Heather Goodall on The Pearl Frontier by Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers

vickersBook Review: Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers, The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network (University of Hawa‘ai Press: Honolulu, 2015), 240pp, $50 Cloth.

By Heather Goodall

This book should be on the ‘read urgently’ list of every labour historian. While it unsettles many disciplinary conventions, it does so with a thoroughgoing analysis of the commodification of labour. The book shows how capital works across national borders and cultural conventions, racialising labour to slash wages where it can but just as likely to dodge racial regulations like ‘White Australia’ where it needs to.

A powerful and disturbing photograph dominates the plain cover of The Pearl Frontier. Abdoel Gafoer meets the eyes of the reader directly, in a finely detailed image made in 1949 when he signed on for the second time in Australia as a diving tender. The authors stress the difficulties of pearl diving late in the book, when they say that this photograph shows a man ‘worn out by the hard life of pearling’ (149). But to the new reader, his steady gaze conveys a quiet defiance alongside his caution and patience. Beneath the unbuttoned throat of his grimy work shirt, beside the shawl draped over his shoulder, the ceremonial scar on his chest is clearly visible. This Yawuru initiation scar, like the assertiveness of Gafoer’s stare, demands recognition that here is someone of high standing. This whole book is stamped with Abdoel Gafoer‘s challenge: to acknowledge the workers who made the Pearl Frontier.

That is no easy task. There is little enough documentation of industrial workers of the 1920s, the early period of this book, and few oral accounts of what is now a time outside living memory. For agricultural workers there is even less information. Abdoel Gafoer was an Indonesian pearl diver who first came to Australia in the 1920s, working for a company which regarded him as a nameless ‘coolie’ and living in an Australia which flaunted its ‘White Australia Policy’. This makes it even more unlikely that we can learn about his world or his early conditions. But Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers have allowed us to learn much more than Abdoel Gafoer’s name. They open up the transnational world of pearling, which drew as much from the cultures and knowledge of its Indonesian workers and their Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, as it did from the profit-driven methods of the white company directors who straddled their bases in northern Australia and the Indonesian islands in the Timor Sea.

Hurley, Frank, Pearl diver collecting shells from the beds of Torres Strait, Queensland http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4851320-v
Hurley, Frank, Pearl diver collecting shells from the beds of Torres Strait, Queensland http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn4851320-v

The authors, Martinez and Vickers, are each of high standing themselves, in the histories and cultures of Australia and Indonesia respectively, which makes this collaboration of even greater importance. They bring differing bodies of deep knowledge to a rigorous common focus on explaining how this transnational industry worked – with innovative explorations of the complex cultures of all involved. This book is an impressive outcome, demonstrating the richness arising from bringing political history, economics and anthropology together with oral history. While linking broad analysis with the power of individual life story exploration, it recognises from the very beginning the gendered nature of work and the intensely emotional interactions on all sides which created the world of the pearling industry.

The book crosses as many disciplinary borders as it does national ones. It is able to draw on the anthropology of the cultures and traditions of the Indonesian island and maritime communities from whom the workers came, but also on the dynamic political history of Indonesia in the 1920s as engagements between religious and communist mobilisers generated fruitful new organisations. Just as powerfully, it draws on both the anthropology of Indigenous Northern Australians and their politics, along with the political economy of the colonialism of both the Dutch and the British administrations, settlers and frontier adventurers.

It explores the complex regulations in both colonial laws about ‘Indents’ as well as migration. How did two European empires manage transnational labour flows, when each was so determined to establish legal frameworks for borders and movements, as well as for racial groupings inside and outside these borders? This book not only explores the case study here of the industry which was active across the eastern Indian Ocean, but opens up the broader questions around European expansion and the control of flows of people across its emerging borders, as well as the flows of commodities into world markets. The role of ‘indenture’ was crucial in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to this control of labour throughout European colonies.

One area which this book points to is the link therefore between ‘apprenticeship’ and ‘indenture’ in Australia and that with the broader European colonial system. It engages powerfully with the structures of indentured labour in the pearling industry in the Torres Straits islands, where the book is able to contribute to the discussion around indenture of Indigenous Australians. There is a wider question here, however, to which the book points. Further south, the ‘Stolen Generations’ analysis in Australia has focused largely on the intensity of the personal experience of removal from families and culture. This continues to be seen as a means of cultural control and the genocide inflicted by settler economies. Its origin in and continuing connections to the political economy of colonialism remains poorly examined. This book is a strong reminder that the task remains undone.

The role of labour unions in northern Australia in the decades between the two World Wars has been an important area of study for many labour historians, who have taken different positions on the roles the North Australian Workers’ Union and other unions took in the complex race relations of the industry and the broader community there. This book expands that discussion, drawing in much more directly the dynamics of labour and left wing politics in Indonesia itself and of Indigenous Australians. This goes beyond the commonly accepted practice of considering the Australian unions as if they acted in a vacuum or were connected only with those in the USA or the UK.

Another of the borders The Pearl Frontier crosses is the neat chronology still maintained by many studies, which compartmentalise histories into ‘before’ and ‘after’ WWII or look only at the war itself. The racial politics of the pearl industry, like many of its other aspects, makes this impossible. The role of the Japanese in the pearling industry, as both divers and as traders, is a crucial aspect of the early industry explored in the book. This moves directly into the history of the war in the eastern Indian Ocean – which linked Indonesia, occupied by the Japanese army, and northern Australia very directly – with severe implications for the workers in pearling. At no time does the political economy of the pearling industry leave the attention of the reader – one of the many achievements of the book is its capacity to engage with the global political economy of the failing industry at the same time as it grapples with the ‘structural’ level of laws and then warfare but also with the personal perspectives of interned and protesting workers. The book is then able to move into the dynamic periods after the war, in which the people who had come to Australia initially with the pearling industry, now challenged the attempts by conservative post war governments to reimpose the ‘White Australia Policy’.

The Pearl Frontier opens up with a most important Introduction – it describes the moving event in 2010 when Julia Martinez and Adrian Vickers were able to take the photographs and stories they had found in the archives back to the people in Broome who were the children and grandchildren of the ‘Indents’ like Abdoel Gafoer. This powerful vignette is explored in many ways through the book – in the anthropology of the Indonesian islands, in tracing the meanings of the fabrics which pass between them, in the results of leafing through page after page of the minutiae of industry and government archives – but it is to these intense emotional connections that the book returns, ending on the struggles of Abdoel Gafour in the 1960s as he tried to apply for permanent residency in Australia, to live out his life securely with his Aboriginal family. Many others were unable to succeed in the way that Gafoer was able eventually to do. The closing chapter brings these heartbreaking stories into sharp focus, drawing together the many threads of the fabric of the book.

This is an analysis which moves effectively between the emotion of personal stories – the lives of workers and their families – across two empires to the financial capitals of the world. Labour relations are today well recognised to be embedded into a transnational global economy, but this was also the case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as workers crossed borders and cultures to make the profits which fuelled those empires and their expansion. This book allows insight into that world of transnational labour which is just as crucial for the labour historians of Melbourne or Sydney as it is for those of the extraordinary industries of the seas between northern Australia and eastern Indonesia.



Citation: Heather Goodall, “Review of The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network”, Recorder, no. 284, November 2015, 1-3.

Leave a Reply