Dr. Kelsey Ashe
Aboriginal and Japanese cross-cultural encounter in the early Pearling days in North-West Australia.
FROM THE ARTIST - REGARDING THE FILM - 'PEARLS AND BLACKBIRDS'
I wish to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise the continuing connection to land, coast and sea through enduring culture. I pay my respect to their people and Elders past, present and emerging.
This artwork is a meditation on immense beauty and pain, humanity and redemption. It provokes difficult, yet transformative conversation by adding expressive voices to this significant era in WA history, helping to shape our cultural imagination, sense of belonging and identity. By enabling visualisation of hidden heritage, ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ also, hopefully, has the potential to overhaul pre-conceived ideas about our Australian multi-cultural and Indigenous history and assist in displacing dominant accounts through embodiment of new perspectives.
The film was commissioned by the Fremantle Biennale and will be presented at the WA Maritime Museum during the month of November 2019.
The film depicts an intense and emotive early instance of cross-cultural encounter on Australian shores. Set in 1888, it focuses on a very narrow passage of time where Japanese hard hat divers worked simultaneously underwater with black-birded Aboriginal skindivers - men and women who were stolen, traded and forced to work diving for Pearls.
Although derived from facts and researched archival evidence, Pearls and Blackbirds is a fictional tale of the chance encounter between a Japanese prostitute ‘Ama’ and a young black-birded Aboriginal girl of the Pilbara coast, ‘Pearl’. After travelling through the port of Fremantle on the way to Cossack, Ama momentarily encounters Pearl outside a Japanese Brothel after Pearl is exchanged between a Blackbirder and a Pearl Lugger Captain.
AN INTWINED CULTURAL HISTORY
Several disparate but intertwined histories collide to make the narrative within the film a possibility. In 1878, in a far-away fishing hamlet of Taiji on the Southern shores of Japan, a female whale give birth to a calf in the bay. Although it was local taboo to hunt a female with calf, the whaling industry was in decline due to foreign whaling and the income for Taiji from whale meat had fallen considerably. Excited with their good fortune, almost the entire adult male population, set out in their boats and captured the whale in a large net. The mother fought with great fury to protect her calf and dragged the boats out to sea. It became dark and the men became cold and exhausted, struggling with their oars to tow the whale. By morning the fleet was scattered, the whale was finally cut loose but the storm worsened.
Within a few days, the elite of the Taiji’s whalers, divers, boats and fishermen, had been destroyed or drowned. 130 men were killed leaving a handful of survivors and the tiny village in deep mourning. Unable to survive through whaling, the fatherless, young boys of Taiji heard through the crews of foreign ships seeking whale oil, of money to be earnt in the Pearling Industry in the Northwest of Western Australia and so the area gained some of the best divers and tenders in the Pearling Fleet.
The Pearling industry in the North West was still emerging at this time. Early Swan River colonists moving north for opportunities for wealth drove its development. Initially pearl shell was collected literally off the beach and in shallow water without resort to violence, as the Aboriginal families, traded their labour for food. However records show that from 1868 there was a transition from wading in shallow water, to wading up to the chest and then onto actual diving, requiring a form of more violent coercion from the Pearler to his Aboriginal labour crews of men, women and children. By the 1870s Black-birded Aboriginals were working in depths of around 10-15 metres. With acknowledged superior physical fitness, the Aboriginals proved the equal of any global pearl divers, but drowning, shark attack, illness and violence took many, many lives.
Numerous police and government reports record how Aboriginal people from the Pilbara and Kimberley regions were forced to work as divers. At its peak, blackbirding was a flagrant practice, as described in an excerpt from a report by Government Resident Colonel E.F. Angelo in 1886, when he named three white men who,
"...publicly advertised themselves to procure and put niggers aboard at five pounds a head for anybody, or shoot them for the Government at half a crown a piece." (Collins, 2018)
Pearl Shell has been integral to WA Indigenous cultural heritage for millenia, in the form of artistic and ritual artefact. The riji-shell within Indigenous dress, were and still are, sacred artefacts symbolic for rites of passage. Pearls were not sacred, in fact pearls have been found in ancient middens and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were used as marbles or play toys, discarded afterwards as insignificant.
But to the Pearl Master, one decent pearl could set a man up for life, bringing him riches beyond his wildest dreams. The hunt for this treasure of the sea consumed many men and drove many to increasing risk and levels of savageness to achieve. Pearl Shell itself was a commodity attracting large sums overseas and many white men became very affluent by relying heavily on the slave labour of Aboriginal crews that spent all day diving, from dawn to dusk without a break. Not even a lunch break was allowed, the food was basic. For Aboriginal women on these boats, rape, violence and mistreatment were common. Can we even begin to imagine the pain of violent and often bloody separation from home and family? Of one’s culture obliterated, country taken?
Laws were passed in far off Perth in the 1870s to protect the Indigenous, but little if nothing changed for many decades in the North. Skippers could simply choose to ignore the rules out on a vast ocean with only the hunger for more shell and the possibility of a pearl coming up to spur him on. Life was expendable and there was ample supply of these young men and women to dive, albeit held at gunpoint or beaten into submission.
In the 1880s further laws were introduced to protect Aboriginal women and children from exploitation on the Luggers, however with most law enforcement individuals invested in some way or another in the Pearling Industry, the laws were not still not effectively enforced and the practice continued, often in the open but also partially obscured from prying eyes right up until the turn of the century and after. Blackbirding simply went off shore becoming baracooning – isolating Aboriginal women on islands for slave trading and prostitution. Of course there were ‘friendly’ law abiding luggers and crews, but in general the Indigenous population were subject to horrific acts of degradation, violence and penury during the early days of the Pearling Industry.
The other key instance that makes this filmic narrative a possibility is the arrival of Japanese divers from the 1870s, increasing into the 1880s and beyond. As the laws to protect Aboriginal women and children, mercifully became more abided by, Pearlers relied more upon male Aboriginals as Deckhands and on the Japanese Divers and their hard hat apparatus to scourge the sea bed in deeper and deeper sweeps to lift shell from its ocean bed. Aboriginal divers were kept at close hand however to cover shallower grounds.
1888, is a point in time when women were still being illegally being forced to dive and Japanese men began joining the Lugger crews – it was a time of overlap and cross-cultural encounter, not just for the Aboriginal and Japanese depicted in this film, but also other cultures – Malay, South Pacific, Indonesia, Chinese and Europeans. 1888, is also a trigger, echoing 1788, the year that Australia was ‘settled’. It is a call to re-think vast swathes of time, like a century, and to re-think what we call ‘Australian’.
It is also a time when many Japanese prostitutes were in Broome, Cossack and the surrounding areas. Karayuki-san (literally meaning girl gone overseas) was the name given to Japanese girls and women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were trafficked from poverty-stricken agricultural and fishing prefectures in Japan to destinations in East Asia, South East Asia, British India and Western Australia to serve as prostitutes. These women were part of an established and sanctioned prostitution syndicate which was tolerated and condoned by the authorities. Women were bartered and sold to service the Pearling industries men and effectively helped build an economy in the North West by providing money for Japanese Divers to become Independent and begin their own companies and crews. These women were largely invisible, working behind closed doors and corrugated iron as laundresses and storekeepers by day and entertainers of men by night.
In the 1860s the Swan Colony in Fremantle had been experiencing such a slump in economy and morale that Convictism was re-introduced to stimulate the economy and the town, even though it had ceased in all other parts of Eastern States of Australia and Tasmania at that time. The Colony was being called a failure, crops failed, economy and society were depressed, reports of the colony were miserable. But when Pearl Shells began to be gathered in vast numbers in the North West and bought to Fremantle for export, it was a major turning point in Fremantle’s colonial history. Pearling in the north was a boon for Fremantle, the port became more active, the South Bay Shipyards rushed to fill demand for Pearling Luggers, jewellers worked to skin and set pearls and shops and hotels flourished as free spending Pearlers and their wives visited the port town between expeditions. Enthusiastic local officials arranged for the improvement to the port facilities, extending South Jetty to 139 metres and then building a massive new jetty which extended south West from Angelsea Point into deep water.
Well prior to the gold rush in the 1890s, it was the pearling Nor'-Westers, as they were then called, who would spend large sums of money from March to September that jolted the WA economy and helped build this state, pulling it out of an economic and societal slump. Hundreds of Luggers were built and repaired in Fremantle, bringing in thousands of pounds, and in addition the pearlers bought large quantities of stores, food and supplies, clothing and hardware, to take back with them for the next Pearling season. Store keepers, boat builders, saw millers, blacksmiths, ships carpenters, sail makers, painters, tailors, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, prostitutes, pub and hotel owners looked forward to the coming of the hundreds of Nor-Westers, who put life into the economy. Those who toiled for free in the North enabled men to become quickly rich; exchanging Pearl Shell for pounds, towns like Fremantle to prospered.
HEALING DARK HISTORY
A massive swathe of dark history has been swept under the mat, leaving generations of trauma and grief unacknowledged and therefore unhealed. Many are completely unaware. Some have said to leave the history to rest. But rest it does not. It haunts, lingers and traumatises. The practice went on for decades, generations. The history is stirred by the return of the bodily remains of several young girls from Germany to Australia in 2019, after their removal as ‘artefacts’ of 19th Century Australia to Museums in Europe. Repatriated to the Yawuru Country near Broome, the girls remains are confirmed as Pearl diving girls who suffered horrific injuries. The past catches up with the present and traumasHow can we account for this? How do we come to terms with the truth of the often brutal, difficult history of how Western Australia came to be? How do we encourage truth telling in a way that contributes to increased awareness about our past and to reconciliation, so that we may all live like kin? How do we move ahead together?
The creative arts have a powerful ability to tell stories that written words alone cannot, to evoke sensory memory, and empathy, and compassion, shining a light that heals.
As a mode of recalling shared cultural historical narratives, of situating the past into the present, making it palpable, visible, visceral; contemporary art can do this in potent and unique ways. Immersed into the experience, film in particular with its ability to carry us away, situates the viewer in a mode of receiving felt and therefore embodied information - something that stays with you, hopefully long after the image recedes.
Pearls and Blackbirds offers a vantage point of shared histories and a site to move on from. A position of acknowledgement, and a chance for redemption through placing alternative narratives into the story in a way that only film can. Filmic techniques, enable swift links between an historical era and our contemporary times; seeping into the viewers awareness, capturing the attention of the audience and hopefully resonating long after.
Death and the afterlife, memory retrieval and healing are also some of the sub themes of this work. Academic and author Dr. Kate McMillan names a process of ‘Listening with our feet’, where sensing, making, responding, listening and remembering are part of the work. In this way an artwork can become deeply auto-ethnographic, as imagined embodied experiences cannot be separated from the life of the artist. My own experiences of pain, grief and loss blur, bleed and fuel shadows into the work, fusing with lateral narratives from generations gone past. Contemporary Art allows for this in a way that some other forms of historical narrative or documentary may not and it is in the potential of this hybridised cross disciplinary research that this work takes place.
I believe that if we are brave enough to face the dark, to hear terrible stories, to listen to them and feel what has gone past, we are deeply sorry for what happened. We are told this is the first part of healing. Remembering, acknowledging, extending love, turning for the light. I acknowledge that we cannot go back and we cannot undo, but we can, listen and begin to foster an appreciation of a culture that is one of the longest continuous ones on earth. It is confrontational and it is difficult, but humans have a resilience to move onwards and upwards…we look to be remade, reborn and re-created and Pearls and Blackbirds aims to explore some of these themes.
Dr. Kelsey Ashe Giambazi
I would like to sincerely thank the Fremantle Biennale for commissioning this work and express my gratitude to the sponsors, which have made the making of this film possible:
The Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, The Western Australian Museum, The Aquarium of Western Australia, South Fremantle Sailing Club, The Historic Diving Society, Willie Creek Pearls and Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre.
Bailey J, 2001. The White Divers of Broome. Pan McMillan Australia: Sydney.
Brown, A. Geytenbeek, B. 2003. Ngarla Songs. Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle.
Collins, B. 2018. Reconciling the dark history of slavery and murder in Australian pearling, points to a brighter future. ABC Kimberley. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/slavery-in-australian-pearling/1021748. Retrieved 1/11/2018.
Gribble, J.B. 1886. Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land. Stirling Bros: Perth.
Jones, N. 2002. Number 2 Home, A story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle.
McCarthy, M. n.d. Lustre: An illustrated Research essay of Pearling in Western Australia. WA Musuem: Fremantle.
McMillan, K. 2010. Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscape (PhD Thesis).
Nayar, P. 2012. Colonial Voices, The Discourses of Empire, Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.
Ngarla Poems in the Pearls and Blackbirds Film and Catalogue have been reproduced with the permission and assistance of the Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Centre.
Dr. Kelsey Ashe Giambazi is an Artist, Curator and Academic whose current interests are in the Post-colonial exotic and colonial-sublime sensibilities and contemporary art as a mode of exploring esoteric cultural heritage.