Western Australia's commercial pearling industry began during the
nineteenth century. The main centres for the industry were Broome, Cossack, Onslow and Shark Bay, but it was Broome which emerged as the leader for pearling by the time of Federation. It would remain so for the next hundred
years.The collection of pearl shell, rather than pearls, was the main objective of pearlers at that time. Used for making buttons and ornaments, between 1900 and 1914 Australia provided between one half and three
quarters of the world's supply of pearl shell, with its main market being the United Kingdom. After the First World War, the United States became the most important market.
While government regulations from as early as 1886 restricted Chinese and
Japanese from owning their fleets of luggers, attempts failed to encourage white labour into a very dangerous and modestly paid industry. In 1916 the federal
government allowed the continued employment of Asian pearlers, exempting them from the White Australia Policy. Racial tension also existed among the different
nationalities employed in the industry, with a riot between the Japanese and Malays in 1920 resulting in seven deaths.