Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1715/Australian Pearl-Fishing

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From The Gentleman's Magazine.


Somerset Harbor, the first Australian port of call, we entered in the midst of a tropical storm that made the little pearl-shelling vessels rock like paper boats. We remained long enough to learn something of this same pearl-fishery. One informant proved that it was a most thriving business, and deplored that, by some astonishing oversight, the Oueenslanders allow the entire profit of the enterprise to go to another colony. Nearly the whole of the boats hail from Sydney, some of whose merchants are making rapid fortunes out of the trade, upon which, added my complainant, there was no tax; not even a boat-license, he said, was imposed by the government of Queensland. The vessels engaged in the business are smart little fore-and-aft schooners, and last year there was taken from the port of Somerset not less than two hundred tons of pearl-shells, the selling price of which would be about £200 per ton. One firm in Sydney received seventy-two tons, and I heard of one Birmingham house that had already brought £30,000 worth of the material. As is the case with many other important industries by which large fortunes are made in a short time, the pearl-shelling capabilities of Queensland were discovered by accident. The hardy seamen and native divers engaged in the bêche de mer trade, about four years ago, brought up an occasional pearl oyster, and as the matter was talked about in the straits it was remembered that the blacks along the coast were in the habit of wearing crescent-shaped pearl-shell ornaments about their necks. The industry was then organized, and with the most gratifying pecuniary results. The pearl oyster averages from seven to nine inches in diameter, and the inside is lined with a beautiful coat of the mother-of-pearl from which buttons and other articles are made. At Somerset I was presented with a pair that, mounted, make capital card-trays, being fully eight inches across. The people engaged in pearl-diving seem to be a very miscellaneous set. The white men are mostly big, rough-bearded fellows, who would not thank you for inquiring too closely into their antecedents, and who adopt a remarkably "conciliating" way of dealing with their colored assistants. Very often in Australia you hear that the blacks of a certain district have been conciliated — that is to say, knocked down or shot. But it is only a very few aboriginals who work at the pearl-fishery, or indeed any other steady pursuit. When the coasting steamers pass between the mainland and one of the more southern islands off the Queensland coast, the passengers are sometimes puzzled to account for the black balls bobbing up and down on the waves. The explanation is that they are natives swimming off from the island to board the boat, and beg a passage to one of these northern ports. Three or four may contrive to catch the rope that is thrown astern; the remainder return to I shore, swimming, as before, the entire distance of four or five miles. Some of the fortunate ones are amongst the aboriginals to be found in Torres Straits with the pearl-fishers. The South Sea Islanders, however, or Kanakas, as it is the fashion to call them, make the best divers. In some of the boats may be found natives of the islands around New Guinea; gentlemen who, if report does not belie them, are not, at their own domestic hearths, insensible of the attractions of nicely-cooked human flesh.