Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter V. Pearl Shelling in the Torres Strait. By Lieut. K.O. Mackenzie.

Lieut. K. O. Mackenzie, whose long practical acquaintance with the subject as a resident sheller in the Torres Strait, keen interest, and powers of observation make him an authority, has kindly contributed the following chapter on Pearl-Shelling in Torres Strait.

THE obtaining of mother-of-pearl shell from the sea is the primary industry of Torres Strait, with headquarters at Thursday Island. It is generally referred to as pearl-fishing, or pearling, and therefore it is naturally thought that pearls are the only object of enterprise, whereas pearls are a by-product only.

The divers of shelling boats have been drawn from almost all the races which go to sea. The natives of the Pacific Islands, especially Samoa and Rotuma, also the Philippine Islands and the Malay Archipelago, have supplied most divers in the past. Whites first instructed these people in the methods of machine (air-pump and dress) diving. White divers generally employed a mixed coloured crew. As time passed and shell became more difficult to obtain, through the thickly strewn beds or patches being thinned, deeper diving became necessary, and diving farther afield over greater areas and more in the open sea. The white divers first retired, and almost all the above-mentioned races have given way to the Japanese.

They are sturdy, and for generations have been brought up to the sea, as they are recruited from the fishing class in Japan, and find the hardships of climate changed in Torres Strait to conditions of comfort and pleasure. Their fatalism gives them complete confidence in sea-diving work.

On December 31, 1913, the following was the number of men afloat, employed on ships' articles of agreement at Thursday Island Shipping Office, under the Pearl Shell and Bêche-de-mer Fishery Acts:

Europeans 7
Philippinos 21
Philippinos indented 1
Japanese 56
Japanese indented 599
Mainland natives 159
Malays 6
Malays indented 76
Papuans 132
South Sea Islanders 45
Torres Strait Islanders 190
Other nationalities 8
Total 1300

On February 28, 1914, the population of Thursday Island, excluding the men in above list on articles, was as follows:

Pearl shell found in Torres Strait varies much in quality, according to the nature of the sea-bottom and the water in which it grows. Shell from the Papuan coast, along the north side of the Strait, is small and stunted in growth, and of a less hard substance, becoming almost chalky on the backs when dry. This shell is much riddled on the backs by borers. These borers live within a shell which is an oval bivalve, and dissolve the mother-of-pearl as by a strong alkali. They commence with microscopic size under the edges of the layers of growth on the backs of the pearl shell. They increase in size till about one and a half inches by half an inch, when they succeed in killing the pearl-shell oyster. The hole made into the pearl shell is solely for the accommodation of the borer. Inside his shell the mother-of-pearl-shell oyster has been busy keeping the borer out by building a layer of nacre over him till what is termed a blister is formed.

Shell found in or about coral-reef bottom is hard and of good quality, although subject to these borers. Shell along the east coast of York Peninsula is very like the Papuan coast shell, but is much larger and heavier when full grown. The deep-water shell of Darnley Island waters is really a reef shell. The best quality is found on what is known as the old ground, which covers the area over the western approach to Torres Strait. The sea-bed, affected by the waste from the coast and by discharge from rivers, appears to affect the quality of the mother-of-pearl shell. The beautiful colouring of the pearl shell is divided into two general classes: white or silver-lipped and gold or orange-lipped. The white-lipped shell is the natural shell without the gold-lip colouring. The latter colouring extends over the entire back of the shell, penetrating a more or less shallow distance into the nacre, and then right to the thin outer edge, hence "lip." Gold-lip shell is some pounds sterling per ton of less value commercially than silver-lipped.

Definite and scientific knowledge of the mother-of-pearl shell, in its creation, habits, growth, and peculiarities, is very small. The correctness of its classical name, Meleagrina margaritifera, is questioned.

Private enterprise has spent thousands of pounds in scientific research by conchologists, who have collected chicken shell and transferred it to cultivation beds. Data and information remain with those who have paid for it, but the obvious fact is that there has been no commercial discovery improving the handling or cultivation of the mother-of-pearl oyster.

The mother-of-pearl is a bivalve. Its average grown weight is about five to seven pounds. It first grows in a disk-like shape, and then thickens by growth on the inside of each valve until it is about eight to ten inches in diameter, measured across from the hinge. Each valve is about an inch in thickness in the middle, and each is hollowed in shape on the inside, and rounded on the outside, and tapering away to a thin edge all round its extremities, except along the hinge. The space between the valves would be about an inch to an inch and a half in the middle, tapering away to the meeting of the outer edges and hinge of the two valves. The hinge, or base, is some five to six inches long and a straight line. Imagine a bivalve shell standing on its base or hinge, and the side of the disk towards you, showing a notch or indent just above the left side of the hinge, then the outline of disk from this notch would tend away at more than a right angle with the base, forming a sweeping curve round--closing in a little, and then meeting at an angle greater than a right angle the other end of the base or hinge. With the notch to the left, the valve towards you is always more hollow by about half an inch than the valve away from you. They are known as "hollow and flat" sides: or "lefts and rights," when shell is placed edge towards you, the notched edge being farthest away. The back of each shell, or valve, is covered with a brownish substance, something like hard horn, which becomes very brittle after exposure to the air. This brown substance ends in concentric rings radiating from the base near the notch. One ring extends under the other till finally the last one forms the lip or outer edge of the valves. The outer edges of these rings near the lip have protuberances like small extended finger-nails, which, as the shell extends in growth, break off. The outer edge of the nacre of the valves is surrounded by about an inch of this brown lip. The general thickness of this brown covering on the back, ending in the lip, is about a sixteenth of an inch. The healthy adult shell probably produces some thousands of eggs a year, but the percentage which mature is small. The egg is supposed to float about on the surface of the sea and hatch there, the young microscopic bivalve, which has a root like a small bunch of greenish-coloured fibre, called a byssus, sticking out of it, with which it catches and holds on to any object as it is carried along in the sea. It then feeds on the microscopic animal and vegetable forms in the passing waters of the coral sea. It lets go if the surroundings are not suitable, and, drifting on, again catches hold of something, such as some marine growth, a leaf of a marine plant, a rock, or a stone, etc., and so on, growing and shifting about where the tidal stream takes it till it finally holds on to the sea-bed and remains there if it finds the locality suitable. At first it stands up on its base, held fast by its byssus to the sea-bottom. Then the time comes when its weight through growth keeps it a fixture on one side on the sea-bed. It has selected its locality for the rest of its life. The root or byssus, which was part of the body of the oyster, dies or withers away. The notch described above is where the byssus came out between the valves. The age of the shell at this stage is generally said to be about five years. If the bottom is of a soft nature the constant outward rush of expelled water by the sudden drawing together of the valves by the oyster when startled, cuts away a concave space like a shallow wash-hand basin, wherein the shell rests. The shell lying on the bottom is difficult to see, as its back or upper side (it invariably lies on its "flat "side) becomes covered with a variety of marine growth exactly like the sea-bed adjacent to it. Thus it is very difficult, particularly for the uninitiated diver, to find the shell. Sometimes the shell is scattered about the bottom, which is covered with a growth of marine grass, two or three feet high, which naturally protects it. The silt on the bottom in many places where shell is found is very easily disturbed, mixing up with the water, rising in it, and clouding it like a fog to such an extent that the diver cannot see. The ground swell does this also, and the tidal stream then carries the cloudy water to places sheltered from the swell, so that sometimes for many miles in all directions the sea is quite milky, and finding shell then on the bottom is impossible. When the shells are brought to the surface they are opened with a knife like a table-knife, but with a larger handle. The oyster is examined for any pearls in it and then thrown away. It is edible, but very coarse. The bivalves are separated, the brown lips being cut off with a heavy knife, and the backs chipped, removing all marine growth. The shells or valves are then scrubbed and stacked to dry. When dry they are weighed, and their net weight is credited to the diver who found or obtained the shell. It is then packed in a mixed or assorted state. Packing requires a deal of practice and skill. The cases employed contain about seven cubic feet of space and hold about two and a quarter hundredweight of shell.

The law prohibits the pulling up of young shell, under five inches in diameter from base to lip of nacre. Formerly it was six inches, but some years ago the size reduced.

In grading, shell is sorted as follows:

AA Chicken 5-6 inches
A Chicken 6-7 inches
B Clean, bold, or stout. 6-7 inches
C Mature, without fault 7 inches and up
D Grubby-backed all sizes
E Defective faces, backs all size

This is known on the London Market as country sorted. For many years the sales of mother-of-pearl shell have taken place by auction in London every two months, attended by buyers from all countries, the same as the wool sales and sales of other world's produce. New York buyers buy shell at times from shelling centres direct, in opposition to the London market. The question of market speculation and controlling of prices is a very thorny subject with shelters and buyers of shells.

Statistics of value and quantity of shell and pearls exported are found upon analysis inaccurate. An illustration: mother-of-pearl shell shipped to another port, such as Sydney, for transhipment or reshipment there to London or New York, is not credited by the Customs to its port of original export, but to Sydney, its final port of export.

The value of pearl shell has fluctuated from some £80 and £90 to between £200 and £300 per ton. Isolated parcels of best quality shell have sold for £400 odd per ton in London, and, similarly, inferior shell, with a bad market, has sold at some £40 per ton.

Customs records show that, for the years 1896 to 1900--i.e. five years--5633 tons of mother-of-pearl shell were exported, valued at about £110 per ton. The catch of shell has declined, as the five years 1909 to 1913 similarly show 2431 tons, valued at about £181 per ton. This latter quantity, for the reason mentioned above, would be more correctly about 3000 tons. These two periods are five years before Federation, and the last five years' available figures.

Pearls can only be dealt with on values declared at the Customs, and as the handling of pearls is under loose regulation, nothing like accurate figures are really available. The values of pearls exported declared by exporters to the Customs for recent years are as follows: 1910, £1620; 1911, £12,151; 1912, £6333; 1913, £8265. In the early days more pearls are said to have been found than in late years, thus creating a theory among practical shellers that virgin beds of shell were more pearl-bearing than the disturbed or worked patches with only young shell growing. Yet a gem is often found in a comparatively young growing shell. The pearl is recognized as being caused by a parasite whose host is first a small fish before it passes to the mother-of-pearl oyster and causes the growth of the pearl. Pearls are found in the flesh, or just within the skin, in or about any part of the mother-of-pearl oyster. They may be divided into baroque pearls and gems. The first are common and mostly small, of all manner of shape, size, and grotesque form. Pearls, particularly gems, are rare. The latter are usually found about the outer parts of the oyster, and just under the skin of its tender parts, so that as the gem grows by being built up by successive layers of nacre, so the time arrives when the oyster, startled, drawing his shell together, ruptures the flesh or skin covering the pearl by the sudden movement, and the released pearl passes out on to the seabed and soon rots away, being reabsorbed in the sea-water and sea-bed. Sometimes the pearl falls within the shell and lodges between the body of the oyster and the shell, when it becomes attached to the wall of the shell as layers of nacre are added, and so becomes a lump there, called a blister pearl. When this is found, speculation exists as to the value of the pearl within, whether it is more valuable to cut the blister off, showing its outer surface as a pearl, or to open the blister and expose the pearl. Sometimes the blister discloses a piece of foreign substance from the sea-bed, or a small crab or some kind of small shell, which has been suddenly washed into the oyster. Two intruders are commonly found living within the body of the shell oyster--namely, a small soft brown crab, round in general shape, and about half an inch in diameter, and accompanying it a small red lobster about an inch long.

Every good pearl or gem has its own individuality or special features, and it is as difficult to match two pearls as it is to match two human beings.

Massive, irregular, and imperfect pearls are sold to best advantage in India and the East. Pearls or gems of quality go to Europe, through the markets of London and Paris.

Turtle crack the young pearl shell up to about six inches diameter, eating the oyster, and in its very young state pearl shell is a food for some kinds of fish, so that it has many enemies.

Mother-of-pearl shell is said to have been first reported as being found in Torres Strait by Captain Dawson and his mate, who passed through Torres Strait in a schooner bound from Sydney to West Australia. They did not, however, obtain any. It was first collected on the Woppa Reef in 1869, when Captain Banner, trading with a schooner from Sydney for Mr. Merriman, gathered some five tons and took it to Sydney as a sample. In 1870 he made a special voyage from Sydney to the Woppa Reef, obtaining some seventy-five tons, which was sold in Sydney to Mr. Dickenson at £50 per ton. Another voyage was undertaken in 1871, but on the return the vessel was wrecked. It is stated, however, the owners were paid, under their open insurance policy, for fifty tons of shell. The extensive Woppa Reef lies in the north-east part of Torres Strait, extending nearly north and south, and separated from Daru and Bristow Islands on the Papuan coast by Missionary Passage, and terminating in Tute, Dungeness, and Mangrove Islands. It is intersected by narrow passages. The charted name of this reef, taken from the name given to the island of Tute, is Warrior, because the natives put off in their canoes to attack a surveying warship anchored there (probably H.M.S. Rattlesnake) about 1848. The result was disastrous to the natives, but they were game and without fear. Captain Banner again visited the Woppa Reef in 1872, but died there, and was buried on Tute (Warrior) Island.

Pearl shell was first found by wading and swimming on the reef at low tide, and without doubt the first traders to Torres Strait and New Guinea saw the natives with pearl shells and pearl-shell ornaments. Mother-of-pearl shell appears to be spread over the coral seas wherever the sea-bottom is suitable for it. There is a variety of mother-of-pearl shell known as black lip, but the shell is smaller, being from three to five inches in diameter, and it is mostly found in the shallow water on the coral reef. An exception to this size occurs at Tahiti, where the black-lip shell is almost the same size as the large mother-of-pearl shell, Meleagrina margaritifera.

Pearl-shellers followed, and made settlements or stations at convenient islands, employing the natives as swimmers, working one or more small sailing vessels. Somerset, in Albany Pass, was founded about 1864, and became the headquarters for pearl-shellers and traders to connect with shipping passing through Torres Strait. It was found that Somerset was not suitable as a port. The tide through Albany Pass, being strong and the bottom foul, caused difficulty and trouble to the seaborne traffic. Thursday Island, the centre of the Prince of Wales Group, with a more suitable harbour, was selected to be made the port, and was founded as Port Kennedy in 1877, being officially established on New Year's Day, 1878. The pearl-shellers were mostly scattered about, with their stations on the various islands of the Strait. Maubiag (Jervis Island) was notable as a settlement, and for very many years has been the natural base for swimming stations, as the shallow and reef-strewn waters adjacent to it cover an extensive area. In 1914 the Wyben Pearling Company were the only pearl-shellers working from there having a fleet of swimming cutters. On Nagheer (Mount Ernest Island) a small swimming station was working about three boats, founded by James Mills, a Samoan. Mills died in 1915, and is about the last of a typical class of coloured man representing the early days of Torres Strait. He was trained in boyhood by the London Mission Society. He took to the sea and had been bos'n of several ships, and had been to most of the world's ports. He stood six feet two inches, well and powerfully built, a born trader, having a marked personality, and spoke in the vernacular some eight languages.

The method of collecting the pearl shell was improved by the introduction of the diving dress and air-pump, and this marked a difference between diving boats (machine) and swimming (naked divers) stations.

The diving boat, with its mechanical outfit, was a small vessel of about five to seven tons with two masts, carrying a jib and two standing lug sails, making it a lugger. The diving boats of the present day average fifteen to seventeen tons, and are ketch-rigged, but the old name of "lugger" is still in general use.

The swimming boat has, in most cases, been the cutter from the smallest size to about five tons.

These stations were the headquarters of the individual sheller, working any number of boats, say three to twelve. The station was the rendezvous. The boats, with all supplies--such as provisions, water, firewood, and gear--crews, and diver or swimmers aboard, would go out to work the clear water. That means dive for shell with fine weather and slack tides. They would not return to the station except for sickness or accident till conditions prevented diving. Clear water set in with neap tide and fine weather. Occasionally water would remain clear through springs and neaps to next spring. Neaps are often spoiled for diving by water becoming dirty, as already explained. The boats, under such circumstances, returned to their stations, where the shell was landed, and the divers credited with their results. The rate of pay was generally a fixed sum per 100 shell, but in latter days it has been a fixed sum per ton weight of cleaned shell. All sorts of statements are made as to the depths swimmers dive and depths dived in a dress. Expert swimmers will work in five to six fathoms, but three to four fathoms is good diving for swimmers working. They will, however, always quote the best depths. The average dress diving now is anything from six and seven fathoms to fifteen and twenty fathoms. This covers what is termed shallow-water diving. Deep-water diving ranges from this to thirty fathoms and more in a few individual cases.

Shelling operations have been carried on from "floating stations" instead of from shore bases--a schooner of some 100 tons being used as a parent or store ship, and a fleet of twelve to fifteen diving boats directed and managed from her. This enabled greater control and concentration of work in all ways; regular collecting of shell from the boats as it was raised by the divers, also securing the pearls or lessening the chance of their being stolen aboard the diving boat. (Stealing pearls is done without removing the oyster, by placing the shell on deck in the sun, when it opens; then keeping the valves separated by inserting an object while feeling the oyster with the fingers for a pearl and then extracting it.) Under this floating system the fleets rarely came into port, but lay or sheltered as necessary somewhere out among suitable island or reef anchorages, a constant service by a tender being maintained between the fleet and Thursday Island, thus carrying out stores, gear, and men, and bringing back the shell packed ready for export, while time-expired men, sick men, and men oh leave went to and fro.

At Christmas-time the general lay-up and pay-off and re-engagement took place, when almost all hands were sent into Thursday Island. Then a period of about six weeks' festivity, enjoyment, and a reckless spending of their wages took place, accompanied by a general breaking of last year's resolutions. The simple man of the sea, be he coloured or white, always in ending his voyage makes resolutions as to what he will do this time, and how he will spend his money, etc., but, alas, when he comes in contact with the shoreman and his lines of civilization, he fails again. The storekeepers of Thursday Island were very much opposed to the floating-station system, but investigations by the Government showed the alleged abuses did not exist.

By a natural process of evolution the floating system has ended in Torres Strait for the present, anyway, and shelling is conducted from the shore again. This time, not from those stations scattered about the islands, but from the business office desks of Thursday Island. This, of course, clearly shows more dependence upon, and trust put into, the divers' hands in operative or practical shelling. The diving boats fit out for periods of three months, but return to port as need be between refits. The diver and crew draw their money and have a financial settlement at each refit, so that the annual pay-off and excitement at Christmas-time is past, though it is generally made the principal refit of the year, with a holiday. As direct control cannot be exercised over the diver, who is comparatively as much an autocrat in his fifteen-ton vessel as the old-time sailing-ship master, the diver is paid a lay wage on his catch of shell, approaching almost £100 per ton, according to amount of catch. From this is deducted the actual cost of provisions and crew's wages, the diver having the exclusive right to pearls found, which he sells to the highest bid from buyers ashore. The Japanese diver, on principle, never takes his pearls to his employer to buy.

The risks of machine diving are shown as follows:

 Year Number of divers Deaths from paralysis Percentage Deaths by accident Percentage
 1909  149  8  5.36  4  2.68
 1910  158  14 8.86  1  0.63
 1911  187  21  11.22  0 --
 1912  198  17  8.58  1  0.50
 1913  172  7  4.06  2  1.16

Diving apparatus has been improved in recent years in minor ways by application of experience, but the greatest advance is the motor-driven air-pump, or compressor, now in use, the air being pumped and compressed into a couple of cylinders like boilers up to a pressure of 200 lb. per square inch, and this compressed air turned on to the diver as required. This marks a distinct advance on the old system of hand-turned air-pumps, directly connected with the diver on the bottom.

Some shellers are looking for much advancement in the application of modern machinery to improve shell-diving--particularly the motor-engine, which has done so much in the war; others look to a commercial possibility in cultivating shell, and are always asking for scientific research in this neglected field. The industry possesses many thorny problems of its own.

Many politicians of to-day advocate a white-worked shelling industry, and a few declare it should be made a white man's industry solely. Shellers contend this cannot be done (and the present four years' sitting Royal Commission has apparently not yet solved the problem), not that whites cannot do the work, but they will not as conditions now exist. The white man with the abilities enabling success as a diver can, with more comfort and pleasure, make a better living ashore. Should any legislative enactment cause the abandonment of shelling in Torres Strait, an unpleasant phase would soon arise. The shell on the bottom would go on growing and increasing at the rate of compound interest.

During latter years about 75 per cent, of the shell picked up has been beyond the recognized three-mile limit. There is certainly a Queensland extra-territorial boundary, but this fact cannot control another flag.

The best and most extensive grounds cover the western approach to Torres Strait. A Dutch port and Dutch territory are close at hand, crying out for any sort of settlement to bring trade and development. The facility with which this ground is worked for shell from Thursday Island is not to be compared to the discomfort of working it from Dutch waters, but it can be done, and the application of the motor makes it easier. The motor is already being successfully manipulated by the coloured man in pearl-shelling. The shellers who left Torres Strait for the Aru Islands worked the Dutch waters there for about a year, keeping outside the three-mile limit with their sailing vessels, though watched by a Dutch patrol steamboat, and so forced the Dutch Indies Government to grant them terms to work their waters. These shellers have very successfully worked these Aru waters since 1906, the Dutch reserving exclusively for the natives depths of three fathoms and less. These Australians shell over there, domiciled only under the Dutch flag. It is only a few years ago that an Australian warship arrested two boats fishing a sea-reef off the Australian coast near Broome, and these vessels were not flying the British or Australian flag. They were prosecuted merely for a breach of Customs regulations in not paying duty on their stores.

Thus any hasty or ill-conceived handling of the pearl-shelling industry might create a far worse position than at present exists (as seen in the case of the extremists in the White Australia policy), by losing the commercial benefits arising from the best part of the shelling industry in Torres Strait to a foreign flag, and the creating of a number of aliens, free from Australian control, but on one of Australia's doorsteps, necessitating a vigilant naval and Customs patrol, etc.

Note. Statistical figures quoted are taken from the Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for the year 1913.

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