A detailed study of the origins and demise of schooner-based pearling in Australia
For most of its history, Australian pearling was a shore-based activity. But from the mid-1880s until the World War I era, the industry was dominated by highly mobile, heavily capitalized, schooner-based fleets of pearling luggers, known as floating stations, that exploited Australia’s northern continental shelf and the nearby waters of the Netherlands Indies. Octopus Crowd: Maritime History and the Business of Australian Pearling in Its Schooner Age is the first book-length study of schooner-based pearling and explores the floating station system and the men who developed and employed it.
Steve Mullins focuses on the Clark Combination, a syndicate led by James Clark, Australia’s most influential pearler. The combination honed the floating station system to the point where it was accused of exhausting pearling grounds, elbowing out small-time operators, strangling the economies of pearling ports, and bringing the industry to the brink of disaster. Combination partners were vilified as monopolists—they were referred to as an “octopus crowd”—and their schooners were stigmatized as hell ships and floating sweatshops.
Schooner-based floating stations crossed maritime frontiers with impunity, testing colonial and national territorial jurisdictions. The Clark Combination passed through four fisheries management regimes, triggering significant change and causing governments to alter laws and extend maritime boundaries. It drew labor from ports across the Asia-Pacific, and its product competed in a volatile world market. Octopus Crowd takes all of these factors into account to explain Australian pearling during its schooner age. It argues that the demise of the floating station system was not caused by resource depletion, as was often predicted, but by ideology and Australia’s shifting sociopolitical landscape