Originally founded as a pearling port over a hundred years ago, Broome now boasts a multicultural population of many nationalities lured here by the promise of finding their fortunes. Koepanger, Malay, Chinese, European and Aboriginal cultures have all blended to create a captivatingly friendly and flamboyant personality that is the heart and soul of Broome.
No modern discussion of Broome's history can ignore the regions Aboriginal Australians. Their claim to the lands that would become known as Dampierland, Roebuck Bay and Broome, span forty thousand years and clearly supersede that of any of the European explorers that would come later.
In 1688, when William Dampier first visited "New Holland" as the area was known to the rest of the world at the time, the first seeds were sown that would forever change the lives of the regions indigenous people. The constant and fundamental cultural clashes between the two people eventually led to the exploitation of the regions original inhabitants, especially in the early days of the pearling industry when Aborigines were forced to become skin divers for pearl shell and work aboard the pearl luggers.
Any visitor to Broome can immediately recognise the legacy of place names and landmarks named after William Dampier the navigator, explorer, buccaneer and distinguished chronicler of the seven seas who is credited for discovering the region known today as the Kimberley in Western Australia.
Dampier, who at the time was an acknowledged pirate, first visited the region in 1688 and his meticulous journal from his travels is what later inspired the first ‘official’ voyage of discovery. Dampier returned in 1699 but after an altercation with curious aboriginals, in which a native was killed, was forced to hurriedly depart the area.
However, Dampier’s journals were enough to stimulate interest in the areas rich pearl shell beds. By the late 1870s there was a growing pearling industry in the waters off north-western Australia with the largest base of operations being located in Cossack, about 700km from what was to become Broome.
In 1879, Charles Harper suggested to the Legislative Council that Roebuck Bay be set up as a port with facilities for the pearling industry. Thus, in 1883, John Forrest selected a town site on Roebuck Bay just east of Dampier Creek where three native wells existed and predicted this site would become the Capital of the Kimberley. Later that year, the townsite of Broome was proclaimed and named after the colony’s Governor, Frederick N. Broome.
The first sale of town lots took place in October 1886 and two years later Broome was gazetted as a port. In 1889, a new telegraph cable was established at Roebuck Bay, linking the isolated colony direct with England, via Singapore, India, Aden, Egypt, Malta and Gibraltar.
The Fat Years of 1889 to 1891 saw the price of mother of pearl shell escalate to new highs and established Broome as a port often referred to as the Queen City of the North. By 1898, Broome was the principal cargo port for north Western Australia and by the First World War; the Port of Broome was second only to Fremantle.
At this time, men from the UK dominated the pearling industry at Roebuck Bay but by 1900 many had retired to England or other destinations to enjoy their fortunes. As these men disappeared, they were replaced by younger men from Victoria and New South Wales affected by the depression of the nineties.
World War I
When World War I was declared in 1914, Broome harboured about 300 pearl luggers and had a population of over 1,000 white men and some 2,000 coloured. Within a few months the fleet numbers were halved, as men rushed to enlist in the war effort and economic events in Europe severely impacted the Broome pearling industry with devastating results.
European markets for mother of pearl began to collapse and many thought the industry was coming to an end. During the war years the only additional use found for mother of pearl was for buttons on soldiers’ uniforms. By December 1916 Broome was threatened with economic ruin as the sale of mother of pearl dwindled and enemy ships threatened shipments consigned for the states.
With excess stocks and luggers going to ruin Broome’s economic situation was bleak however when the war ended in 1918, a different pearling industry emerged. The English influence and affluence of "Old Broome" disappeared forever as many socially prominent families chose not to return after the war. Broome had also suffered extensive damage by the cyclones of 1908, 1910 and especially 1912 and much of the town needed to be rebuilt. Slowly, Broome would rebuild itself once again into an exciting and economically viable port. The 1920s would see Broome once again with a vibrant, thriving pearling industry and the price of pearl shell at its highest ever.
World War II
War returned to Broome on December 8, 1941 the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Australia instantly joined America in declaring war on the Japanese and almost immediately, all pearling activity ceased in Broome. Men rushed to join the war effort and the industry’s labour pool vanished overnight as Japanese residents were interred in camps.
Since Broome’s livelihoods relied heavily on the skill and experience of Japanese divers this was an economic death knell for the pearling industry and the town. The residents of Broome were suddenly faced with rounding up and interring friends and employees simply because they were Japanese. Unlike other towns Broome’s Japanese population made up a good portion of the towns inhabitants and many had been born and raised in Australia and had no ties to Japan. Although they complied with the internment policy, Broome, residents tried to make life as easy as possible for the Japanese.
The war escalated quickly and by February 26, 1942 Malaya (now known as Malaysia) and Singapore had fallen, as well as the islands of Ambon and Timor. This put the Japanese only three hundred miles north of Broome and the threat of a Japanese air attack became a reality. A defence unit was organised and the town’s aerodrome was upgraded to accommodate the largest planes and Broome became a re-fuelling station for the R.A.A.F.
In January 1942, pearlers were informed that their luggers were to be purchased and unseaworthy vessels destroyed as a provision against a Japanese landing. Shortly afterwards on March 3, 1942 Japanese Zeros strafed the aircraft in Roebuck Bay and at the aerodrome with machine gun fire and destroyed sixteen Flying Boat planes (Dorniers, Catalinas and Short Empire flying boats) which were refuelling after evacuating Dutch refugees from Java.
Following there were three further air raids, one on the 20th March 1942 in which one aircraft was destroyed and one person killed, and in August 1942 and August 1943 which resulted in minimal damage with no deaths or injuries. The constant fear continued to force Broome residents to stay away and the town languished into decay. By the time the war ended, Broome was badly deteriorated and a mere shell of its former self. Residents, who did return, found little to salvage and were forced to start from scratch. But, as had happened after World War I, Broome would recover and rebuild once again. The pearling industry once again evolved and a new market in cultured pearls changed the way pearl shell was harvested forever.
The influence of the pearling industry, with its cultural melting pot, has helped to create the distinctive character and charm of Broome. South Sea Pearls are recognised as the best in the world and pearling remains one of the town’s major industries due to the cultured pearl, which revived the industry after its near demise in the late 1950s.
The pearling industry remains a vibrant part of Broome, proudly producing the world’s finest pearls. And if you take the time to explore, you’ll discover that Broome is as rich in history as it is these gems from the sea.