These days, Broome is known as one of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations. A coastal town in the undulating Kimberley region of Western Australia, its famed Cable Beach faces west, allowing for gorgeous, unspoilt sunsets every evening on the vast, sandy beach. This brings thousands of visitors every year to stay in Broome accommodation. However, there is an interesting history that makes up the rich tapestry of Broome, most of it centred on the pearling industry.
The town was originally founded in 1883 as a port for the pearling industry and was named after the then Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Broome. The site was chosen after a suggestion from Charles Harper in 1879 that there should be a port closer to the pearling grounds of WA.
The first European to visit the area was William Dampier in 1688. However, he never visited what modern-day Broome itself is. He only visited the north of the Dampier Peninsula, which was named after him. In 1699 he also surveyed the WA coast from Shark Bay to La Grange Bay, and that’s why many of the coastal features around the Broome coastline are named after him.
In 1889, six years after the official founding of Broome as a pearling town, an undersea telegraph cable was laid between Broome and East Java, ultimately connecting to England. This is where Cable Beach got its name from.
The indigenous people of Australia, also known as aborigines or aboriginals have a claim to Broome dating back some 40,000 years. After Dampier first surveyed this part of WA in 1688, it changed the lives of the indigenous people from that day forth.
The indigenous people of the region were exploited by the pearling industry, forced to risk their lives as ‘skin divers’ for pearl shell, or work aboard pearl luggers. The aborigines were at first ‘blackbirded’, or in other words, enslaved, and then forced to dive naked to collect and harvest mother of pearl from the ocean.
Broome was founded by the European settlers as a pearling town, taking advantage of the riches of the nearby coastal waters. At first, indigenous people were used as forced labour for both the harvesting of pearls and working on the luggers (a small sailing ship used to collect the pearls). Later, when slavery was abolished along with the practice of skin diving (diving naked with no equipment), it was understood that diving suits were needed for deeper diving. This was seen as a dangerous job with a huge amount of risk and mainly fell to Asian migrants.
In particular, the Japanese were valued for their skills and expertise. They were considered to be specialist divers but harvesting the pearl beds was a life-threatening activity, and today you can visit the Japanese cemetery in Broome, which is the resting place of 919 Japanese divers who lost their lives working in the pearling industry. Many more Japanese pearlers were lost at sea, and the exact number of deaths is not known.
The roaring success of the pearling industry in the early years made Broome become known as the Queen City of the North. Between 1889 and 1891 the price of mother of pearl shell soared and anyone involved in harvesting the coastal riches became very prosperous. Mostly, these were men from the UK, but by the turn of the 20th century, most had returned home, only to be replaced by younger men from Victoria and New South Wales, who were affected by an economic depression in their home states. The pearling industry continued to roar, and by the outset of WWI, Broome had become the principal cargo port for northern WA, and second only to Fremantle in the state.
At the outset of war in 1914, the pearling industry in Broome was severely affected as many of the town’s inhabitants enlisted to go and fight. The price of mother of pearl began to collapse because of economic conditions in Europe, and many people believed the industry was coming to a close. However, by 1918 – the end of the war – a different pearling industry emerged, and despite many setbacks, Broome had rebuilt itself with a vibrant and thriving pearling industry by the 1920s, with the price of pearl shell at higher than ever before.
As soon as Australia entered the Second World War, all pearling activity in Broome ceased again. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii in 1941, Australia joined the USA in declaring war on Japan, and men rushed to join the troops fighting the war effort, thus dwindling the town’s labour supply and many of the lugger ships were commissioned by the navy. Broome was attacked by Japanese aircraft four times during World War II. On an air raid on 3rd March 1942, at least 86 people were killed. Twenty-two aircraft were destroyed, most of them flying boats, the remains of which can still be seen in the harbour at low tide.
By the end of the war, Broome had suffered badly, and for anyone returning they found a once-prosperous town on the brink of collapse. But the residents of Broome rebuilt the town and the pearling industry. A new market in cultured pearls emerged, and this changed the way pearl shell was harvested. After a near demise in the 1950s, pearling has been one of Broome’s major industries due to the cultured pearl, and today South Sea Pearls are recognised as the best in the world. Along with tourism, pearling continues to dominate Broome to this day.
If you’re interested in visiting and are looking for accommodation in Broome, then please give us a call now on (0)8 9194 1700. Broome-Time Accommodation is centrally located on the Broome Peninsula (between Cable Beach and Roebuck Bay), and we offer 58 self-contained rooms over two floors. Our on-site art gallery and art shop is a big pull for visitors with a wide display of Kimberley art, plus traditional & contemporary indigenous paintings and other artefacts. You can also contact us at any time using the contact form on our website, and we’d be delighted to answer your queries.