Chalmers of New Guinea
Tamate in England and Scotland
IN 1885 the Directors of the London Missionary Society
had published, under the title of Work and Adventure in New Guinea:
1877 to 1885, a compilation of extracts from Tamate’s journals and
reports, with the addition of several chapters from the pen of the Rev. W.
Wyatt Gill, describing his short visit to New Guinea in February 1884. The
information gained by the public from this volume had prepared them for
appreciating the pioneer missionary at something like his true worth, and
on all hands he received a cordial and even enthusiastic welcome.
At a special meeting, the Directors of the Society
entertained him at the Mission House on 30th August. They heard from his
own lips a summary of the work he had accomplished, and received his
valued counsel as to the lines to be followed in the extension of the
mission in the immediate future. With little circumlocution, he told them
that he had come home to deliver a message, and that, but for the urgency
of this message, he would not have left his sphere of work. New Guinea
must have men.
In the course of the winter 1886—87, large gatherings
of the members of the London Missionary Society, and of others interested
in foreign mission work, met at various centres throughout the country to
listen to the vivid and firsthand accounts of the frontier work Tamate had
been engaged in.
Nor was it solely in the missionary world—if we may use
a cant phrase—that Tamate became the lion of the hour. Many of the civil
and naval personages who had made his acquaintance in the Antipodes
hastened to render some return for the bountiful hospitality of heart and
hearth which he had accorded to them.
In scientific circles, too, Tamate was hailed as an
explorer of note, ranking with his great countrymen Livingstone and
Moffat. On 11th January 1887, by invitation, he read a paper on "New
Guinea: Past, Present, and Future," before the Royal Colonial Institute,
and, a few days later, addressed the Royal Geographical Society on
"Explorations in South-Eastern New Guinea."
At the Colonial Institute, Tamate sketched the social
aspects of his work in New Guinea, claiming an experience of native life
from Dauan or Cornwaffis Island in the west, to East Cape and round to
Astrolabe Bay in the north-east. On the question of the civilisation of
the native he expressed a very emphatic opinion.
"We are constantly reminded that the natives of New
Guinea are terrible savages, and ought not to live, but we, who have lived
amongst them, think otherwise, and will do all we can to preserve them as
a people or peoples. The only real attempt at Christianising or civilising
them has been made by the London Missionary Society, at a great outlay of
money and loss of life.
"I hold very strong views on what is called
civilisation. For more than twenty years I have been amongst natives. I
know a little of New Guinea, have visited the New Hebrides, Loyalty Group,
Samoas, Hervey Group, Society and Leeward Islands, Penrhyns, Humphrey
Group, and Danger Islands, and nowhere have I seen our boasted
civilisation civilising, but everywhere have I seen Christianity acting as
the true civiliser.
"I look upon the inhabitants of New Guinea as semi-civilised
savages, very impulsive, easily won; who can do terribly cruel things, and
who can be tender and sympathetic as the most civilised, refined lady or
gentleman. They are not at all like the Australian aborigines, and cannot
be, living, as they do, in villages and towns, and being everywhere
cultivators of the soil."
On the cognate subject of the clothing that the native,
in his untutored state, had found to be superfluous, Tamate had also a
word to say.
"I am opposed to clothing natives in European fashion,
except in those cases where they would, perhaps, look a little more decent
with a loin-cloth. My experience is that clothing natives is nearly as bad
as introducing spirits amongst them. Wherever clothing has been
introduced, the natives are disappearing before various diseases,
especially phthisis, and I am fully convinced that the same will happen in
New Guinea. Our civilisation, whatever it is, is unfitted for them in
their present state, and no attempt should be made to force our so-called
civilisation amongst them. Teach them, and let a more suitable and better
civilisation be theirs."
To exhaust the topic of Tamate’s opinion as to native
dress, we may quote from his account of the cannibal inhabitants of the
district of Namau, on the Gulf of Papua.
"The dress of the men is exceedingly simple, the
majority wear nothing at all, and the few only a small string or vine.
"The women certainly do not wear much, and I am not
astonished at it. They are very modest and think themselves respectably
and well clothed. Why savages should always be spoken of as immoral I fail
to see. They are not so when compared with the more highly civilised
countries of the world. I am sorry to have to say that it is contact with
the civilised white that demoralises them, and they then become loose and
It is interesting to note that Robert Louis Stevenson,
who had ample opportunity of studying the social life of the Polynesian,
would seem to have shared Tamate’s indifference as to the extent to which
the Christianised native adopted the habiliments of the white man. "The
married missionary, taking him at the best," Mr. Stevenson says in his
Souih Seas Sketches, "may offer to the native what he is much in want
of—a higher picture of domestic life; but the woman at his elbow tends to
keep him in touch with Europe and out of touch with Polynesia, and to
perpetuate, and even to ingrain, parochial decencies far best forgotten.
The mind of the female missionary tends, for instance, to be continually
busied about dress. She can be taught with extreme difficulty to think any
costume decent but that to which she grew, accustomed on Clapham Common;
and, to gratify this prejudice, the native is put to useless expense, his
mind is tainted with the morbidities of Europe, and his health is set in
We turn, with a smile, to the passage in which John
Williams expresses innocent gratification upon the introduction of bonnets
into Rarotonga. "The Rarotongans improved much in every respect during our
residence among them. The females were completely transformed in their
appearance, for, although both the teachers are single men, they had
taught them to make bonnets; but I must add that their taste in forming
the shape did not admit of equal commendation with their desire to raise
the character and promote the comfort of the female sex. These
deficiencies, however, were supplied by Mrs. Pitman and Mrs. Williams, who
made some hundreds of bonnets, and rendered many of the natives proficient
in the art. They made also, for the chiefs’ wives, European garments, and
instructed them to use the needle, with which they were much delighted."
Tamate’s address to the Royal Geographical Society need
not detain us here. It consisted of a rapid survey of the geographical
results of the explorations which he had been able to carry out, and a
graphic sketch of his voyage to the Gulf in a Motu lakatoi. The
reader has already made acquaintance with these facts in our earlier
During his visit to Great Britain, Tamate found time to
throw together, in book form, a number of passages from his journals and
descriptive articles originally contributed to the Queenslander and
other Colonial newspapers. In his preface he disclaimed any attempt to
make a finished book. "The author . . . is more
at home in his whale-boat off the New Guinea coast than in his study, and
his hand takes more readily to the tiller than to the pen. Hence the bulk
of this volume is made up of journals somewhat hastily written while
sitting on the platforms of New Guinea houses, surrounded by cannibals, or
while resting after a laborious day’s tramp under a fly-tent on some
outlying spur of the Owen Stanley Mountains, or while sailing along the
south-eastern coast in the Ellangowan. Writing thus, liable. to
manifold interruptions, the author has sought to preserve only what was
essential to his purpose, namely, to record exactly what he saw and did;
how the natives look and speak and think and act; what in his judgment New
Guinea needs, and how her needs can be best supplied. Solely for this end
has he printed this volume, and he can only trust that, as some
compensation for its roughness, the narrative may be found both vivid and
Pioneering in New Guinea was well received when it
issued from the press. The Athenaeum, for instance, confessed that
"few books written by missionaries breathe a more humane and enlightened
spirit, and few deal with a people more interesting from many points of
view than are the natives of New Guinea." In the course of a favourable
review, the Spectator pertinently remarked that the work would be
"none the worse of judicious editing." We fear that the lack of the
editing has militated against the widespread success of one of the most
"vivid and accurate" sketches of pioneer work that it has ever been our
lot to read.
Visiting Inveraray, Tamate was able to meet face to
face with his old pastor and correspondent, the Rev. Gilbert Meikle, and a
jocular prophecy—dating from his departure from his native town more than
twenty years before—was fulfilled in his dining at Inveraray Castle with
the Duke of Argyll. The Duke manifested great interest in his work, and
gave him his meed of honour in requesting him to plant a Spanish chestnut
tree in the Castle park, in close proximity to one planted by Dr.
On 4th March, at the Mission House in London, Tamate
was afforded an opportunity to meet with the professors and students of
the Congregational Colleges. With some hope of a response, he called for
volunteers to go out and rescue the degraded cannibals of New Guinea. He
asked for strong men, able to rough it; men able to hold their own in
difficulty and danger, the dangers being, as he phrased it, "a little bit
of pepper and salt to one’s life."
In May he was the "lion" of the ninety-third
anniversary meetings of his Society. In a magnificent speech, he pled for
New Guinea, and told of the great strides which the gospel of peace had
made. He rejoiced over "those grand men," the South Sea Islands teachers—"
the real pioneers of Christianity in New Guinea "—and over his New
Guineans. "There are twelve New Guinea teachers in our Eastern Branch
Mission, young men and women, five of whom were cannibals when I went to
New Guinea. The others were at Port Moresby, and they were what is called
savages when I went there; and to-day — what?
The fruit — the summer fruit already: We
gathered it in; they have gone up to the front to help us in the great
work." He adumbrated a policy of advance. "What is wanted is this: that we
should press on the mission along the banks of the Fly River until we get
right away into the interior, and then spread out right and left to all
the people that we may come in contact with."
Perhaps the finest passage in this speech was that in
which he declared his unabated devotion to his work— "Will you at home
here stand by, see one after another drop to the grave, and no one come to
our help? Do we look back? No, no retreat; no retrenchment either, I
trust. I was afraid I was coming to this meeting to hear that we must give
up the work, and I was going to tell you that I should have to leave next
week, and proceed direct to New Guinea, that there, with the others, I
might cover the retreat of the London Missionary Society from the work
which has been so gloriously begun. You want men.. I hope I am not an old
man yet; I feel just as young to-day as I did twenty. years ago. I feel
ready for any kind of work, and I say, Recall the twenty-one years; give
me back all its experiences, give me its shipwrecks, give me its standings
in the face of death, give it me surrounded with savages with spears and
clubs, give it me back again with spears flying about me, with the club
knocking me to the ground, give it me back, and—I will be your
Tamate bade farewell to his Directors on 13th June. We
may be at fault in imagining that we detect in the report of the
valedictory speech of the secretary a suggestion that there had been some
difference of opinion in regard to Tamate’s methods of work. But, if this
ever existed, it had been satisfactorily disposed of. "Mr. Chalmers, in
returning to his work, was going back with a free hand. His adventurous
pioneering spirit might possibly bring him into danger; but he had a way
of his own of getting out of difficulties, as well as of getting into
them; and the principles of the Society were sufficiently elastic to allow
him to prosecute his missionary enterprise in the way that was most
congenial to himself."
Sailing from Great Britain on 25th June 1887, Tamate
reached Australia after a favourable voyage. There he had a cordial
reception in the different towns visited. On 13th September he left Sydney
for New Guinea, and arrived at Port Moresby after an absence of more than
fifteen months. "Just imagine—New Guinea at last !" he wrote to a friend.
"The reception was enthusiastic. One dear old lady threw her arms round my
neck and kissed (rubbed noses) in a most affectionate manner. I was then
on my guard. It was very affectionate, but it is not nice to come into too
close contact with their faces. . . . I am
delighted with the appearance of things. Fine new church here (Port
Mores-by), and good attendance; many more in catechumen’s class, and good
staff of young students."
Almost at once, Tamate was off to the interior to visit
and pacify a tribe that had been punished by the Protectorate authorities
for the murder of a teacher. He received the cordial welcome he had hoped
for, and, returning, to the coast, felt that he was again in the full
swing of active work.