Pearling women in north Australia: Indigenous workers and wives



Publication Details

Martinez, J. T. (2019). Pearling women in north Australia: Indigenous workers and wives. In P. Machado, S. Mullins & J. Christensen (Eds.), Pearls, People and Power: Pearling and the Indian Ocean Worlds (pp. 344-363). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.


During the 1 860s, when the colonial pearl-shell industry in Western Australia was in its infancy, many pearling masters preferred to employ Indigenous women as pearl-shell gatherers and divers.1 The same was true of the Torres Strait Islands, located between north Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Allegations of kidnapping and forced labor, however, led to the Western Australian and Queensland governments banning women's employment in 1871 and 1901, respectively. Instead, the industry came to rely on male divers and crew of varied ethnicity. Pearlers retained male Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Pacific Islander workers, and expanded the workforce by importing indentured labor from Asia. While women may have been banned from working on pearling luggers, there is some evidence to suggest that they did continue to be involved in the industry informally.

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