Stretching from Shark Bay to the Torres Strait Islands, the pearling map of Australia is littered with sites and events that populate what was once known as the ‘empty north’. Pearlshell beds and ‘patches’, ancient middens and rock art sites, lay up camps and lonely graves, cyclone paths and shipwrecks, pearling ports and farms create a web of sites that record Australia’s pearling heritage.

Cyclone Mahina

George Mosby (great grandson of Yankee Ned), Torres Strait Islander pearler:

“Well I can remember back from my grandfather, my great grandfather, they call Yankee Ned. Well he had two boats. His sons – two was on one boat, and the other two was on the other boat. He had four sons, and that’s the time when that tsunami, or cyclone, hit Cape Melville, and most of the boats sank, but that two survived. They drifted for so long, and by the time the storm died down, they were in the mangroves on the mainland. They anchored outside on a reef on a little island. That island disappeared from under them. So they had to cut all the mangroves to push the two boats out.

They had been away for few months, and they thought they were dead. But they came back home. All the way from Cape Melville to Yorke Island. They’ve cut mangroves to make new masts and that. They didn’t have any compass or whatever, that was in the early days. The reef, they followed the reef. Reefs and I suppose the stars.”

Pearlshell in the Torres Strait

Glen Mackie, Torres Strait Islander artist:

“How pearlshell started, it was on Tudu. When the missionaries when they went there, when they first went into the Torres Strait they seen all the men wearing pearlshell necklace, and one of them asked, where did you get that from, and he told oh just on the reef, and when they took them to the reef, the pearl was everywhere on the reef.

They used to only use, you know the clinker dinghies to just go and pick up the pearls because, only when my grandfather time now they would only go and do diving, but before that, the pearls were everywhere on the reefs.

For us today we still use it, but it was very sacred to us. We trade with it, and that’s why I have that connection, and I like that connection between my traditional and the pearling because, you know I grew up with where it’s always been taught to us about the pearling and what it means, and my grandfather told us all the time.

I think I’m very blessed that I’ve grown up at that time where they are still alive today. Now I’m taking those stories and I’m putting it in my artwork, and I want to teach people about my history, about Torres Strait and where were from, and about pearling, because it’s a big history in the Straits, a very big history, pearling. All the islands had luggers. We have the dance there, we have our dance today. So each island has their dance of the boats they had at that time.”