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James 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 Protectorate.

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 Peter’s 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 Tamate’s 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 Scratchley’s 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 Commissioner’s 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 things."

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 few cocoa-nuts."

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 Bull’s 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 Scratchley’s 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 visit them."

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 Commodore’s 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 as—from our point of view—this had largely been accomplished by Tamate, we may quote from the pages of Sir Peter Scratchley’s 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 distrust."

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 Lord’s Supper, administered by a native pastor—one 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 Scratchley’s 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 England.

"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 years.


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