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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 9 May 2015
20 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 9 MAY 2015 FEATURE CONTINUED FROM PAGE 19 One diver, Theo Halkitis, recalls that diving was undertaken “with quite antiquated methods and equipment.” Halkitis was injured when his air supply line became caught in the lugger's propeller shaft - no protective guards had been installed. Whilst Halkitis was lucky to escape with his life, tragically on 24 May 1956, Hristos Kontoyiannis was not. The coroner's inquest found that the death of the chief diver of the Kalymnian crewed lugger, Postboy, was the result of “asphyxia … when the propeller cut the airline … the accident was caused when the lugger … was forced backwards by three heavy and unexpected waves thus fouling the air-line which was in its normal position over … the stern.” While the coroner uncovered no evidence of negligence on the part of the crew members, public gossip ridiculed the unfortunate seamen with suggestions that such a mishap would not have occurred with a Japanese crew. For some of the Kalymnians, such talk underlined what they sensed to be a strong desire by a number of lugger operators to regain the use of cheap Japanese labour. Claims that Kontoyiannis' untimely death was a result of sabotage also arose. In 1976, the dead diver's son arrived from Greece to both retrieve his father's bones, and to uncover the 'real story' surrounding the tragedy. He returned to Greece unconvinced by the coroner's report. Disheartened by the unfamiliar conditions and equipment, members of each Kalymnian crew broke their contracts and sought land-based employment in Darwin. The project's dismal failure was an embarrassment for the Australian government, but not for too long, as a crash occurred in the pearl shell market at the close of the 1950s - plastics were superseding mother-ofpearl in the production of buttons and other shell-related goods. Most lugger operators quickly abandoned the industry - though faint echoes of it remained until the early 1970s. The Kalymnian crews primarily immersed themselves into Darwin's booming, post-war building industry. Despite the failure of the Kalymnian experiment during the 1950s, the period did witness the successful establishment of an unusual Greek pearler within the industry - Mary Dakas (nee Paspalis, the sister of Michael and Nicholas), who went into pearling in her own right in 1949 and has been acknowledged as “most probably Australia's only Greek female pearl lugger operator”. Left with boats and a marine workshop in Fremantle after the accidental electrocution of her second husband, Christopher Dakas, in 1948, Mary quickly resolved to enter into the staunchly male domain of pearling. Her father's experiences in the industry during the late 1910s and the early 1920s, coupled with the pearling activities of her brothers, and the potential commercial resurgence of the seabased enterprise, possibly tempered her decision after the war. Moving to Broome, she was soon operating luggers out of both Broome and Port Hedland. As Mary explained: 'I had four boats pearling. I started with the Swallow in 1949. My son Manuel built the Kestrel on the beach at Broome, and we added the Jedda and one other to the fleet. We did well while the price of shell held up.' When the pearl shell market plummeted in the very late 1950s, Mary was unable to sell her original lugger, Swallow, and it was left to rot on the beach amongst those vessels abandoned by other lugger operators - the sands were a graveyard for the last vestiges of a passing era. Mary died in 1985, aged 76, and was buried at Perth's Karrakatta Cemetery. A Dakas Street in Broome commemorates this unique Greek-Australian pioneer pearler who has been described as “a fascinating lady … [of] very strong character… [because] to take over the running of her luggers as she did … was against all the conventions of a very class conscious Broome of the 40s and 50s”. One of Mary's younger brothers, Nicholas Paspaley, also succeeded in making quite a name for himself in pearling. Nicholas acquired his first lugger during the early 1930s. After World War II he purchased four luggers from the navy and became the “first man back into pearling out of Darwin”. His fleet “prospered as well as pearling could” until the crash of the pearl shell market in the late 1950s. Yet this was not the Funeral of Hirstos Kontoyiannis, Kalymnian pearl-shell diver, with Mary Dakas (nee Paspalis), most probably Australia’s only Greek female pearl lugger operator, standing at the centre of the group. Broome Cemetery, WA, c. 1956. PHOTO COURTESY PAPADONAKIS FAMILY, FROM THE IN THEIR OWN IMAGE: GREEK-AUSTRALIANS NATIONAL PROJECT ARCHIVES. Kalymnian Stephanos Makrillos (seated on right) and crew Waters off the north-western Australian coast, c. 1955. PHOTO COURTESY S. MAKRILLOS, FROM THE IN THEIR OWN IMAGE: GREEK-AUSTRALIANS NATIONAL PROJECT ARCHIVES. end of Paspaley's romance with the sea but rather a new beginning. As Nicholas' wife, Vivienne, points out: “when the price fell [for pearl shell], we went solely into pearl culture.” Nicholas Paspaley's course was now set on becoming a master pearler in commercial pearl cultivation. The pearl would replace the pearl shell as the central focus of his activities, though the shell would be retained as a by-product for the inlay market. Cultured pearl farming had arrived in northern Australia in a very big way with the establishment in 1956 of a joint Australian and Japanese cultured pearl farm at Kuri Bay, some 420 km north of Broome. Under the guidance of Japanese businessman, Tokuichi Kuribayashi (after whom Kuri Bay is named), the venture developed into “the largest pearl culture farm in the world”. Nicholas was inspired. In 1963, the Paspaley Pearling Company entered into a working arrangement with a Japanese firm, Arafura Pearling Company, and commenced culture pearl operations at Port Essington, part of the Cobourg Peninsula east of Darwin. Initially Paspaley's arrangement with the Japanese was unsuccessful, but they later reached an agreement. While the Japanese would contribute the technical knowledge and skill, Nicholas' company would provide the necessary vessels, the farm, much of the equipment, and the living pearl shell. From then on, Paspaley never looked back - during the early 1980s his Port Essington pearling farm was using up to 70,000 shells per year in its production. Nicholas died in 1984 in his late 60s, but the company continued to prosper under his son, Nicholas Paspaley junior, who managed the enterprise with his sisters Roslynne and Marilynne. By the early 1990s the Paspaley Pearling Company was said to control some 60% of Australia's cultured pearl industry. During the late 1970s, another Greek of Kastellorizian background became interested in Australia's cultured pearl industry: Western Australia's prawn-fishing magnate, Michael G. Kailis. Kailis' Broome Pearls was the first company to train Australian pearl technicians and it established Broome's first successful pearl farm. Michael and his DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM wife, Dr Patricia Kailis, were often described as a “formidable team”, and following her husband's death in 1999, Patricia has continued to be involved in pearl cultivation. Despite Paspaley's and Kailis' achievements in the commercial development of pearl cultivation in Australia, they were both preceded in their area of interest by another Greek: Con Denis George (Georgiades), who preferred to be addressed as Denis George. Born in Constantinople (Istanbul), Denis migrated from Athens to Sydney in 1948. As a youth, he had acquired a deep familiarity with the sea, and in 1949, whilst reading for leisure in Sydney's libraries, he became fascinated by Australia's pearl shell. The thought of possibly cultivating a south seas pearl for commercial distribution germinated, nourished by the fact that the large Australian pearl oyster would provide a cultured pearl much bigger than the small Japanese oysters. Pearl cultivation techniques had popularly been associated with the Japanese, but Denis discovered that during the late 1880s and early 1890s an Australian naturalist, William Savelle-Kent, had successfully experimented with south seas pearl oysters and a cultured pearl had resulted. Between 1952 and 1966, Denis experimented with oysters around Stradbroke Island, Cairns, Fitzroy Island, Thursday Island and nearby Packe Island. At the same time, he attempted to attract government and private backing to commercialise his technical achievements. Denis wanted to set up a solely Australian owned pearl cultivation enterprise arguing that: “The Japanese have a $50 million a year pearl industry. Why shouldn't we?” Disillusioned by the failure of his efforts to commercialise his work, and believing that this had occurred because official Australian support was unashamedly being directed towards Japanese-led ventures, Denis George left Australia for Papua New Guinea. He spent the next sixteen years on Pear Island in Milne Bay, where he continued his work in pearl cultivation. After returning to Australia, Denis concentrated on documenting and publishing his technical knowledge and experience. He died in 2001, still dreaming of a profitable and wholly Australian-owned pearl cultivation industry stretching from Shark Bay, Western Australia, right across the continent's northern coastline to Brisbane's Moreton Bay. Denis' work has been recognised as one of the pivotal contributions to the pioneering of Australian pearl cultivation. Throughout the greater part of the development of the Australian pearling industry, Greek involvement became increasingly conspicuous. Yet, many earlier historical insights into the industry have failed to recognise their consistent and at times, influential, contribution. Ilias Fountis’ Australian immigration papers. Department of Immigration, Australia, 1954. PAPERS COURTESY OF I. FOUNTIS, FROM THE IN THEIR OWN IMAGE: GREEK-AUSTRALIANS NATIONAL PROJECT ARCHIVES.
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