Queensland Places - Torres Strait - History of Pearling

The first commercial pearling station in the Torres Strait area was established at Warrior Island in 1868, by a Captain Banner, who was said to have identified large quantities of pearl shell whilst looking for beche-de-mer.  As pearl shell was a more valuable commodity than beche-de-mer, news of the lucrative alternative soon spread.  By 1876, more than a hundred boats were working in the industry and more that a thousand men were employed.

The pearl industry has often faced difficulties outside of its control, such as unpredictable price or demand fluctuations or shortages of suitable, skilled labour.  For instance, in the ten year period between 1881 and 1891 prices fell significantly, forcing many skilled operators to leave the industry.  Japanese divers and other workers took their place and were to become a mainstay of the industry right through until the beginning of the Second World War.  A further dislocation to the industry occurred in 1885, when a large part of the Torres Strait fleet moved to Western Australia to work the rich sources of pearl shell in the vicinity of Broome.  A major calamity also struck the industry in 1899 when many luggers and workers were lost when two devastating cyclones hit Princess Charlotte Bay.

The industry did recover to some extent in the late 1920s when there was a general boom in demand for a wide range of marine products, including pearls and pearl shell, but this was to be short lived, with the industry declining again in the post Depression period of the 1930s.  The beginning of the Second World War and the war with Japan had a devastating effect on the viability of the industry with this being exacerbated by the post Second World War development and use of plastics, further dampening the demand for pearl shell.

In the 1960s the industry revived due to the successful development of cultured pearls by the Japanese and the establishment of a number of cultured pearl farms at various locations throughout the Torres Strait.

Pearling, Thursday Island, ca 1948

This photograph, showing a pearl diver rigged up in the standard diving equipment of the time, dates from the early post war period.

Brian Randall - Queensland Places Coordinator, State Library of Queensland.

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