Broome’s Shinju Matsuri festival
LINGER A LITTLE IN BROOME and pretty soon you’ll start seeing pearls everywhere: in the full moon’s glowing orb as it shines on mudflats, in strings of fairy lights hung above a grassy beer garden, even in the dinner plates of a balmy, open-air restaurant. Call it a lust for lustre, or too much time under the northern sun. Either way, the organic gems, nurtured by the Kimberley region’s immense tropical tides and Tiffanyblue bays, deserve gratitude: without them, Broome and all its sun-kissed holiday escapism might not exist. And then we’d never twig that Broome is also home to the largest dinosaur footprints on Earth, harbours dolphins so rarely spotted that David Attenborough flew in to witness them, and neighbours twin waterfalls that flow, of all things, horizontally. It’s surprising to learn that the pearls we pay thousands for today were once thrown away in lieu of their pearlescent shells. Broome’s Pinctada maxima is the largest pearl shell in the world and from the 1880s onwards, it was punched with circles to make shiny buttons. The ensuing boom meant Japanese, Filipino, Malay, Koepanger and Chinese people flocked to the laid-back frontier town – one of the most remote in the world – but not before local Aboriginals were exploited in the rush for mother of pearl shell. “In the early days, pearl shells were found out on the flats of the beach,” says Bart Pigram, a Yawuru man and leader of Narlijia Cultural Tours, who guides visitors through the historic heart of Broome. “Over time, they had to dive deeper and deeper.” Bart’s UK-born fourtimes-great-grandfather was one of the early pearlers to engage in the pearling slave trade. A visit to the town’s Pearl Luggers museum lays its ugly history bare: most Aboriginal people were tricked into slavery. Pregnant Indigenous women were particularly favoured as freedivers, due to a belief they could hold their breath for longer – a statue in Pioneer Park pays tribute to them. All divers had to surface with either a shell or sand in their hand to prove they had reached the bottom; holding neither resulted in a beating. In the early 1870s, restrictions were brought in against enslaving Aboriginal people, and female divers banned. Asian immigrants were instead indentured to plunge even deeper beneath the surface wearing heavy, spaceman-like helmets, lead-weighted boots weighing 20 kilograms each and hand knitted woollen undergarments underneath diving suits to brace against the cold. They’d spend up to seven hours underwater, and the survival rate was low. By 1910, Broome was home to more than 400 pearl lugging boats, making it the largest pearling centre in the world. “By the 1940s, there were gambling dens and five brothels in town,” says Bart as we walk beside Broome’s distinguishing corrugated iron buildings with their wraparound, cross-hatch lattice verandahs, designed for air flow. Plenty of interracial relationships blossomed, the multicultural legacy of which characterises the Broome of today. Indeed, Bart’s three-times great grandmother, Agnes ‘Guilwil’ Bryan, was one of the first of Broome’s mixed raced inhabitants – with an English/Irish father and an Aboriginal mother. Pearling is no longer the cash cow of old. The advent of plastic in the 1950s killed the button trade, and although the industry evolved to the point of culturing perfectly spherical pearls as high-value jewellery, it’s an intricate, challenging and expensive game. Today, there’s less than a handful of working pearl farms in the region. Yet Broome is still deeply connected to the pearling trade, and not just as the local adornment of choice. Each September, Shinju Matsuri – Japanese for ‘festival of the pearl’ – bridges the town’s heritage with present-day descendants. Where once there were several cultural celebrations marking the return of pearl luggers, now the 47-year-old festival brings the entire town, and all its visitors, together.
The nine-day event symbolically opens with the awakening of Sammy the Chinese Dragon, who dances past festival president Chris Maher, proudly sporting
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT: Red lanterns adorn Cable Beach; Shinju Matsuri celebrates Broome’s multicultural past; Sammy the Chinese dragon makes his presence felt. OPPOSITE: Lanterns light the Sunset Long Table Dinner.