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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.
In the early days of pearling, shell was collected by wading into shallow waters.  When these supplies were exhausted, deep water divers were employed using cheap labour imported from Asia. Dress diving, with air pumped manually to divers walking along the seabed in search of shell, was introduced in the mid 1880s. From that time Japanese divers began to enter the industry. By 1900 the Western Australian pearling industry employed 1,295 people, comprising 99 whites, 119 Aboriginals, 11 Chinese, 236 Japanese, 496 Malays, 271 Phillipinos and 63 others. By 1920 Japanese divers accounted for one third of the work force, and by the Second World War nearly one half.

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.


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