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James 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 immoral."

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 danger."

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 chapters.

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 accurate."

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. Livingstone.

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 missionary."

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.


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