From body decoration and charms to bitterly hard labour.

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

For millennia, Aboriginal people from around the Kimberley had turned pearl shells into pendants and other body ornaments. Some were exchanged down south, across the country. Some were charms, as is this pubic cover from Sunday Island below. In north Queensland and Torres Strait pearl shells were often made into breast plates in the Papuan style.

Pearl Pearl-shell Ornament: E54272
Pearl-shell Ornament: E54272 Pearl-shell pubic cover lonka lonka, Sunday Island, Kimberley, Western Australia. This ornament was donated to the Museum in 1951 by William Dixson, with the following notes: “If a man desires to charm a woman he sings over the shell in a retired spot to induce the lightings to dwell in it, he then hangs it on a digging stick at a corroboree until night when it is removed and tied to his waist belt; while he is dancing the woman sees the lightning flashing on the shell and at once … shake with emotion. She will creep to his camp at night as soon as possible or elope with him.” Image: Rebecca Fisher
© Australian Museum

But there was more to come when the far-away industrialising countries began importing pearl shell for cutlery handles, buttons and a variety of trinkets to feed the growing markets of the middle class consumers. Pearl-shelling (gathering shells from the sea bed) became business, sometimes big or small, but always aggressive and hungry for profit.

Indigenous communities in Torres Strait, around Brome and Darwin were ensnared in pearl-shelling. People were frequently enslaved or contracted as de-facto indentured labour as the crews of luggers and divers. Pregnant women were sought for diving as their lung capacity was then at its best, permitting them to stay under water for a long time. In the melting pot of cheap labour, indigenous and those transported from Asia, communities were re-moulded and peoples’ live took unexpected turns and twists. And it was there that Aborigines along with indentured Asian workers were forging the prosperity of, typically, European - Australian masters.

Search for commercial opportunities and work in coastal tropical Australia stretches back for some centuries, when Makassar fishermen seasonally visited Australia’s waters to collect and process sea cucumber for a distant Chinese market. They interacted with Aboriginal people and various cultural exchanges resulted from these contacts.

But the pearling industry in the 19th and a large part of the 20th century brought indentured Asian labour predominantly from Japan and (what is now) east Indonesia. Frequently called Kopangers and Malays, “Indonesians” worked as lugger’s crews and divers. Indentured people endured hard and dangerous labour, (usually) poor pay, difficult living conditions; various restrictions on their personal freedom and movement, as well as harsh treatment by their masters. Withholding payments and deportation served as effective tools of coercion. And if this subservient labour was not enough, in the early 20th century Asian indents were given the hard knuckle of the infamous White Australia Policy.

In spite of this, numerous Indonesian men married, mostly Aboriginal women, and established families. Some served gallantly, defending Australia in overt and covert operations during the World War II. They were frequently denied recognition or reward for their service.

Indonesian labour and their relationship with indigenous Australians in our pearl frontier are traced via fascinating accounts by Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers in their freshly published book. Focused on the conditions and struggle of Indonesian indents in Australia’s north, it reveals a captivating history of people from two different nations forming their families and communities. It was labour demand that brought Indonesian workers in and, as it often happens, resulted in social and cultural changes which were meant to be prevented by restrictions, separation and administrative efforts to uphold a (fictional) racial purity.

It is poignant, in the current obsession with “locking” our northern maritime borders, that through our entire history northern Australians encountered our Asian neighbours and often enmeshed with them on social, linguistic and cultural, but most of all, personal levels – an essential narrative of history is how people intermingle with others.

It looks as though pearl-farming and the flood of synthetic materials (as substitute for shell) in the later decades of the 20th century shifted pearl-shelling largely into the realm of history. The question of (de-facto) indentured labour and the quality of working contracts and conditions, nowadays, probably remains as elusive as ever.

Additional information:

Indentured labour is a close cousin of slavery. For a good part of our history it was quite common in Australia. Paradoxically it began with a sort of racial equality as “our convicts” were mostly British and Irish. The Penal colony almost instantly became the administration for forced labour. It is worth contemplating when we celebrate Australia Day.

In Queensland about 62,000 indentured Pacific Islanders laboured in sugar plantations over the second half of the 19th century. Aboriginal Australians were frequently indentured (if sometimes de facto) on pastoral properties, as domestic servants and, in the south, as seal hunters – mostly enslaved women. At the northern frontier Aborigines were indentured and worked in the pearling industry.

“Bitterly hard labour” alludes to the Chinese metaphor for unskilled labourers hired by foreign companies, mainly in the Indian subcontinent and South China.


Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers, The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia's Northern Trading Network. University of Hawaii Press 2015