The abundance of pearl shells in the waters around Broome has shaped the lives of local Aboriginal people, but not always for the better.
Long before Europeans arrived in Australia, Aboriginal people collected and ate pearl shell oysters.
The shells were of great significance to Aboriginal people in the North West and archeological evidence indicates they were traded to other areas.
Carved shells like this, known as a riji, were worn by Aboriginal men in the Broome area.
The powers of the natives in diving, especially the females, are spoken of as something wonderful, they go down to a depth of seven fathoms and remain below a time that astonishes their white employers.
Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, 25 September 1868
In the early days of the pearling industry, many Aboriginal people were used as pearl shell divers.
The industry began in the 1860s in waters well south of Broome, but the Aboriginal divers came from right across the north west region.
Many of the men and women were forced or tricked into working far from their traditional lands.
In this image from around 1915, some of the men are wearing rijis.
A few years ago the aborigines were easily induced to sign a contract binding them to their employer for the diving season, and in remuneration for their labour received the usual pay — food, tobacco, clothing from the neck to the knees, and a blanket. They lived aboard a schooner on the fishing grounds during the five summer months, diving from small boats. . . Excepting an hour for dinner, they remained away from the schooner from sunrise to sunset.
The Inquirer and Commercial News, 9 July 1892
This law, passed in 1871, aimed to better protect Aboriginal people working in the pearl shell industry and prohibited the involvement of women.
In 1905, however, a royal commission reported that the enforcement of such laws in Broome was ‘very mixed’.
By the 1880s, Asian workers using breathing apparatus had mainly replaced Aboriginal skin divers.
While some Aboriginal people remained in the industry, this was usually in the role of deckhands.
In this image, an Aboriginal crewman can be seen working on a pearl lugger.