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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 5/57 -

island. I cannot address them individually in scientific phraseology, though with all I am on terms of easy familiarity, the outcome of seasoned admiration. They please by the form and colour of their blossoms, and ring ever-recurring and timeful changes, so that month by month we enjoy the progress of the perfumes, the blending of some, the individual excellence of others. In endeavouring to convey to the unelect an impression of their variety and acceptableness, am I not but discharging a debt of gratitude?

As far as I am aware, but four or five epiphytal orchids add to the scents of the island; and as they have not Christian names, their pagan titles must suffice--CYMBIDIUM SUAVE, ERIA FITZALANI, BULBOPHYLLUM BAILEYI, DENDROBIUM TERETIFOLIUM and D. UNDULATUM. The latter is not commonly credited with perfume; but when it grows in great unmolested masses its contribution is pleasant, if not very decided. The pretty terrestrial orchid (CYRTOSTYLIS RENIFORMIS) is delicately fragrant, but the great showy PHAIUS GRANDIFOLIUS (the tropical foxglove) and the meek GEODORUM PICTUM (Queensland's lily of the valley) are denied the gift.

The forest, the jungle, the grassy spots, the hot rocks (with hoya and orchids), and even the sands, with the native sweet-pea, are fragrant. A lowly creeping plant (VITEX TRIFOLIA), with small spikes of lavender-coloured flowers, and grey-green silvery leaves, mingles with the coarse grasses of the sandy flats, and usurping broad areas forms an aromatic carpet from which every footstep expresses a homely pungency as of marjoram and sage. The odour of the island may be specific, and therefore to be prized, yet it gladdens also because it awakens happy and all too fleeting reminiscences. English fields and hedges cannot be forgotten when one of our trees diffuses the scent of meadow-sweet, and one of the orchids that of hawthorn. "Scent and silence" is the phrase which expresses the individuality of our island, and better "scented silence" than all the noisy odours of the town.

However showy the flora of the island, the existence of kindly fruits must be deplored. Immense quantities, alluring in colour and form, are produced; but not a single variety of real excellence. The raspberries (two kinds) have but little flavour; the native "Cape gooseberry" (PHYSALIS MIMIS), which appears like magic when the jungle is felled and burnt off, is regarded with hostility, though unworthily, even by the blacks; the" wild" grapes are sour and fiery, and among the many figs only two or three are pleasant, and but one good. "Bedyewrie" (XIMENIA AMERICANA) has a sweetish flavour, with a speedy after-taste of bitter almonds, and generally refreshing and thirst-allaying qualities; the shiny blue quandong (ELAEOCARPUS GRANDIS), misleading and insipid; the Herbert River cherry (ANTIDESMA DALLACHYANUM), agreeable certainly, but not high class; the finger cherry "Pool-boo-nong" of the blacks (RHODOMYRTUS MACROCARPA), possesses the flavour of the cherry guava, but has a most evil reputation. Some assert that this fruit is subject to a certain disease (a kind of vegetable smallpox), and that if eaten when so affected is liable to induce paralysis of the optic nerves and cause blindness and even death. Blacks, however, partake of the fruit unrestrictedly and declare it good, on the authority of tradition as well as by present appreciation. They do not pay the slightest respect to the injurious repute current among some white folks. Perhaps some trick of constitution or some singularity of the nervous system renders them immune to the poison, as the orange pigment said to reside in their epidermis protects them from the actinic rays of the sun. Does not Darwin assert that while white sheep and pigs are upset by certain plants dark-coloured individuals escape. At any rate blacks are not affected by the fruit, though large consumers of it, and many whites also eat of it raw and preserved, without fear and without untoward effects. Some of the Eugenias produce passable fruits, and one of the palms (CARYOTA) bears huge bunches of yellow dates, the attractiveness of which lies solely in appearance.

Quite a long list of pretty fruits might be compiled, and yet not more than half a dozen are edible, and only half that number nice. The majority are bitter and acrid, some merely insipid, and of the various nuts not one is satisfactory.

Why all this profuse vegetation and the anomaly of tempting fruits and nuts cram-full of meat and yet no real food--that is, food for man? Is it that man was an after-thought of Nature, or did Nature fulfil herself in his splendid purpose and capacities? She supplies abundantly food convenient for birds and other animals lower in the scale of life, but man is left to master his fate. Even when uncivilised he is called upon to exercise more or less wit before he may eat, and the higher his grade the more stress upon his intelligence.

When one contemplates the unpromising origin of the apple of today, and the rich assortment of fruits here higher in the scale of progression than it, imagination delights to dwell upon the wonders which await the skill of a horticultural genius. The crude beginnings of scores of pomological novelties are flaunted on every side. The patient man has to come.


To that grand old mariner, Captain Cook, belongs the honour of the discovery of the island. The names that he bestowed--judicious and expressive--are among the most precious historic possessions of Australia. They remind us that Cook formed the official bond between Britain and this great Southern land, and bear witness to the splendid feats of quiet heroism that he performed, the privations that he and his ship's company endured, and the patience and perseverance with which difficulties were faced and overcome.

In his journal, on 8th June 1770, Cook writes--"At noon we were by observation in the lat. of 17 degrees 59 minutes and abreast of the N. point of Rockingham Bay which bore from us N. 2 miles. This boundary of the Bay is formed by a tolerable high island known in the chart by the name of Dunk Isle; it lay so near the shore as not to be distinguished from it unless you are well in with the land... At this time we were in the long. of 213 degrees 57 minutes, Cape Sandwich bore S. by E. 1/2 E. distant 19 miles, and the northernmost land in sight N. 1/2 W. Our depth of water in the course of this one day's sail was not more than 16 nor less than 17 fathoms."

In those history-making days the First Lord of the Admiralty was George Montagu Dunk, First Earl of Sandwich, Second Baron and First Earl of Halifax, and Captain Cook took several opportunities of preserving his patron's name. Halifax Bay (immediately to the north of Cleveland Bay) perpetuates the title; "Mount" Hinchinbrook (from his course Cook could not see the channel and did not realise that he was bestowing a name upon an island) commemorates the family seat of the Montagus; Cape Sandwich (the north-east point of Hinchinbrook) the older title, and Dunk Isle the family name of the distinguished friend of the great discoverer of lands.

From this remote and unheard of spot may, accordingly, be traced association with a contemporary of Robert Walpole, of Pitt and Fox, of Edmund Burke, of John Wilkes (of the NORTH BRITON), of the author of THE LETTERS OF JUNIUS and of JOHN GILPIN, and many others of credit and renown. The First Earl Sandwich of Hinchinbrook was the "my lord" of the gossiping Pepys. Through him Dunk Island possesses another strand in the bond with the immortals, and is ensured connection with remote posterity. He gambled so passionately that he invented as a means of hasty refreshment the immemorial "sandwich," that the fascination of basset, ombre or quadrille should not be dispelled by the intrusion of a meal. He, too, was the owner of Montagu House, behind which "every morning saw steel glitter and blood flow," for the age was that of the duellist as well as the gambler.

Rockingham Bay was so named in honour of the marquis of that title, the wise Whig premier who held that while the British Parliament had an undoubted right to tax the American colonies, the notorious Stamp Act was unjust and impolitic, "sterile of revenue, and fertile of discontent!"

Cook and his day and generation passed, and then for many years history is silent respecting Dunk Island. The original inhabitants remained in undisturbed possession; nor do they seem to have had more than one passing visitor until Lieutenant Jeffereys, of the armed transport Kangaroo, on his passage from Sydney to Ceylon in 1815, communicated with the natives on then unnamed Goold Island. Captain Philip P. King, afterwards Rear-Admiral, who made in the cutter MERMAID a running survey of these coasts between the year 1818 and 1822, and who was the first to indicate that "Mount" Hinchinbrook was probably separated from the mainland, arrived in Rockingham Bay on the 19th June 1818. He named and landed on Goold Island, and sailing north on the 21st, anchored off Timana, where he went ashore. "Dunk Island," he writes, "a little to the northward, is larger and higher, and remarkable for its double-peaked summit."

Those natives who are versed in the ancient history of the island, tell of the time when all were amazed by the appearance of bags of flour, boxes of tobacco, and cases of goods drifting ashore. None at the time knew what flour was; only one boy had previously smoked, and the goods were too mysterious to be tested. Many tried to eat flour direct from the bag. The individual who had acquired the reputation of a smoker made himself so sick that none other had the courage to imitate him, and the tobacco and goods were thrown about playfully. In after years the inhabitants were fond of relating how they had humbugged themselves.

The next ensuing official reference of particular interest is contained in the narrative of the voyage of H.M.S. RATTLESNAKE, by John Macgillivray, F.R.G.S., naturalist of the expedition. The date is 26th May 1848, and an extract reads--"During the forenoon the ship was moved over to an anchorage under the lee (north-west side) of Dunk Island, where we remained for ten days. The summit of a very small rocky island, near the anchorage, named, by Captain Owen Stanley, Mound Islet (Purtaboi), formed the first station. Dunk Island, eight or nine miles in circumference, is well wooded; it has two conspicuous peaks, one of which (the north-west one) is 857 feet in height. Our excursions were confined to the vicinity of the watering-place and the bay in which it is situated. The shores are rocky on one side and sandy on the other, where a low point runs out to the westward. At their junction, and under the sloping hill with large patches of bush, a small stream of fresh water, running out over the beach, furnished a supply for the ship, although the boats could approach the place closely only at high-water. Among the most interesting objects of natural history are two birds, one a new and handsome fly-catcher (MONARCHA LEUCOTIS), the other a swallow, which Mr Goold informs me is also an Indian species. Great numbers of butterflies frequent the neighbourhood of the watering-place; one of these (PAPILIO URVILLIANUS) is of great size, and splendour, with dark purple wings, broadly margined with ultramarine, but from its habit of flying high among the trees I did not succeed in catching one. An enormous spider, beautifully variegated with black and gold, is plentiful in the woods, watching for its prey in the centre of a large net stretched horizontally between the trees. The seine was frequently hauled upon the beach with great success. One evening through its means, in addition to plenty of fish, no less than five kinds of star-fishes and twelve of crustacea, several of which are quite new, were brought ashore. Among the plants of the island the most important is a wild species of plantain or banana, afterwards found to range along the north-east coast and its islands, as far as Cape York. Here I saw for the first time a species of Sciadophyllum (BRASSAIA ACTINOPHYLLA, the umbrella-tree) one of the most singular trees of the eastern coast-line of tropical Australia; a slender stem, about thirty feet in height, gives off a few branches with immense digitate dark and glossy leaves, and long spike-like racemes of small scarlet flowers, a great resort for insects and insect-feeding birds. Soon after the ship had come to an anchor, some of the natives came off

The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 5/57

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