Our Heritage


Broome and its surrounds has some of the oldest patterns of immigration in the nation.  Over many years, successive waves of economic migrants have been attracted to the marine and land-based resources in the region for their livelihoods.  Livestock, pearls, seafood, agriculture and minerals, along with oil and gas, have been the source of most activity in the region (Broome Growth Plan 2015).

Many families of Broome have diverse, interconnected roots founded in many cultural groups, including Yawuru and other Aboriginal Australians, as well as settler Australians such as Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Malay, Roumah, Koepangers and Ambonese (Broome Growth Plan 2015).

Aboriginal Australians

The Yawuru Native Title holders and other Aboriginal residents of the Broome area are a significant component of the population of the Shire of Broome.  Their native title interests and cultural connections are spread throughout the Shire of Broome (Broome Growth Plan 2015).

A total of 84 Aboriginal communities are located within the Shire of Broome, of which 78 as classified as remote. Strong traditional ties to land have created a significant range of native title claims and determinations within the Shire, including:

  • Bardi Jawi
  • Bindunbur
  • Birrriman-gan
  • Jabirr Jabirr / Ngumbari
  • Karajarri A and B
  • Nyikina
  • Ngurrara
  • Nyangumarta
  • Rubibi (Yawuru)

Native title determinations still to be decided include:

  • Joombarn-buru
  • Mount Jowlaenga

The Yawuru people are the Native Title holders for the townsite of Broome.  For thousands of years Yawuru people have lived along the foreshores of Roebuck Bay, across the pindan plains, as far inland as the Walan-garr (Edgar Ranges) and along the fringes of the Great Sandy Desert. Yawuru country is land and sea moulded by the cycle of seasonal change. It is a living cultural landscape with which Yawuru people have a dynamic and enduring relationship (Joint Management Plan for the Yawuru Minyirr Buru Conservation Estate).

On 28 April 2006, the Federal Court determined that the Yawuru people are the recognised native title holders of the lands and waters in and around Broome. In February 2010, the Yawuru RNTBC, the Government of Western Australia, the Shire and other relevant parties signed two ILUAs – the Yawuru Prescribed Body Corporate Indigenous Land Use Agreement and the Yawuru Area Agreement Indigenous Land Use Agreement.  An ILUA is an agreement under the Native Title Act between a native title group and others about the use and management of land and waters.  These ILUAs resolved compensation issues and clarified that native title continued to exist for the Yawuru people.  The ILUAs provide for the establishment and joint management of the Yawuru Conservation Estate by Yawuru, the Shire of Broome and the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (Joint Management Plan for the Yawuru Minyirr Buru Conservation Estate).

More information on native title, the Yawuru people’s journey for native title determination and the ILUAs can be found on the website for the National Native Title Tribunal (National Native Title Tribunal 2010c), on the Yawuru website (www.yawuru.com) and in the Yawuru Cultural Management Plan (Joint Management Plan for the Yawuru Minyirr Buru Conservation Estate).

Aboriginal Heritage

The Shire of Broome undertakes a number of functions which could potentially interact with Aboriginal heritage, such as undertaking Public Works and development.  The Shire acknowledges the importance of Aboriginal heritage and as such has developed policy 1.2.15 Consultation – Aboriginal Heritage.  This policy can be viewed in the resources below.

European Discovery

The first Europeans known to have set foot in the Kimberley region were from William Dampier's ship Roebuck, when he came ashore in La Grange Bay in search of water in 1700.  Dampier had visited the coast on an earlier voyage in 1688, when he careened the Cygnet in King Sound.  Other visitors included the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, who charted the coast in the Geographe and Naturaliste during his exploratory journey of 1801-1804, and the sailors from the Beagle, which lost an anchor while in Roebuck Bay in 1838 and were the first Europeans recorded as setting foot on the mangrove beaches of the Bay. 

On 21 November 1883, when the town site of Broome was gazetted, the settlement at Roebuck Bay consisted of a few pearling camps along the foreshore near Dampier Creek.  The camps were occupied by the Malay crews of the pearling luggers and by the European owners of small pearling boats. 

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.  With the proximity of rich pearl shell beds in Roebuck Bay and 80 Mile Beach, Broome soon became known as the pearling capital of the world. 

Broome evolved as a segregated town, with wealthy pearlers and Europeans living at one end in elegant bungalows surrounded by tropical gardens and tended by mostly non-European servants.  At the other end was Chinatown where the Asian and non-European populations lived and played, and where much of the commercial and business activities took place.

Roaring Years

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 United Kingdom 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

Broome’s pearling workforce was halved in 1914 with the commencement of World War 1 as men enlisted and European markets for mother-of-pearl collapsed.  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.

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 interned 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 interning 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.

Broome also developed as the administrative and service centre for the region.  Oil exploration within the Kimberley region and offshore was headquartered at Broome, and a new deep water port and jetty were opened at Entrance Point in 1966 to cater to the growing beef export industry and larger ships.  Air services expanded, a new meatworks was built in the town and Shire offices replaced the old Roads Board office in 1968.  Improved services such as refrigeration and air-conditioning were available, and a new supply of fresh water, and modern sewerage and electricity facilities were installed. 

Since the 1970s, tourism has expanded with increased flights to and from the town, along with improved roads making Broome more accessible.  The growth of the tourism and other industries has brought great changes to the town, extending it westwards to Cable Beach as the population has expanded.  Growth in population and general wealth have meant the expansion of facilities and services for residents, seen in the areas of administration, health, education, recreation, capital works, and specialist services, particularly noticeable in the area of services for the Aboriginal communities.

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.

Municipal Inventory of Heritage Places

The Shire of Broome Municipal Inventory of Heritage Places 2019 was adopted by Council on 27 June 2019 and can be read here(PDF, 12MB).