Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Historic strings attached to Deloraine Brohier’s pearls


The pearl set that Deloraine Brohier wore because she valued its history of the pearls being hunted by the Aboriginal people of Australia (“The knight with the pearl earring”, Shamalee de Silva Parizeau, The Sunday Times Plus, March 5) in olden times might, in fact, have been the work of Sri Lanka pearl fishermen, who knows?

These “Cinghalese” divers came to Australia in large numbers from the late 1800s to join the Aboriginal divers who traditiona­lly valued the mother-ofpearl shells rather than the pearls, especially from the foot-wide Pinctada maxima oyster.

Initially, the fishermen dived naked; then diving suits were introduced and there are stories of the slightly-built Sri Lankan and Japanese divers bent forward almost horizontal in the heavy suits and helmets, searching the seabed.

Galle master craftsman jeweller Thomas Bastian Ellies left Sri Lanka in 1897 to join the pearling boom in Broome, northern Australia, where he became known as the Pearl Doctor for his unrivalled skill in cleaning pearls. A Lankan touch: he is said to have calmed nervous merchants with a drink while he delicately shaved off imperfecti­ons from pearls of extraordin­ary value without ruining them.

The Carnarvon Times of 17 July 1937 reports Ellies’ death in June 1937, stating he had been a devout Buddhist and that Japanese women had chanted a dirge as his coffin was lowered into the grave. He was world-renowned, a great philanthro­pist and “supporter of every sporting body in town” and his funeral had been the most impressive seen in Broome for years.

The Sri Lankan pearl fishermen and other Sri Lankans who came to work on Australian sugarcane estates and Australian-owned coconut estates in the South Sea islands came, in the main, without their families and intermarri­ed with the Aboriginal people.

Names such as Fernando, Silva and Peiris are still extant. In 1994, Aboriginal cousins Brendan and Vester Fernando raped and murdered a nurse. The Aboriginal Olympic and Commonweal­th Games gold medal winner and later senator bears the intriguing name of Nova Peris. A tearful man once wrote to The Australian when I was Letters Editor there around 1995 that some Aboriginal­s used to take on Sri Lankan names in earlier days to lessen the racism they faced and he had just found out that an apparent Sri Lankan trace in his otherwise white ancestry was Aboriginal, to the horror of his family.

So either way, Deloraine Brohier’s pearls have a rich history.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I remember that Aunty Deloraine gave me a wedding gift of The Daily News Cookery Book that served me well until our bullmastif­f munched a third of it. I struggled by on two-thirds (thankfully minus the albumen puddings of cooking for invalids), until a new one appeared. Vale a grande dame. Dinoo Kelleghan


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