James Chalmers: Missionary to Cannibals
by Christa G. Habegge
His fearlessness won the respect of the
his compassion, their loyalty and friendship
Chalmers who invested his life as a missionary to New Guinea was very
different from the carefree, high-spirited youth who grew up in county
Argyllshire, Scotland. The one trait that bound the man to the boy was a
love of adventure. Chalmers wrote of his youth: "I was very restless and
dearly loved adventure, and a dangerous position was exhilarating."
James Chalmers was born in
1841 in the town of Ardishaig. His father, a stonemason, and his
Highlander mother brought him up with the stern discipline of a Scots
peasant home. His most vivid boyhood memories centered around the nearby
Loch Fyne and other bodies of water in the county. Young James became a
favorite of the local fishermen. He won recognition for his bravery in sea
escapades, having rescued comrades from drowning on several occasions.
As a scholar, James did not
distinguish himself, "either in attendance or conduct," but he was a
leader among his classmates, particularly when there were fights between
rival schools. At 13, James left the local school and attended an upper
level grammar school. During his early teens, James was busy "sowing wild
oats," but it was also during this time that he made a decision which
affected the whole course of his life.
Despite his rebelliousness,
James attended a Sunday school class under the direction of the Reverend
Gilbert Meikle, a godly man who wielded a strong influence over him.
During one class Mr. Meikle read to the children a letter from a
missionary to the cannibals in the Fiji Islands. When he had finished
reading, he looked around the room and said, "I wonder if there is a boy
here this afternoon who will become a missionary, and by and by bring the
Gospel to cannibals like these?"
Moved, Chalmers immediately
responded in his heart, "Yes, God helping me, I will."
The memory of the incident
diminished during the next few years. James, as yet unconverted, strayed
from the influence of the Sunday school. However, in November 1859, two
preachers from Northern Ireland arrived to hold special meetings. A friend
prevailed on James to attend. At the service, James felt that the message
was intended for him. The following Sunday, James recorded that "in the
Free Church I was pierced through and through from the conviction of sin,
and felt lost beyond all hope of salvation. On the Monday Mr. Meikle came
to my help, and led me kindly to promises and to light ... I felt that God
was speaking to me in His Word, and I believed unto salvation."
began immediately to testify of his conversion at meetings in his town and
county. Furthermore, he recalled his boyhood vow to become a missionary
and renewed it, this time confident of the Lord's leadership. On the
advice of a missionary home on furlough, James applied to the London
Missionary Society, and was accepted and sent by them to Cheshunt College
for theological training. His eagerness to go to the mission field
prompted him to study hard. Yet, he retained his love of adventure and
fun. He remained a leader in student activities and good-natured pranks,
one of which was donning a huge bear skin and terrifying the student body
during an evening meal.
Fellow students with
Chalmers at Cheshunt said of his appearance and influence: "He was tall
and thin ... His hair was black, and his eyes hazel with an endless
sparkle in them. He was active and muscular, lithe but strong ... By all
his natural qualities of body, mind and spirit he was a born pioneer and
leader of men."
During his student days,
James became engaged to a girl named Jane Hercus. They were married in
October 1865. Two days after his marriage, James was ordained to the
ministry. His appointment to Rarotonga, an island in the Hervey or Cook
group in the South Pacific, was cemented, and the couple looked forward to
January when they would sail for their mission field.
Fifteen months later, the
Chalmerses were still far from Rarotonga. They first sailed to Australia,
where they spent much time for repairs to the ship. From there they
secured passage to one of the Samoan islands from which they hoped to sail
on to Rarotonga. After waiting six weeks, Chalmers finally secured passage
aboard the Rona, commanded by a notorious pirate, Bully Hayes.
Unlikely as their
association must have appeared, the two men were instantly drawn to each
other. Probably, the "blustering pirate and the high-spirited missionary
... had nothing more in common than a reckless indifference to danger and
a thirst for adventure."
Chalmers continued to have
services on board ship as was his custom, and Hayes for his part tried to
behave as a gentleman and even required his men to attend.
On May 20, 1867, the
Chalmerses saw the mountains of Rarotonga. A boat could not get close
enough to shore, so a brawny native waded out to carry Chalmers to land.
The native wished to know his passenger's name that he might announce it
to those waiting on the shore. "Chalmers," the missionary said. "Tamate,"
was the nearest equivalent the confused native could call out to other
Rarotongans, and Tamate became Chalmers's name for the next 35
Chalmers, eager to pioneer
a work for Christ, was disappointed to find the "gem of the Pacific," as
the beautiful island was appropriately called, already Christianized. For
the next ten years, he was responsible for the smooth operation of an
already-established mission. However, he set out to explore the island in
order to know his "parish" better, and his treks revealed that there were
still areas left unconquered. Life was easy on the island, and the
natives' only employment seemed to be fighting among themselves or
indulging in drunken festivals involving gross immorality. He determined
to find useful outlets for native energy. He reorganized an existing
Training Institution and also set about educating native children.
An important aspect of
Chalmers's missionary method became apparent in his work on Rarotonga: he
encouraged self-government and independence of European influence once a
native work was well established. He wrote: "So long as the native
churches have foreign pastors, so long will they remain weak and
dependent." He visited native churches on a regular basis and reported
that the "out-stations under the charge of native pastors contrast very
favourably with the stations under the care of European missionaries."
Chalmers had pleaded
repeatedly with the LMS to be assigned to a new field. In 1877 he finally
received instructions to move on to New Guinea. "Several bands of native
teachers from the islands went to New Guinea during that period, but only
a few survived the ferocity of the cannibals and the trying climactic
conditions." Like all challenges, this new one stimulated him.
New Guinea, or Papua, the
largest island in the world, located across from the northern tip of
Australia, was largely unexplored at the time of Chalmers's arrival.
Chalmers became to New Guinea what David Livingstone was to Africa. He
found the people "a very fine race physically, but living in the wildest
barbarism. Nose-sticks, huge rings adorning the lobe of the ear, necklaces
of human bones, gaudy-coloured feathers, repulsive tattoo marks, and daubs
of paint were almost the sole clothing of the men. The only additional
adornment of the women was their bushy grass skirts." The natives of New
Guinea, like those of Rarotonga, spent much of their energy fighting.
Tribal disputes were settled by bloodshed, and victorious tribes
celebrated with cannibal feasts. Many Papuan houses were built in the tops
of tall trees to help protect the inhabitants from surprise attacks.
Unlike the Rarotongans, however, the Papuans were industrious in the
cultivation of the soil. There were talented craftsmen among them in
woodwork or pottery. Surprising to the first missionaries, too, was the
fact that Papuan family life was much better developed than among many
primitive cultures. Parents were affectionate with their children, and
children, in turn, cared for sick or aging parents. Women enjoyed a much
better status -- approaching equality with men--than did the women of most
areas where Christianity had never permeated.
The Chalmerses, along with
a small staff of native teachers, established Suau as their first mission
center. Upon arrival, Chalmers handed out presents -- beads, leather
belts, red cloth -- to the suspicious natives to convince them that they
were coming peaceably. The village chief offered the Chalmerses the
hospitality of his hut while the mission house was under construction.
Privacy there was minimal, and household decorations consisted of human
skulls and other bones, and bloodstained weapons.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Chalmers
was delighted with the warm reception the missionaries received. "Tamate"
was more realistic, but said nothing to dampen her optimism. One day their
true peril became obvious. While Tamate was on his way to the shore, a
group of armed, yelling savages surrounded the partly built mission house.
Tamate rushed back and was confronted by a native warrior brandishing a
stone club. The missionary looked at him coolly and demanded the reason
for the attack. The savage responded that the villagers wanted "tomahawks,
knives, iron, beads," and that if these were not supplied, the
missionaries would be killed. Tamate replied calmly that he didn't give
presents to armed people. Again the savage repeated his demand and threat,
and again Tamate refused, over the frightened protest of a native teacher.
The natives eventually retreated to the bush for a parley, and the
missionaries spent a watchful, uneasy night. The next morning, a native,
without war paint, approached Tamate and apologized. Tamate received him
cordially." 'Now you are unarmed and clean,' he said genially, 'we are
glad to make friends with you,' and taking [him] to the house he gave him
a present." Tamate, by his refusal to be cowed by threats, won the respect
of the natives and eventually their loyalty and friendship.
Both Chalmerses worked
tirelessly to make the mission a spiritual success, he by conducting
services and she by teaching. Those who accepted Christ were carefully
nurtured in the faith. Tamate baptized only those who demonstrated a
genuine transformation and a growing knowledge of the Word of God.
Convinced that the work at
Suau was progressing well, Tamate was eager to penetrate other areas with
the gospel. In 1878, he travelled for several weeks, leaving his wife
alone among the natives. On his return he wrote: "Mrs. Chalmers says it is
well she remained, as the natives saw we had confidence in them, and the
day following our departure they were saying amongst themselves, 'They
trust us; we must treat them kindly. They cannot mean us harm, or Tamate
would not have left his wife behind.'"
In February 1879, Tamate
lost his beloved wife and brave helpmate. Her health had been broken by
repeated attacks of fever and the strain of the difficult mission work.
Tamate, though grieving, plunged into his work even more energetically.
Besides introducing Papua
to the gospel, Tamate accomplished the seemingly impossible goal of
promoting peace among the tribes all along the coast. According to those
who accompanied him on his visits to native villages, Tamate had a
remarkable influence over people. A fellow missionary wrote:
"Tamate's power over
savages was partly a personal thing ... It was in his presence, his
carriage, his eye, his voice. It was not only wild men whom he fascinated.
There was something almost hypnotic about him ... Then again, his
judgment, largely the result of wide experience in critical situations,
was unerring. He saw evil brooding where an inexperienced eye would have
seen nothing to fear; he was equally certain everything was satisfactory,
when a novice would have suspected danger.
"His fearlessness must have
been a great factor of success in his hazardous work. He disarmed men by
boldly going amongst them unarmed ..."
"Tamate was not only
fearless, but as a pioneer he was also perfectly cool ... His perfect
composure, as well as his judgment and tact, and fearlessness ... must
have brought him through a hundred difficulties ... during his long
service for Christ in New Guinea."
The natives themselves
testified most eloquently of his influence. When asked what prompted one
tribe to give up cannibalism, an old chief said simply, "Tamate said, 'You
must give up man-eating': and we did."
During a typical first-time
encounter with a savage tribe, Tamate and a native escort would wait on
board their boat until the natives on the shore had had a chance to notice
the strange vessel and absorb the shock of seeing a white man for the
first time. Usually, an armed party of men would climb into canoes and
approach the missionary boat. Tamate would then make signs of peace,
distribute presents, and make a brief address, stating that he had come to
make friends and planned to return for a longer visit in order to tell
them of a great Being of whom they were ignorant. He felt that the first
visit should be short -- just long enough to establish amiable relations.
Sometimes during such a visit, the natives would invite him ashore in
order that the rest of the village might admire his white skin. If the
reception were especially warm, he would be accorded the sign of affection
-- nose-rubbing. "Alas, " he wrote. "I cannot say I like this
nose-rubbing; and having no looking-glass, I cannot tell the state of my
face ... Kissing with white folks ... is insipid -- but this! When your
nose is flattened, ... and your face one mass of pigment [from the war
paint]!" After a successful first visit, he was assured that his longer
missionary campaign there would be well received.
In November 1884 Great
Britain announced that New Guinea was formally annexed as a territory.
Tamate was enormously successful in smoothing over native resistance to
the Protectorate. On his own initiative he visited tribal chiefs,
explaining the terms of the annexation. The chiefs were then invited
aboard a British man-o'-war for the official ceremony. Tamate was present
to explain the proceedings to the natives. After the ceremony, Tamate
corresponded often with British officials to ensure that the terms of the
agreement were kept and that the natives were treated fairly.
In 1888 Tamate married a
widow, "Lizzie" Harrison, a longtime friend of the first Mrs. Chalmers,
with whom Tamate had maintained correspondence. This second Mrs. Chalmers
provided the companionship and support Tamate had longed for since his
first wife's death. She too, proved herself to be a brave and self-denying
missionary. Unfortunately, like her predecessor, Lizzie Chalmers did not
live long in New Guinea. In 1900, after 12 years on the field, she died.
The last brief phase of
Tamate's service to New Guinea was spent visiting existing mission
stations. He was much encouraged by the arrival of a dedicated young
helper, Oliver Tomkins. Together they planned an expedition to the Aird
River Delta. The natives in that region were reputed to be fierce and
unapproachable, even by Papuan standards. No white man had ever seen them.
For a long time, Tamate had desired to make the dangerous trip there in
order to win them for Christ. On April 4, 1901, the mission steamer sailed
to Risk Point, off the shore of the village of Dopima. Immediately the
ship was surrounded by natives. Tamate promised to come ashore in the
morning. The next day, both Tomkins and Tamate went ashore, saying they
would return shortly for breakfast. After a certain interval had passed,
as if by prearrangement, the natives who remained on the ship looted it,
taking all of the stores of presents and Tamate's and Tomkins's
belongings. The captain, alarmed by the prolonged absence of the two
missionaries and by the conduct of the natives, was further concerned when
he saw a large number of warriors getting into canoes. He suspected that
the missionaries had been murdered and that the next targets were he and
his shipmates. He sailed away to report to the governor. His suspicions
were confirmed a short time later by British investigators and the
testimony of captured natives from the guilty village. The missionaries
had been clubbed, beheaded, and eaten.
The news of Chalmers's
murder made headlines all over the world. Those who had worked closely
with Chalmers were shocked and grieved at the news of his death, but felt
strongly that he would have wished to die as he did -- engaged in service
to the natives of New Guinea. As an old friend wrote: "Hitherto God had
preserved him; now he allowed the blow to fall, and His faithful servant
to be called up home."
James Chalmers of New Guinea by Cuthbert
NOT once, but a dozen times, the
writer has been asked—Who was Chalmers of New Guinea? It would seem that,
notwithstanding the numerous occasions on which this great man was
enthusiastically received at public gatherings during his visits to Great
Britain, in 1884—85 and again in
1896—97, there is a very considerable
proportion of the British people to whom he is yet unknown.
Moffat and Livingstone, Mackay of
Uganda, and Paton of the New Hebrides are universally recognised as
pioneer missionaries of the nineteenth century; and, without attempt at
the invidious task of deciding their comparative merits and their
individual rights of precedence, we claim a place for James Chalmers in
this group of missionary heroes.
When we try to account for the
prevailing ignorance in regard to one of the most interesting
personalities conceivable, one of the biggest men of last century, we
believe we find some excuse for it in the extreme modesty of the man
himself. Chalmers cared nothing for fame, and only visited this country in
1884, after an absence of twenty years, from a compelling sense of the
need for more men to exploit and occupy the field which he had surveyed
The present sketch is designed to
furnish the reading public with some idea of the splendid achievements and
attractive personality of this remarkable man. There is every reason for
supposing that the name and work and personality of "Tamate" are better
known to the citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia; but even from
them, as well as from his many friends and admirers in the home-land, a
particular and consecutive narrative of his life-story may receive a
welcome, if it serves to fill up lacuna in the information they already
For the somewhat scanty details of
the boyhood and student days of Chalmers, the writer wourd acknowledge
help received from a slender biographical sketch written a good many years
ago by the late William Robson, and published by Messrs. Partridge, and
from an article in the Sunday at Home, from the pen of the Rev.
Richard Lovett, to whom has been entrusted the preparation of the
forthcoming official life of Chalmers.
The earliest record of Tamate’s work
in New Guinea took the form of extracts from his joufnals and reports,
published in the London Missionary Society’s Chronicle, and of
articles from his pen, contributed to various periodicals and newspapers.
In 1885 he placed many of his journals and papers at the disposal of the
Religious Tract Society, "in the hope that their publication may increase
the general store of knowledge about New Guinea, and may also give true
ideas about the natives, the kind of
Christian work that is being done in
their midst, and the progress in it that is being made." In that year this
Society published Work and Adventure in New Guinea, a compilation
in which ample use was made of the journals from which the above-mentioned
extracts had been taken (with the addition of several chapters from the
pen of Dr. W. Wyatt Gill).; and in 1887 the same publishers issued a
similar compilation under the title of Pioneering in New Guinea.
Both these volumes have been out of print for a number of years, and it is
gratifying to notice that they are shortly to be republished at popular
In the preparation of his narrative
of Tamate’s earlier years in New Guinea, the writer has sought to unravel
"the bewildering record "—as Dr.
George Robson has called it—contained in the two volumes just mentioned,
obtaining from them the main facts of the period from 1878 to 1885. For
the rest, he has derived much help from the Chronicle of the London
Missionary Society, the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical
Society, and numerous other biographical aids.
Acknowledgment should also be made
of assistance received from an article contributed by Mr. G. Seymour Fort
to the Empire Review, and from an appreciation of Tamate by Dr. H.
Bellyse Baildon which recently appeared in the
To furnish an intelligible
background for the portrait which it is sought to outline, and to indicate
the local conditions—missionary and otherwise—when Chalmers entered upon
his labours on Rarotonga and, later, in New Guinea, it has been deemed
desirable to include in the following pages two short chapters of general
description and missionary history.
Within the limits of the present
volume it has only been possible to indicate the main facts and splendid
purpose of Tamate’s life. The writer has learned, with great satisfaction,
that his hero has left much valuable biographical material in the hands of
his representatives, and he believes that the following pages will but
whet the appetite of the reader for perusal of the official Autobiography
In his verses "In memoriam" of
Chalmers. Mr. John Oxenham expresses the confidence that
Shall kindle many a heart to equal flame;
The fire he kindled shall burn on and on,
Till all the darkness of the lands be gone,
And all the kingdoms of the earth be won,
The writer will rejoice if
this little volume, like a torch, renders humble service in helping to
pass on the kindling flame to "many a heart."
missionary impulse—The Revival of 1859—Changed life—Christian work—
Glasgow City Missionary—Accepted by the London Missionary Society—Student
days at Cheshunt—At Highgate Institution—The spell of
Livingstone—Appointment to Rarotonga—Marriage.
The John Williams II.—Ordination of
Chalmers—Farewells—Storm in the Channel—Final departure—The voyage to
Australia—The voyage continued—On a reef—Back to Sydney—Final wreck of the
John Williams 11.—Samoa—With "Bully" Hayes—Arrival in Rarotonga—"Tamate".
The London Missionary Society—Cook’s voyages—William
Carey and the South Seas—Early missionary effort in Tahiti—Progress of the
work— Arrival of John Williams—His pioneer work—Christianity in the South
Seas—Discovery of Rarotonga—The island—Incidents in the life of John
Williams—The first resident missionaries—Rarotonga in 1834 —Williams
founds a Training College—1839 to 1867.
The island in 1867—Religious condition of the
people—Work for Chalmers—Settlement on Rarotonga—Isolation—Conduct of the
Institution and its reform—The students—Routine of study—A High
School—-The printing press—The daily programme.
Chalmers goes after the young men—Crusade against
strong drink—Rechabite Society—Natives held down by debt—Chalmers prepares
a Constitution for the Island—Christian progress—Work at the
out-stations—Visit to Mangaia—Chalmers encourages the churches in
self-support and missionary interest—A contingent of students for New
Guinea—Chalmers offers to go to the New Hebrides—First call to New
Guinea—The second call accepted—Departure from Rarotonga—Experience gained
on Rarotonga—Visit to New Zealand.
Tamate explores the south-east coast—Pioneer
methods—Visit to an Amazon settlement—Dangerous communings at Dedele—Among
hostile savages—First real inland trip—Suau proves unhealthy—Illness and
death of Mrs. Chalmers—Tamate abandons Suau.
Port Moresby—Work of Mr. Lawes—Inland with Ruatoka—Scarcity
of carriers—Native terror—Dissipated by the missionary—The personal
influence of Tamate—The native larder—The family pig—Native
cooking—Salt-eating extraordinary—The ground covered—Rough travelling—The
savage and the evangel—Back in Port Moresby.
Visiting the eastern stations—Six weeks inland—Rafting,
and a spill on the Kemp-Welch River—Massacre at Aroma—Visit to Manumanu
and Kabadi—Famine-stricken Animarupu—Peace-making—Results of the earlier
Work for big results—First converts—Peace-making at
Motumotu—Surprised by a fighting canoe—Expedition to Doura—A forward
movement—At Delena—In the thick of the fight—Maiva—Death of Kone— Port
Moresby men in far Elema—Adventurous navigation.
The Massacre at Kalo—Estiniate of its cause—its
punishment—Tamate’s opinion of punitive
expeditions—Visit to Kabadi—In search of the Dourans—Improved conditions
at South Cape—Cannibal boatmen—Need for New Guineans as teachers—The
Institution at Port Moresby.
Motuan pottery—Trade with the Far West—Lakatois—Voyage
in a trading canoe—Crossing the bar at Vailala—Other sea risks—The dubu—Discovery
of the Purari—Intercourse with natives—Picture, song, and smoke—Native
salutations—The white man on exhibition—Evening prayers at Vailala—New
Guineans preach at Orokolo and Namau— A memorable scene.
The Age Expedition—One hundred miles in a week—Meeting
with cannibals at the Annie River—New Guinea fever—Visit of Rev. W. W.
Gill— Round the stations with Mr. Gill—New beginnings at Kalo—Placing
teachers—Motumotu as a vantage ground—Native teachers the true
pioneers—The devotion of the native teacher—Mr. Hume Nisbet’s
testimony—Teachers as linguists—The choice of teachers—Peace at Kabadi—The
staleness of travel—Tamate’s buoyant spirit.
Early attempts to secure annexation for New Guinea—Tamate’s
opinion—The Proclamation—Tamate’s share in its publication—Admiral
Erskine’s tribute—Testimony of Admiral Bridge—Hopes and fears— Pastoral
supervision of teachers—Sleeps at Kalo—Koapena of Aroma.
Tamate invited to join Sir Peter Scratchley—Expeditions
with the Commissioner—Sir Peter and Koapena—The influence of Tamate—Incidents
of peril and adventure—Tamate’s prudence—Against the burning of villages—"
Ask Tamate "—More discoveries—The influence of the missionary—The Lord’s
Supper at Suau—Death of the Commissioner—Furlough.
An enthusiastic welcome—Work and Adventure in New
Guinea: 1877— 1885—Tamate’s message to the Directors—The lion of the hour—
At the Colonial Institute—Views on "Civilisation " and on native
dress—Robert Louis Stevenson corroborates—John Williams and missionary
bonnets—Tamate at the Royal Geographical Society—Pioneering in New
Guinea—Its reception—Visit to Inveraray—Tamate calls for volunteers—The
ninety-third anniversary of the London Missionary Society—A policy of
advance—" No retreat: no retrenchment "—Return to New Guinea.
Tamate visits all the stations and notes
progress—Annexation proclaimed by Sir William MacGregor—His opinion of the
missionaries—Tamate’s second marriage—Se ttlement at Motumotu—Its
strategic position—The mission house at Motumotu—Serious illness of Tamate
and his wife—Motumotu to Port Moresby in an open boat—Missionary
diet—Death of Pin’s wife—Missionaries in conference.
A cruise with the Governor—Disappointing condition of
stations in Fly River district—A great change at Saibai—In search of the
Tuger— Pioneering again—Tamate visits the Samoas and the Hervey Islands
—At Rarotonga again—A splendid reception.
Tamate and Robert Louis Stevenson meet—A warm
friendship results— Stevenson’s opinion of Tamate—Extracts from letters to
Tamate— Stevenson commends Pioneering in New Guinea—Dr. Baildon
contrasts the friends—Their treatment of the native—Tamate’s estimate of
Robert Louis Stevenson.
Hopeful signs at Motumotu—Visits Queensland—Wreck of
the Harrier— Fiftieth birthday—Tamate in his shirt-sleeves—The
return voyage to New Guinea—Mrs. Chalmers left in charge—Among the
cannibals of Namau—Culinary difficulties—Baptisms and teacher-training—
Arrival of the Miro—A trial trip round the stations—Serious
illness—Further testimony of Sir William MacGregor—Prospecting on the Fly
River—Last visit to Great Britain—At the City Temple—Pioneer Life and
Work in New Guinea—Return to New Guinea.
Removal to Saguane, Fly River—Its advantages and
disadvantages— Natives and tinned food—The humdrum life of a mission
station— Success and progress-—Sends teachers up the Fly River—Their
Removes to Daru—Illness and death of Mrs.
Chalmers—Renewed activity—Loneliness and work—Tamate and Christian
Endeavour—Rev. O. F. Tomkins—Expedition to Aird River—Martyrdom—Supposed
cause—World-wide grief and lamentation.
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