Pearling commenced in the Torres Strait in the 1870s when pearl shell was 'discovered' by Europeans. The giant pearl shell, Pinctada Maxima, is found in abundance in Australia's northern tropical waters. They are the largest pearl shells in the world and the mother of pearl they produce was used in the manufacture of fashion accessories, such as shirt buttons and jewellery. The discovery of a perfectly round pearl from these shells was an extremely rare phenomenon. Hundreds of shells would be harvested to find even an odd shaped pearl. The conical shaped trochus shell was also harvested for its fine lustre when polished.
On the shallow reefs of the Torres Strait it was possible to swim dive without air tanks. Divers would simply hold their breath, wearing only a pair of goggles, and swim along the reef looking for shells. As pearl shell became harder to find, due to over fishing, the industry moved into the Straits deeper waters such as the 'Darnley Deeps' off Darnley (Erub) Island. Helmets and diving suits were required in these deeper waters.
Crews would be away from their home island for months at a time, subsisting entirely on the resources of their pearling lugger. The hours were long and the work monotonous. A deckhand would clean shells from six in the morning till late at night.
The pearling industry was a consistent source of employment for Islanders for more than ninety years. Several generations crewed the pearl luggers and the work was both a source of income and pride. The industry drew on Islander culture, employing their innate sea craft and navigational skills.
Keywords: Mer, pearling industry, shells, Torres Strait, 1870-1970
Author: Sharp, Nonie