28["In The Nor'-West", The West Australian, Monday 4 November 1907, page 4]
IN THE NOR'-WEST.
AMONG THE PEARLERS.
WONDERS OF THE OCEAN BED.
PEARL CITY AND ITS STAPLE INDUSTRY.
SNIDE PEARL DEALERS.
(By Our Special Representative.)
How the pearl is first formed, what relationship it bears to the oyster in whose shell it is found, and what are the habits of the oyster itself, are questions that have puzzled countless generations. To-day little or nothing is known about the pearl oyster that the ancients were not aware of, and even pearlers who have been engaged in the industry for many years admit their inability to tell the age at which it attains maturity, or by what means the pearl came into existence. Captain Lee, who controls a large pearling fleet, and who is president of the Broome Pearlers' Association, is inclined to agree with Dr. Hearman, the distinguished British savant, that the pearl is formed by animalculae, which find their way into the oyster as it lies agape on the bed of the ocean. The oyster lies in a strong current from which it derives nourishment, and gradually the animalculae assume definite form. It hardens and causes irritation, to get rid of which the oyster rolls it round and round, the pearl be coming perfectly spherical. The oyster covers it with a film, and apparently the pearl, although inanimate, increases in size and weight proportionately with the growth of the oyster. The pearls of highest value are found close to the beard or upper lip of the oyster, which loves clear, sunlit water. It is supposed that the beautiful lustrous sheen of the pearl is communicated by the rays of the sun, subdued and softened by filtration through the water. The most commonly accepted theory is that of the pearl being originally formed by a grain of sand or other foreign substance being introduced into the oyster, which, as in the other case, endeavours to get rid of the irritation. It frets and worries itself, and so a blister is formed, or else the cause of the irritation is detached and falls lower down where the oyster cannot roll it round. It grows in size, but the shape is not there, and although a pearl it is termed "barroque," and is comparatively valueless. One perfect pearl is worth 50 of the kind known as barroque. Blisters occasionally conceal good pearls, and many of them make handsome pendants, hat pins, and other ornaments. It has been said that even an oyster may be crossed in love. Be that as it may, the oyster has anything but a happy or comfortable time between the dawn of his existence and the time when he is ruthlessly torn from his home at the bottom of the sea. Hardly has he assumed definite shape before fish swarm around, voraciously devouring all with in reach, and then if he escapes and makes his home on a nice rocky ledge in deep clear water he is the object of unwelcome attentions from crabs, crayfish, and other crustacean neighbours. Although he loves to keep his mouth open, he is often compelled to lie close for fear of attracting a hungry crab, and then there is the terrible teredo that indefatigable borer which can pierce thick pearl-shell as easily as going through a nice piece of soft wood. The teredo is a veritable scourge, and causes immense destruction, thousands of pounds' worth of shell being rendered practically valueless, and even pearls are occasionally destroyed by their attacks.
In deep water close to Broome it is known that a splendid class of shell is to be found, but divers cannot get at it. They know it is there, but beyond the 15-fathom limit it would be madness to venture for more than a few seconds. Mr. H. D. Norman, one of the leading pearlers and merchants of Broome, a well-read, deep-thinking observer, has made several descents in diving dress out of a desire to see submarine life, and he speaks of the ocean bed as a beautiful garden. Gray was nearly right when he wrote, "Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear." What he apparently did not know was that the purest gems are found in deep but open water, where as much sunlight as possible can be obtained. For the man who invents a 25-fathom diving dress or some other device for working in 20 fathoms and over, there is a colossal fortune awaiting in this State alone. It is now more than 20 years ago since Mr. Norman left Sydney in the schooner Mist and voyaged right round to Broome. The trip took three months, and during the whole of that time he suffered acutely from sea-sickness. Nothing could cure him, and he was about to give the whole thing up in disgust when suddenly the nauseating complaint left him, and since then he has never had the slightest visitation of his old enemy. Mr. Norman's firm own 28 luggers, two schooners, and a couple of motor launches, which are particularly useful in communicating promptly with the large fleet.
Pearl-shell is, of course, the mainstay of Broome, which is steady-going and prosperous. Five and ten-pound notes are as plentiful as sovereigns in Perth--more so, in fact, for gold is practically unknown in Pearl City. The Union Bank issues nice, new, crisp notes in exchange for cheques, and when you have those in your possession gold is quite unnecessary. When paying-off the crews of luggers at the end of their agreement, they want to take gold away with them, and for this the bank charges sixpence in the £. Of course, this comes out of the pearler's pocket, and he doesn't like it; but Broome is a long way from Perth Mint, and the charge does not appear to be an unreasonable one when all things are considered. Up at Derby they have no bank at all, both notes and gold being scarce--shin-plasters, cheques on distant institutions, and I.O.U.'s being the principal medium of exchange.
At last quarterly sales pearl-shell improved by £10 per ton, and hopes are entertained that the rise will he still higher at the November sales. Nearly 100 tons more have been already shipped than last year, so any advance will mean a big difference to Broome. There seemed to be an impression that pearls themselves had fallen in value, and that there was something like a slump in the gem market; but this does not appear to be the case. Notwithstanding the failure of a great Paris pearl-dealing firm for a sum exceeding a quarter of a million, and the consequent flooding of the market by holders who were suddenly compelled to realise on their stocks, high class pearls are, if anything, more in request than ever. According to a London paper which is recognised as an authority on gems and jewels of every dcscription, nearly all precious stones are raising in value, and are to-day dearer than they hare ever been before. Recent sales in London and in Continental cities have emphasised this fact. A well-known Hatton Garden dealer states that pearls have gone up 75 per cent. in the past five years, and really fine stones of this kind will fetch almost any price. A fine Orient pearl, which twenty years ago could have bcen bought for £20, will now sell for as much as £160. With sapphires and diamonds it is much the same--the former having trebled their value in five years, rubies alone having fallen back. There is a tremendous demand for high-class gems and jewels in America, three-fifths of the total output from De Beers diamond mines, in South Africa, having been secured by American buyers. Of course, Broome is only interested in pearls, but as they are to some extent in sympathy with other gems, the opinion quoted should be reassuring to those engaged in our great Nor'-West pearling industry.
Pearling affords employment to a lot of people in addition to those actually engaged on board the vessels. Besides boat-builders and other artisans, both at Fremantle and Broome, there are men who make a high salary out of cleaning and polishing pearls--one man exclusively employed by a big firm making £500 a year, and his skin is not white either. Beautifully carved shells, mounted on stands; mother o' pearl spoons and forks, card trays, fruit and cake plates, not to mention studs, cuff links, buttons, and pendants, are shown in great profusion in the Japanese stores, and few visitors leave without bearing away some pretty memento of their stay in Pearl City. One branch of the industry is not very popular with master pearlers, although it flourishes apace. Pearls are so easily secreted that it is very difficult to prevent men on board luggers from annexing them, and once ashore they have no difficulty in finding clandestine purchasers. Snide is the term used for this kind of traffic and it is carried on very extensively. Everybody in Broome knows that the game is being played, but vigorous and concerted action on the part of the master pearlers themselves alone can check it. Whilst I was there, a Malay employed on one of the boats was charged with pearl-stealing. He had stolen the pearl, which he had no difficulty in selling, but after spending some of the money he confessed to his skipper and handed over the unexpended balance. He was sentenced to a couple of years' imprisonment, but no mention was made of the purchaser, and that is just where the trouble is caused. Men are walking about Broome every day who are known to be snides, and who are never short of money although they toil not, neither do they spin, or do anything else useful. Something like the I.D.A. of South Africa is wanted up the Nor' WVest coast. Tragic interest is attached to the schooner Mist, which, after many years of usefulness, was finally beached in the creek, high and dry at low tide. Her day was past, and her place taken by a new and larger vessel. News circulated that a pearl of fabulous size and beauty had been found somewhere along the 90-Mile Beach, and that it was not to be disposed of openly. A surreptitious meeting was arranged between the supposed possessor of the pearl and a propective buyer. The latter was lured on board the Mist late at night; and allowed to finger what was represented to be the pearl of inestimable value, wrapped up in soft paper. What happened afterwards is a matter of gloomy prison history. The man who was after the pearl was murdered, and three men were subsequently executed in Fremantle Gaol. Since then the Mist has been burnt, and all trace of the gallant little craft has vanished into thin air. The scene of the tragedy is only a couple of hundred yards or so from one of the busiest parts of Broome. Discussing the matter with several men who knew the surrounding circumstances, I learnt that the crime on board the schooner was only part of a big scheme of robbery and piracy by a number of Malays and Menilamen, but the plot was frustrated by preliminary bungling. How far this may be true can, of course, only be surmised. The victim of the great pearl episode and three others are dead--and there let it rest. Pearl City is not proud of the incident, and fortunately her history is not stained by many such episodes.