched the project site). 

There’s a lot more to Broome than camels and Cable Beach!