50[Eley, Barbara, 1995, Ion Idriess, ETT Imprint, Sydney, Chapter 19]

Chapter Nineteen


Broome was Jack’s Aladdin's Cave of exotic tales. He gave up fretting about moving on to Derby and through to the Kimberley and became part of the colourful mosaic.

The knowledge of pearling which Jack had gained working dockside on Thursday Island in 1928 stood him in good stead. Accepting him without question, the pearlers asked him to sail with them when the fleet put back to sea. Quietly he set about cultivating Nishioka, the 'big gun' Japanese, who, charmed by Jack's equally enigmatic presence, willingly acted as interpreter between Jack and the Japanese pearlers. Even Elles, the poker-faced Singalee pearl cleaner, supposedly worth over 150,000 pounds, kept him supplied with stories.

The pearlers took a liking to Jack although they despised writers. Here, as in Meekatharra, other writers had soured the locals by writing malicious and false stories about Broome and its people. Jack won their confidence because he was not concerned with the town's sordid gossip or half-truths which previous writers had eagerly sought. Rejoicing in the fact that his fellow artisans had missed some of Australia's best material, he moved easily around the waterfront and immersed himself in the life of the town and its inhabitants.

Every day more divers came ashore bringing tales that even Jules Verne could not have imagined. Jack reported back to Cousins that the stories, authentic to the last detail, had never been put on paper before. 'I am getting so much it's becoming difficult to write and keep up the pace.'

While Jack was busy recording the tales of Broome he found time to write the foreword for The Yellow Joss, a collection of short stories which he had somehow managed to put together during the hectic output of 1933.


In Broome the stories were coming at such a pace that jack's wrist, still carrying the splinters from a jam-tin bomb in Gallipoli, seized up. He was forced to use his left hand to write Forty Fathoms Deep. Writing with his left hand was slow and frustrating but he was proud of his dexterity.


Jack pushed himself to get all the Broome material in another month. He continually corrected and enlarged the stories so as to have the book in an advanced state when he finally sat down to finish it. He decided that if he was held up by the wet or anything else he could finish it right there; in fact he hoped to have it all clear to be posted to Sydney by the end of February.


A few weeks later his old buoyancy had returned. He was still getting great copy from some pearlers but others amongst them had changed their attitude towards him. A few pearl dealers were afraid that he was a customs spy on the lookout for illicit pearl profits which they had not declared in their income tax returns. His most prized informant, the 'big gun' Japanese, Nishioko, now regarded him as a naval secret service officer who had been sent to Broome to spy on the Japanese pearlers and accordingly withdrew his cooperation. Jack lamented the loss of Nishioko's help as being 'unfortunate because my mine of information has closed like an oyster'. He turned to Elles, the Singalee, and later wrote that he was 'probably the most wonderful pearl cleaner the world has ever known. His sensitive fingertips could feel the "life" in a pearl.'

Though Jack was sorry he wasn't able to get more wonderful tales from the Malays, he was content with the knowledge that he already had enough material for two books.

While Jack pretended to be bemused as to the reasons behind the suspicions of both the Japanese and the pearlers he enjoyed the game immensely. He wrote to Cousins that the Japanese gentleman's guess about the purpose of his visit to Broome was much closer than that of the pearlers, which managed to intrigue Cousins.

Neither Jack or the Broome pearlers guessed that Nishioka might have had good reason for withdrawing his help. In view of the war that was to come, it is likely that the Japanese pearlers were engaged in spying under the cover of pearl poaching. It would also seem that Australian Military Intelligence in Broome was unaware of the possibility of spying being undertaken in northern waters at that time, and that Australian Naval Intelligence in Perth had not communicated their suspicions to Broome Military Intelligence officers.

Later that year in October, Captain Goldie, the Military Intelligence Officer at Broome, captain of the ketch Ninilya, would report observing Japanese ships poaching the pearl grounds at Rueapebe Islands and that they had been sighted within two miles of Bossut Lighthouse. Reports of the sightings in the southern press stated that these Japanese ships were 'sampans'. Captain Goldie, humorously critical of the fanciful reporting, wrote to Jack saying that the Japanese vessels ‘were of European design, seventy feet overall in length, with a beam of some thirty feet and weighing from thirty-five to forty tons and without marks or sails, and propelled by diesel or semi-diesel fired engines'. The ships were built, engineered, equipped and supplied with a year's stores in Japan. Goldie assessed that each would have cost the Japanese the equivalent, then, of fifteen thousand Australian pounds and that Australian made ships of the same design would cost around seven thousand pounds each. Japan, although financially handicapped, was then on the move and no one had the wit to question the oversophistication of ships seemingly being used for pearling.

Jack and the captain were good friends. Jack lived for a time aboard another of Captain Goldie's ships, the Heralk. Later Goldie was to write that he was 'positively ill' when some Bulletin reviewer tried to show his superiority by criticising Jack's technical diving details contained in Forty Fathoms Deep.

Jack, absorbing all the stories available, did odd things like sleeping in a graveyard (where Con the 'hoodoo' man told him 'they' really talk) and spending a night on the bishop's verandah seeking the bishop’s ghost - the bishop did not favour him with his presence.