European exploration of Australia's north-west coastline around the Broome area began in 1688 when William Dampier reached the area in the 'Cygnet'. Dampier returned to the area in 1699, sailing the HMS 'Roebuck' into Roebuck Bay. On this visit Dampier came ashore to collect fresh water and provisions for his crew. Some of the area's indigenous 'Goolarabooloo' Aborigines came to watch the Europeans and in the clash that followed Dampier shot and killed one native man. Dampier also noted the presence of pearl shell beds in the area.
Western Australia's pearl trade began in the 1860s and by the late 1870s the industry was centred around the town of Cossack, around 700 kilometres from the future Broome townsite.
Pearl shell beds were again noted in Roebuck Bay in 1882 and the following year a port and townsite were declared. The town was named 'Broome' in honour of the Western Australian governor, Frederick Napier Broome. At this time Broome consisted of a handful of pearlers, pearling luggers, some shanties and local Aboriginal people.
Broome, however, was destined for bigger things. In 1889 submarine telegraph cable to Java was opened and a cable station was erected in Broome. The cable house was imported as a prefabricated building and constructed in Broome as the town's first building of any real substance. There is some suggestion that the iron framed, corrugated iron clad and teak lined building was mistakenly delivered to Broome and was actually intended for Kimberley in South Africa. The building was converted for used as Broome's courthouse in 1922.
The Roebuck Bay Hotel first opened its doors in the late 1880s. The original hotel building burned down as a new single-storey building was constructed in 1904. There have been substantial extensions made to the building since this time.
|Sun Picture Gardens, Broome|
Streeters store, selling pearls and pearl shells, was also established in the 1880s. Arthur Male joined E.W Streeter's business in that decade. Today three of their timber framed, corrugated iron stores remain at the northern end of Chinatown. Streeter's Jetty was constructed as part of the business in the 1890s. Reconstruction work has since been undertaken on the timber-framed jetty.
The first pearl divers were Aborigines who were kidnapped and worked as indentured labourers on the pearling luggers. The first divers operated without the aid of breathing apparatus but diving helmets and air pumps were introduced by 1900, allowing divers to reach greater depths. By this time the pearling workforce diversified to include Japanese and Malaysian divers as well as some Filipino, Chinese, Timorese, Amborese, Makassan and European pearlers.
An insight into the dangers of pearl diving can be obtained by viewing Broome's Japanese cemetery. The burial ground contains the graves of 919 people. Many divers succumbed to the bends (divers paralysis). In 1914 alone 33 divers died as a result of the bends.
Cyclones also posed a threat to the pearling fleet. In 1887 a cyclone took the lives of 140 men at Eighty Mile Beach. Another devastating cyclone in 1935 resulted in the deaths of 135 men and the destruction of 20 pearling luggers.
The rising price of mother of pearl shells between 1889 and 1891, coupled with cheap labour, saw Broome gain a firm footing as a port and by this time it had taken over from Cossack as the main pearling centre.
Broome had become north-western Australia's major cargo port by 1898 and was the world's leading pearling centre by 1910.
At the beginning of WWI around 300 pearling luggers were operating from Broome. The war, however, saw the pearling fleet halved as men enlisted in the armed services and the market for mother of pearl took a dramatic downturn.
The Sun Picture Gardens were built in 1916 and remain in commercial operation today. When the outdoor picture theatre first opened seating was divided so that whites sat in one section and coloured people were seated on the other side of the lattice divider.
Broome's pearling industry re-emerged during the 1920s as pearl shell prices attained record prices in that decade.
WWII also impacted on the pearling industry, which virtually ceased operations after war was declared on Japan in December 1941 and Broome's Japanese residents, some of whom had lived in the town for more than 50 year or had been born in Australia, were placed in internment camps. The internment of the Japanese resulted in an immediate labour shortage for the pearling industry.
During the war the government purchased pearling luggers and destroyed the unseaworthy boats as part of a strategy to prevent a Japanese landing. Broome was under constant threat of attack during the war but Roebuck Bay was only bombed once by the Japanese, in March 1942. Sixteen Dornier Flying Boat planes, refuelling in the bay, were destroyed in the attack.
Broome, a shadow of its former self after WWII, again rebuilt at the conclusion of the war.
|Pearl Divers Memorial, Broome|
Post-war, pearling also faced the competition of the introduction of plastic as a less expensive and easily obtained alternative to pearl shells, which had previously been used for making buttons and fasteners. It was at this time that cultured pearl farming was introduced and the nature of the industry was permanently changed.
Tourism also emerged as a growth industry in the post-war years and Broome's warm climate and wide beaches continue to attract tourists today.
Broome is located on Roebuck Bay at the southern most tip of the Kimberley region, 2,200 kilometres north of Perth.