17a["Our Pearl Shell Fisheries", The Western Mail (Perth, WA), Saturday 10 July 1886, page 18]

Our Pearl Shell Fisheries.

THE Inspector of Pearl Shell Fisheries (Captain MAYNE), in his annual report, presented to the House a few days ago, furnishes some interesting particulars of an industry which is assuming considerable proportions. The number of vessels employed in pearl shell fishing on our

North-west coast during the season of 1885-6 was 54, of an aggregate tonnage ot 1182 tons, and employing in all 888 men, of whom about three-fourths were aboriginal natives. There was only the schooner Ivy that employed Malay divers, of whom she had forty-eight, her take during the season being 15 tons of shell, and pearls valued at 300. The take of shell by the boats employing native divers was 188 tons, from which were taken pearls to the value of 4000. Up to the end of April last there were 34 vessels employed in the industry using the pump and dress for diving; but Captain MAYNE was unable, when ne wrote his report, to collect any definite information as to the amount of shell gathered by the boats.


AB notes:

This piece is from the middle of the period of rapid transition from the so-called 'native swimming boats' to the use of diving dress.

17b[Edwards, Hugh, 1983, Port of Pearls, Rigby, Adelaide, Chapter 6]


Copper Helmets

THE CHANGE FROM SKINDIVING below the waves for shell to the use of apparatus diving dress, had two major effects on the pearling fleet.

The first was a sociological change. Aboriginals, the major work-force for pearling since the 1860s, disappeared from the fleet overnight. In anything which involved tracking down a prey, even a shell underwater, the Aboriginal was superb. As divers, they competed against, and consistently beat, Ceylonese, Koepangers, Arabs, Filipinos, and Malays. Probably not even the magnificent Tahitians could have beaten them at skindiving for pearl shell in hard conditions on their own north-west coast. But Aboriginals could not handle the technical complexity of the helmet suit and they had an understandable dread of being shut up inside the heavy, claustrophobic copper helmet.

As crew-hands they were erratic at best. They disliked the grinding work on the hand-pumps, and they were not as neat or seamanlike as Malays, nor as skilled in boat handling as the Japanese. Employers complained that they had no sense of time or responsibility. A furious skipper might find that his Aboriginal crew had gone walkabout on the very day he was ready to sail with the tide for a six-week pearling voyage.

The Aboriginals had made an immense contribution to early pearling. The whole industry had been built around them. But once the helmet suit system was established, the role of partAboriginals in the industry was minimal, though they often helped make up lugger crews.

The other change involved the working season. The skindivers shivered from prolonged immersion in warm summer water and the fleet had worked only from November through until the cold currents came in April, as the Pearling Act of 1875 specifically forbade skindiving between April and October. But the summer months were also the time of the dreaded cyclones, and the Broome fleet had been shattered in 1887 on the Eighty Mile Beach by a `blow' which cost 140 lives and left the entire length of the beach strewn with wreckage.

Use of the helmet suit enabled the pearlers to work the safe winter months instead, and to 'lay-up' in the mangroves for overhaul and refitting during the unpredictable summer cyclone period. It was the start of a system of operations that was to change only by degrees over the best part of a century. In that time the seagreened copper helmet would become the grand symbol of pearldiving.

For the next ninety years the helmet divers would move through the grey murky world of the sea-bed on the pearling coast, net bags of shell slung from their lifeline, fingers groping among the sponges and weed . . . the pressure down below creasing the canvas suits tight against their bodies. As they moved like grotesque submarine monsters they kicked up puffs of sand with the shiny brass toes of their weighted boots. A steady stream of bubbles ascended from the adjustment outlet valve on the side of the helmet and the two contacts with the surface-the hairy manila rope lifeline and red rubber air-hose-winding in spirals up through the gloom toward the surface . . . No sound but the rattling of the bubbles, the heavy breathing of the diver, and the faint click-clack of the hand-pump coming down the air-hose . . .

The bright world of sunshine on the surface was in direct contrast to the murky gloom of the undersea. The lugger drifting on a blue ocean, the deck boys sweating as they worked on the handles of the air-pump . . . round-and-round, clickety-clack, round-and-round . . . clickety-clack, sunrise to sunset . . . Patiently the diver's tender sitting with the lines running through his hands, sensitive fingers feeling every move below on the sea-bed. A little more line here, a little less there. Too much slack and a risk of snagging on a coral cup, not enough line and the diver would be restricted or even bounced along the bottom like a puppet on a string . . .

The No. 1 diver was the most important man on the lugger. He was the man who located and picked up the shell and with a series of signals from down below he 'sailed' the lugger on the surface, ordering a change to port here, an alteration to starboard there . . . faster . . . or slower . . . or signalling by a code of tugs on the lifeline, to pull up and go back on the drift again.

So the shell came up in the baskets and filled the holds and came back to Broome. And wonderfully mixed strata of society lived from it. The chain started from the lugger owner in his whites and solar topi, going on to the Japanese divers and tenders; the Koepang or Manilaman pump-hands and deck boys; the Chinese cooks; the Malay carpenters and sail-makers; and the Aboriginals who did odd shore jobs around the camps and ran the messages.

These were the people directly involved with pearling. But since Broome lived from pearling, the spread of returns went much further than that. There were the buyers of shell and pearl, the government inspectors, the bank managers and clerks, the shipping agents, the publicans, the shopkeepers, the owners of the gaming houses and brothels in Chinatown, even the ministers of religion. Almost everyone had a stake of some sort in what came up from the bottom of the sea.

And from the pearling port the wealth spread out around the world. The divers and crews took their shares back to families in Japan, Singapore, Koepang, and Manila. In Europe and America generations lived from the manufacture of pearl-shell buttons and ornaments, and pearls around the necks of beautiful women brought joy to the hearts of jewellers in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin.

But Broome was where it began and where it mattered most. Few towns in the world can have owed as much to a single invention as Broome owed to the dress diving suit. For the wealth came from the ocean floor and only the helmet diving suit made it possible.

There is a curious story about how the helmet diving suit came to be invented by John Deane, of Whitstable, England, in 1820.

It all came about in an odd and indirect way. Deane was one of a crowd who hurried to help fight a fire on a friend's farm. There he saw that some fine blood horses, trapped in blazing stables, were in danger of being burnt to death. A hand-pump jetting water from a pond through a hose had little effect on the flames, and because of the heat and smoke no one could reach the horses to let them out of their stalls. The farmer was distraught.

Deane, acting on an inspiration, asked to borrow the helmet from a suit of armour in the farm hall. Then he asked the farmer to operate the water hand-pump, but to send only air down the hose. Putting the hose inside the helmet and getting clean air from outside he was able to penetrate the choking smoke and save the horses.

John Deane won the applause of the crowd and the everlasting gratitude of the farmer. But his courageous action had its own rewards. The idea of the pump and helmet was to change his life. At first he thought of what was described as basically a 'smoke apparatus' for fire-fighting and rescue work. He took out a patent on these lines in 1828.

But it occurred to him that the same principle could be extended to working underwater. He built a helmet, attached a pump, strapped himself into a canvas suit, and walked into the water at the beach on a quiet day. As the suit inflated he immediately turned upside down and the experiment ended in disorder and some danger.

Deane was not discouraged, however. He added lead-soled boots to the equipment and solved the problem. The Whitstable waterbailiff of the time, H. W. Humphrey, described in later years the birth of the modern diving suit:

In this simple dress, although he had attached to his shoes about 901b. of lead to make him sink, Deane could readily walk about the bottom of the sea. He could use a hatchet freely and stay under water for more than an hour at a time.

John Deane put his invention to practical use. He and his brother Charles became famous underwater engineers. In 1856 John Deane, tough as old oak, was diving under ice in the Crimea, raising sunken Russian warships. He was then fifty-six-long past the age when most modern divers have retired.

The Deanes made an agreement with a German engineer Augustus Seibe, licensing him to produce diving suits for commercial sale. Seibe Gorman dress diving suits were among the earliest to be used on the Western Australian coast. Heinke and Co. were the other major brand.

The virtue of the Seibe and Heinke diving suits was their simplicity. They changed little over ninety years-the main innovation being the gradual introduction from 1912 onwards of enginedriven compressors to replace the hand-driven air-pumps.

The diver was encased in a watertight canvas suit called the 'dress'. His hands-made slippery with soap-slipped through rubber cuffs and were the only part of him to get wet. The diver had several layers of woollen underwear, partly to guard against cold but also to protect against pinching by folds of the canvas under pressure. The heavy copper helmet sat on his shoulders resting on a padded collar. The helmet came in three sections: the corslet or shoulder-piece; the headpiece which screwed on to the corslet with a half-turn; and the glass face-piece looking like a ship's porthole, which was screwed in at the last minute.

Air was pumped down into the helmet through a heavy rubber hose escaping from the helmet by a control valve which the diver regularly adjusted. The adjustment of the valve was critical to the use of the suit. Too much air would `balloon' the dress, causing the diver to shoot ignominiously to the surface. Too little exposed the diver to pressure from the weight of water. A skilled diver turned the valve so that he was weightless underwater.

In addition to the hose, a manila rope lifeline connected the diver to the lugger. This was also his communications system, transmitting signals by a series of coded tugs to the tender above, calling for changes of direction, more or less line, new shell-bags, or more air. The signal the tenders hoped never to feel was 'Pull till the rope breaks!'- a series of rapid, frantic tugs indicating disaster below.

The first divers were Europeans. But it was soon found that Manilamen and the Japanese did the job better. The Japanese proved best of all-particularly in deep-water work-and eventually they came to dominate the diving side of the industry.

After pearls (or 'stones' as the master pearlers preferred to call them) the relative performances of divers was the subject most frequently discussed in the smoke-filled bars of the Governor Broome, Continental, or Roebuck hotels during the lay-up season. The tallies of individual divers were watched with as much eager interest as the goal-scoring performances of star forwards in football. The top diver for the season was the king of Chinatown. When he came in for the lay-up, the Champion walked with a swagger and an expansive grin in the traditional diver's white suit with gold sovereign buttons, until the next season. Then his title went on the line again.