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James Chalmers of New Guinea
Work and Adventure in the Gulf: 1883


IN October 1883, Tamate under took an adventurous expedition to his " cannibal friends" in the west, and his graphic description of his experiences forms one of the most interesting sections of the published records of his work.

The reader will remember that the natives of Port Moresby belonged to the Motu tribe. These Motuans are the traders of Eastern New Guinea. The staple manufacture of the district is pottery, and the earthenware vessels made by the Motu tribe are used for cooking and other purposes throughout the land. The generic name for articles of this ware is uro; but uro is really the cooking vessel, while water vessels, dishes for serving food, large and small cups, small pots, large and small basins, pots with rims, and large vessels for holding sago are varied forms of domestic utensils manufactured by the Motuans, and each has its particular name. The distribution of uros is secured by barter. Food-stuffs are brought into Port Moresby and exchanged for uros, or the trading Motuan voyages along the coast and barters his uros for other commodities. Once a year the Motuans make a trip of two hundred miles to the westwards, faring forth with boat-loads of pottery and—in more recent years—of knives, beads, looking-glasses, red cloth, and tobacco; purchase in exchange large quantities of sago; and sell that again to the coast natives nearer home, receiving payment this time in arm-shells and other articles that represent the native currency.

This great westward trip is made by a fleet of lakatois, vessels made up by the combination of several large canoes, and capable of carrying a considerable crew and a large cargo. Here is Tamate’s description of these strange craft:— "Four large canoes are lashed together. Their bulwarks are made from the leaves of the Nipa palm sewn together, well fastened with. long, strong mangrove poles, and caulked with dried banana leaves. A stage is made all round, so that the sailors can work her withou getting inside of the bulwarks. Masts of mangrove, with the roots, are stepped on to the centre, and large sails, made of mats all sewn together and shaped like crab toes, are fixed for working, with ropes made from the bark of the large yellow hibiscus. The anchor is a large stone made fast with long canes, sometimes one hundred fathoms in length. Fore and aft are small covered-in houses, strong enough to withstand a very heavy sea, where the captain, mates, and boatswains sleep and smoke. There are strong divisions of wicker work in each canoe, into which pottery is put, each division having an owner. The pottery is well packed with dried banana leaves, and only when thrown ashore in a gale do they have much breakage."

On this occasion Tamate secured a passage on board the Kevaubada, one of these lakatois, and, after a voyage of five days, arrived in far-distant Elema, making the port of Vailala. The Kevaubada was a two-master, and he took up his sleeping quarters on two planks covered with a mat and set on the top of a large crate of pottery. between the masts. From Vailala he journeyed on foot, and by the aid of native canoes, into the cannibal districts of Orokolo and Namau, renewing old acquaintance, visiting new villages, and making new friends. Returning to Vailala, a week later, he spent some time in the work of teaching and preaching until the arrival of his whaleboat, the Rarotonga, when he bid his Elema and Motu friends farewell, and returned to Port Moresby, calling at several places on the coast in the by-going, and reaching headquarters on 1st November.

The various sea-risks of this trip were considerable. Tamate gives us a graphic description of the crossing of the bar at Vailala, which the lakatoi had to make after dark.

"What excitement! We hoped for a clear sunset, but the sun disappeared behind a thick covering ere taking his nightly bath. When nearing the passage, orders were many, and great were the preparations made. We must go in on the other tack. ‘‘Bout ship,’ and all young fellows were warned to keep to their stations, fore-and-aft men stand with paddles, the hawsers (canes) are also got ready to be thrown to the crowd standing on the point, who are to pull us over the bank and up the stream. The deep passage is avoided, as the wind is light and the river current strong. When I heard that the hawser was to be handed ashore, I thought immediately of getting my books and a few things I wished to keep dry together, and if possible get them ashore; for I expected nothing but a general smash-up, in the great white surf. I looked steadily ahead; on she goes, up, down, all around terrific breakers. Ah! there it is now. One sea has boarded us; we are right in the breakers; shore-lights are guiding us; everybody is shouting. One man is calling on his ancestors and talking to the wild seas, and saying, ‘Oh, my lakatoi, my lakatoi! oh, my lakaioi will be broken !‘ Well done! she is on the bank—I now see all know what they are about. Halo! a terrific sea. She swings; is soon righted. A loud voice calls, ‘Boys, don’t be afraid; keep to your stations.’ She is away! Sails are drawing, excitement getting greater; shouting fore and aft, some calling, ‘Pray, oh, pray!’ On we go, on the tops of seas; nearer, still nearer. The men on the shore are close by; what now?

"The hawser is left; we are aground. One rush on to the platform over the bulwarks, fore and aft, regardless of lakatoi coming to grief. About one hundred and fifty men have boarded us, shouting, yelling, and rubbing noses. What is it? In the dark one might think a certain region had opened wide its portals and the imprisoned got free. Oh no, they are all excited friends; joy overflowing at meeting us. All right now majority step overboard into the surf, seize the hawser, and soon walk us away into calm water and up the river to the village. We are all right; no damage, not even a wetting."

Tamate enjoyed his unique voyage in the lakatoi. He experienced much kindness on board, and found his quarters more comfortable than those afforded by his whale-boat.

The return from Elema to Port Moresby was "a long journey to take in an open boat and in a nasty gulf sea." At the outset, the ugly bar at Vailala threatened to baffle the intrepid voyager. "Before getting to the bar we shipped a good deal of water, and, as we got nearer, it was evident the boat would never ride the heavy seas running. I fancied I might be of use another day, and as to attempt to cross the bar undoubtedly meant death to all, I gave orders to put about. In doing so we shipped a large quantity of water, and—oh, horror !—close by us was a huge, ugly crocodile. Imagine my feelings—for describe them I cannot—on seeing the monster. We had to keep baling, and found it difficult to make headway against the strong current. I felt very anxious, as I have a horrible dread of crocodiles. ‘A long pull, a hard pull, and a pull all together,’ brought us right in and up to our landing, where we were met by a sympathising crowd, who feared when they saw us near the bar that we should never be seen again."

There were other perils of the sea. The coast natives set envious eyes upon the rich freights of the Motuan lakatois, and often endeavoured to intercept them and compel the crews to disgorge their cargo. An attempt of this sort was made upon the Kevaubada. Off Pisi a large fighting - canoe was seen to be coming towards the lakatoi.

"They seemed prepared to fight; bows and arrows were all handy on the platform, fighting armlets were on, and a few had their clubs hanging on their backs. They said they had come for us, and Tamate and the lakatoi must go with them. I told them, ‘No, Tamate must go to Vailala, and I intended going to Namau.’ They replied, ‘You will not go on, we shall keep you; and their canoe getting close, two of them stepped on board, giving orders to make for their place. One of them seized me, and rubbed noses, and begged of me, as his friend, to land. ‘No, I will go on; I shall not go in here.’ They were very excited, and looked nasty; but our people were beginning to look as nasty; especially Aruako, the robber-chief. I was anxious to avoid a collision, as this would make it unpleasant for me afterwards. A piece of rope fell into the water, and was picked up by them. Their canoe being close enough, Aruako stepped into it and took it from them, when one of them seized his club. Aruako looked black and fierce, and asked if they wanted to fight, for if they did (let them) just say so, and they would have plenty, for his first action would be to break up their canoe, and then with arrows to shoot them down. ‘No, no, we do not wish to fight; but, great chief, your lakatoi must come to us. Our wives say we are weak and worthless, hence we have no lakatoi, and they have sent us off.’ We insisted on their leaving, and, anxious they should do so without a threat, I addressed my new friend, and told him they must not press on us, as I must go to Vailala. Again we rubbed noses; he asked me for an uro, and as I had none, he begged for a piece of cloth. I took off my shirt, which wanted washing, and gave it to him, and so saved myself trouble with soap and water. Again we rubbed noses, spoke of sincere friendship; they got into the canoe and left us, saying, ‘It is good; Tamate go.’"

Throughout his various western journeys, Tamate was usually accommodated in the village dubu, a large building, with an outside platform sacred to the adult men. In it were performed the various religious rites and ceremonies which constituted the initiation of the young men to the prerogatives of manhood. In it were stored the trophies of war and of the chase — skulls of men, women, children, and wild beasts. From the dubu the women were rigorously excluded, and there the unmarried men had their sleeping quarters— so that the structure combined the functions of a sacred place, an arsenal, and a bachelor’s club.

The dubu occupied by Tamate at Vailala may be taken as representative. "The dubu is large, about fifty feet in height in front; the platform I am on is about ten feet from the ground, and one with the flooring of the dubu. I am outside, preferring it for light and air; and hanging round there are charms large and small, nets used for river and surf fishing, and fish-traps,—made like foolscaps of the spines of the sago frond,— bows and arrows, and a few clubs. Entering by a small aperture, we are quite in, and when the eyes become accustomed to the darkness many are the charms, masks, bows and arrows to be seen; and, running along each side, places like stalls, inside of which are fireplaces, with pieces of rope hanging over—on these the sleepers hang their feet. During the day very few are about, but at night the building is well filled with men, who come tumbling in at all hours. My compartment is seven feet by three, with room for my goods and chattels, and for Johnnie to sleep alongside. I have slung my hammock between the posts on the platform." In another place Ta-mate says, "Man-killing led to the building of dubus, in order that the men might be sacred and have a place to themselves; that they might have a sacred place for Kanibu where to present the slain; and that they might have a place for rejoicing when they returned from a successful man-hunt. These are the reasons given me for the existence of dubus."

Always keeping his eyes about him, and seeking intimate intercourse with the natives, Tamate made considerable additions to his store of myth and legend and ethnological information, fresh facts brought into relief by his earlier experiences among Polynesians. He also confirmed a discovery made in 1879, on his first visit to the west — a discovery which Sir William MacGregor has characterised as "really a very important one "—that of the mouths of the Purari River.

Of his intercourse with the natives, he tells us much that is of genuine interest, and, by inference, we can see for ourselves how thoroughly he had equipped himself for "getting alongside of them," winning their confidence, and drawing them towards a more enlightened view of life. Such phrases as "an old, handsome gentleman," "an elderly and communicative gentleman," and "my friends, the cannibals," reveal the human interest that lie bestowed on every hand. He would show illustrations in periodicals received from home: "I was showing them some pictures in the Magazine of Art, and the one that struck them most was that of ‘The Miser.’ They seemed at once to see his bad qualities. A portrait of Leon Cogniet pleased them, but did not strike them in any particular way; and that of Keeley Halswell seemed to them as that of a pleasant man. The miser had to be seen by all, old and young." He would sing to them, and greatly regretted that he had neglected music in his youth. "Often," he once said, "have I seen hundreds of savages wild with delight when ‘Auld lang syne‘ was sung, and the enthusiasm passed describable bounds when the joining of hands took place; and then all would seek to do the same, and imitate our singing with shouting." He would smoke with them; not once, but a hundred times— "tobacco smoke had a wonderful effect in assuring them that we were friends."

While Tamate appreciated the childlike impulse and cordiality of the native salutations, these must occasionally have been embarrassing, to say the least.

"Alas, alas! I cannot say I like this nose-rubbing; and having no looking-glass I cannot tell the state of my face. Promiscuous kissing with white folks, male or female, is mightily insipid—but this! Ah, say you, well; but this! When your nose is flattened, or at a peculiar angle, and your face one mass of pigment! Cover it over and say no more.

"In getting near the village a canoe comes down to us, and there is soon on board my old friend Avea, calling out, ‘Tamate, where are Misi Lao and Misi Haine?’ (Mr. and Mrs. Lawes). ‘I thought they were to have been here long ago.’ I could not see the face in the dark, but I knew the voice well. ‘Let me go, Avea; this hugging business on an empty stomach is bad.’"

With the same large tolerance, he satisfied the curiosity of the simple-minded and astonished black. "Went out to be seen, examined, and scrutinised by the crowd of old and young. My heavy black travelling boots were the wonder of all, and certainly the majority thought I had particularly black feet. The unlacing of one caused mouths to be opened wide; but on taking it off, how shall I describe the terrific shout? ‘Twas as of a mighty host, and beggars all description. I removed my sock, and then another shout; and those not too much afraid pressed round the platform to have a nearer look, and some to feel. I exposed my breast, and that too excited great wonder. What seemed to astonish them much was the softness of the skin, especially of the sole of the foot, which was carefully examined. I thought I was safe enough here (Vailala), but it may be as well not to do so at Maipua, as they might take a fancy to cooked feet and breast." When he reached Maipua, he had to record, "The daintiest dish here is man, and it is considered that only fools refuse and despise it."

Of course, the prime object of the expedition was evangelisation, and Tamate was gratified with the measure of success which attended this renewed effort to reach the most savage tribes yet within his ken. At Vailala he ministered to the Motu traders and to the natives of the place. "One night, the lakatois being close by the large platform on which I live, I gave instructions that when they saw my lamp burning brightly all should be quiet, and we would have evening prayers. So about seven p.m. quietness stole over the immense gulf-sailing craft and the usually noisy Vailala natives about me. I read from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and then gave an address. The audience was large, and seemed to be deeply interested.".

At Orokolo: "Last night in the dark we had evening prayers. The deacon gave a short address, I—through him—another, then he engaged in prayer. It was a strange, weird meeting. There were about a dozen present, and we taught them to pray, ‘O Lord Jesus, give us light, save us.’ Nothing more; it was quite enough. And will He not answer them? Long the deacon spoke to them and told them of God’s love. . .Aruadaera (the deacon) and Aruako have been away for a long time, and have just returned. They have, on the platform of the neighbouring dubu, been telling the story of Divine love as expressed in the gift of Christ. Again and again had they to go over the good old story. The people, they say, were much astonished, and very attentive."

Tamate had the gratification of seeing the gospel preached in cannibal Namau.

"Slept outside on the platform, and had a splendid night.. Aruako fulfilled his promise, given at Orokolo, and for long held forth on Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood; and both he and Aruadaera spoke about Jesus our Lord and His love. It was a strangely weird scene. A large dark temple, lit only by flickering fire-lights; a crowd of savages, real cannibals, who pronounce man to be the best of all flesh, and whose wives also relish it; skulls in abundance in the various courts, and at the end, in the most sacred place, six Kanibus, who hold life and death, fighting and peace within themselves; and in the centre of the crowd Aruako and Aruadaera preaching Christ as the revealer of God’s love and the Saviour of sinful men. It was the most attentive congregation of the kind I have ever met. They listened well, asked questions, and expatiated freely. Soon after sunset it commenced, and when I sought sleep it was still going on. Although not a prepossessing people, yet they seem kind, and would, I believe, listen to the gospel and receive it as good news from God to man.

"When I awoke, the sun, I found, had preceded me, and they were then, perhaps still, talking and listening. I went into the dubu, and looking my friend Aruako, who was now quite hoarse, in the face, I said ‘Arua, have you been at it all night?’ He replied, ‘Yes, and when I lay down they kept asking questions, and I had to get up, go on, and explain. But enough; I am now at Jesus Christ, and must tell them all about Him.’ Yes, my friend had reached Him to whom we all must come for light and help and peace. When Arua had finished there was but one response from all their lips: ‘No more fighting, Tamate, no more man-eating; we have heard good news, and we shall strive for peace.’" Truly the mantle of the missionary of the Cross had fallen upon the shoulders of Aruako, the Motu robber-chief. Well might Tamate’s heart glow as he penned the words, "This is indeed a splendid field for missionary labour. . . . How niggardly we act in everything for Christ! We speak too much of sacrifices for the gospel’s sake, or for Christ. I do hope we shall for ever wipe the word sacrifice, as concernine what we do, from the missionary speech of New Guinea. May there never be a missionary or his wife in this mission who will speak of their ‘sacrifices’ or of ‘what they have suffered’!

Of this trip, Mr. Lawes wrote home at the time: "The district west of Maclatchie Point is but little known, and before Mr. Chalmers’s visit had never been visited by a white man. .Mr. Chalmers, who has travelled more than anyone else in New Guinea, and seen more of its tribes, was particularly anxious to add this district to those he already knew. . . . Mr. Chalmers has been the farthest yet into the interior. He has been as far as latitude S. 90º 2’ and longitude E. 147º 44½', so that the English flag has travelled farthest inland in the hands of the missionary."


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