Broome to Katherine – History

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Although the date of Aboriginal migration from south-east Asia will probably never be known because of changing sea levels covering initial occupation sites, it is probable that the Kimberley was the first landfall, perhaps 50-55 000 years ago. The coastline was hundreds of kilometres further out even 20 000 years ago, making the sea crossing only about one hundred kilometres.

Aboriginal culture is alive and well from Broome to Katherine today, and cultural tours and artwork form a key part of many visitors’ experiences. Hundreds or rock art sites dot the landscape, basically in the “Bradshaw” elegant, dynamic style that resemble the Katherine region’s Mimi spirit figures, or the Wandjina style of eerie, haloed human figure.

While contemporary Aboriginal people do not identify with the Bradshaw art (which is probably the earliest) the Wandjinas are known as the “spirit of the cloud”, linked to the coming of the monsoon. The ubiquitous rainbow serpent is a feature of many sites. Please ask at local Visitor Centres about art sites or take a cultural tour and respect these priceless treasures.

Beche de Mer fishermen from Asia visited the coast frequently from about 1400 until 1900, seconding Aborigines to work in their camps.

Early European navigators included Dirk Hartog (1610), Abel Tasman (1644) who mapped the coast, William Dampier (1688) and Nicolas Baudin (1800) who gave the coast any of its French names. Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of 1801-03 was not along the coast here, so Phillip Parker King made four voyages (1819-21) to explore the region.

The Beagle visited in 1837 under John Lort Stokes – the first explorer to experience the racing tide’s wall of water which overturned their yawl in the middle of the night.

George Grey (1837-38) and Augustus Gregory (1855) completed major expeditions through the region before Alexander Forrest’s 1879 reports of good pasture lead to settlement. The age of the drovers opened up great riverside expanses of the region, and gold discovery in Halls Creek in 1886 sparked a boom, though the region remained generally remote and sparsely populated.

Broome’s pearling industry began in 1880 and by the 1920’s was producing 80% of the world’s mother of pearl shell. Broome’s pearling history is outlined at the Historical Society Museum, a fascinating background to one of Australia’s most multicultural towns.

World War II saw air raids on Broome, Derby and north coast Aboriginal missions and some Japanese reconnaissance landings. The invention of plastic for buttons killed the pearling industry.

New growth came with the damming of the Ord in 1963 creating a rich new agricultural region, diamond mining in 1977 and oil, gas and mineral discoveries from 1979. Today offshore gas is the new big industry bringing wealth to the region.