Edmund James Banfield – 100th anniversary of "My Tropic Isle"

 In 1908,  Edmund James Banfield,  once a journalist with the Townsville Daily Bulletin published his famous book Confessions of a Beachcomber about life on the tropical island of Dunk, off the coast of North Queensland.  Suffering from mental and physical ill-health, Banfield and his wife escaped there  in 1897 to live a simple life and indulge in his cherished pastime of observing the ways of birds, beasts, and fishes.  The book became celebrated by romantics the world over as a classic deserted tropical island memoir. 

Portrait of Edmund James Banfield.  John Oxley Library image number 111290  Dunk Island, island paradise.  John Oxley Library image number 98416 First home of Edmund James Banfield, Dunk Island, Queensland, 1936. State Library of Queensland, negative number 54176

Banfield wrote of  the genesis and natural development of Dunk, just 3 miles long and a mile wide, portraying how he and wife learned to live in harmony with their isolated environment, befriending the Aboriginals and growing their own maize, vegetables, coffee and fruit, and keeping farm animals whilst respecting the unique and cherished flora and fauna.  The book’s scientific detail of the area’s unique beauty earned it a special place in the hearts of naturalists.

Dunk Island Parting with Banfield and dog ca. 1925. John Oxley Library Image number 59741  Bertha and Edmund James Banfield.  John Oxley Library image number 73658  Gravestone of Edmund James Banfield. State Library of Queensland, negative number 54176

In 1911 the follow up title, My tropic isle was published, although much of the content was previously published in the North Queensland Register under the title “Rural Homolies“.  Writing in the introduction, Banfield describes his island life as “beyond the range of ordinary experience, since it is immune from the ferments which seethe and muddle the lives of many.  It typifies all that is tranquil, quiet easeful, dreamlike, for it is the island of dreams“.  p 17.   According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography Banfield was an enthusiastic promoter of Australia and a passionate spokesman for the preservation of North Queensland in its natural state (ABD v. 7, 1979). Banfield and his wife dreamed of turning Dunk Island into a nature reserve.  He never left the island, dying at aged 70 before making his dream a reality. 

The State Library of Queensland is the custodian of Edmund Banfield’s original handwritten diaries. The diaries span from 1898 to 1923. Banfield composed his final diary entry on 31 May 1923. On 1 June the writing of the diary is taken over by another hand, possibly his wife Bertha, stating that Edmund was “very ill“. On 2 June the writer simply states, “Ted died about 12-45pm today.”

A sample of diaries from Edmund Banfield’s Collection 1893-1923 held by State Library of Queensland E.J. Banfield’s handwritten diary for 1899. State Library of Queensland

Karen Hind, Librarian with Myles Sinnamon, Project Coordinator – State Library of Queensland