My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter VI

His Majesty the Sun

“And therefore is the glorious planet, Sol,

In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d

Amidst the ether, whose medicinable eye

Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil.”


Twelve years of open-air life in tropical Queensland persuade me that I am entitled to prerogative of speech, not as an oracle or a prophet on the prodigious subject of the weather at large, but of the effect thereof on my sensations and constitution, since the greater part of that period has been spent under conditions calculated to put them to the test. Especially has the sun given penetrating tastes of his quality and bestowed enduring marks of his favour. During these twelve joyful years the annual rainfall has averaged over 131 inches, the average number of days on which rain has fallen being 134. Of the heat of the sun during the hottest month of the year let two unstudied records speak. As January 29, 1907, gave early promise of exceptional heat, I watched the thermometer closely, noting the consistency with which its ups and downs tallied with my perceptions These are the readings:

6 a.m. 75
10 a.m. 94
Noon 96
12.30 p.m. 97
1 p.m. 98
3 p.m. 97
4 p.m. 88
5 p.m. 85
6 p.m. 82

In the sun at 1 p.m. the glass registered 108°, at 2 p.m. 110°, and at 3 p.m. 107°. A thunderstorm accounted for the rather early culmination of the temperature and its rapid decline.

The shade temperature of January, 1910, at 6.30 a.m. was 73°, at 3 p.m. 88°. The sun registered 98° on the hottest day of that month when my diary tells me I took part in the erection of rough fencing, horse-driving, and lifting and carrying logs.

This salubrious sun does not excuse man from day labour in unshaded scenes. During January, I, who am blessed with but slight muscular strength and no inherent powers of resistance to noontide flames, have toiled laboriously without registering more than due fatigue. Those accustomed to manual work experience but little inconvenience. It would be palpably indiscreet and vain to say that outdoor work in excessive heat involves no discomfort, but it may be truthfully asserted that midday suspension therefrom, though pleasant, is not absolutely necessary, at any rate where the environment is such as this.

Bounteous rain and glorious sunshine in combination might seem to constitute a climate unsuitable to persons of English birth, or at least trying to their preconceptions of the ideal. My own experience is entirely, enthusiastically favourable. I proffer myself as an example, since there is none other upon whom publicity may be thrust, and really in the spirit of performing an inevitable duty, such duty being comprehended in the fervent desire to proclaim from the lowly height of my housetop how health unbought and happiness unrealisable may be enjoyed in this delicately equable clime.

When I landed feebly on September 28, 1897, and crawled up on the beach beyond the datum of the most recent high tide to throw myself prone on the consoling sand I was worn, world-weary, and pale, and weighed 8 st. 4 lb. Now my weight is 10 st. 2 lb., and my complexion uniformly sun-tinted. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that my uniform has been bestowed by the sun, because having early discovered the needlessness of clothes — that “the body is more than raiment”— most of the apparel in which civilisation flaunts was promptly discarded, and through the few thin things retained the sun soon worked his will. Latterly while in the open air I have abandoned the principal part of the superfluous remnant, to the enjoyment of additional comfort and the increase of self-complacency. As a final violation of my reserve be it proclaimed that to the super-excellence of the air of the Island, to the tonic of the sea, and to the graciousness of his Majesty the Sun — in whose radiance have I gloried — do I owe, perhaps, salvation from that which tributary friends in their meed of tenderness predicted — an untimely grave.

It is natural that those who live in cold climates and who wear for their comfort clothing designed to exclude the air from all parts of the body save the face should be steeped in conservatism; but the farther one ventures from the chaste opinion of the world the less subserviency he shows to customs and habits authoritative and relevant among century-settled folk, and the more readily he adapts himself to his environment the sooner does he become a true citizen of the country which he has chosen. Preconceptions he must discard as unfit, if not fatal. He is an alien until he learns to house, feed, and dress himself in accordance with the inviolable laws which Nature prescribes to each and every portion of her spacious and discordant realm.

Was I to remain fully clad and comfortless, or the reverse? The indulgence of my sensations has brought about revolutionary changes of costume and custom. Such changes were bound to react mentally, for are they not merely the symbols of ideas? Once it was unseemly, if not uncleanly, to perspire freely. Now the function is looked upon as necessary, wholesome, and the sign of one’s loyalty to the sun. The sun compels thoughts. Daily, hourly does he exact homage and reign supreme over mind, body, and estate. So commanding is his rule, so apparent his goodwill, so speedy his punishment for sins of disobedience, so influential his presence, that I have come to look up to him as the transcendent manifestation of that power which ordains life and all its privileges and abolishes all the noisesomeness of death. Alive, he nourishes, comforts, consoles, corrects us. Dead, all that is mortal he transforms into ethereal and vital gases. Obey him, and he blesses; flout him, and you perish.

An old historian of sport quaintly expressed a correct theory as to the virtue of profuse perspiration: “And when the hunters do their office on horseback and on foot, they sweat often; then if they have any evil in them it must come away in the sweating; so that he keep from cold after the heat.” So does the wise man in the tropics regard perspiration — not as an offensive, certainly not as a pleasant function, but as one that is really inevitable and conducive to cleanliness and health.

Can the man who swathes his body in ever so many separate, superimposed, artificial skins, and who is careful to banish purifying air from contact with him, save on the rare occasions of the bath, be as healthful as he who furnishes himself with but a single superfluous skin, and that as thin and penetrable as the laws which hold society together permit?

The play of the sterilising sun on the brown, moist skin is not only tolerable but delightful — refreshing and purifying the body, while even light cotton clothing saturated to the dripping stage with perspiration represents the acme of discomfort, and if unchanged a good deal of the actually unwholesome.

All the hotter hours of the day have I worked in the bush felling trees, sawing and splitting logs, and adzing rough timber, the while November’s unclouded sun evaporated perspiration almost as speedily as it flowed from high-pressure pores. There was no sensation of overheat, although the arms might weary with the swinging of the heavy maul and the back respond with aches to the stiffened attitude imposed by the adze.

Then at sundown to plunge into the tepid sea, to frolic and splash therein, while the red light in the west began to pale and the pink and silver surface of the ocean faded to grey; then to a vigorous soaping and scrubbing in the shady creek, where the orange-tinted drupes of pandanus-palms give to the cool water a balsamic savour; then, clad in clean cotton, to the evening meal with a prodigious appetite; and to bed at nine o’clock to sleep murmurlessly for eight hours — tell me if thus you are not fitted for another day’s toil in the sublimating sunshine!

A medical man on the staff of one of the earliest of European voyages in the Pacific Ocean expressed the opinion that the “cutaneous disorders which so generally affect the inhabitants in the neighbourhood of the equator are caused by an acrimonious alteration of the humours brought on by the great heat of these climates”; and he adds: “I have no doubt that the constant action of the air and sun upon the skin of the people who go continually naked contributes much to these maladies, and renders them more obstinate.” Though it would be presumptuous to pose as counsel for the defence of his Majesty the Sun, one who is blessed with so many of the privileges he bestows cannot ignore so scandalous albeit musty a libel which time, the only dispassionate judge, has long since condemned in respect of the generality of manhood. It is surprising, too, that Byron, though he revelled in the sea, was also under a delusion as to the more vitalising element, for he fancied the scorching rays to be “impregnate with disease,” whereas the sun, the sea, and, in lesser degree, the torrid sand do actually represent “the spice and salt which season a man,” and are the elements whence are derived many of his cleanest, superfine thoughts.

Kinship with his Majesty the Sun of the tropics is not to be claimed offhand. The imperious luminary does not grant his letters-patent to all. Very few does he permit to wanton in his presence without exacting probation. He is a rare respecter of persons. Though there are faces, like King Henry V.‘s, which the sun will not condescend to burn, sometimes he smites savagely. He makes of the countenances of his foes a fry and of their bodies a comprehensive granulation. But if you find favour in his eyes — in those discriminating, ruthless, sight-absorbing glances which none may reciprocate — accept your privileges with a thrill of chastened pride that you may bask in his presence and be worthy his livery and of gladsome mind. The harpings of the sweet singer of Israel could not have been more effectual in the dispersal of depression than the steadfast beams of the sun supreme in tropic sky.

Let the sun scorch the skin and blister it until it peels, and scorches and peels again, and scorches and peels alternately until, having no more dominion over the flesh, it tinctures the very blood and transmutes mere ruddiness to bronze. Thereafter you know not for ever the pallor of the street for have you not the gold of the sun in your blood and his iron in your bones?

Of the graciousness of the sun a special instance has been preserved in my erratic diary. Here it is: November 24, 1908: Spent from 10 a.m. to 1.15 p.m. on the beach and on the Isle of Purtaboi, bare-limbed, bare-bodied, save for scant cotton pants. Above high-water mark the sand was scorchingly hot to the feet. The heat of the glowing coral drift on the Isle forced me promptly to amend my methodic gait to a quick step, though my hardened soles soon became indifferent. Nutmeg pigeons were nesting plentifully on trees and shrubs amongst masses of orchids, and on ledges almost obscured by grass. Brown-winged terns occupied cool nooks and crannies in the rocks, and other species of terns had egg reserves — they cannot be called nests — on the unshaded coral bank. After gazing intently on the white drift, eagerly making mental notes of any remarkable mutations in the colouring of the thickly strewn eggs, and admiring the fortitude or indifference with which the fledglings endured the sizzling heat, I found myself subject to an optical illusion, for when I looked up and abroad the brightly gleaming sea had been changed to inky purple, the hills of the mainland to black. Though absolutely cloudless, the sky seemed oppressed with slaty gloom, and the leaves of the trees near at hand assumed a leaden green. For a few seconds I was convinced that some almost unearthly meteorological phenomenon, before which the most resolute of men might cower, had developed with theatrical suddenness. Then I realised that the intense glare of the coral, of which I had been unconscious, and the quivering heat rays had temporarily deprived my vision of appreciation of ordinary tints. Saturated by vivid white light, my bemused sight swayed under temporary aberration. I was conscious of illusion creating symptoms, tipsy with excess of sunshine. This condition passing, I found the atmosphere, though hot, pleasant and refreshing, the labour of rowing across the bay involving no unusual exertion or sense of discomfort. During my brief absence the beach of the island seemed to have absorbed still more effectively solar rays. “Scoot” (my terrier, exulting companion on land and sea) skipped in sprightly fashion across the burning zone, while I was fain to walk on the grass, the sandy track being impracticable to bare feet. In the house protests against the intolerance of the sun were rife. Crockery on the kitchen shelves seemed to have been artificially heated, while the head of an axe exposed to the glare was blisteringly hot. Yet to me in the open air, most scantily draped and wearing a frayed, loopholed, and battered straw hat, the sunbath had been a pleasant and exhilarating indulgence in no way remarkable on the score of temperature.

Dress, other than fulfils the dictates of decency, is not only unimportant but incongruous and vexatious. During bright but cloudless days the less worn the higher the degree of comfort, and upon comfort happiness depends. Sick of a surfeit of pleasures, the whining monarch, counselled by his soothsayers, ransacked his kingdom for the shirt of a happy subject. He found the enviable man — a toil-worn hind who had never fidgeted under the discomfort of the badge of respectability.

In his native state the black fellow is nearer the ideal than the white alien in his body clothes, starched shirt, high collar, cloth suit, and felt hat. The needs and means of the black are non-existent. His dress corresponds, whereas the white usurper of his territory — servile to the malignant impositions of custom and fashion — suffers from general superfluity and winces under his sufferings. Would he not be wiser owning subservience to the sun, and adopting dress suitable to actual needs and the dominant characteristics of the land of the sun? He would pant less, drink less, perspire less, be more wholesome and sweeter in temper, and more worthy of citizenship under the sun, against whose sway there can be no revolt. Kings and queens are under his rule and governance. His companionship disdains ceremonious livery, scorns ribbands, and scoffs at gew-gaws. Bronze is his colour, native worth the only wear.

Whosoever has seen (himself unseen) an unsophisticated North Queensland black parading his native strand has seen a lord of creation — an inferior species, but still a lord. His bold front, fluent carriage, springy step, alert, confident, superior air proclaim him so, innocent though he be of the frailest insignia of civilisation. The monarch arrayed in seven colours ascends the steps of his throne with no prouder mien than that in which the naked child of the sun lords it over the empty spaces.

In civility to his Majesty the Sun do I also proudly testify to his transcendent gifts as a painter in the facile media which here prevail. Look upon his coming and his going — an international, universal property, an ecstatic delight, an awesome marvel, upon which we gaze, of which we cannot speak, lacking roseate phrases. A landscape painter also is he, for have I not seen his boldest brush at work and stood amazed at the magnificence of his art?

Do those who live in temperate and cold climates realise the effect of the sun’s heat on the sea — how warm, how hot, blessed by his beams, the water may become? The luxuriousness of bathing in an ocean having a temperature of 108° is not for the multitude who crowd in reeking cities which the sun touches tremulously and slantwise.

On November 21, 1909 (far be it from me to bundle out into an apathetic world whimpering facts lacking the legitimacy of dates), we bathed at Moo-jee in shallow water on the edge of an area of denuded coral reef fully two miles long by a mile broad. For three hours a considerable portion of the reef had been exposed to the glare of the sun, and the incoming tide filched heat, stored by solar rays, from coral and stones and sand. The first wallow provoked an exclamation of amazement, for the water was several degrees hotter than the air, and it was the hottest hour (3 p.m.) of an extremely hot day. No thermometer was at hand to register the actual temperature of the water, but subsequent tests at the same spot under similar conditions proved that on the thermometerless occasion the sea was about 108° F. — that is, the surface stratum of about one foot, which averaged from 4° to 6° F. hotter than the air. Beneath, the temperature seemed ordinary — corresponding with that of the water a hundred yards out from the shore. This delectable experience revealed that in bathing something more is comprehended than mere physical pleasure. It touched and tingled a refined aesthetic emotion, an enlightened consciousness of the surroundings, remote from gross bodily sensations. For the time being one was immersed, not in heated salt water only but in the purifying essence of the scene — the glowing sky, stainless, pallid, and pure; the gleaming, scarcely visible, fictitious sea and the bold blue isles beyond; the valley whence whiffs of cool, fern-filtered, odorous air issued shyly from the shadowed land of the jungle through the embowered lips of the creek. The blend of these elements reacted on the perceptions, rendering the bathe in two temperatures that of a lifetime and a means also whereby the clarified senses were first stimulated and then soothed. With an occasional lounge on the soft sand, when the body became clad in a costume of mica spangles and finely comminuted shell grit, the bathe continued for two hours, with an after effect of sleek and silky content.

Another date (January 10, 1910) may verify details of such a sybaritic soak in the sea as is to be indulged in only in the tropics and remote from the turmoil of man. Between noon and 3 p.m. the thermometer hanging on the wall of the house under the veranda, five feet from the corrugated iron roof, wavered between 89° and 90°, while the unshaded sun registered 98°. My noontide bath failed to detect any difference in temperature between air and water, and putting my perceptions to scientific test found the sea to be heated to 90°. With the bulb buried in the sand six feet from the edge of the water, the mercury rose to 112° in a few seconds and remained stationary.

It being far more blissful to lounge in the sea than on the veranda, I sat down, steeped chin deep in crystal clearness, warmth, and silence, passively surrendering myself to a cheap yet precious sensation. Around me were revealed infinitely fragile manifestations of life, scarcely less limpid than the sea, sparkling, darting, twisting — strong and vigorous of purpose. Tremulous filaments of silver flashed and were gone. No space but was thickly peopled with what ordinarily passes as the invisible, but which now, plainly to behold, basked and revelled in the blaze — products of the sun. Among the grains of sand and flakes of mica furtive bubblings, burrowings, and upheavals betrayed a benighted folk to whom the water was as a firmament into which they might not venture to ascend.

Sought out by the sun, translucent fish revealed their presence by spectral shadows on the sand, and, traced by the shadows, became discernible, though but little the more substantial.

This peace-lulled, beguiling, sea, teeming with myriad forms scintillating on the verge of nothingness — obscure, elusive, yet mighty in their wayward way — soothed with never so gentle, so dulcet a swaying. This smooth-bosomed nurse was pleased to fondle to drowsiness a loving mortal responsive to the blissfulness of enchantment. Warm, comforting, stainless, she swathed me with rose-leaf softness while whispering a lullaby of sighs. Her salty caresses lingered on my lips, as I gazed dreamily intent upon determining the non-existing skyline. Yet, with no demarcation of the allied elements this rimless, flickering moon, to what narrow zone, I pondered, is man restricted! He swims feebly; if he but immerse his lips below the shining surface for a space to be measured by seconds, he becomes carrion. On the mountain-tops he is deadly sick. Thus musing, the sorcery of the sea became invincible. My thoughts drifted, until I dozed, and dozing dreamt — a vague, incomprehensible dream of floating, in some purer ether, some diviner air than ever belonged to wormy earth, and woke to realities and a skate — a little friendly skate which had snoodled beside me, its transparent shovel-snout half buried in the sand. Immune from the opiate of the sea, though motionless, with wide, watery-yellow eyes, it gazed upon me as a fascinated child might upon a strange shape monstrous though benign, and as I raised my hand in salutation wriggled off, less afraid than curious.

Beyond, a shadow — a disc-shaped shadow — drifted with a regular pulsating motion. Shadowlike, my thoughts, too, drifted, but how remote from the scene! They transported me to Thisbe — Thisbe who

“Saw the lion’s shadow ere himself

And ran dismayed away.”

How different the shadow of the moment from that of the king of beasts which led to the tragedy under the walls of Babylon, where the blood of the lovers dyed the mulberry red! It is the evidence of a bloodless thing, a rotund and turreted medusa, the leader of a disorderly procession, soundless and feeble as becomes beings almost as impalpable as the sea itself. Shadows of fish exquisitely framed flit and dance. I see naught but shadows, dim and thin, for I doze and dream again; and so fantastic time, whose footfalls are beads and bubbles, passes, and grosser affairs beckon me out of the sunlit sea.

Oh, great and glorious and mighty sun! Oh, commanding, majestical sun! Superfine invigorator; bold illuminator of the dim spaces of the brain; originator of the glow! which distils its rarest attars! Am I not thy true, thy joyful knight? Hast thou not touched my toughened, unflinching shoulders with the flat of thy burnished sword? Do I not behold its jewelled hilt flashing with pearls and precious stones as thou sheathest it for the night among the purple Western hills? Do I not hail its golden gleams among the fair-barked trees what time each scented morn I milk my skittish goats?

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