Broome and the Kimberley region were home to Indigenous people for at least thirty thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Before European settlement there was extensive trading among the language groups on the Dampier Peninsula, which also extended to local island groups. Trade routes existed between east and west Kimberley, which were known as ‘winan. Family groups moved around on a semi-nomadic basis. Aboriginal people respected strict law and traditions and beliefs, involving an intimate connection to the land.
The first recorded European to land on Broome shores was the explorer William Dampier in 1668. He is said to have come ashore to bury a treasure chest on Buccaneer Rock in Roebuck Bay.
The first European settlers in the mid 1800s were pastoralists with their flocks of sheep. They discovered beds of the giant silver-lip pearl oysters, Pinctada maxima, otherwise known as Mother of Pearl shell – (MOP) in the trade – on the Eighty-mile Beach at low spring tides. MOP was in great demand in Europe and America for making buttons, inlays and bric-a-brac. As these beds were depleted, diving had to be carried out in ever deeper waters, using principally the local indigenous people as free-divers in depths up to about ten metres. The industry was for MOP, with the occasional natural pearl adding excitement, but seldom more than a few percent to the overall income.
Broome was little more than a few white settlers and a scattering of pearling camps on the mangrove-lined shores of Roebuck Bay when it was gazetted as a town on 27 November 1883 and named after the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome. In 1889 an undersea telegraph cable linking Australia to Java and the rest of the world came ashore in Broome; hence the name, Cable Beach.
In the latter part of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, Japanese divers were recruited, using cumbersome full dive suits, copper helmets and lead-weighted boots to dive in much deeper waters. Deck hands and labourers were brought in from Malaysia, the Philippines and the island of Koepang in Indonesia. Many of these people intermarried with the locals and this has led to the harmonious multiracial mix of the present-day population.
Broome became a rip-roaring wild-west town, with numerous boarding houses gambling dens and brothels. The owners of the pearling fleets were Europeans, the shopkeepers were mostly Chinese and the divers mostly Japanese and Aboriginal, the deckhands and labourers from other parts of Asia. In its heyday, up to 400 pearling luggers lined the shores of Roebuck Bay and the population exceeded 4000 people.
Broome and the Pearling Industry were impacted by both World Wars. During World War I pearling trade lapsed and hundreds of tonnes of shell were left in warehouses and were ruined. The industry continued after the war, though it never fully regained its earlier momentum. On the 3rd of March 1942 a fleet of Japanese zeros made a daring air bombardment of Broome, destroying sixteen flying boats anchored in Roebuck Bay. To this day, the wrecks of some of the aircraft can be seen at very low tide at certain times of the year.
When polyester began to replace MOP for making buttons in 1952, many people predicted the demise of the pearling industry. Fortunately at about the same time, the first cultured pearl farm began at Kuri Bay, north of Broome. There are now many pearl farms in the unpolluted waters near Broome and a number of manufacturers and retail outlets in Broome which specialize in transforming these unique gems into world-class jewellery.
Broome became an established tourism destination following investment by English building magnet Lord Alistair McAlpine in the 1980s. He invested millions of dollars in Broome, opening a zoo and restoring many of Broomes historical buildings including the famous Sun Picture House in Broome Town. He also built the luxury Cable Beach Club Resort, one of the most popular resorts in Broome and our base for the conference.