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Light at end of the tunnel

5 November 2011 1,027 views No Comment

FROM 1978-83, Mark Dodd worked as a pearl diver on old pearling luggers that still plied the Kimberley coast. In this riveting yarn, Dodd canvasses the intimate details of work on board fabled wooden luggers, especially the ”DMcD” (or ”Dan McDaniel”), and life and play onshore among the exotic alleyways and pubs of Broome, most notably the infamous Roebuck Bay Hotel.

To cater for cashed-up returning lugger crews peopled by an assortment of mavericks and desperadoes, the ”Roey’s” amply proportioned manager, Terry (”Top Cat”) Cullen, would ”roster on additional barmaids just to cater for the two-day drinking spree that normally followed (their) landing on the spring tide”. As Dodd recounts, in the late 1970s and early ’80s there was seldom a dull moment at the Roebuck Bay Hotel.

As well as being a personal memoir, The Last Pearling Lugger is an evocation of Australian history. It is impossible to tell the story of pearling and Broome without including the Japanese. Dodd puts it thus: ”More than 900 headstones in the Japanese cemetery in Broome, not to mention numerous other lonely graves scattered around the Kimberley coast, are testimony to the courage of the Japanese divers, who used to be paid part of their fee before the season began because of the high risks of their work.”

There were so many Japanese workers there that Chinatown was known as ”Japtown”. Indeed, by 1919, 1200 Japanese dominated the pearling workforce, constituting almost half of the residents of Broome. However, Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 meant that local Japanese and their wives were rounded up and interned at camps as far away as Tatura in Victoria. The lugger fleet was dismantled, with some vessels commandeered by the Australian military and later used in ”high-stealth resupply and rescue missions in Japanese-occupied Timor”. The rest were either sent south or were torched ”to prevent their being seized by the enemy in the event of a full-scale attack on Broome”. It took years for the pearling industry to recover. But even then, the increasing use of plastic instead of pearl meant life on the luggers changed dramatically.

Early on in The Last Pearling Lugger, Dodd writes about how, aged 24, he camped at Tunnel Creek, a cave above a watercourse that was ”home to freshwater crocodiles, thousands of flying foxes and a slice of Australia’s early bloody European history”. In the 1890s, the cave had been the base of Jandamarra – also known as ”Pigeon”- who waged a protracted guerilla war against encroaching white settlers and the police. His pursuers failed to realise there was a breach in the cave roof, through which the bold Aboriginal warrior could escape to the bluff above. As Dodd explains, Jandamarra’s campaign ”ended in a shootout at Tunnel Creek in 1897, when he was hunted down and killed by a black tracker”.

The powerful story of this great Aboriginal freedom fighter is recounted in a new edition of the 1996 Western Australian Premier’s Book Award winner, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance. Written by Howard Pedersen with help from Bunuba elder Banjo Woorunmurra, this true tale, set in the unforgettable Kimberley landscape during the late 1800s, is published by Magabala Books – a Broome non-profit Aboriginal corporation that preserves indigenous Australian culture.

Although it’s hard to tell how different this 2011 edition is from the first, published in 1995, this thrilling story of an Aboriginal freedom fighter deserves to be etched in our consciousness. As Bunuba woman June Oscar writes in a new preface to this finely produced book, Jandamarra is a hero not just to Bunuba people but to many other Aboriginal nations.

Told in absorbing detail, Jandamarra’s story of resistance and rebellion is aided by scores of illustrations. Extremely revealing are two black-and-white photos – one of an imperious, European, Sub-inspector Ord, sitting on horseback in Derby in 1898, a year after Jandamarra’s death, and another of the Broome police station in 1918 featuring white Native Mounted Police and a black tracker who, significantly, is unnamed. But, for me, the most powerful illustration is a brilliantly coloured photograph of red-ochre paintings that are still in Jandamarra’s hideout cave at Tunnel Creek – known to local Aborigines as ”Baraa”.

THE LAST PEARLING LUGGER, Mark Dodd, Macmillan, 256pp, $34.99
JANDAMARRA AND THE BUNUBA RESISTANCE, Howard Pedersen and Banjo Woorunmurra, Magabala Books, 220pp, $24.95

The Sydney Morning Herald, SPECTRUM, November 5 -6, 2011, Books p.36