skip to content

Pearling, the Japanese and the Great War in Broome, reflected in two important historical collections.

Pearling, the Japanese and the Great War in Broome, reflected in two important historical collections.

Broome Historical Society Museum
67 Robinson Street
Broome WA, 6725

Heritage Centre
Sisters of St John of God
9 Barker Street
Broome WA 6725


The Great War slowed and damaged Broome’s pearling industry. Before the days of plastic buttons mother of pearl provided a principal raw material for button-making. A world-wide market for pearl shell saw Broome develop rapidly between the mid-1880s and the first decades of the 20th century.  After 1900 Australia supplied 80% of the world’s pearl shell buttons. The local industry was established on the lands of the Yawuru people, who traditionally wore pearl shell rijis (pubic coverings) and whose custom almost certainly drew attention to the local availability of the shells.

About 1000 people of European descent were living in Broome when the war started. More than double that number were non-European – particularly Japanese, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian. Indigenous Australians also sometimes lived in the town.

Export dependent industries were stifled during wartime, after stretches of ocean were made more dangerous by hostile surface vessels and submarines. The Indian Ocean and the islands to the north of Broome harboured German raiders such as the Emden and their presence was a factor in the collapse of work opportunities for pearl divers and their support crews.  The Broome Collector of Customs reckoned that by late 1914 there was 1500 tons of shell lying unsold in Broome sheds and wrote:

There is no question in my mind as to the ultimate result of the present war on the Pearling Industry in this State and unless the unforeseen occurs, the whole of the fleets will be out of commission at the end of the year. (Collector of Customs Freemantle Report, 7 November 1914)

The number of Japanese in Broome had steadily increased from about 1880, reaching a peak just before the Second World War.  Some 2000 people of Japanese descent lived in the town.  Though their forebears in Australia had often been divers, by the early 1900s many had acquired ownership of luggers.

The seasonal ‘lay-up’ of workers in December each year during the cyclone season sometimes created discord between the owner-operators of luggers and their employees. This was exacerbated by complex racial tensions and class consciousness.

In 1907 violence erupted between well-to-do Japanese and their Malay divers and deckhands. In 1914, with the European war already affecting much of the world, trouble broke out once more during the seasonal lay-up, this time between Japanese and their Indonesian labourers (Koepangers/ Timorese). Some 600 Japanese engaged with about 150 Koepangers, both groups armed with improvised and more conventional weapons. 

The Historical Museum and the Heritage Centre (managed by the Sisters of St John of God) at Broome hold collections evoking these unsettled times made worse by the onset of the war.


The Heritage Centre of the Sisters of St of God’s home page:

Broome Historical Museum:

ABC broadcast concerning 1914 and 1920 Race Riots:

Western Australia Police Historical Society Inc:

The White Divers of Broome, John Bailey, Pan Macmillan 2001

Thanks to Kylie Jennings at the Broome Historical Museum and to Sister Pat Rhatigan at the St John of God Heritage Centre, Broome.