The Perils of Pearling
This dramatic tale explores themes of courage, greed, and injustice through the exploitation of indigenous divers in the colonial pearling industry. Paterson vividly depicts the perilous nature of their work to critique systemic inequity.
In ‘The Pearl Diver‘ the speaker admiringly recounts the incredible fortitude of Kanzo, an accomplished Japanese diver braving tremendous danger to harvest pearl shell. Paterson illustrates the preparation required, with Kanzo essentially sealed in an underwater hell for minutes at a time, pushing the human limit.
Yet the diver’s stoic perseverance is in vain due to the low yields where they’re permitted to collect shells. When they illegally venture to a richer area, Kanzo is ruthlessly sacrificed by his partner to avoid capture.
Paterson condemns this cold pragmatism whereby the disposable “little brown men” are used up in order to profit their masters. The brutal pragmatism of simply replacing Kanzo underscores his dehumanization.
Banjo Paterson’s poem provides a fictionalized yet representative window into the real exploitation and dangers facing divers in the early pearling industry. As described in the poem, the industry relied heavily on exploited labor – often indentured workers or Indigenous people who were viewed as expendable.
Paterson vividly depicts the backbreaking preparation and perilous working conditions for divers hunting wild shell. The real risks of decompression sickness known as “the bends” are mirrored in the poem’s descriptions of surfacing divers being “paralysed” and in “infinite tortures of pain.”
Just as in the poem, the advent of helmet diving extended working time underwater but also subjected divers to immense pressure that could easily turn deadly with one false move or severed air line. Many perished from such accidents, their sacrifice hastily replaced to continue production.
By humanizing the doomed figure of Kanzo the diver, Paterson gives an anonymous face to the many divers, often indigenous islanders or indentured Asians, who lost their lives harvesting pearl shell and pearls for the profit of others. Through Kanzo’s tragic tale, Paterson exposes the human cost and injustice that lay beneath the pearl’s cultivated beauty and allure.
Through stark contrast between Kanzo’s steadfastness and his expendability, Paterson exposes the deep injustices perpetuated by the glamour of the pearl industry. The poem gives voice to the voiceless divers sacrificed for colonial vanity and greed.
The Pearl Diver
Kanzo Makame, the diver, sturdy and small Japanee,
Seeker of pearls and of pearl-shell down in the depths of the sea,
Trudged o’er the bed of the ocean, searching industriously.
Over the pearl-grounds the lugger drifted—a little white speck:
Joe Nagasaki, the “tender”, holding the life-line on deck,
Talked through the rope to the diver, knew when to drift or to check.
Kanzo was king of his lugger, master and diver in one,
Diving wherever it pleased him, taking instructions from none;
Hither and thither he wandered, steering by stars and by sun.
Fearless he was beyond credence, looking at death eye to eye:
This was his formula always, “All man go dead by and by—
S’posing time come no can help it—s’pose time no come, then no die.”
Dived in the depths of the Darnleys, down twenty fathom and five;
Down where by law, and by reason, men are forbidden to dive;
Down in a pressure so awful that only the strongest survive:
Sweated four men at the air pumps, fast as the handles could go,
Forcing the air down that reached him heated and tainted, and slow—
Kanzo Makame the diver stayed seven minutes below;
Came up on deck like a dead man, paralysed body and brain;
Suffered, while blood was returning, infinite tortures of pain:
Sailed once again to the Darnleys—laughed and descended again!
Scarce grew the shell in the shallows, rarely a patch could they touch;
Always the take was so little, always the labour so much;
Always they thought of the Islands held by the lumbering Dutch—
Islands where shell was in plenty lying in passage and bay,
Islands where divers could gather hundreds of shell in a day.
But the lumbering Dutch in their gunboats they hunted the divers away.
Joe Nagasaki, the “tender”, finding the profits grow small,
Said, “Let us go to the Islands, try for a number one haul!
If we get caught, go to prison—let them take lugger and all!”
Kanzo Makame, the diver—knowing full well what it meant—
Fatalist, gambler, and stoic, smiled a broad smile of content,
Flattened in mainsail and foresail, and off to the Islands they went.
Close to the headlands they drifted, picking up shell by the ton,
Piled up on deck were the oysters, opening wide in the sun,
When, from the lee of the headland, boomed the report of a gun.
Then if the diver was sighted, pearl-shell and lugger must go—
Joe Nagasaki decided (quick was the word and the blow),
Cut both the pipe and the life-line, leaving the diver below!
Kanzo Makame, the diver, failing to quite understand,
Pulled the “haul up” on the life-line, found it was slack in his hand;
Then, like a little brown stoic, lay down and died on the sand.
Joe Nagasaki, the “tender”, smiling a sanctified smile,
Headed her straight for the gunboat—throwing out shells all the while—
Then went aboard and reported, “No makee dive in three mile!
“Dress no have got and no helmet—diver go shore on the spree;
Plenty wind come and break rudder—lugger get blown out to sea:
Take me to Japanee Consul, he help a poor Japanee!”
So the Dutch let him go; but they watched him, as off from the Islands he ran,
Doubting him much—but what would you? You have to be sure of your man
Ere you wake up that nest-ful of hornets—the little brown men of Japan.
Down in the ooze and the coral, down where earth’s wonders are spread,
Helmeted, ghastly, and swollen, Kanzo Makame lies dead.
Joe Nagasaki, his “tender”, is owner and diver instead.
Wearer of pearls in your necklace, comfort yourself if you can.
These are the risks of the pearling—these are the ways of Japan;
“Plenty more Japanee diver, plenty more little brown man!”