Appearing to burst out of the water, holding a precious pearl shell aloft, a new 3m-high bronze cast of a female Aboriginal pearl diver unveiled on Broome’s foreshore on Friday appears graceful at first glance.
But a closer look reveals a less romantic story, as the woman is pregnant and she is gasping for air.
The new public memorial, created over a decade by sculptors Joan and Charlie Smith, pays homage to the resilience and suffering of the forgotten women of pearling in Broome – both early divers and those who supported the industry from land.
In the first instance, it acknowledges the horrendous early 19th century practice of “blackbirding” – the forcible kidnapping of Aboriginal women to pearl luggers, where they dived for pearl shells in deep water, often without breathing apparatus. Unsurprisingly, many of the women drowned.
Djugan and Yawuru woman Mary Theresa Torres Barker, 72, said she had heard painful stories from her grandmother Polly Drummond, about the “sad time” in Broome’s history.
“In the early days, there was no-one to do the job and they found the women had the lung capacity to stay underwater longer – they were the best,” Mrs Barker said.
“Sometimes they used to go a little bit further and they would put the woman in respirators but tie stones to their legs to keep them down … they were knocked around, tied on the dinghies.
“It was very cruel – just talking about it makes me sad.”
The practice died out in the 1890s, several years after Broome was gazetted, when men brought in to build the wooden jetty brought male skin divers with them.
But the statue also acknowledges the on-shore women who helped Broome’s pearl shell industry to thrive, during its heydays in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
From the early days, women worked for pearlers as domestic help – and in many cases, bore their children. Mixed families were often torn apart when Asian indentured workers were suddenly deported, leaving their women to raise children alone.
Researcher Sarah Yu said the statue’s location on the foreshore placed the spotlight back on a rich part of Broome’s heritage which was often ignored.
From the late 1800s to early 1900s, hundreds of pearl luggers would pass through the area en route to Streeter’s Jetty.
The mothers, wives and children of lugger crews would also assemble there, gazing out over the water and waiting anxiously for the return of their loved ones on the spring tides. Hearts sank when they arrived with flags at half-mast, indicating that more of their men had died at sea.
Despite the area’s rich cultural history, only bare traces of the once-thriving industry at the site can still be seen, including three crumbling buildings, the jetty and remains of several pearlers’ camps, Mrs Yu said.
“The focus now is on pearls and camels on the beach and sunsets – whereas the true heritage of Broome lies within the stories of pearl shell,” she said.
“There was a whole life around the foreshore and the luggers – so (the statue) is trying to draw attention to that history.”