A Brief History of Broome


Broome and the Kimberley region was home to First Nations people for at least thirty thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Before European settlement there was extensive trading among the language groups on the Dampier Peninsula, which also extended to local island groups. Trade routes existed between east and west Kimberley, which were known as ‘winan. Family groups moved around on a semi-nomadic basis. Aboriginal people respected strict law and traditions and beliefs, involving an intimate connection to the land.

The first recorded European to land on Broome shores was explorer, William Dampier in 1668. He is said to have come ashore to bury a treasure chest on Buccaneer Rock in Roebuck Bay.

We are thrilled to promote a growing number of Aboriginal and cultural tours and cultural experiences in Broome. We celebrate the contribution the First Nations people continue to make to Broome (Rubibi) and the Kimberley, through the sharing of their knowledge, culture, stories and song.

The Yawuru people are the Native Title holders for the townsite of Broome, which has over 84 Aboriginal communities located in the Shire of Broome, with 78 classified as remote.

We acknowledge and respect the Yawuru Traditional Custodians of the land in the townsites of Broome (Rubibi) and respect the Elders past, present and emerging.

Broome was little more than a few white settlers and a scattering of pearling camps on the mangrove-lined shores of Roebuck Bay when it was gazetted as a town on 27 November 1883 and named after the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome. In 1889 an undersea telegraph cable linking Australia to Java and the rest of the world came ashore in Broome; hence the name, Cable Beach.


In the latter part of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, Japanese divers were recruited, using cumbersome full dive suits, copper helmets and lead-weighted boots to dive in much deeper waters. Deck hands and labourers were brought in from Malaysia, the Philippines and the island of Koepang in Indonesia. Many of these people married locals and this has led to the harmonious multiracial mix of the present-day population.


Broome became a rip-roaring wild-west town, with numerous boarding houses, gambling dens and brothels. The owners of the pearling fleets were Europeans, the shopkeepers were mostly Chinese and the divers mostly Japanese and Aboriginal, the deckhands and labourers from other parts of Asia. In its heyday, up to 400 pearling luggers lined the shores of Roebuck Bay and the population exceeded 4000 people.

The divers spent hours collecting pearl shell under water with the mortality rate as high as 50%.

Broome and the Pearling Industry were impacted by both World Wars. During World War I pearling trade lapsed and hundreds of tonnes of shell were left in warehouses and were ruined. The industry continued after the war, though it never fully regained its earlier momentum. On the 3rd of March 1942 a fleet of Japanese zeros made a daring air bombardment of Broome, destroying sixteen flying boats anchored in Roebuck Bay. To this day, the wrecks of some of the aircraft can be seen at very low tide at certain times of the year.

When polyester began to replace MOP for making buttons in 1952, many people predicted the demise of the pearling industry. Fortunately at about the same time, the first cultured pearl farm began at Kuri Bay, north of Broome. There are now many pearl farms in the unpolluted waters near Broome and a number of manufacturers and retail outlets in Broome which specialise in transforming these unique gems into world-class jewellery.

Broome became an established tourism destination following investment by English building magnete Lord Alistair McAlpine in the 1980s. He invested millions of dollars in Broome, opening a zoo and restoring many of Broome's historical buildings including the famous Sun Picture House in Broome Town. He also built the luxury Cable Beach Club Resort, one of the most popular resorts in Broome.

Broome's Japanese and Chinese Cemeteries

Broome's Japanese and Chinese Cemeteries

Gain an appreciation for the lives sacrificed by the Asian migrants who settled in Broome to prosper from Broome’s lucrative pearling industry. The Japanese Cemetery in Broome is the largest Japanese cemetery in Australia, and dates back to 1896. The Chinese Cemetery is found next to the Japanese Cemetery, and there is also a Muslim Cemetery with many graves of Malay divers who contributed to the pearling boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There is also an Aboriginal Cemetery 50 metres south of the Japanese cemetery. The Broome Historical Society Museum website states that "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."

Reflect on the diverse multicultural history of Broome as you wander amongst the hundreds of graves, with unique headstones crafted out of coloured beach rocks. Read more

JETTY TO JETTY APP IS BACK!

Download the Jetty to Jetty app

Download the Jetty to Jetty app to enjoy a self paced walk and learn about the history of Broome. This award-winning app was created by Nyamba Buru Yawuru. As they say, you can "listen to the old people tell their stories in their words, as you move through the town at your own pace".

Discover Broome’s beauty, culture and rich pearling history on the Jetty to Jetty heritage trail. The Jetty to Jetty trail is Yawuru’s award-winning, self-guided heritage walk along the foreshore of Roebuck Bay. Set against the voice and country of the Yawuru people, it brings to life the multicultural character of Broome’s fading pearling heritage. Jetty to Jetty takes in thirteen historical and cultural sites that explore the rich culture of the Yawuru people and Broome’s pearling era.

Look out for the red signs as you move along the 2.5km long trail. Take a hat or sun protection, water, comfortable shows and ear phones or a head set to allow you to listen to the app.

*Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that this app may contain voices of people who have passed away.


By 1900, of the 1,295 people working in the Western Australian pearling industry, 38% were Malays, 20% Philippine, 18% Japanese, 0.9% Aboriginal and 0.8% Chinese. By 1920, Japanese divers comprised one third of the workforce and by World War II, nearly half were Japanese.

Source: The State Library of Western Australia

Our members

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