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Pearling in Shark Bay

The Shark Bay pearl oyster (Pinctada albina) spawned a rush not unlike the gold rushes of the 1800s. Up for grabs were small, straw-coloured ‘seed’ pearls – a favourite in Asian markets – and pearl shell, used to make buttons in the days before plastic fasteners. Pearling began in the 1850s and reached its peak in the 1870s. It was hard work and in many cases, the cause of great suffering. Reminders of pearling days can be found all around Shark Bay – including the township of Denham.

Scraping up a living

Commercial harvesting began after a government official investigating Shark Bay’s guano industry saw the potential of Shark Bay’s prolific oyster banks. At low tide some shell could be picked by hand, or collected by divers. But a more efficient harvesting technique was dredging: dragging wire-meshed baskets across the banks behind a shallow draught, single-masted sailing boat. By 1873 about 80 boats worked the banks of Shark Bay.

Hauling in the pearl shell
Hauling in the pearl shell
(image courtesy Dick Hoult)

Hard work

The method of processing the oysters was primitive but effective. While the men were out collecting, women and children cleaned the shells and put the (inedible) oyster flesh into barrels called ‘pogey pots’. The flesh was left to rot in the sun, then boiled until the pearls – if there were any – dropped to the bottom of the pot for collection. The odour was sickening, and could be smelled for miles around. There might be just two or three pearls in every hundred shells opened.

The pearl shell was sorted and the best sent to England, France and Germany. The women’s hands were raw with cuts from the shells. Nevertheless, for some the effort was worth it – in the early days a good harvest might be worth about A$400,000 in today’s money.

Lesser-grade shell was discarded, or put to novel use. Modern-day Denham, once a large pearlers’ camp called Freshwater Camp, had streets paved with iridescent mother-of-pearl! Discarded shell and other pearling artefacts can still be seen at
 
 
Boiling out the pogey
Boiling out the pogey
(image courtesy of Lyn Price)

Hardship

In the rush for riches, many European entrepreneurs forced Aboriginal people to labour alongside indentured Chinese, Pacific Islander and ‘Malay’ workers (many of whom were actually Indonesian and Filipino). Learn more about Shark Bay’s Aboriginal pearlers here.

Treated almost like slaves, the workers suffered terribly. Those promised wages did not always receive them; others fared far worse. Some men drowned while diving, or when their boats sank. Two men were killed in a cyclone. At least one was attacked by sharks. Their camps – mainly tents and corrugated iron huts – were primitive and unhygienic, and harboured dysentery and other diseases. At Willyah Mia, many pearlers are buried on the sand dunes behind the beach.

Later, some Chinese pearlers brought their own vessels and operated in direct competition with the Europeans, causing resentment and conflict.

Pearl shell and pearlsA changing industry

The once-prolific banks were eventually stripped bare. The introduction of plastic buttons in the 1920s and 1930s, combined with the Great Depression, meant the end of the industry. Many old pearling cutters were pressed into service as fishing boats, proving useful for net fishing in shallow water. Discover more about Shark Bay’s fishing industry here.

The wild pearl oyster is now making a comeback in Shark Bay, regrowing on the banks scraped by the dredges so many years ago. Cultured pearls are also commercially cultivated in Red Cliff Bay, near Monkey Mia. How times change!

You can learn more about Shark Bay’s cultural heritage at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.




   
 
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