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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Broome, Western Australia

Sipping a Chardy on a beautiful balmy night, watching the sun go down over Cable Beach in Broome, is something I've waited a long time to see. It's a tradition when you come to Broome, you take food and wine and join all the other tourists to see the sun sink slowly behind the Indian Ocean. We missed the spectacular 'stairway to the moon' by only a few days.

The Yawuru Aboriginal people are the traditional owners and custodians of Broome, a tropical paradise with a colourful history. In the early 1900's the little town thrived on the hugely profitable and extremely dangerous pearl shell industry. The pearling fleet owners were Europeans and Asian labour was cheap. The shopkeepers were mainly Chinese, the divers mostly Japanese and Aboriginal and the deckhands and labourers were mostly from Koepang in Indonesia. At one time there were up to 400 pearling luggers moored in Roebuck Bay and the town was more Asian than Australian. The cemetery gives us an insight into just how many Japanese died while diving for pearl shell in Broome.

The White Australia Policy was put into place at the time of Federation in 1901 and continued until 1973. It was drawn up initially to keep the Chinese and Japanese out of Australia. At that time, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin said he felt threatened by their inexhausable energy, endurance and ability to apply themselves to new tasks. But when they discovered how vital non white labour was to the success of the pearling industry, they quickly lifted the ban, but only for Broome.

On the 3rd March 1942 Broome was bombed by the Japanese. Taken completely by surprise 15 marine aircraft, mostly Dutch Dorniers and Catalinas but also some British and US Catalinas and a pair of Australian Empire class flying boats were burnt or sunk at their moorings. At the nearby airstrip, several US B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were destroyed as well as a number of twin engined Douglas DC-3 transports of the Netherlands East Indies Airline (KNILM)

Most of the flying boats were crammed with Dutch refugees fleeing the Japanese in Java and on that terrible day, the burning fuel on the water as well as the strong tidal currents in Roebuck Bay made escape almost impossible. At least 40 people are known to have died, although the exact figure is thought to be much higher. Only 30 bodies were ever recovered from the water.

When America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour, all pearling stopped in Broome almost overnight because most of the pearl divers were Japanese and they had to be put into a prisoner-of-war camp.

Today, modern diving equipment is much safer and Broome is once again the world's major producer of South Sea pearls and mother of pearl shell.

But by far, tourism is the major industry in Broome today and grows bigger every year.