In 1879, an explorer called Alexander Forrest commenced a huge trek from the West Coast of Australia to the Northern Territory. He named the new and vast region “The Kimberley” after John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley, a man of great stature and Secretary of State for the Colonies.
He is the real reason why this place will forever be called “The Kimberley”.
Truth be known, we ought to look much further back in time, if we are trace its historical origins, for the first people to settle in the Kimberley came 40,000 years ago as migrants from an island group that we know today as Indonesia. And if you really wanted to be pedantic, there are dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point that are 130 million years old!
The Europeans may well have first chanced upon the Northwest in 1688 when William Dampier, notable author, buccaneer and reputed pirate, passed the Australian coastline around King Sound and what was then called “New Holland”. Dampier continued on his voyage and engaged in trading expeditions to south-east Asia, documenting his exploits and gaining popular notoriety with his published accounts in 1697 and 1699.
This caught the attention of the British Admiralty who was then swift to commission him. “Colourful” though he was, Dampier was an expert on the region. He was “the man” for the job, to explore the west coast and extend British interests.
Given the rank of captain and command of the HMS Roebuck, Dampier set sail for Australia in 1699 with that purpose in mind: to explore. Reaching an inlet that he dubbed “Shark Bay” on 6 August, he anchored for a week before heading northeast in search of water. Failing in that quest, we know he left Roebuck Bay on 5 September, and departed for Timor.
Though his voyage to the Kimberley was at best, a fleeting stopover, it is ironic that much of this region bears his legacy: the Dampier Peninsula, the Buccaneer Archipelago, Roebuck Bay.
Considering that his contribution to Australian history was minimal and that he found the west coast to be a ghastly and barren land, devoid of water, one has to question why his name was given so much prominence, especially after he dubbed the natives as the “most miserable People in the World”. Yet without his chronicles, without his narratives, perhaps one could speculate, that had he not penned his thoughts, no one would have ever followed in his path, to discover more and settle in Australia.
Nearly 100 years later and in 1801, the French explorer Baudin did a sketchy survey of the west coast, but this paled in comparison to the accuracy of Philip Parker King’s three expeditions between 1818 and 1823. Amusingly, of all the mappings and diary entries and botanical drawings, no one feature has a more popular reminder of Parker King’s voyage than the enduring carving on the famed “Mermaid” boab tree. Forced to careen onto a beach for 16 days for hull repairs, Parker King’s crew carved the name of his ship, the “Mermaid”, and the year 1820, on the outer bark of a boab tree. It survives to this day as a living testament to his spirit of exploration and a much-revered spot for Kimberley
cruise passengers to see.
The successful mapping of the western coastline by Parker King was to spark some new quests and some not-so-successful explorations by land.
The first expedition arrived in Hanover Bay in 1837 and was appallingly organised, under-equipped and led by 25-year-old Lieutenant George Grey of the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of Foot. That is, if you can call being shipwrecked, nearly drowned, totally lost and speared in the hip by an Aboriginal native as “arriving!” It was not a good day at the office for Grey. His party of 12 struggled on for 50 km south to trace the Glenelg River before throwing in the towel and being rescued by the HMS Beagle.
Of extra historical note, if the 10-gun, Cherokee-class Beagle had been there one year earlier, its most famous passenger may have greeted and rescued Grey. A young naturalist that was to change the world forever. A man that would make the Beagle one of the most famous ships in the world.
That passenger was called Charles Darwin.
Despite his ill-fated trip, Lieutenant George Grey did achieve something. He did discover the Glenelg and Gairdner rivers, the Stephen and Whately ranges and Mount Lyell before returning to Hanover Bay and rescue. In failure, you can always find success too. After all, this was the age of chivalry that fomented the “can-do” attitude that today’s Australians are still famous for.
We recognize that Alexander Forrest was the first to name the Kimberley after his successful trek in 1879. But underlying this mammoth task was his mission of discovery and foundation. He did discover the King Leopold Ranges, and the fertile soils of the Fitzroy and Ord rivers. He did become a land agent that oversaw the leasing of 51 million acres of Kimberley land in 1883. That’s right: 51 million acres!
In 1883, Yeeda Station became the first place to sheer sheep in the southern Kimberley. In 1885 cattle was driven across the country to find decent pasture grounds. On Christmas Day, in the same year, gold prospector Charlie Hall found a massive 28-ounce gold nugget at Halls Creek, triggering a deluge of 15,000 dreamers and prospectors to try their luck at “striking gold.” Three months later, beaten by the inhospitable terrain, the gold rush ended. Halls Creek reverted to being a trading centre for the stragglers left behind and was eventually abandoned completely in 1954.
The Pearl in the Oyster
All was well in Broome. By 1891, mother of pearl shell had become such a commodity that Broome was the second most important port in Western Australia, second only to Fremantle. She was booming. By 1900 the English gentry had gleaned a fortune from the pearling industry and had begun to retire back home to live off their riches. In the void stepped fortune seekers from Victoria and New South Wales.
And then came the First World War in 1914.
The effect was catastrophic.
Men rushed to enlist and support the war effort. The fleet of 300 pearl luggers was halved. The market for mother of pearl collapsed. By 1916, Broome stared at economic ruin, with shipments constantly threatened by enemy attacks and stock piles of shell remained unsold. But when the war ended in 1918, a glimmer of resurrection slowly appeared. Gone were the old English families.
By 1920, the old town of Broome was back in business. Prices were at an all time high. The pearling industry was buoyant, profitable and riding a wave. That is to say, until a moment of deja vue, when on December 8, 1941 Australia joined its American allies and declared war on Japan. How uncanny that it all began so many thousands of miles away, when the day before, a relatively unknown Hawaiian port called “Pearl Harbour” was savagely bombed.
Immediately, the life-blood of Broome’s pearling industry was drained as the Japanese pearl divers were interred in camps. These were friends and employees that were incarcerated for simply being Japanese, even though many had been born in Australia and had no connection to Japan.
By 1942, the Japanese were a serious threat and gaining ground. They teetered 300 miles north of Broome and in striking distance of mainland Australia. Broome had become a refuelling station for the R.A.A.F. and all focus was on defence. The government ordered all pearl luggers to be purchased or destroyed.
On 3 March 1942, the Japanese Zeroes hit Roebuck Bay and destroyed 16 flying boat planes. Other raids ensued and the population of Broome withered as the seriousness intensified and they opted to leave. Broome became a shell of itself.
Once again, Broome was resilient in the face of adversity.
At the end of World War II, the pearling industry had to start again and rebuild. As it did before. Only this time, it had to reinvent itself. A new market of cultured pearls emerged changing the industry forever. After a near demise in the 1950s, South Sea Pearls have become the best and most recognised pearls in the world. Broome had a new lease on life, not as a straggler, but as the market leader for pearls.
All of a sudden, tourists rediscovered the magic of the Kimberley. Hotels and B&Bs opened up. Charter boat operators offered incredible journeys to this once inaccessible terrain. Scenic plane and helicopter operators took to the air. Camels trains were seen strutting down Cable Beach.
Once again, Broome became the seed and root, the pinnacle of Kimberley achievement and resilience. She is indeed, the gateway to the Kimberley for good reason.