How Broome Became the Pearl of Australia’s North West

Did you know that Broome was founded on buttons? Here are four of the best places to gain a unique insight into the town’s pearling history.

If you asked an 1880s fortune hunter in Broome what riches he was chasing, do you know what he’d say? If you answered “pearls”, you’re mistaken. Back then, the pioneers of the young port town were after something we no longer value: pearl shells.

In those times, mother of pearl buttons were coveted around the world. Circular holes were punched in pinctada maxima – the largest pearl shell on the planet – which were then found in plentiful supply on the beach flats of Broome. As well as buttons, the lustrous, silvery-white interior of the shell was used for cutlery.

The trade gave life to what’s still one of the most isolated towns in the world, and as shells thinned out in the shallows, divers were employed – often forcibly – to dive deeper and deeper in their pursuit.

Local Aboriginal people were brutally exploited, but after restrictions against enslaving them were brought in, immigrants were instead imported from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor and China.

By the turn of the century, Broome had become the busiest pearling port in the world, with some 400 pearl luggers sweeping the sea floor for the prized oyster shell.It wasn’t until the popularisation of plastic buttons in the 1950s that Broome’s pearling industry had to reinvent itself. The lustrous, spherical, cultured pearls that we now pay big money for resuscitated the trade, but it has never matched those productive days of old. Today, only a handful of pearl farmers remain around Broome, but the town still harbours remnants of its glory days. Here’s how to find them.

Broome pearl and shell at the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm.
Photo: Broome pearl and shell at the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm

Wander through Chinatown

Broome’s ritzy pearl boutiques are dotted throughout Chinatown – most cluster on Dampier Terrace – but wind the clock back and the streets were a little grittier.

Chinatown was once the city’s red-light district, with brothels, gambling houses and opium dens providing ample distraction for the pearlers once they were off the boats. Hawkers and noodle stalls were slotted between pearling sheds. The district’s characteristic look of corrugated iron buildings provides an insight into the structures of the time.

Catch a flick at the world’s oldest open-air cinema

Pearling master Ted Hunter opened the now-iconic Sun Pictures more than a century ago, in 1916. The first film to screen was a silent movie. During the pearling era, “white Australians” were seated on cushioned chairs in the middle, with children at the front, and Chinese and Japanese cinema-goers behind. Malays, Filipinos and Aboriginals, pushed further down the social hierarchy, had to enter through a separate door and would either perch on benches at the back and sides, or stand.

Thankfully, segregation is a thing of the past and now it’s first in, best dressed at the well-preserved, heritage-listed cinema’s regular screenings. Buying a ticket means you can say you’ve watched a film under the stars at the oldest picture garden in the world.

Sun Pictures, Broome
Photo: Sun Pictures, Broome

Visit the Japanese cemetery

One of the sad truths about pearling is that diving for shells was a dangerous pastime that resulted in a frightening number of deaths. Japanese divers in the late 1880s wore lead boots weighing several kilograms each, heavy metal helmets and bulky woollen undergarments in an effort to insulate themselves against the seafloor’s icy, 10-degree Celsius temperatures. They were routinely in the water for up to seven hours, and many suffered from the bends.

On the outskirts of Broome, more than 900 gravestones are engraved with Japanese characters, commemorating those who lost their lives at sea. Walk through them and consider the conditions they worked in.

The Japanese Cemetery, Broome
Photo: The Japanese Cemetery, Broome

Follow the jetty trail through Broome’s past

Broome’s original platform into the sea, Streeter’s Jetty, still exists and it’s from here that the self-guided Jetty to Jetty trail departs. This heritage award winning trail was created by the local Yawuru people, it has excellent signage and an app to download, so you can listen to spoken history shared by local residents. Their many voices bring Broome’s pearling past to life, recalling work and life in the port town.

The walk ends at the site of Broome’s Old Jetty at Town Beach. Afterwards, pop in to the Pearl Luggers museum to see pearling artefacts, including a fully restored lugger, and hear more historic tales.

Streeter's Jetty, Broome
Photo: Streeter's Jetty, Broome

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