Before the invention of plastics, pearl shell from Australian waters was used to create most of the buttons in Europe. To keep up with the demand, workers from various Asian countries came to the North West to work in the difficult and dangerous pearl shell industry.
These pages identify the indentured labourers hired by the Broome pearl master Patrick Percy.
The indentured labour system allowed pearlers to employ foreign workers on three year contracts. The workers received low wages for long hours of hard, dangerous work. Throughout the contract period, their movements and living conditions were tightly controlled by their masters.
This film footage shows indentured labourers working with pearl shells in Broome in 1917
From the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia / nfsa.gov.au
The thirst for shells, for pearls, for success, in fact, brutalises and unchristianizes the pearling speculator or “driver.” Excitement in the occupation is ever at the stretch from Sunday morn to Sunday morn. No day is respected. No [Malay] man’s life is valued in the economising of that life, but the utmost amount of diving must be sucked out of the man, kill him or not; for who knows who will be his owner next season!
The Inquirer and Commercial News, 28 April 1875
This note book was used to record the wages and expenses of Japanese worker Yonizo Kurita. His death by ‘paralysis’ is recorded on the final page.
Paralysis was the term used to describe decompression sickness; an often fatal condition affecting deep sea divers. The condition killed many divers, and cyclones were also a significant danger to workers. On average 1 in 10 men involved in the pearl shell industry died each year.
This letter regarding a funeral was sent by a Japanese diver, Tora, to his boss (‘Boos’), Sydney Pryor in 1932.
It was the responsibility of pearl masters to pay for their workers to return home at the end of their contracts.
This image from 1925 shows indentured labourers on the Broome jetty getting ready to depart.
The practice of indentured labour in the pearl industry continued, in varying forms, until the 1970s.