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E J (Edmund James) BANFIELD
(1852-1923)

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On the 5th of June, 1923, the small steamer Innisfail was passing between Dunk Island and the coast of northern Queensland, when the captain noticed a figure waving from the island beach. Interpreting the signal as a greeting, he merely waved a response. Then, as the vessel proceeded, the figure on the beach collapsed. At once the Innisfail was stopped and a party went to investigate.

It was in this manner that the world learned of the death of E. J. Banfield, self-styled "Beachcomber" of Dunk Island, the most renowned literary man of his kind in Australian history, and, perhaps, the most striking naturalist-recluse of modern times. The signaller on the beach was Mrs. Banfield, who had been alone with her dead for three days. So ended a tropic idyll of twenty-five years' duration.

The romance of Dunk Island, its genesis and development, have been revealed, broadly, in the books of the Beachcomber. How the couple grew to affinity with their insular environment; how they befriended the blacks and grieved to part with them when the Government established compulsory reservations elsewhere; how they filled what far-off sceptics believed to be blank spaces of time; how they narrowly escaped the vengeance of the jealous sea; how they assisted science in respect of the life of the Isle and adjacent seas; how they cherished flora and fauna even to their own inconvenience (witness the abandonment of bee-keeping rather than destroy bee-eating birds); how, in short, they lived their sequestered life and made it fruitful, yet did not despise the arrogant world without--these things have been told by the modern Crusoe himself in Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908), My Tropic Isle (1911), and Tropic Days (1918). And now, with the appearance of this posthumous book, it is meet to consider the career of this extraordinary man, to answer a few questions maybe, ["He kept his own personality rigidly In the background."--Obituary notice In London Times.] and certainly to correct some erroneous impressions.

Edmund James Banfield was born at Liverpool (England) on the 4th of September, 1852, and was brought while a boy to Australia by his father, who settled at Ararat, in Victoria. Adopting journalism as a profession, he worked on various newspapers in the three eastern colonies, and in 1882 went to northern Queensland, where he joined the staff of the Townsville Daily Bulletin. For fifteen years Banfield remained with that newspaper--years of arduous labour, broken only by a visit to England.

That visit (1884) was marked by the removal of an injured eye which had threatened serious trouble. It was marked also by a pamphlet of some seventeen thousand words, descriptive of "The Torres Strait Route from Queensland to England." Most of all, it was made memorable by the appearance on the scene of the future Mrs. Banfield. Their parents were old friends; the young people met when Banfield visited Liverpool, and they were married at Townsville in 1886. "As I look back," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, "I think my marriage was the best move I ever made in my life. Not only would I do it again; I cannot conceive the idea of doing otherwise." These words, if not spoken or written, were lived by the R.L.S. of Dunk Island. Indeed, it is scarcely conceivable that his books would ever have been written--or. indeed, that his life would have become so fragrant--without the companionship of the cultured, courageous, merry little woman who braved isolation on a lonely island for a quartercentury.

And after Mrs. Banfield one thinks of Essie, most devoted of retainers. Joining the Banfields in Townsville in 1889, this little Irishwoman was with them until the departure for the Isle in 1897; in 1904 she became a member of the "settled community of three," and remained there (save for brief visits to Townsville) until after the passing of the Beachcomber. Sorrowfully enough, she was away on holiday when he died.

Here it has to be said, that although the idyll of Dunk Island had its beginning in a search for health, Banfield was not, as has been widely supposed, a sufferer from phthisis. That break-down of '97 was not organic; it was merely due to the weariness, the fever and the fret of crowded years of newspaper work on the part of a man compact of nervous energy. By reason of this break-down, sanctuary became essential. Thereafter, there were few moments of illness in the days of the sunburned, bright-eyed Beachcomber, and doubtless he would have been living to-day had surgical aid been available. Always his mentality, too, was sweetly sane--kept so by good, if limited, comradeship and by his temperamental energies and enthusiasms.

Dunk Island lies in the Pacific, a hundred and ten miles north of Townsville, about sixty miles south of Cairns, and two and a half miles off the coast of Queensland. It is merely a range of hills running almost parallel with the main coast range; high and bluff at the northern extremity, broad and bulging in the waist, and falling away to a somewhat commonplace ending--low, narrow, comparatively barren--in the south, with a central spur pointing towards the south-west. Its area is about three and a half square miles, the greatest length is three miles, and the coastline measures between ten and twelve miles.

"Steep, forest-clad declivities, baby precipices of grey granite aureoled with orchids, tangled jungle from the splashline of the Pacific to the crest of the range; fantastic rocks, linked and corniced and skirted with oyster-masses; grey-fronded palms springing from clefts among austere boulders; grassy slopes, with groups of pandanus palms in steep hollows; and again forest and jumbles of rock, characterize the weather side. On the sheltered western aspect the less steep hills, wrapped in a patched but rentless mantle of leafage, rest upon a level plateau of about three hundred acres.

"This plateau has an elevation of from ten to eighty feet above a sandy, low-lying flat, drawn out into a western-pointing spit by the never-ceasing action of the sea under alternating breezes from S.E. to N.E. The conformation of this plateau and its relation to the flat are certainly to be included among the distinguishing features of the island." ["Dunk Island; Its General Characteristics," by E. J. Banfield, In the Proceedings of the Geographical Society of Queensland, vol. xxiii, 1908.]

It was from this plateau that the Banfieldian bungalow--a charming bit of England transplanted to the tropics--smiled out at vessels steaming or sailing through the Hinchinbrook Passage.

Why did Banfield drop the native name of Coonanglebah in favour of Dunk? An American writer raised this point in a commemorative notice. It is a trifle puzzling. Admitting that the native name is "older and of sweeter sound than that prescribed by Cook," Banfield considered Dunk "an apt combination of geography and biography," inasmuch as in the christening Captain Cook immortalized his "noble patron" the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty in his day, whose family name was believed to be George Montagu Dunk. [CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER, p.24.] On this point, however, the Beachcomber erred. The name of the Isle did not commemorate the Earl of Sandwich; it was that of Lord Halifax, a Cabinet Minister from 1757 to 1765, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for two years of that time, and First Lord of the Admiralty for four months in 1762. He was born a Montagu, but in 1741 married a Kentish heiress and took her name, Dunk. This aside, the supposition is that the name "Dunk" was retained, firstly, in deference to the illustrious memory of Cook; secondly, because of its old English flavour; and, thirdly, as a concession to brevity. For the rest, the Beachcomber interfered but slightly with native nomenclature.

Whatever the general conception as between Dunk and Coonanglebah, the English name, backed, of course, by the amiable "confessions" of the amateur Beachcomber, has been sufficiently arresting to the popular imagination. Herman Melville's Marquesas were too far off, wrapped in the mists of Romance. Dunk Island and its neighbours--sweet-sounding Timana, Bedarra, and the rest--were hard by Australia, moderately easy of access, and offering comparatively little in the way of serious hazards. "Almost it makes one wish to go a-Dunking!" cried a staid reviewer of the first Banfield book. How that cry echoed through the world is a story yet to be told. This is not the place to write in detail of those victims of illusion who came from Britain--some unheralded and unannounced, and none by invitation--to join Banfield on his tropic Isle or to strive to follow his example in mingling Reality and Romance.

Did they succeed? Not one. The hospitality of Dunk Island was equal, temporarily, to the tax upon it, but intangible presences of the other islands were not so courteous; those untamed genii of the tropics weighed their guests in the balance, found the necessary blending of philosophy and energy wanting, and flung them aside.

It may be, as Banfield believed, that Dunk Island stood in a category of its own. "This delicious Isle," he cried, after fifteen years of the lonely life, "this unkempt, unrestrained garden where the centuries gaze upon perpetual summer! Small it is and of varied charms--set in the fountain of a time-defying youth . . . . it typifies all that is tranquil, quiet, easeful, dreamlike, for it is the Isle of Dreams." Certainly, Dunk is the fairest and the best of the Family group. Decidedly, too, it is more endearing, if only on the score of compactness, than stern Hinchinbrook--the massive island a few miles to the south, which Captain Cook, passing on the seaward side, believed to be a mountain on the mainland. Withal, even if we concede little Dunk to be first among the hundreds of islands, great and small, that festoon the fifteen hundred miles of water between the Great Barrier Reef and the coast of Queensland, we must still allow for the human factor.

For all its charm, Dunk Island would have broken most men or wrapped them in the mantle of the misanthrope. With Banfield it did something very different. It stabilized the feeble frame and mercurial temperament; it crystallized and yet extended his interests and energies; and while withholding him from the sorry scheme of things known as civilization, it gave him a definite and worthy part in the work of the world. But after all, the strength of the Isle was the strength of the Man. A happy balance!

The Beachcomber was very far from being self centred. He was, quite literally, the guide, philosopher and friend of the neighbourhood, from Maria Creek down the long coastline to Cardwell. jealous to passion of the rights and welfare of his friends in isolation--men, birds, dugongs, what-not--he would rush to the relief at even a whisper of need. Cherishing the fair fame of the Isle with filial devotion, he was broadly hospitable to every visitor, from Governors and men of science to sailors on survey-ships and casual collectors of oysters. Cherishing, too, little less personally, the repute of the sparsely-settled north-east of Australia as "the most remarkable, and beautiful, and essential part of the Commonwealth," he was apt to wax angry with its detractors--ready, as his writings plainly show, to defend its good name in spite of occasional harsh moods of the tropic goddess.

Otherwise, the Beachcomber was compact of goodwill. "With all goodwill!" he almost shouted in his letters. "With all goodwill!" echoed his attitude to the world.

On one occasion, hearing shots on Purtaboi, an isle in Brammo Bay, he motored across, to find a fresh-faced English naval officer revelling in shooting nutmeg pigeons. The Beachcomber rated the lad soundly, and the youngster, resenting the direct rebuke, replied in kind. Banfield left, vowing vengeance in the form of legal proceedings. This bird-killing was a heinous offence. Later, a boat put off from the warship, and the captain and the delinquent came ashore. The captain introduced himself, regretting that one of his officers should have caused Mr. Banfield so much annoyance. Upon this the kindly Islander could not restrain himself. He rushed in with:

"Now, really, Captain, I'm delighted to see you and your officer. It--it is remarkable that I have never heard of the incident you mention. No, really I haven't--or if I have, most surely have I forgotten all about it. I'm so glad to see you both. Now, come in., and we will give you some tea with jersey milk. It is so kind of you fellows to come across to see me."

Was ever isolation more wholesome? Here were a man and woman who dwelt apart from their kin through no sense of misanthropy and no desire for self-assertion, [Ten years of island life had been experienced before the notion of writing a book took form, and then only through the stimulus of Sir Walter Strickland, a casual visitor to the Isle.] who, while cordial in their welcome of occasional fellows, were still content if left to themselves, and who, insofar as climate and situation permitted, maintained their birthright of refinement throughout the whole of that remarkable quarter-century.

In 1901 Dunk Island was deserted for nine months while its Prospero met the demands of his forsaken dukedom; that is, he returned to Townsville to fill the place of a journalistic friend who was making a trip abroad. Apart from this "lapse," the couple were absent from the Lonely Isle perhaps half a dozen times in twenty-five years, and then only once did they go farther than Townsville. The exception was a three-months' excursion to New South Wales and Victoria in 1911, planned chiefly as a visit to relatives.

Stevenson, away in Samoa, was drawn to Sydney much more often than was Banfield, who lived on the Australian coastline. But R.L.S. did not, and never would have, become so affiliated with Samoa as E.J.B. did with Coonanglebah . Without especially drawing a parallel between the island lives of the two writers, one finds it most evident in the richness of devotion awarded each by his self-sacrificing partner. Fanny Stevenson's wealth of companionship and stimulus did not exceed that of Bertha Banfield.

Left to himself, Banfield might still have been the Beachcomber, but scarcely the one whose memory we cherish. Not that he would ever have become a lotus-eater. Never was a tropic islander more charged with vitality. It was nervous energy that wrecked and brought him to Dunk Island in the beginning; it was this, largely, that sustained him in isolation. When he was past seventy it was a rare thing to see Banfield really resting, an unknown thing to see him idle. What struck Mr. H. J. Massingham, when he belatedly discovered Banfield's books in 1923, was his "extraordinary industry." A shrewd assessment, this, and one that will be endorsed by all who have been "a-Dunking." Some of us had dreamed of the Isle as a kind of insular Arden, with Banfield as its banished Duke. That he fitted the part to the extent of being "exempt from public haunt" and finding good in everything is true enough; but he was far from being an easygoing philosopher. His briskness, indeed, was a little bewildering in the light of preconceived notions. One expected to loiter, perhaps to laze, in the company of a kin-spirit who had ample time to stand and stare; but one found that to laze on Dunk Island meant to do so alone.

The Beachcomber's step was brisk, his speech rapid (at times vehement), his enthusiasms as extensive and keen as those of any boy. Yet it is probable that he himself would have been the last to admit energy as a dominating trait. (Has he not described himself as a sedate man, who refused to be flurried by his own wheelbarrow?) On returning to the Isle from his trip of 1911, he poured out a series of articles on "Southern Scenes Re-visited," and in one of these he marvelled at "The Age of Hurry," confessing, incidentally, that until then he had "never seen any form of self-propelled vehicle other than a sedate road-roller." Just previous to this, the sight of "a practical spring-cart, drawn by a real horse at a trot," had amazed the Beachcomber as he gazed across the channel to the wild mainland of northern Queensland. And in the year of grace 1924,--how the world wags!--Mrs. Banfield was startled by the sight of a motor-car on that same beach!

As to the influence of the Banfieldian activity on his nature studies, it is a little doubtful whether he became an excellent observer in spite of, or because of, this trait. Certainly his taste for natural history was unforced and sincere. He was, perhaps, a combination of Gilbert White and Thoreau, spiced and quickened by the sun of the tropics; so that he wrote engagingly of the wonder and beauty of his demesne--with an occasional excursion (as in Tropic Days) into the realm of Imagination--and accumulated a mass of valuable observations, including several discoveries new to science.

In sooth, Banfield worked at agriculture and domestic and semi-public duties as diligently as did Thoreau--was he not his own magistrate, postman, architect, carpenter, painter, boatbuilder, goatherd, and the rest?--and yet contrived to improve upon the American recluse by being frankly human, and by keeping more or less directly in touch with the fretful world. He had his books, one or two newspapers (which Thoreau despised) and his English and Australian periodicals. For a quid pro quo, he wrote continually and amiably for all the world to read. Much of this work was in the form of fugitive articles, and, not being adaptable to book-form, will not be reprinted. On the whole, though, the quality was commensurate with the quantity; and the quantity was considerable.

It is to be noted, moreover, that a teeming brain triumphed over a hand that did not take kindly to the pen. The Beachcomber's scribble, indeed, was rather worse than that of most hurried writers; in the days before the rattle of a typewriter rivalled the "clickity-clacking" of the scrub-fowls on the Isle, that handwriting gave Townsville compositors some hard thinking. Thus, I find an old article written by "Rob Krusoe" (an early penname) in which occurs the queer phrase "Queen's jubilee politics." The Beachcomber's emendation shows that he wrote "Queer jumble, politics !"

That phrase, "Queer jumble," might be applied, in all goodwill, to some of Banfield's manuscript after he had been busy revising. One of his "Rural Homilies," clipped from the Townsville Bulletin--from which journal much of the material in the present book has been taken--would be roughly gummed to a piece of copypaper, after which the article would be pen-scored almost out of its original state. Assuredly, the volatile Beachcomber was the keenest critic of his own work, though not necessarily the best judge of it. Had he been spared to prepare this volume, its phraseology would doubtless have been further amended (probably not to any real purpose), and certain chapters, quite worthy in themselves, might have been set aside. The title, obviously, is not of his choosing. But the form of the work is largely of the author's making; an unfinished scrap of a preface, written while the great seastorm still was beating in his mind, indicates that he regarded the story of the tempest of 1918 as worthy of chief place in any further book he might prepare.

The staggering "blow" was not only the most striking event in the twenty-five years of Banfield's rule on Dunk Island; it was, as he suspected, "the event of a century." This has been attested recently by Mr. Charles Hedley, the eminent conchologist, who ascribes to that cyclone the destruction of certain coral-reefs some three hundred years old. Banfield had already secured evidence in point by noting the destruction of a patch of Calophyllum trees, remarked on by the explorer Dalrymple in 1873.

But it was not the spectacular effects of the great storm that kept it fresh in the Beachcomber's recollection. Like the gentle-hearted Miranda, he grieved for its effects on humanity--for the dire loss of life among both whites and blacks at the Aboriginal Settlement on the mainland opposite. Despite his own plight, Banfield was first to the rescue of that stricken community, and his was the message that brought the tragedy under official notice.

* * * * *

Now are presented the last leaves gathered by this great-hearted man, this strong, sane, public spirit in a cloistered setting, this unpretentious writer of unpretentious homilies, this Beloved Vagabond whose mental bent, self-confessed, "enabled him to take but a superficial view of most of the large, heavy and unimportant aspects of life, but who found light in things and subjects homely and casual; who perhaps had queer views on the pursuit of happiness, and who, above all, had an inordinate passion f or freedom and fresh air."

Now the Beachcomber, like his Scottish prototype, "lies where he longed to be." The sailors of the Innisfail made a coffin; the captain read the burial service; and they buried him in his own tropic garden--looking over the gem-like isle of Purtaboi, in Brammo, the Bay of Butterflies, away to where Bellenden Ker and the coastal ranges keep eternal vigil. Beside that grave the blue-and-yellow sunbirds of his delight flit among scarlet hibiscus flowers; the swamp pheasants that he knew more intimately than any ornithologist, boom in the rioting grasses; and the scrub-fowls, for which he cared so closely, clatter inquiringly through the watches of the tropic night. A cairn has been raised above the grave, and on it are words of Thoreau, words which the Beachcomber both loved and lived: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears."

From the Introduction to "Last Leaves from Dunk Island".


Updated 4 August 04