Tell Us Your Backstory with Roxane Dhand
I am a tourist.
I have just flown 2000 miles up from Perth to escape the ‘vicious’ July weather and am walking in Broome – the pearling town turned tourist destination on the NW Australian coast. My guide – let’s call him Bruce – is an engaging story-teller and tells me the town has a colourful past. I swat at a blowfly and think he’s pulling my leg. “Oh really?” I say.
Bruce nods and jerks his chin towards two beautifully restored pearling boats that I will find out are called luggers. “In its heyday, in the late 19th century, Broome had built a reputation not only as the centre of the mother of pearl industry but also as a rough and lawless outpost.”
I look around at the mangrove-lined creek and find it hard to believe that a hundred years previously four hundred luggers graced its shores. “I thought mother of pearl was a bi-product of the pearl jewellery industry not an entire industry in itself.”
Bruce shrugs off his backpack and drags out an enormous oyster shell. “That’s where you’d be wrong. The pearl shell industry drew adventure seekers from across Asia. Hard hat divers from Japan and Malaysia elbowed their way on to steam boats to come to Broome and other nationalities, including the Chinese and Filipinos, jumped on the bandwagon to sign on as tenders and deckhands.”
He taps his exhibit. “What drew them here was the mother of pearl which was in high demand around the world for use as buttons and inlay for marquetry.”
We continue down Dampier Terrace past the site of the former town jetty, along the foreshore taking in old railway sidings and Pearlers’ camps where Bruce says lugger crews were housed in round tin huts called humpies.
I am, momentarily, distracted by a plastic boomerang bobbing on the incoming tide. “Why didn’t the pearl bosses use indigenous labour?” I say. “It would have made better sense to use what was on their doorstep.”
Bruce shakes his head. “In the early days, the Aboriginals collected thousands of tons of shell off the beaches but they couldn’t be persuaded to wear the deep sea diving gear.”
By now, we’ve reached the Japanese Cemetery.
Bruce points through the gates. “The Japanese were the best divers but look how many died.”
I don’t need to count. A sign in English and Japanese tells me that seven hundred graves can be found here, most of which commemorate Japanese divers who died from decompression sickness or drowned while diving for shell.
There is a tiny section, in one corner, reserved for the whites. “Were there no white divers?” I ask, not having the slightest inkling of what he is about to unleash.
“Funny that,” he says. “All was going swimmingly until 1911 when the town’s prosperity came under threat. Broome, remember, was an almost entirely Asiatic community and was viewed with distaste by a Federal Government deeply entrenched in the “White Australia” policy. The very idea of a coloured workforce was so offensive to Parliament that the Minister of External Affairs declared that from January 1913, only white divers would be permitted to collect pearl shell.
“The pearling bosses were horrified at what this would mean to their profis. They protested they could never afford a white man’s wages nor were they convinced that a white man would be able to stand the brutal conditions on board a pearl lugger. Government would not listen though – they wanted the Asians gone.
“So to prove that the pearl shell industry was unequivocally suitable for whites, twelve British ex-navy divers, were brought out from England in 1912 in a fateful venture that became known as the great White Experiment.”
“What happened?” I ask.
Bruce cuffs the sweat from his brow. ”Buy me a tinny and I’ll fill you in.”
The Pearler’s Wife is based on the British divers and their story.
The Pearler’s Wife
This stunning debut is a compelling piece of historical fiction, set at the turn of the century, among the pearl merchants making their fortune in the ports of Western Australia.
From the high seas to the deep seabed, from the latticed verandahs of Buccaneer Bay to the gambling dens in Asia Place, The Pearler’s Wife is a stunning debut, inspired by a small yet pivotal moment in Australian history.
A distant land. A dangerous husband. A forbidden love.
It is 1912, and Maisie Porter stands on the deck of the SS Oceanic as England fades from view. Her destination is Buccaneer Bay in Australia’s far north-west. Her purpose: marriage to her cousin Maitland, a wealthy pearling magnate – and a man she has never met.
Also on board is William Cooper, the Royal Navy’s top man. Following a directive from the Australian government, he and eleven other ‘white’ divers have been hired to replace the predominantly Asian pearling crews. However, Maitland and his fellow merchants have no intention of employing the costly Englishmen for long . . .
Maisie arrives in her new country to a surprisingly cool reception. Already confused by her hastily arranged marriage, she is shocked at Maitland’s callous behaviour towards her – while finding herself increasingly drawn to the intriguing Cooper.
But Maisie’s new husband is harbouring secrets – deadly secrets. And when Cooper and the divers sail out to harvest the pearl shell, they are in great danger – and not just from the unpredictable and perilous ocean . . .
About the Author:
Roxane Dhand was born in Kent and entertained her sisters with imaginative stories from four years old. She studied English and French at London University, and in 1978 moved to Switzerland where she began her professional career in public relations. Back in England and many years later on, she taught French in both the maintained and private sectors. Now retired, her focus returns to her passion for storytelling. The Pearler’s Wife is her first novel.