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

A Bush Oculist

Among those of the North Queensland blacks who, of self-choice, were consigned to Providence’s care on the transfer of the Aboriginal Settlement from the Hull River to the Palm Islands, was a boy known as “Jimmy.” A useless, superfluous creature, needing special consideration and care, from whom no sort of work might be exacted, who earned the compassion of his fellows, and, for a season, that of the then superintendent and his staff, Jimmy found his days dreary; for he was afflicted with progressive failure of sight. Sent to a hospital for treatment, he returned wearing tinted glasses, and that despairing mien which lovers of the light assume upon realization of their denial “ere half their days in this dark world and wide.”

Before the break-up of the Settlement blindness had come upon him; but he loved even clouded liberty too well to submit to the isolation of the distant island, and with others of like sentiments but unimpaired faculties, he took to the bush. For a time then, the bush kept them in strict seclusion, providing food and shelter. Most of the little band were old and feeble or maimed. They could profitably be disregarded and forgotten. Safe from official interference, they wandered in the dense jungle, timidly approaching the homes of white settlers under the compulsion of acquired habits and tastes. According to nature they loved freedom and their own land; but contact with whites had taught them to long for such artificialities as tobacco, tea and sugar, as well as better garments than rough cloaks of beaten bark, such as their ancestors wore when the weather was cool.

To obtain such things they began to visit settlers from whom they had been able to purchase them in former days at the cost of casual labour. Then it was that “Blind Jimmy” came into view again. It is said that he was the best conditioned of the camp, for, being unable to seek for food himself, he was accepted as a charge upon the rest, and they saw that he shared the common lot, with a trifle more out of sympathy. When camp was shifted he was conducted along the narrow tracks by a companion who indicated obstructions, roots and logs and hollows, and with that wonderful gift of perception that the blind acquire, he began to get about by himself in a trivial sort of way, tapping the track with a staff, as is the fashion of the blind.

Thus, Blind Jimmy became one of the notable characters of the locality, and whites as well as his own fellows expressed their commiseration with him so heartily that he assumed the air of prosperity and almost a cheerful cast of countenance. His tapping staff, the warnings of his guide, and his ready thanks for gifts in kind, made him popular in a certain sense, and, submissive to his fate, he found himself lacking nothing in the way of compensation.

Drifting with his friends into a strange locality, Blind Jimmy was brought under the notice of an aged black who had the reputation of being wise in many things — in medicine and magic especially.

Rough, dirty, crude, the “Old Man”— such was his familiar title — peered into Blind Jimmy’s sightless eyes, and declared it possible to make him “see good fellow,” with or without his consent, and forthwith sought out his operative accessories. He ground a rusty nail on a stone to a fairly sharp point, and so shattered a sea-shell that he had at service a scalpel, the edge of which was keener than a razor.

As far as information goes, for the story comes second-hand, Blind Jimmy was a consenting party; but the Old Man knew enough of animal physiology to realize that in the circumstances all strain on the patient’s part must be prevented. Blind Jimmy was spread-eagled on the bosom of Mother Earth; a friend knelt on his forehead; others sat on his chest and on the outlying parts of his body, as, with a sing-song, the Old Man began his benign work. What he actually did may never be ascertained, unless the Old Man’s work is verified by some one “who knows a subtler magic than his own.”

The blacks say that the Old Man cut each eye open, the lids being held apart by an assistant, scraped away some dirt, and poked out something with the sharp-pointed nail. As it was operated upon, each eye was blinked with dirty rag, and when all was over, both were quickly bandaged to obscure the light. For two days the patient was kept on his back by force, and when the bandages were removed he was Blind Jimmy no longer!

Many white folk are ready to affirm that before the operation the boy was stone blind, and many are just as certain that he now sees well enough to be able to dispense with his guide and to take part in the affairs of the camp.

Without assuming overmuch, it may be safe to hazard the opinion that Jimmy had been afflicted with cataract; but how many surgeons of the day would have ventured to operate with such crude appliances, and in the absence of all safeguards? The account of the feat thus related is vouched for by two friends who know the boy, and had frequently ministered to him during his sightless period, both of whom have since seen him walking about independently of aid.

Incredible as it may seem, one is not justified in expressing disbelief in the performance of the feat, in the execution of which the specialists of the day are said to demand weeks if not months of preparation, a germ-proof chamber, antiseptics and an anaesthetic, an assortment of instruments, and a period of passive convalescence. Given that the lens of each eye was removed, will it be credited that, in the absence of rectifying glasses, the boy is able to take more than a blurred outlook on life?

A report that might have been anticipated is current, to the effect that Jimmy’s blindness was due to a certain native fruit, to which whites as well as blacks are partial, known by the former as “the finger cherry,” or berry, and by the latter, locally, as “pool-boo-nong.” It is produced by a jungle scrub, one of the rose myrtles (RHODOMYRTUS MACROCARPA). In the jungle it is spindly, but on the edges thereof may branch out into a robust habit. When ripe the fruit is purple and of a pleasant, acidulous flavour. In the late F. Manson Bailey’s CATALOGUE OF QUEENSLAND PLANTS, are two notes concerning the alleged evil properties of the mouldy fruit: “The diseased fruit is supposed to cause blindness (myopia) and death.” “GLOEOSPORIUM PERICULOSUM” (scientific title of the fungus): “Very poisonous; it is this fungus, probably, which causes blindness, and often death, to persons eating fruit containing it in quantities.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50