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Book Review


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. Pp. 240. Bibliography and Index. $50.00 (hardback)


     The Pearl Frontier narrates for the first time the transnational history of the workers that labored in the pearling beds that lie in the waters separating Australia and Indonesia. Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers define the 'pearl frontier' as the maritime region which stretches east from the north of Western Australia to the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea, and north towards the Moluccas in Indonesia. Yet while the idea of a frontier plays a central role in this narrative, the authors are principally concerned with breaking down the borders that separated Australia and Indonesia. In charting the rise and fall of this industry over the course of roughly a century (1860–1970), The Pearl Frontier focuses on the experiences of indentured Indonesian workers that traversed Australia's northern maritime border. Merchants from Europe, Australia, America, and Asia also traveled to this region in search of the lucrative pearl shells that became a global commodity in the second half of the nineteenth century. They employed laborers from Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, the Pacific Islands, Singapore, and Malaysia. The story of this mobile maritime labor force destabilizes the common conception that Australia maintained strict and unassailable immigration policies that isolated it from its closest Asian neighbors. With a cast of characters ranging from pearling magnates to trade unionists, Japanese divers and Indonesian, Malay, and Filipino laborers, The Pearl Frontier complicates our understanding not only of how Australian immigration policies were enacted, but how race was constructed and experienced in Australia's northern border regions.

     This is an important book for two reasons. First, Martínez and Vickers set out to uncover a shared history between Australia and Indonesia in a period when these two emerging nations are usually considered quite separate. This is not simply an academic point but a matter with poignant resonance for many communities of Indonesian-Aboriginal ancestry still living in northern Australian towns. Northern Australia and eastern Indonesia have a long, shared history of contact, trade, and migration that continued into the twentieth century, especially through the mobility of indentured workers in the pearling industry. Second, The Pearl Frontier challenges the inflexible nature of Australia's twentieth century policy of immigration restriction, epitomized by the notorious White Australia Policy. We learn that throughout the first half of the twentieth century exceptions were regularly made for the importation of indentured Indonesian and other Asian laborers to work within the pearling industry. Many of these laborers lived, worked, and established families in the northern Australian towns of Broome, Darwin, and Thursday Island, despite having few or no rights to permanent residency or citizenship. Martínez and Vickers thus make a profound point about how successive governments were willing to bend official immigration policies for the benefit of the commercial interests associated with the pearling industry.

     The book is organized chronologically. Its first two chapters provide a broad overview of Indonesia's interconnections not only with Australia but also with other parts of Southeast Asia. Strong indigenous maritime cultures within the region were key to the longevity of regional mobility, which stretched back to pre-colonial times. In the second chapter, the authors trace the European presence and the emergence of a pearl frontier that both united – through a mobile labor force – and separated – through the establishment of strict immigration restrictions – Australia from her Southeast Asian neighbors. While the British attempted to gain advantage within this trade, the Dutch, who controlled Indonesia, reacted by first attempting to ban and then placing strict controls over labor recruitment in the eastern archipelago. Concurrently, a number of pearling entrepreneurs were attracted to the pearl beds of north and western Australia, where Aboriginal communities had been gathering pearl shells for some time. Surveys by these entrepreneurs led to the eventual establishment of major pearling centers in Broome, Darwin, and Thursday Island. Following restrictions introduced by the Australian government on the use of unpaid Aboriginal or Pacific Islander labor, pearling merchants quickly turned to eastern Indonesia where they were able to recruit indentured laborers to work in northern Australia. This part of Indonesia had both a tradition of labor mobility and established trading networks related to whaling, pearling, and shark-fin hunting. By the mid-nineteenth century, these communities had already had considerable contact with Dutch and Portuguese empires – a fact which the authors argue in the third chapter allowed them to integrate into Australian labor markets and communities with relative ease.

     In chapter four, the authors examine the growth of the Australian pearling industry in the late nineteenth century by looking at the emergence of master pearlers on both sides of the frontier separating Australia and Indonesia. Prominent figures like the 'Pearl King' James Clark and his contemporaries confronted regulations on both sides of the border – including the Immigration Restriction Act in Australia and recruitment controls in the Netherlands East Indies. These regulations similarly impacted on the laborers that migrated from Indonesia to North Australia following the boom of the pearling industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. As chapter five details, working conditions were extremely difficult – ranging from the risk of death for divers to the contraction of diseases like beriberi, as well as exploitation in the form of unpaid wages and other abuses associated with indentured contract work. Furthermore, workers were forced to sign contracts that stipulated their mandatory return to Indonesia at the end of their contract period.

     The authors emphasize that the expansion and boom of the pearling industry also attracted wide-ranging scrutiny and criticism. While the loudest voices often came from those opposing the dilution of a white labor force in Australia, critics from a burgeoning union movement in northern towns like Darwin were essential in documenting illegal and exploitative working conditions. Chapter six explores the problems faced by Asian workers living within Australian communities. Working for the majority of the year out at sea, these workers had only a few months to establish connections on the Australian mainland. While in port, they were subject to regulation and segregation. Tensions also existed among the diverse Asian laborers within these towns, particularly between well-paid Japanese divers and other indentured laborers. Authorities were moreover particularly concerned about inter-mingling between Asian workers and Aboriginal populations.

     The presence of a sizeable Indonesian workforce in Australia at the outbreak of World War II had considerable consequences for the Australian war-time effort, the focus of chapter seven. When wartime led to a halt in pearling activities in Northern Australia, the industry's Indonesian laborers found themselves in various states of dislocation. The Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942 and the threat of further attack led the Australian government to evacuate large parts of Northern Australia. As citizens of the Netherlands East Indies, many Indonesian laborers were relocated to Melbourne, where the Netherlands East Indies colonial government-in-exile was established for the duration of the war. Others, however, were subjected to Australian paranoia and racism and interned alongside Japanese prisoners of war or worked in Dutch forced-labor camps established in New South Wales and Queensland. Indonesian laborers working on Thursday Island were also evacuated further south to work in sugar-cane, cotton or other plantations, where their labor was considered essential in supporting the wartime economy. Finally, many Indonesians served within the Australian armed forces in Asian theatres of war, where their physical appearance was considered an asset for covert operations within enemy territory. Nonetheless, the contribution of these Indonesian soldiers to the Australian war effort went unacknowledged after the war, and many faced deportation under the requirements of the White Australia Policy.

     The end of the war did not lead to a return to pre-war status quo either within the pearling industry or the region as a whole, where strengthening decolonization struggles impacted on the ability for Australian industry to rely on imported indentured labor. As chapter eight discusses, Indonesian workers were caught between an Australian government that continued to uphold the sanctity of the White Australia Policy and the pearling masters whose main concern was continued access to cheap labor. Yet, the post-war period also saw a steady increase in union activities in support of Indonesian migrants to Australia, particularly in larger towns like Darwin. Their activities prompted both Australian and Indonesian governments to address the labor conditions experienced by migrant workers in the industry, leading to the abolition of indentured work contracts in 1969. The final chapter in the book considers the struggles of individual workers and their families to obtain Australian citizenship. By using personal stories, the authors are able to demonstrate the tribulations faced by many Indonesians to prove their right to be allowed to stay in an Australia that was still wedded to immigration restriction for non-white migrants. Even after immigration policies were softened to allow Asian migrants who had resided in Australia for fifteen years or more to receive citizenship, Indonesian pearlers were subject to a cultural test of character and their ability to speak English and assimilate into 'normal' Australian life. Many of these life stories demonstrate that this new approach to citizenship could be “impossibly inhuman” (163), as families confronted the possibility of permanent separation.

     On the whole, this extremely interesting and well-written book provides an important contribution to Australian, Southeast Asian, and World History. Nonetheless, a few elements might have made the book even stronger. The first involves the use of maps. Although there were two maps at the beginning of the book, both were regional overviews. For readers unfamiliar with the intricate geography of the Indonesian archipelago, more focused maps as well as diagrams showing the regional labor flows in different periods would be a welcome addition. Secondly, and more importantly, the authors mention a number of times that the pearl diving industry recruited laborers from recruiting sites across Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, China, the Philippines, and Japan in addition to the eastern Indonesian recruiting sites examined here in detail. One thus wonders why the authors decided to limit their study to Indonesian laborers, and whether discussions that encompassed the diversity of this labor force may have strengthened their arguments about the connectedness of Northern Australia to Asia, as well as about the role of race and indentured labor within the industry.

     Finally, one of the definite strengths of the book is how it humanizes the story of the pearling industry, telling its history from the point of view of the indentured Indonesians that comprised its labor-force. Still, I felt that greater attention could have been paid to these individual narratives. The authors themselves note that there is ample scope for more research into the social history of the Indonesian pearl divers, and they suggest that their book may aid families in northern Australian and Indonesia to recover these stories. Yet, one hopes that The Pearl Frontier will not just influence genealogical studies, but will also encourage Australian historians to think outside of the dominant Sydney-Melbourne urban axis towards regional histories such as this that complicate our understanding of the historical development of Australia and its place within the world.

Stephanie Mawson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on slavery, trade, and witchcraft in seventeenth century Maritime Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on the Spanish Philippines. She can be contacted at


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