The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network, written by Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Rosemarijn Hoefte KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies

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Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers, The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015, xi + 227 pp. ISBN 9780824840020. Price: USD 50.00 (paperback).

The cover of The Pearl Frontier shows a penetrating 1941 portrait of a seemingly middle-aged man in work clothes, Abdoel Gafoer, applying to register as a diver’s tender. While reading the book we learn more about him. He was a Muslim from the Indonesian island of Alor, who had been indentured in Kupang, West Timor. In 1923 he made his first voyage to Broome to work in the pearling industry. Here Gafoer lived with an Aboriginal woman and was truly integrated into the Yaruwu community. After a stint back in Indonesia, he returned to Broome just before World War II broke out. The pearling industry in Broome ceased as a result of the war, but Gafoer made an income by fishing and selling food to servicemen stationed in town. In 1942, the Australian authorities decided to remove the ‘Indonesians’ from Broome, but Abdoel Gafoer managed to remain, perhaps because he lived outside the township. When the war was over he moved to Darwin to work for a small pearler, but went back to Broome in 1948. He ‘was subject to the local effects of instability, manifested in changing economic circumstances and the fluctuations of the pearling industry’ (p. 132, see also pp. 1, 56, 77, 97, 111, 115, 119, 148). In 1957 he was granted Australian citizenship. According to Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers, Abdoel Gafoer ‘was a typical man of the pearl frontier. His life was one of rupture, as he challenged the harsh labor laws of Australia and overcame the restrictions of the White Australia policy. But there was also a sense of continuity in his moving from Alor to Broome in that both locations share a strong community connection to the sea. It is that maritime culture that underpins the deep relationship between Australia and Indonesia’ (p. 167). In this way, the cover photo can be seen as iconic.

Based on archival research in Australia, France, and the Netherlands, the authors focus on the pearling industry to document and analyze how work, culture, and relationships have shaped the ethnically diverse maritime zone between eastern Indonesia and northern Australia. A key source are a series of applications for Australian citizenship filed in the 1950s and 1960s by Indonesian residents who had served as indentured labourers. These documents provide unique information about personal histories, including family relationships.

Martínez and Vickers approach these sociocultural ties as a product of commodity relations. Eastern ‘Indonesia’ not only had its own pearling tradition—the island of Aru was a pearling hub—but also was a source of labour. In Australia, Broome and Darwin were the main centres. For almost a century, ‘Indonesians’ were indentured into the Australian-based pearl-shell industry, that started its profitable business in the 1860s. The links between these regions were firmly established in the late 1880s. There was a constant traffic of goods and people across imperial boundaries. According to the authors, between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals were indentured each year; exact numbers are difficult to assess because official sources referred to them as ‘Koepangers’ (like Gafoer) or ‘Malay’ (‘an open cultural matrix allowing for mixing of religions and ethnic identities’ [p. 41]). Moreover, varied means of shipping were used to bring workers, the industry was highly fluid, and many worked under the radar.

Even when indenture was globally being criticized, the pearling industry continued to import thousands of indents, many of them repeat hires. The industry was exempt from the White Australia policy that promoted the use of white labour, thus showing the importance of the business—and of its Asian workers. The authors emphasize the ruthlessness of the labour regime that was based on racial thinking. As a result, the ‘Indonesian’ workers were kept separate from British Australians or ‘civilised community’ (p. 80). Their movements ashore were strictly curtailed, but that didn’t make them invisible: in 1925, a quarter of Broome’s population was Koepanger or Malay. ‘Indonesians’ in unionized Darwin in the 1930s enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, much to the chagrin of local commentators who called for segregation and enforcement of racial hierarchy. These chapters whet the appetite for even more in-depth information on the lives of these migrants and the sociocultural legacies of indenture. The authors seem not to have used oral histories to document these experiences. Maybe former indents or the children of ‘Indonesian’ workers, like Susan Edgar, the daughter of Abdoel Gafoer, may be able to provide this inside information.

Decolonization changed the labour relations within the pearling industry and thus the pearl frontier, changing the ethnic composition of the work force. Incredibly, however, Australia continued to import indentured Asian workers until the early 1970s. Direct Indonesian indenture to Australia was formally ended in the 1950s.

Martínez and Vickers place their impressive study of pearling firmly in the long history of mobility of people and goods across borders in what we now call Southeast Asia. The personal stories provide additional value that deepen our understanding of indentured labour.

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