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


As a rule, the Australian aborigines do not get credit for exhibiting ingenuity, though they have shown by their weapons, their fire-sticks, nets and other contrivances that they are not destitute of ideas. Until within recent times the race had to depend for its existence on its capacity to adapt material fresh from the hands of Nature to the supplying of its wants; but there does not seem to have been any marked progress in regard to the development of its weapons and domestic appliances, the style of which varies in localities while preserving general characteristics.

One of the examples about to be described shows very decidedly the influence of white folks; indeed, it is merely an imitation, and is mainly worthy of note because of the skilful adaptation of a gift of nature to a strictly utilitarian purpose.

Being somewhat envious of a stock-whip in the possession of the “boss,” a boy, who had been accustomed to work among cattle and liked to be duly equipped, appeared with a substitute, which he cracked with evident pride and to the speeding-up of the home-returning cows. As the boy is rather shy, and, avoided inquiry, no particular notice was taken of the whip until it proved in his hands its practicability. On casual examination, it was found to be neatly plaited, well-balanced, though light, and finished quite in accordance with the recognized art of such things. The wonder was how it could have been made in the entire lack of prescribed material. The handle and lash were of one piece. The boy had taken a straight branch of the beach hibiscus, known in these parts as “manjar,” stripped the bark off nine feet of its length, and cut out the wood, retaining a f oot with bark attached. He had then split the bark into four sections, scraped away the outer and inner layers, graduated the width of each strand, and made a neat plait.

The whip does, for the time being, due service; but the maker thinks it a bit light, and fears it may not last long. It is a local product from the butt of the handle to the cracker, and the latter, under the boy’s expert use, makes a sound like a pistol shot. Effective, neat, cheap and the work of an idle hour, what more is wanted among tenderly brought up cows? The chief point about the whip is not, however, its practicability, but the evidence it affords of the plastic mind of its maker. From childhood, no doubt, he would be familiar with the use of hibiscus bark for all sorts of purposes in which white folks would use tough string. The necessity for a whip arising, good material for its making was ready at hand, and the imitation of the manufactured article must be pronounced to be first-class.

The boy owes much, it is certain, to those who brought him up, and it is further noticeable that the voice of his young wife — they do not talk “pidgin” English — in quality and intonation is that of a white girl. In each case association with white people of practical and cultured ways has directly told.

Another proof of the readiness to improvise effective devices off-hand was directly due to the presence of a bigger school of mullet than is commonly seen close inshore. No spears were available, but one of the boys who became excited by the almost insolent daring of the fish, had a rusty tomahawk. He raced along the beach until he found a dry branch of the beach oak, about an inch and a half in diameter. With all possible haste, he cut off six feet, split one end crosswise, tapered each of the four parts, roughly pointed them, spread them by the insertion of two chips, rushed back to the water-line, and secured a couple of the mullet before the school were flurried into deep water. The fashion of the crude spear was true to that in general use, but its weight was much greater, and in the hands of any but a skilful man would have been quite impracticable. As usual in such circumstances, the boy took no credit to himself for having obtained at such slight cost a supplementary meal for three companions and himself. With a couple of pieces of driftwood one of them made a fire-stick, and within a few minutes the unlucky fish were broiling.

It had been intended to secure the primitive fish-spear, as a specimen to illustrate the skill with which blacks are in the habit of seizing ready-to-hand material to meet the urgency of the occasion, but it was found that it had been used as part of the fuel to cook the fish. The fire-stick, which had been carelessly tossed aside, was found days after and is still preserved — a finer example of the appliance than is usually sent, bedaubed with ochres, to museums.

While on the subject of the ways and means of the original owners of the land, it is worth while to recollect that there is reason to believe they were subject to restraints which prevented any advancement towards civilization. According to one authority, the country of each clan, or tribe, was subdivided into areas restricted to families, and weak families were literally eaten out by the stronger. There was no interchange of ideas, not the slightest attempt at the cultivation of the soil, and therefore no possibility of social progress. In one locality in North Queensland the most admirable and eagerly sought-after food was human flesh, and perhaps the next best dainty was a python, or the egg of a scrub-fowl containing a forward chick. It is suggested that even in districts where food was comparatively plentiful the race, before the advent of the white usurpers, was gradually dying out, and that epidemics raged through the continent occasionally, with direful results.

There are grounds for the belief that the blacks even suffered from an infectious disease similar to influenza, which they described as sickness of the mouth and nose. It caused the death of a great number.

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