A handful of sand is an anthology of the universe.
– David McCord
Story & image Mary Gardner
Clarkes Beach, like many other east Australian beaches, is much changed, again. The sand is swept away, exposing reefs and riffles of round rocks. I look at the parfait of black and pale sands. As I ponder the future, the dark heavy minerals and pale grains first conjure up the past. After all, for millennia these tiny grains were structural supports holding both shellfish and gold.
Supernova explosions created gold, and hurled it throughout space. About 200 million years after the creation of Earth, meteorites laced with gold dropped onto the planet. A lot is still part of the core, but long ago some was moved in magma, erupting as part of different rocks. As the rocks eroded, gold and black heavy minerals washed down to beaches.
Shellfish evolved in the Cambrian, some 540 million years ago. As the sea level stabilised 10,000 years ago, the sands were crowded with various clams. Dominating open beaches were surf clams, here called pipi. In 1880, the Queenslander reported that from Southport to Richmond, they were ‘alive in their incalculable myriads’.
Of course, Aboriginal people knew. An important protein for young and old, abundant, edible raw or cooked, surf clams were part of their seafood basket. Physical proof of thousands of years of use were the many middens built up of clam shells. Some were many metres high and long. Many were also used as caches or burial sites. Post invasion, so many have been destroyed.
But Aboriginal culture holds on to the pipi. Stories continue, not only about holiday feeds but also survival food – when many displaced or marginalised Aboriginal people lived in ‘no man’s land’ or ‘fringe camps’ near beaches. Pipi show up in art: look at Digby Moran’s work in Railway Park, Byron Bay, or in the Angel Beach Tunnel, Ballina.
In the early 1800s, timber cutters and whalers were using the land and water of the subtropics for extractive commercial work. They noticed gold in the black sands. In the words of former Byron Mayor, Richard Brownell, their ‘plush carpets or even goatskins were good enough to catch and hold… heavy amalgam [gold]… as if it had been put [there] by the shovel’.
The beach gold rush is the quieter companion of inland gold rushes. It is also the history of early commercial fishing. The convoluted story, with a cast of thousands, is worth remembering.
Among the many migrants seeking gold were men from the Celestial Empire, often travelling from Guanzhou. Through 1880-90, Sydney newspapers published reports of men in small groups mining the far north’s beaches. From what we now call the Gold Coast, down through Evans Head, industrialised sand mining destroyed many of these sites by the early 20th century. But archaeologist, Therea Gilroy, found evidence of at least six Chinese mining camps near Evans Head.
A mosaic of biography and trade history explains these times.
In 1859, nine-year-old Mei Quong Tart accompanied his father to Ballarat and worked for a Scots family. As a young man, speaking both Mandarin and English, with a Scottish brogue, he made a fortune in gold.
Settling in Sydney, Quong Tart opened the first of the soon-to-be-popular, tea houses. He was a progressive, offering his workers benefits such as meals, paid holidays and sick leave. A dual citizen, serving the Australian government, and decorated by China as a Mandarin, he was a negotiator in many cases of racial discrimination, and an advocate of racial equality.
Two of the largest shareholders in a bank that we now know as Westpac, were Louis Ah Mouy and Lowe Kong Meng, gold-trading and merchant men of Melbourne. The currency issued was in English on one side, and Chinese on the other.
In many coastal towns, as well as the capitals, men at Chinese camps, financed by wealthier Chinese, caught and salted fish. They also bought fresh fish from both settler and Aboriginal fishers. The brined or dried fish were shipped inland to Chinese miners, but also back to China.
The trade was very successful, financed by the likes of Mouy and Meng. The ships returned with tea and silk, sold on by the likes of Quong Tart. More immigrants also arrived.
Remember one major economic driver to the founding of Sydney was the creation of a British closed port near China, helping the East India Company. Trade with China through Australia was important to the British Empire.
My point? Before Federation, the British and Chinese empires influenced activities and changes on our coasts in ways no longer visible. Through all this, Aboriginal people survived, sometimes just barely. Irrevocable change to the structure of many beaches began. Vast populations of surf clams began to collapse.
Today, we know that vehicles on beaches, much like mining, destroy pipi. The populations are in fragments. The Australian government still blocks Aboriginal people from most of their sea country and much of its management. It also struggles with China; its trade and peoples.
The same government also rejects the value of history and other humanities. How could we understand the science of gold and surf clams without Indigenous and colonial history?
How would it all make sense, without an opening quote by a poet?