John Bailey Pan Macmillan Published 1st August 2002 (first published 2001) Borrowed from my aunt.
I have a few people who I trade books and book recommendations with regularly, but not all of them have the same taste as I do. It’s good, because it means I read things I wouldn’t normally read or didn’t even know about. This was the case for The White Divers of Broome which landed in my hands while recently in Sydney visiting my aunt.
The White Divers of Broome documents the little known history of pearl diving in Broome, when in 1912 around the time of the introduction of the ‘White Australia’ policy, it was decided that the pearl diving industry (which until now employed mainly Japanese, Malay and some Aboriginal divers) should also employ White Australians. Asian labour was cheap and they were willing to do such a dangerous job. That year the White Experiment was launched. Twelve British Royal Navy-trained divers and their tenders were brought out from England to Broome to master the art of pearl shell diving and prove that the white man was just as adept as the Asian. The pearl shell masters were unimpressed and unwilling to take on the British men, because they were more expensive , demanded better conditions and the non-white crews were unwilling to work with them. This is a fascinating slice of history, taking place before the first world war. Australia was still a young country, newly federated, with all sorts of issues still entrenched in British ways and customs. Pearl shell diving was very dangerous, somewhat undignified work, and the Government was unsure whether they wanted to leave it to the imported workers from Asia or whether they wanted whites to have all the jobs. It’s an interesting contraction that they found themselves in and one that they obviously didn’t know how to solve. This book was told partly in narrative form and partly as a simply recount of events and relay of information about pearl shell diving. What, in fiction, we would call an information dump was necessary because how many people know how pearl shell diving was conducted in the early 1900s? Without it I would have had no idea what was going in but at times it felt like too much information at once. It also wasn’t a narrative that ran in a chronological order, but rather drifted between times and events, following one series of happenings before switching to something else. Not everything in the narrative was relevant to pearl shell diving but it all helped to paint a vivid picture of Broome during an uncertain time for all. As you may have realised by the tagline, The true story of a fatal experiment, it didn’t exactly go well for the English divers. The waters off Broome were much different from what they were used to diving in England, and even with new pumps they were trying out and the sure fire method of slowly rising from the deep in stages to prevent the bends, it wasn’t always enough. So it makes you wonder, though we are told that there were Japanese and the Malay divers who were also paralysed or even died, it wasn’t at as high a rate as the English. Or is that because their deaths and paralysis weren’t as well documented and were able to be ‘replaced’? Were the Japanese and Malays really better divers? Did they really lead the English into poor diving waters to make a point? The book ends leaving the reader with a few questions that I guess we will never really know the answer to. That’s history for you! An interesting look into a part of history I knew nothing about before reading. Now I feel like I know all about pearl shell diving! (Kidding, still don’t know why it’s necessary, but you know, that’s history. Just cause we don’t like it now doesn’t mean it didn’t happen).