Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, Lizzie Pook’s debut novel, takes us on a journey to 19th-century Western Australia. She tells Historia about her immersive research process and what drew her to writing about the dangerous pearl diving industry.
A pearl cleaner’s job is a meticulous one. To remove the visible blemishes on the gem they must pull apart the delicate layers of skin that cling to one another like petals. By using tiny tools, rotten bits of flesh can be cut out and the pearl preserved. But sometimes the decay goes right through to the core and can never be removed.
This image encapsulates the 19th-century pearl fishing industry. On its surface it might appear a brave, romantic endeavour – with ‘dashing’ male adventurers sailing out on calm waters to pluck pearls from the giving arms of the ocean. But scratch away at its surface and you’ll uncover something rotten – an industry built on the blood of men and women forced to put their lives on the line in pursuit of pearl shell.
I first learned about pearl diving on a visit to Broome in Australia’s northwest Kimberley region.
Broome is one of the most beautiful places you could possibly imagine – a land of startlingly red soil and chalky turquoise seas. While there, I walked by the showroom for Willie Creek Pearls and was lured in by the impressive pearling lugger on show in its backyard.
I spent an afternoon trying on copper diving helmets and learning stories about this dangerous, lesser-known industry. I was immediately captivated by tales of divers being stalked on the seabed by crocodiles, or succumbing to the bends as they rose too fast from the ocean floor.
And in that moment, the spark for a years-long obsession was lit, one that would send me on a research journey spread across two continents, from the corridors of the British Library to remote pearl farms on Australia’s rugged Dampier Peninsula.
For hundreds of years men and women have put their lives on the line for pearl shell, just as they have for gold, diamonds, opals and other treasures snatched from the earth. The first mother-of-pearl shell was commercially harvested around Shark Bay in the 1860s.
The rich shell beds close to shore were dredged with wire nets, and the shell was bundled into ‘pogey pots’ where it was left to rot; that way any pearls hidden within would tumble to the bottom of the pot to be collected.
So while Shark Bay and the town of Denham had streets that were lined with gleaming pearl shell (the only town of its kind in the world), it likely stank to high heaven of rotting shellfish.
This early pearling was shamefully exploitative, and the pearlers (the majority of them white British or European men) used forced Aboriginal labour on their boats. Indigenous men, women and even children were ‘blackbirded’ – a term that essentially means kidnapped – and forced to dive for shell. They received nothing in exchange for their work but the odd bit of clothing, tobacco and meagre rations of food. It was slavery in everything but name.
These skin divers (there were no hard hat diving suits at that time) faced peril every day, coming up against sharks, crocodiles, sea snakes and storms. But with no medical help for over 800 kilometres, or a week’s sail away, even a tooth abscess or an infected coral cut could prove deadly.
The Shark Bay beds were soon bled dry and eventually the industry moved north to Broome. Here, the Pinctada Maxima pearl oyster could grow to eye-boggling sizes, and when news got out that there were fresh beds to be plundered, people from all over the world descended on the township: settlers, convicts, whalers, merchant seamen, adventurers, prostitutes, publicans and shopkeepers.
People came from Asia, America, Europe and the Caribbean, all to seek their fortune in shell. The fabric of the workforce shifted too, and skilled Japanese divers began to replace forced Indigenous labour.
Once a tiny, unknown red dust settlement, Broome became anomalously diverse in comparison to the rest of Australia.
Just like with America’s gold rush towns, these early pearling hubs had a swaggering ‘Wild West’ texture. There was gambling, fighting and drinking and, with few women around, tempers sometimes flared with deadly consequences.
The economic divide was incredibly pronounced, too. Many rich pearlers held court from their expansive bungalows – never once getting their feet wet while their crews faced off with death every day in pursuit of shell. Other master pearlers set up floating homes on their schooners, smoking cigars and quaffing champagne while attended by servants-at-sea.
The economic potential of pearl diving truly reached its pinnacle with the introduction of the hard hat diving suit in the 1880s. With a hardy copper helmet and watertight canvas suit, men could descend much deeper for shell and dive for much longer.
Huge quantities of shell were hauled in and Broome became a boomtown, producing 80 per cent of the world’s mother of pearl shell.
Living conditions were still not ideal, though. On land there were sandflies, storms and insufferable humidity. Out at sea, the luggers swarmed with cockroaches, which feasted on the reeking pearl gristle stacked in the hold.
This was still an incredibly dangerous occupation, too – while walking the seabed, a diver’s airpipe could become hooked on the great lobes of passing manta rays, or get entangled in the flukes of whales until they were dragged through the water and drowned. Countless men succumbed to the bends and if you visit Broome today, you’ll find a cemetery filled with over 900 tombstones in memory of the divers who died.
So pearling was not the romantic pursuit it might seem. But it is a subject that has captivated me for years. I have trawled the archives of historical societies, walked the landscapes with naturalists and guides and interviewed everyone from crocodile hunters to bus drivers, all to discover more about a dangerous industry and this fascinating part of the world.
The result is Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, a novel about a young woman searching for her missing father in a lawless pearling town. It’s inspired by everything I uncovered on my research journey as well as my own experiences with adventure, grief and loss. But mostly, woven throughout its pages, you’ll find the marks of a years-long fascination with a dark, hidden part of British history.
Lizzie Pook is an award-winning writer and journalist, contributing to the Evening Standard, the Sunday Times, Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller among others. Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is her debut novel.
- Pearling luggers at Creek, Broome, Western Australia (Roebuck Bay), c1914 by Yasukichi Murakami: Aussie~mobs via Flickr (public domain)
- Pearling lugger in the Torres Strait by VH Chargois: State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia
- On board a pearling lugger, Thursday Island, Queensland, c1905: National Library of Australia via Trove (out of copyright)
- Bourne & Inglis Store, Broome, Western Australia (built c1903): Rocket910 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
- Pearl diving Australia, 23 March 1939, PIX Magazine: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr (out of copyright)
- Pearl divers, Australia, 23 March 1939, ACP Magazines Ltd photographic archive: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales via Wikimedia (out of copyright)