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Byron Shire
March 3, 2021

Finding hidden history among the paperbarks

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Paperbark regrowth in the the Cumbebin wetlands. Photo Mary Gardner
Paperbark regrowth in the the Cumbebin wetlands. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

My hiking companion is ahead of me, searching for the old drain which runs through the Cumbebin wetlands. We are in the ‘regrowth’: closely packed paperbark trees some fifty years old. I pause and look twice. In the soft morning light, the trees all around seem to glow. I sense something else, something vaguely present. Maybe it’s only a trick of these multifocal glasses I wear.

‘Here it is!’ he calls out. I walk over. The sunlight shifts and we consider the traces of history in the damp ground. There are bird and water dragon tracks. The drain itself was first made by a log pulled behind a horse or bullock. Likely it was dug again later with an excavator. The trees before the ones we see were cut to fuel the industries of another era of Byron Bay.

Where we stand, we are hidden from the road from which we walked in. Somewhere beyond the drain is the abandoned railway line. We talk about the coming of the railway in 1894. The first jetty was up by 1887–8 and the second in 1928–9. Over the years, jetties linked the rail with coastal shipping. With the construction of the rail bridge over the Clarence River in late 1920s, rail took over.  In 1966, a regional committee recommended Byron Bay as the site of a deep sea port for the north coast. But Public Works decided to develop Iluka instead.

The second jetty was longer than the first and it went out from the shore 670 metres. By the 1970s, storm battered and neglected, it was condemned and blown up. But by then both jetties had served in turn to load ships with goods. From cedar, tallow, animal carcasses, maize, butter, sugarcane, molasses, and bananas to fish. In the late 1950s to early 1960s, whales were hauled up. Right from the start, passengers shipped on excursions or the regular runs to Sydney and back.

People right across from Lismore through Mullumbimby and Brunswick Heads made logs of trees. Boiled animals into tallow. Turned wetland to farmland. Milked cows before there could be butter. Over hundreds of acres, they tended suckers that grew into banana trees.

In the late 1800s, banana plantations of the Mullumbimby region and Fiji were major investments of Chinese merchants and associations in Sydney and Victoria. These groups, principally from Canton, managed networks of clan members who worked first to pay their passage and then to send money back home. In the 1860s, they directed many men into gold mining. For that to be successful, they also invested in supplying food for these miners. They financed gardens for vegetables. They also supported the salting and brining of fish, a staple food. Sacks of cured fish were simple to transport by cart to mining fields and by ship to China.

According to Alister Bowen, an Australian historical archaeologist, the economics of salt-cured fish reveal something lost to time. From 1850 to 1900, dozens of fish-curing operations in Victoria, NSW, South Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania used fish caught by Chinese fishers but also paid for catch from European fishers. Bowen estimates  that the quantities were ‘literally hundreds of tons more than the European sale of fresh fish’. In the late 1860s, the Chinese fish trade was four times greater than the Europeans’ trade. When most European fishers were earning fifty pounds a year, the Chinese trade earned that each day.

Chinese business was important in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region. Of the rich merchants, two became board directors at the Commercial Bank of Australia (later to form Westpac Bank). Chinese characters were on the banknotes. After the gold rush, Chinese diversification led to market gardens not only in the cities but in small towns. Mullumbimby had such gardens. So did Byron Bay.

Where? Apparently, near  Mitre 10. Close to where paperbarks grow again.


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