Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

The Passing of Sam

Sam was ever a masterful man. Big and strong, hasty, passionate to a direful degree when aroused; gentle to his chubby children; corrective to those whom he deemed to be wrongdoers, he had some of the essential qualities of the schoolmaster and no little of the persuasive eloquence of the preacher. It boots not to dwell on his defects, for Nature has claimed her final penalty; but it may not be possible to understand his character aright if the popularly-believed reason for his banishment from his native isle be not referred to.

He was born on one of the islands of Torres Straits which has benefited by Papuan influence in many respects. There the type is far more intelligent than that of the mainland of Australia. Men and women learn some of the advantages of civilization more readily, and under judicious training become in some cases quite worthy of exercising certain of the privileges of self-government. The late Sir William MacGregor testified to this, and has given instances of the wisdom and moderation with which the “Councillors” of the Straits Islands exercise their administrative and judicial functions.

Born of such a race, it was natural that a big, strong, lusty man should have opinions of his own, and should be given to expressing them. Though no positive statement has come to my ears, it is said that in a fit of justifiable wrath he inflicted punishment so violent on his wife that she died. He knew something of the scriptures, and perhaps interpreted all too dreadfully that injunction to pluck out the offending right eye and cast it away. Sam’s punishment for so wicked an offence against the laws of humanity was lifelong banishment from the island he called home.

He married again, and had a family of four round-eyed, happy children, and at the Settlement his was the first hut to show regard for the decencies, if not the niceties, of life. He began his garden with sweet potatoes and taro. The flowers and shrubs that followed bloom for others. Thanks to the good policy of the State in respect of the population of the Straits Islands, Sam was early able to read and write. Several of his pencilled notes prove that he spelled correctly and wrote neatly.

Being thus, generally, so much superior to the great majority at the Settlement in type and attainments, Sam became an unofficial leader — a tutor and a pastor. He established a night-school in which the children were taught their alphabet and rudimentary spelling. He delivered addresses, read the Bible, taught the singing of hymns, and in other matters endeavoured to persuade young and old to live decently and in order. His Sunday services became, for a time, an institution.

Under his directions, and with his thick-voiced., solemn words, the dead were buried at that spot where, as one epigrammatic native of the locality said, “Boy he sit down altogether!” They had been wont to strap their dead, knees to chin, and so to place them in a shallow grave, until Sam persuaded them to swathe the body in a blanket and to rest it in the sleeping posture in the sand, with head to east.

What was in his mind when he forbade the mourners to kill a death-adder which slowly twisted past an unfilled grave of one who had died suddenly? Did he look upon the deadly little snake as one of the emblems of immortality of which he had so often talked — living, yet the personification of evil and of death?

Sam’s intellectual qualities were in harmony with his physical capacity. Like one of Shakespeare’s characters, he was in the best sense “a good man of his hands;” he used edged tools so neatly and effectively that a professional carpenter regarded him as a useful and capable assistant.

Such a man among such a community of coloured folks as that of the Hull River Settlement stood out as an individuality whose influence tended in the right direction. With his death in his prime a good element was lost, for he at least was unchartered. He performed the offices of schoolmaster and of pastor — he was wont to call himself “a church worker”— unofficially and without money and without price. The unction with which he gave out a hymn and read the collects showed that in his own estimation he had a call for the work in which he most delighted. He was no slovenly pastor, vexing the dull ears of a sleepy and indifferent congregation; but full of vigour and dramatic gesture, so that those who gathered on Sundays at the accustomed spot were by his very earnestness compelled to harken.

It may be that among the more benighted of the community Sam’s untimely death may be attributed to the stings of bees. While taking honey from a “wild” hive he was stung on arms and chest severely, suffering considerable pain; while in retreat from such cause he caught cold, which settled on his lungs, and in a few days pneumonia developed. The medical officer who periodically visits the settlement happened to arrive while he lay ill, and prescribed for him; but Sam’s case became so serious that he was taken to Innisfail in the motor-boat for expert treatment in the hospital. Death claimed him before he could be landed, and four of his countrymen, an authorized minister, and one of the officials of the settlement followed him through the rain to his grave. He lies in alien soil.

His children watched the boat that carried him away as it disappeared in the North, and in that direction they look for his return. That “common theme, the death of fathers,” is to them, as it was to Hamlet, particular and poignant. As she sits on the sand beside her mother, his pet and fondling — the chubby, thumb-sucking “Elizabeth”— stretches fat and clutching hands across the sea as she cries “Dada! Dada!” and the disconsolate mother moans aloud and gives way to unavailing tears.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32