My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXV

Young Barbarians at Play

“Behold the child by Nature’s kindly law,

Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw.”


Not all the energies of the blacks of North Queensland in their natural state are absorbed in the search for and pursuit and capture of food; nor are all their toys imitative of weapons of offence or the chase. They have their idle and softer hours when the instincts of the young men and maidens turn towards recreations and pastimes, in some of which considerable ingenuity and skill are exhibited, whilst their elders amuse themselves by the practise of more or less useful domestic arts. Children in their play are just as enthusiastic, preoccupied, and noisy as white children, and the popularity of a game is subject, likewise, to spasmodic exclusiveness. While the particular inclination lasts no other game is held to be worth a rap for rational black boys to play, but the relish the more speedily degenerates. In the ordinary concerns of life a black boy is incapable of self-denial. His intensity for the time is almost pathetic; his revulsion comic. Hence the cycle of the games is brief. There are wide and dreary intervals.

Dr. Walter E. Roth, ex-Chief Protector of Aboriginals, and now Government Resident at Pomeroon River, British Guiana, devotes a pamphlet to descriptions of the “Games, Sports, and Pastimes” of Queensland blacks, but since the work has not yet been published unofficially, and since my own limited observations are confirmed generally by him, there seems justification for offering references to a few of the means by which the primitive people wile away time in good-humoured, gleeful pastime. One feature of the sports of the blacks is that they play their game for the sake of the game, not to gain the plaudits of an idle crowd or in expectation of reward. Rivalry there undoubtedly is among them, but the rivalry is disinterested. No chaplet of olive-leaves or parsley decorates the brow of him who so throws the boomerang that it accomplishes the farthest and most complicated flight. As the archers of old England practised their sport, so do the blacks exhibit their strength and skill, not as the modern lover of football, who pays others to play for his amusement, and who, possibly, knows not the game save as a spectator.

Some of the pastimes of the blacks are, of course, derivative from the most engrossing passion of the race, the pursuit of game — animals, birds, and fish — for food. Dr. Roth describes a pantomime in which three young girls take part, and which is imitative of the felling of a tree for the purpose of securing honey stored by bees in a hollow limb. Every detail of the process is illustrated by expressive gestures, even to the indication of the respective locations in the limb of the good comb (which is tabu to women), and the inferior stuff (old brood and drippings) to which the inferior sex is welcome. The whole episode is graphically mimicked, down to the mixing of the honey with water as a beverage.

But such games have not come under my personal knowledge, and as I wish to confine myself to those which I have witnessed, my catalogue must needs be trivial, and far from exhaustive even in respect of the district in which they are, alas! becoming obsolete. In these days of opium and rum, leisure moments are not generally devoted to “becoming mirth.”

The very first toy of the blacks in this neighbourhood is the most cosmopolitan of all. No race of infant exercises over it a monopoly. It belongs as well to the palace as the hovel, for it is none other than the rattle. If proof were wanting that infants the world over have perceptive qualities in common, and that the universal mother employs like means for the development of them, the rattle would supply it. Here the toy which each of us has gripped with gladness and slobbered over is found not altogether in its most primitive form. It might, indeed, be classed as an emblem of arrested development in art, for better things might reasonably be expected of grown-up folks who in their infancy were wont to use such a neat means of charming away fretfulness. The toy is a tiny spherical basket of neatly interwoven thin strips of cane from one of the creeping palms, in which is enclosed one of the smooth, hard, lead-coloured seeds of the CAESALPINIA BONDUCELLA. The rattle, which is known by the name of “Djawn,” seems to be quite as effective as the more elaborate but less neat varieties employed to amaze and pacify the infants of civilisation. Similar seeds are used by Arabian children for necklaces, hence the specific botanical name of the plant.

Measured ethnologically, perhaps the most primitive pastime is also one of the most interesting, for it seems to indicate the evolution of the spear. It may readily be believed that a black boy playing with a grass dart exhibits one of the early stages which the spear passed ere it reached its present form in the hands of his father with a wommera. As the boy grows up, so does his spear grow with his growth, and lengthen with his length. The grass dart is merely a stem of blady grass (IMPERATA ARUNDINACEA), which the blacks know as “Jin-dagi,” shortened to about fifteen inches by the severance of the leaves, which is usually accomplished by a quick nip with the teeth. The dart is taken between the thumb and the second finger, the truncated ends of the leaves being pressed against the tip of the first finger, by which and the simultaneous impulse of the arm the dart is propelled. Accurate shots may be made with the missile, which has a range up to about thirty yards, with a penetrative force sufficient to pierce the skin. Occasionally the boys of the camp in opposing sides indulge in mimic fights, when the air rustles with the darts, and the yelling combatants exhibit expertness as marksmen as well as extraordinary shrewdness in the special protection of the face and other exposed and tender spots, and skill in dodging and parrying.

The “Wee-bah,” another toy weapon (also obtained from blady grass), might be designated an arrow, the flight, though not the impulse, being similar. A single stem of grass is shortened to about fifteen inches. By being drawn between the nails of the thumb and the first finger, the web is separated from the midrib for about three inches. The sportsman pinches the web end loosely between the lips. The split ends, held in the left hand, are bent over a thin stick in the right hand. Upon the stick being moved smartly forward, the web peels from each side to the midrib, which shoots ahead with an arrow-like flight in the direction the marksman designs.

Velocity, accuracy, and range are remarkable. The arrow will penetrate the skin (the stem having an awl-like point) at a distance of ten or fifteen yards, and twenty yards is not an uncommon limit to its range. This is used for killing small birds, as well as in idle sport. A few handfuls of blady grass supply a sheaf of missiles, and with such cheap ammunition the sportsman is justified in providing himself profusely when intent upon the destruction of shy birds. Noiseless and rapid, if the shot misses there is no disturbing effect on the nerves of the bird. A dry twig falling or a leaf rustling has no more elemental shock than the flight of the dart. The unconscious bird hops about its business unconcerned until a dart does its work. Birds which fall to this most inartificial weapon are very small, but a black boy does not despise the most minute morsels of food. He wastes nothing, and in such respects is superior to many a white sportsman, who often shoots that for which he has no appetite, and glories in a big bag irrespective of the capacity of his stomach. No doubt the black boy, too, experiences the same exultant passion when his grass dart impales a pert wren, as does his prototype when the thud of a turkey on the plains is as an echo to the report of his gun. The black boy singes off the feathers, slightly scorches the flesh of his game and munches it whole, secures another sheaf of darts, and goes a-shooting again.

Darts are also improvised from blady grass by two other methods, each a prototype of the spear and wommera. The midrib is severed and the web peeled therefrom for a few inches as in the “Weebah.” The loose ends of the web being retained between the thumb and the second finger, the midrib peels off completely when the hand is propelled, the impulse being transmitted to the dart. This, perhaps, is the earliest and most primitive application of the principle embodied in the wommera. In the third method the midrib is similarly severed and the web peeled for about two inches; but the stalk is held in the hand, and, being jerked forward, the midrib being torn from the web flies off, though not under accurate control as to direction.

Quite as early a toy as the grass dart is the boomerang made by a boy’s father, or a companion older than himself, and which the youngest soon learns to throw with skill. He graduates in the use of weapons nicely graded to suit his growing strength, spending hours day after day in earnest, honest exercise, until some other game happens to become irresistibly fashionable.

A weapon intermediate between the “Jin-dagi” and the full-length spear of manhood is the scape of the grass-tree (XANTHORRHEA ARBOREA), with which youths fight furious battles, gradually perfecting themselves in elusive tactics and in the training of hand and eye. A favourite set target is the bulbous formicary of the white ant which disfigures so many of the trees of the forest. Along tracks where the spears are readily available there are few white-ant nests untormented by two or three. A strong reed which flourishes on the margins of watercourses is played with similarly, and by the time the youth has put aside youthful things and has learnt to fashion a spear of tough wood he is an expert.

In order to acquire dexterity, the fish spear in the first instance is a mere toy, and is used in play with as much vivacity and preoccupation as marbles and tops and kites are by boys of Australian birth. A coloured boy, in all the joyous abandon of the unclad, sports with a spear suitable to his height and strength for a month together, floating chips and scraps of bark in the water as targets, until hands and eyes are brought into such subjection that the art is, as it were, burnt into his blood, and a miss becomes rare. In the meantime he has also practised on small fish, and soon he is a regular contributor to the larder.

What is known as the “Piar-piar” accomplishes the flight of the boomerang, and is therefore termed familiarly the “little fella boomerang.” Before attempting to describe the toy, it is interesting to note that the word “boomerang” is alien to these parts (Dunk Island), though in almost universal use among the blacks. “Wungle” is the local title. The “Piar-piar” is made from a strip from the side of the leaf of one of the pandanus palms (PANDANUS PEDUNCULATUS). The prickles having been sliced off with a knife or the finger nails, two distinct half-hitches are made in reverse order. Each end is shortened and roughly trimmed, the knots creased and squeezed to flatness between the teeth and lips, and the toy is complete, the making having occupied less than a minute. Before throwing the ends are slightly deflexed.

The toy is held in the right hand lightly between the thumb and the first and second fingers, concave surface down, and is thrown to the left with a quick upward turn of the wrist. After a short, rapid flight almost on the plane of the hand of the thrower, the toy soars abruptly upwards, and taking a sinistral course, returns, twirling rapidly, to the thrower, occasionally making two complete revolutions. The ends are deflexed prior to each throw. Boys and youths are fond of the “Piar-piar,” and men of sober year’s do not disdain it, being frankly pleased when they succeed in causing it to execute a more prolonged and graceful flight than ordinary.

Another toy which has the soaring flight of the boomerang is made out of two portions of the leaf of the pandanus palm stitched together in the form of a St. Andrew’s Cross. It is thrown like a boomerang, the flight being circular, and when it is made to complete two revolutions round the thrower that individual is manifestly pleased with himself. This is known as “Birra-birra-goo.”

Another form of aeroplane, “Par-gir-ah,” comes from the pandanus palm — its parts being plaited together. This is thrown high and descends spirally, twisting so rapidly throughout its course that it appears to be a solid disc. This is also used as a windmill, being affixed to a spindle. Children run with the toy against the wind and find similar ecstasy to those of whites of their age and kidney.

The sea-beach supplies in plenty a missile which, from the hands of a black boy, has a fantastic flight. This is the bone of the cuttle-fish (“Krooghar”), which, when thrown concave surface down against the wind and after the style of the boomerang, whirls rapidly and makes a decided effort to return. It is also thrown along the surface of the sea as white boys do “skipping stones,” often reaching astonishing distances in a wonderful series of skips.

“Cat’s cradle” is popular in some camps, the ingenious and complicated designs into which the string is woven far outstripping the art of the white man, and leaving his wondering comprehension far behind. Toy boats and canoes are favourite means of passing away time by those who live on the beach; and while little girls dandle dolls of wood and bark, their brothers and cousins laboriously chip stones in the shape of axes, and used formerly to make fish-hooks of pearl shell, in imitation of the handiwork of their elders. Boys are also given to trundling a disc of bark, centrally perforated for a short cord, the art of the game being to give the disc, while it revolves, an outward inclination. In these degenerate days the top of a meat-tin is substituted for the decent bark disc, in the making of which nice art was exhibited.

Several of the games of the youngsters are bad imitations of the sports of the white. Just as their fathers find joy in a greasy, blackened, imperfect pack of cards, throwing them down with significant gestures, but in absolutely perfect ignorance of the rules of any game or capacity to appreciate any number greater than three — so do the children make believe to play cricket with a ball worlds away from a sphere (for it is none other than a pandanus drupe), and a bat of any waddy.

But it is due to the crude folks who owned Australia not so very long ago, to say that they had invented the top before the usurpers came along. Tops are made from the fruit of one of the gourds which ripens about the size of a small orange, the spindle being a smooth and slender piece of wood secured with gum. The spinning is accomplished by revolving the spindle between the palms of the hands, some being so expert in administering momentum that the top “goes to sleep,” before the eyes of the smiling and exultant player. Dr. Roth chronicles the fact that the piercing of the gourd to produce the hum has been introduced during recent years. The blacks of the past certainly had no ear for music, but now no top which cannot “cry” is worth spinning.

A more primitive top is the seed-vessel of the “Gulgong” (EUCALYPTUS ROBUSTA), the pedicel of which is twirled between the thumb and second finger. Such tops, of course, are the common property of bush boys, white and black, but the latter seem to be more casual in the spinning, though deriving quite as much glee therefrom.

A similar top but of larger size is the unripe fruit of the “Kirra-kul” (EUPOMATIA LAURINA), which resembles an obtuse peg-top, and is spun from the peg.

The “Kirra-kul” tree provides also the means of obtaining that joy in loud explosions which is instinctive in the boy, whatsoever his race or colour. Young, lusty shoots several feet long, and full of sap, are placed in the fire for a few minutes, and upon being “bashed” on a log or other hard substance the heated gas contained in the pithy core bursts out with a pistol-like report.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods — They kill us for their sport.”

The cruelty of the average boy, his insensibility to, or carelessness of, the pain of others and of inferior creatures is exemplified by the treatment which the “Pun-nul” (March fly) receives. That an insect which occasions so much exasperation and pain should receive small mercy at the hands of a vexed and sportful boy is not extraordinary, and so he provides himself with entertainment and takes vengeance simultaneously. The hapless fly is impaled with an inch or two of the flowering spike of blady grass to which a portion of the white inflorescence adheres, and is released. Under such handicap flight is slow and eccentric, often, indeed, concentric, and the boy watches with unfeigned delight while his ears are soothed by the laboured hum.

“Blue-bottle” and “March” flies provide another sort of cheerful sport in which no little malice is blended. Some boys make tiny spears from the midrib of the frond of the creeping palm (CALAMUS OBSTRUENS), which, balanced on the palm palm of the left hand, are flicked with deadly effect, continual practice reducing misses to the minimum. Where the grass-tree grows plentifully the long, slender leaves are snapped off into about six-inch lengths and are used similarly to the creeping palm darts and with like accuracy. Hours are spent killing the big, lumbering, tormenting flies which infest the camp, and towards which no pity is shown, for do they not bite and bloodsuck night and day?

These incomplete and casual references to a very interesting and engrossing topic may be concluded by a reference to a particular spear. Since it consoles and comforts the solitary walks of an aged man, steeped to the lips in the superstitions of his race, and haply ignorant of, or indifferent to, the polyglot pastimes of the younger generation soiled by contact with the whites, the spear, though not a weapon of offence or of sport, is serious and indeed vital to the peace of mind of its owner. He is one of the few who were young men when the white folks intruded upon the race, with their wretched practical ways and insolent disregard of the powers of the unseen spirits, against whom “Old Billy,” as his ancestors were wont, still acts on the defensive. “Old Billy” never ventures into the jungle without his spear, though throughout his long and expectant life he has never had occasion to use it. He fears what he knows as “Bidgero,” a phantom not quite as truculent as the debil-debil, but evil enough to strike terror into the soul of an unarmed black boy, old or young.

The spear is slender and jointed, the grip being 4 feet 9 inches and the shaft 8 feet. Its distinguishing merit consists of an array of barbs (the serrated spurs of sting-rays) fifteen in number, and ranging in length from 1½ inches to 4½ inches. In the first eight inches from the point are five barbs, the second being double, and the rest are spaced irregularly in accordance with the respective lengths of the barbs, which are in line. “Old Billy” does not allow any one to handle the spear and will not part with it, no matter how sumptuous the price, for would he not, in default, be at the mercy of any prowling, “Bidgero?”

He describes its use with paucity of speech, effective passes, horrible grimaces, and smiles of satisfaction and victory, which make mere words tame. Suppose you ask, “When that fella Bidgero come up, you catch ’em?” “Old Billy” throws himself into an hostile attitude, in which alertness, determination, and fearsomeness are vividly displayed. “0-o-m!” (The thrust of the spear.) “Ha-a-a-ha!” (The spear is given an excruciating and entangling half-turn.) And “Old Billy” exclaims, still holding the imaginary “Bidgero” at the spear’s length: “That fella Bidgero can clear out! Finish ’em!” The spear has penetrated the unlucky and daring phantom, several of the barbs have become entangled in its vitals, the enemy is at “Old Billy’s” mercy, and since “Old Billy” has no such element in his mental constitution, there would be one “Bidgero” less in the land if there were any reality in the business. “Old Billy’s” manoeuvres and tactics are so grim, skilful, and terrible that one may well hope that he may never be mistaken for a ghost, while within thrusting distance of his twelve foot “Bidgero” exterminator. Yet the young boys smile, when they do not openly scoff, because of his faith in the existence of a personal “Bidgero,” and in the efficacy of his bristling spear, which many of them regard as an old man’s toy.

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