Chalmers of New Guinea
With the Special New Guinea Commission
IT was now nearly twenty years since Chalmers had left
his native shores, and he had begun to plan a visit to the Old Country,
when information was received that Major-General Sir Peter Scratchley,
Defence Adviser to the Australasian Colonies, had been appointed Special
Commissioner for New Guinea, with the duties of taking all New Guinea
matters into his charge, visiting the country, meeting the natives and
foreigners, making inquiries, and reporting to the Colonial Office. At the
same time, Tamate was. informed that the Commissioner was most anxious to
meet him, and, if possible, to get him to accompany him all round the
Sir Peter Scratchley arrived at Port Moresby with his
staff on 28th August 1885, and at once preferred his request in person.
From an entry in Sir Peters diary, we gather that Tamate consented after
considerable hesitation. "I had intended leaving this morning for Redscar
Bay, where I wished to have a look at some land which is said to be
valuable. But Chalmers, who had promised to come with me, told Askwith he
thought he would not go, not even to the eastward. This was serious, so I
countermanded our departure until Tuesday, and sent early a note to
Chalmers to say that I would deeply regret if he abandoned
the idea. He came to breakfast, and gave
in. So this is a relief, for I feel that without him I could do nothing."
The best account of this episode in
Tamates life-story is to be found in an article from the pen of Mr. G.
Seymour Fort, contributed to the Empire Review. Mr. Fort was
private secretary to Sir Peter Scratchley, and had ample opportunities to
study Tamate in his relations with the New Guinean natives.
"During the period of Sir Peter
Scratchleys administration," Mr. Fort writes, "we made many expeditions
both inland and along the coast, for the purpose of inquiring into murders
of white men, and of gaining a practical knowledge of the country. Some
thirty islands and over one hundred villages were visited, and the
littoral as far as the north-east boundary at Mitre Rock explored. In
almost all these expeditions we were accompanied by Chalmers; in fact,
without him we should have, been helpless. I thus had special
opportunities of seeing the man in the midst of his work, and of
witnessing his great tact and courage."
From the Commissioners diary we get
an interesting glimpse of the New Guineans, as they appeared to a man who
did not require to suppress his personal preferences. "The surroundings
are disgusting; naked barbarians (not savages, because, poor creatures,
they are quiet enough if only fairly and justly treated) everywhere;
dirty, without clothes, and living purely animal lives; but with great
capabilities for a better and more useful life in the future. They must
have energy, when you see a fleet of canoes going for a voyage of several
hundred miles, several hundred men and children (no women) taking some
thirty thousand pots to the westward to be exchanged for sago and other
Sir Peter describes Koapena, the
chief of Aroma, as "a fine old fellow, over six feet high, about sixty
years old... . When he laughs, which he does very often, and shrugs his
shoulders, he has the appearance of a Papuan Mephistopheles." The
Commissioner wished to hoist the British flag at Aroma, but felt that he
could not do so until the skulls of the seven murdered Chinamen were
removed from the dubu and buried. "Our proposition," writes Mr. Fort,
"aroused the greatest consternation and opposition. At his own request,
however, we left Chalmers for two days alone in the village in order to
influence the meetings and discussions that were to take place. At the end
of that time we landed, when our men quickly buried the skulls, and the
flag was hoisted in the presence and with the acquiescence of the chief
and the villagers. Chalmers himself admitted that the affair was a very
critical one, and that more than once be had despaired of overcoming the
opposition. The successful result was entirely due to his wonderful power
of persuasion, for even had the chief and people refused to allow us to
remove the skulls we should never have resorted to force for the purpose."
Mr. Fort adduces further Instances
of courageous and tactful action on the part of Tamate, and we venture to
quote them for their value as firsthand descriptions of the acts of
bravery which were of almost daily occurrence throughout his New Guinean
experiences, and yet have found small place in his own published journals.
"Owing to the barrier of coral reef
that runs parallel to the shore on the New Guinea coast, the intervening
stretch of water is so smooth that villages are sometimes built in the sea
at a short distance from the shore, for protective purposes. In the course
of a cruise, we arrived at one of these as it was being attacked by some
inland people. The women and children were in a state of panic, and the
men were manceuvring and fighting on the beach. Chalmers at once insisted
upon wading ashore alone, and by dint of shouting and expostulating the
fight ceased and the invaders retired.
"A few days afterwards we had
anchored near a village situate on the hills overlooking the beach, when
suddenly, just as darkness had set in, a fearful turmoil, shouting and
yelling, with tom-toms beating, arose. We soon discovered that two of the
sailors on the yacht (Government House for the time being) had gone ashore
in a canoe. Knowing well the danger that awaited them, Chalmers
immediately set forth alone in the dinghy towards the village, and above
the din we could hear his penetrating voice expostulating, scolding,
asking questions; eventually he returned with the two scared sailors,
whose lives he had certainly saved.
"On another occasion, we were
anxious to catch a native who had murdered a white man, and who had been
recognised on the beach of an almost unknown island. Chalmers suggested
that we should begin trading with the natives, and, when opportunity
offered, seize the murderer and haul him on board. The plan was risky, and
natives are proverbially difficult to hold, but Chalmers seized him and
held him with a grip of iron, as we bent our oars to escape from the
shower of spears which followed us.
"Absolutely fearless in action, he
was also wise in counsel, and, when necessary, very prudent and cautious.
Natives have often curious codes of signals, whereby they show their
attitude and intentions; sometimes even the nature and position of the
flowers in their hair signify hostility or friendliness, and for these
signals Chalmers was ever watchful. Once we landed on an unknown spot, and
amongst natives who had never been visited before. For hours, however, he
kept us waiting in the boat until presents had been exchanged, we giving
them a coloured pocket handkerchief, they pushing out to us on a canoe a
Tamate objected to the burning of
native houses when the inhabitants at Normandy Island could not or would
not produce a murderer for whom the Commissioner was in search. "Such
warfare," he wrote, "is detested by those engaged in it, and by no one
more than our good General. I think every such act of war should be
faithfully and publicly reported, and I have no doubt the English people
would soon demand that such things should not be done under our flag. In
acts of this kind, innocent and guilty suffer alike; this certainly not
being in harmony with John Bulls love of fairplay. Questions have been
asked in the House of Commons, and will, I trust, be asked again and
again, until the practice entirely ceases."
Dr. Doyle Glanville, another member
of Sir Peter Scratchleys staff, has added his testimony to the tremendous
influence which Tamate had attained: "Whatever had to be done, from
Special Commissioner downwards, the first question was, Where is Tamate?
What has Tamate got to say about it? Ask Tamate. I assure you," Dr.
Glanville said to the members of the Royal Colonial Institute, "that had
it not been for this gentleman, whatever work has been accomplished on the
expedition could never have been done without his valuable help. His
profound knowledge of the native character, his wide experience, and his
great tact placed us on a footing with the natives that otherwise would
have been impossible. He taught us how to understand the natives and their
little peculiarities and ways, and he taught them to understand the
members of the expedition, and what were the motives that prompted us to
The vessel that brought the Special
Commissioner to New Guinea had also on board Mr. H. O. Forbes, the
explorer, from whom Tamate expected much in the opening up of New Guinea.
That traveller was most anxious that the missionary should join him on his
expedition, but he decided that he could be of most service with Sir Peter
Scratchley. However, as in the case of the Commodores earlier visit, the
Government vessels carried Tamate to New Guinean shores previously unknown
to him, and, in company with the members of the Commission, he discovered
two new rivers in Milne Bay and visited many places previously unknown.
The Special Commissioner appreciated
the vast amount of pioneer work accomplished by the missionaries, and
asfrom our point of viewthis had largely been accomplished by Tamate, we
may quote from the pages of Sir Peter Scratchleys biographer.
"Missionary labour in New Guinea has
not only opened up communication with the natives along nearly the whole
coast-line of the protected territory, and far into the interior; but,
what is more important, has inspired them with confidence in white men.
Had the result been different, and the natives been made hostile or
suspicious, none but armed bodies of men could have ventured into the
interior, nor could individuals have cruised along the coast in fair
security. Under present conditions, a single white man, unarmed, can go
fifty miles into the interior from any point between Port Moresby and Hula
in perfect safety." "Much of this success," he adds, "is due to the native
teachers, who have been pioneers to break down native superstition and
It must not be supposed that Tamate
was neglecting his own peculiar work during this season of special
usefulness. The Commissioner was able to carry him from point to point,
and really to facilitate his visitation of the mission stations, as well
as to help him to pave the way for the occupation of new fields. One of
these visits was paid to his old station of Suau. "I met with a large
company of Christian men and women, and I sat down and partook of the
ordinance of the Lords Supper, administered by a native pastorone of our
South Sea Islanders. There I was united with, and shed tears of joy with,
men and women who, only a few years before, sought our lives. What did it?
It is the old story, still, of the Gospel of Christ."
Sir Peter Scratchleys useful
services were brought to an abrupt close by his contracting a fatal
illness that quickly ended in his death.
In the end of 1885, Tamate wrote to
Mr. Lawes: "I hope next month to open up new country to the west, and to
spend a time with my cannibal friends. We get new teachers about the end
of the year. I want to see them placed, and then home, I hope, or the
Colonies. I do believe I am of more use here than I can ever be in
"We are all in excellent health. . .
Our greatest joy is to see New Guineans teaching New Guineans. I want to
live until I see every tribe supplied with New Guinean teachers."
When he had accomplished the
programme which he had set for. himself, Tamate sailed for Great Britain,
and arrived in London on 10th August 1886, after an absence of twenty