THE pristine sheen of WA’s pearls hides a dark past, of Aboriginal men and women dragged into slavery, forced to dive for shell and to work the luggers out of Broome and Cossack.
It was a brutal trade, with a high death rate for indigenous and non-indigenous workers alike.
But the industry was worth millions: shell for buttons, and pearls for jewellery. It helped establish remote north-west towns such as Broome.
Lustre: Pearling & Australia showcases the unique and important role the industry has played in WA’s history, and puts on the record the contribution of Aboriginal people, says curator Sarah Yu.
“Pearling is an Aboriginal story in the way that there is evidence of at least 30,000 years of trading shell and pearls. So it’s a very old story.” The exhibition includes a 2000-year-old pearl recently discovered in a shell midden in the Kimberley.
Aboriginal people continued to be involved in the industry long after it was regulated.
“They were shell openers, they were boat builders. They were always there and we felt that needed to be told,” Ms Yu says.
The free exhibition is on at the Fremantle Maritime Museum until October 25.
by JENNY D’ANGER