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Byron Shire
January 26, 2021

The tides of history on our sands

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Photo Mary Gardner.

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?

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  1. You failed to note that Pipi is not the Aboriginal name for these creatures. They are properly known as Eugaree, and as children we learned to find them with our feet. There is a street in Southport named in their honor, and there is a beautiful sculpture of three of them, in sandstone near the gorge on North Stradbroke Island, it was created by a well known artist of Aboriginal ancestry, Delvene Cockatoo Williams.Otherwise the story is great and very pertinent. Cheers

    • Twenty years ago the pipi (Eugaree) was so common on Main Beach that beach walking during a dropping tide before sunrise would cause a rainstorm about two metres ahead as they pulled in their feeding tubes. Now it’s rare to find one. Where have they all gone?

  2. The eroded beaches of Australia are made like the people of Australia in Byron Bay. They have a grit that holds them together against the elements with boulders and rocks in their life that irritates and causes eddies and pools of water and those rocks also pushes the tide aside and away when it comes in and ebbs and flows around and across the sand, and then goes out again taking some sand away with it, away out to sea it also takes a little bit of character, but also adds a bit of character that was not there before as the beach with the ocean water a-surging and the wind is always changing and will change the Bay a little faster in the future with increasing Climate Change.
    Such a changing beach is Clarkes Beach and it has been marked on the map of Byron Bay a long, long time, as long as maps of the area have been made and whales have been swimming by for the famous Byron Bay Lighthouse is nearby lighting the way in the night for passing ships that may pass by and also for city tourists to visit and to view the vast ocean view, little knowing that Clarke’s Beach is right there at the start of the Bay protected by the rocky shore of Cape Byron just in from a placid place you would not pass up, The Pass with its whirling current coming on around the point to pass by on the in-going tide.

  3. Greetings! Thanks for your comments David and Sel. Sel — Space limitations prevented me from explaining exactly what you say — pipi is actually a Maori word and was adopted by settler culture and promulgated by newspapers. There are a number of names in various Aboriginal languages for surf clams all around coastal Australia. I have noticed Dugunam attributed in Bundjalung (seeking confirmation about that). Good to hear about the carving on N Stradbroke. Here in Byron Bay, check out Railway Park where Aboriginal artist D Moran has a large painting of not only the shellfish but the birds which eat them. Colloquially here, they are sometimes called pipi-birds as well as oystercatchers. There is so much that matters in a name.

    Another point of interest is that research suggests that shellfishing methods change over time as the marine creatures become more or less abundant. Often, by the time the surf clam fishing method involves digging with feet, a former larger population has already been lost (serial depletion). Sometimes, a new one may be building up. More details are required to understand each place better. Understanding place and taking care of country is vital knowledge so often overlooked, at everyone’s peril.

    Thanks again


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