James Chalmers of New Guinea

ALTHOUGH Tamate had re turned to Port Moresby in the first instance, it is clear that he was now developing plans for a forward movement. Before he left Great Britain, he had declared that he hoped to complete the planting of teachers along the whole Papuan Gulf and the southeast coast, beginning where he had left off.

During the months of March and April 1888 he contrived to visit all the stations of the mission, east and west. At Vagavaga he saw a change even in the appearance of all the natives. "They were a wild cannibal lot a few years ago. One of the natives who came off spoke a little English. Pearse asked him if they eat man, and was answered, ‘No. No eat man now; all fellow-missionary now.’ In the evening at seven a bell rang, and some hymn-singing was heard: they were having evening prayers. You cannot realise it—savages, cannibals, murderers—now seeking to worship God."

"I had a good time at South Cape," he wrote again. "I got refreshed in visiting the stations with the New Guinea teachers. At Savaia, where, only a short time ago, there were cannibal feasts, there are three catechumens and six who can read well, and all the people friendly. The teacher is a Suau lad, and his wife from here. She is a mite, good and clean, keeps a clear head, teaches in school, and has singing classes. She more than holds her own with the savages, ordering them around. . . . At Navaopou, quiet, steady, gentle Hari of Suau is making way, and the people really love him. He too has three wishing baptism, men who already take part in services, and who speak a word for Christ when they can. I always like to see all who desire to profess Christ by baptism showing their love to Him by working for Him. ‘Tisn’t much they can say for Him when being examined.

"A New Guinean, preaching last Wednesday, said, ‘The time has come for us to be up and doing. Foreigners have brought us the gospel; many have died of fever; several have been speared and tomahawked. Now let us carry the gospel to other districts, and if we die ‘tis well, for we die in Christ; if we are murdered ‘tis well—’tis in carrying His name and love, and ‘twill be for Him. Motu, let us do it.’ He knows a little, so very little; yet he loves, and he is willing to endure for Christ. I saved the lad a few years ago from being attacked, perhaps murdered, by his own people."

Of a prayer-meeting Tamate wrote: "I wonder if we are selfish? We do so confine ourselves to this island. Then, you know, it does require all our energy, sympathy, and devotion. . . . The prayer of faith is being answered."

On the occasion of Tamate’s address to the Royal Colonial Institute in January 1887, Sir James Garrick, Agent-General for Queensland, had said in regard to the Protectorate in New Guinea, "It is clear that matters cannot continue as they are. There is at present no security in British New Guinea for either life or property. There is no jurisdiction under which the natives can be punished for the most cruel offences, and no control whatever over the subjects of foreign states. Such a condition of things must lead to reprisals, which will have a very disastrous effect upon our future relations with the natives. The remedy for this is to proclaim sovereignty, and to organise our administration, which, while abundantly safe-guarding the interests of the islanders, will adequately represent the Imperial and Colonial interests."

The counsels of Sir James Garrick, and of those who thought with him, would seem to have prevailed with the British Government; for, on 4th September 1888, Dr. William MacGregor—afterwards Sir William MacGregor—made a proclamation at Port Moresby definitely annexing British New Guinea to the dominions of Queen Victoria, and thereby raising its status from that of a mere Protectorate to that of a Crown Colony. Sir William MacGregor, as Administrator of the Colony, laid the foundations of British rule in New Guinea "with a true sense of the native position," and earned the regard of the missionaries for the wise and sympathetic quality of his management of the affairs of the colony. Some years later, Tamate was able to say, "I am always in a difficulty to know what civilisation is; but I can only say that, so long as Sir William is Governor, he will help to make them (the New Guineans) a better people.

He has done all he could to help and defend the natives, by refusing to allow them to be supplied with spirits or with arms, and if they do not get spirits they will advance and become better men and women." This good opinion was fully reciprocated by the Governor, who put a proper value upon the wide experience and splendid pioneer work of the missionaries. "The names, for example, of Lawes and Chalmers," he once said, "will always be associated with the early history of the colony."

In the Parliamentary Paper in which the founding of the new colony was formally reported to the British Government, it was stated that "all the preparatory arrangements have been made for Mr. Chalmers to reside at Motumotu, a station from which the important tribes inhabiting the country at the head of the Papuan Gulf can be approached much more readily than from Port Moresby."

Tamate had made his home under the roof-tree of Mr. and Mrs. Lawes’s dwelling, at Port Moresby, ever since the death of his wife in 1879. He was now to be married for a second time. When in England, he had obtained the promise of a widowed lady, Mrs. Harrison of Retford,— who, as Sarah Eliza Large, had been an intimate friend of the first Mrs. Chalmers,—to become his wife, and share with him the privations, vicissitudes, and hopes of missionary life in New Guinea. By arrangement, this lady followed Tamate to the Antipodes in 1888, and the marriage took place at Cooktown, Queensland, on 6th October, the Rev. Canon Taylor officiating.

Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers left Port Moresby for their new home at Motumotu early in 1889. Dr. Lawes tells us that he looks back upon the years that Tamate spent with him at Port Moresby as the most memorable in his missionary life:

"we lived together; we talked together; we prayed together." But the Port Moresby district was becoming too strait for Tamate. "He seemed to lose interest when a place became settled, and a teacher was stationed there." Dr. Lawes also notes that since 1889 "his letters have been fewer, but his spirits have been the same." This may account for a distinct falling off in the biographical material relating to these later years.

At Motumotu, a village at the mouth of the Williams River, he was in the centre of the wild tribe of Elema, and more than a hundred miles nearer to his "cannibal friends" of Namau and Vaimuru. His new district extended as far east as Port Moresby, and included the coasts of the Gulf of Papua west of Motumotu, and the islands in Torres Straits.

The missionary’s house at Motu— motu was situated on an exposed spot on the seashore. "It is close to the sea indeed," Mrs. Chalmers wrote. "Big waves often wash nearly up to the fence. It is rarely calm enough to land on the beach, and we have to go some miles round to a point up the river to land." "I do wish you could see this house," she wrote again. "The walls are of very roughly sawn planks, which overlap each other, so that inside there are ledges innumerable from floor to thatch, every ledge being a nice accommodation for all kinds of insect life. I should think the house is fifty feet long, and divided into three rooms. The partitions are the height of the outer walls only, and leave the very high pointed thatched roof open from end to end. Tamate thinks it a delightful place. I am not quite so much in love with it. At night it is too lively; rats, mice, and lizards run all over in armies. I don’t object to the latter. They are very tame, and make a cheery chirp. Best of all, they hunt the spiders, tarantulas, cockroaches, crickets, beetles of all kinds, and others, big and little. At night the bats fly in between the walls and roof. Ants and mosquitos also abound. If you look down on the mats and floors you perceive they are covered with life, even this paper is continually covered with tiny moving things, which I blow off. There are three thousand wild savages here —fine, handsome men, got up in truly savage style. I do believe I would rather face a crowd of them than the insects in the house."

Tamate Vaine (as the natives called Mrs. Chalmers) and Tamate himself were not long in Motumotu before they experienced the New Guinea fever. They had arrived at a bad season, and, after fighting with sickness for some time, decided to return to Port Moresby in search of rest and strength. We have made several quotations from Tamate’s letters and journals in illustration of the dangers and hardships of these coast voyages. Here is Tamate Vaine’s account of this perilous run to Port Moresby:

"The long journey in the boat was terrible. The first morning we were nearly upset, and shipped a big sea. Everything was wet through, and completely ruined most of our provisions were spoilt, too. Well, Tamate wrapped me in a blanket, and there I had to remain until sundown. All day there was a rough; nasty sea, and very heavy swell; but the wind and current fortunately were in our favour. I thought at times that the waves must engulf us, but the little boat rose to them splendidly; sometimes she seemed almost perpendicular, and then down into a deep trough with waves as high as a house, behind and before.

"Arriving at Maiva, we were warned not to land—the boiling surf looked dreadful, right along the beach. Two splendid fellows swam out to us, and said we could not land in safety. Tamate nearly lost his life here some time ago, when he attempted to run the boat ashore in such a sea. It was sunset; I was ill and wet; we had had nothing all day but biscuits and water; the wind was now right ahead; and the boys would have to pull to Delena, fifteen or twenty miles off. Tam-ate said we should not get there till morning, and so he determined to risk it, especially as we had two fresh men to pull. I sat straight up, and threw off the blanket. I think the excitement cured my sickness and headache. Before turning the boat for the boiling surf, Tamate said, ‘Now, Lizzie, in a surf like this, the boat, if she goes at all, will turn right over; so do not cling to, but keep clear of her if possible. The boys and everyone will think first of you, and if we get ashore alive, never mind if all goes; the anchor will fall out and keep the boat.’ Then we faced it. The men were so excited, but Tamate and Niami timed the pulling well. We got over the first line of surf all right, and there was a great shout from the shore; then a second and third line were crossed successfully. In the last line we were a little too late, and should have been washed back, and, meeting the next breaker, have been swamped, but dozens of the natives rushed in up to their necks, and dragged us on to the beach. We were pretty wet, but thankful. I went to bed. Some tea in a canister was dry, so we could have hot tea and some biscuit. The sugar had all gone to liquid.

"We stayed from Friday night until early on Monday. Tamate had four services; one at Maiva and three inland. Of course he had to walk to the latter, and the sand was so hot that one foot got badly chafed, and is only just getting well. Four young men were baptized, and one baby.

"On Monday we set out on the next stage, had a fair wind, and got in earlier than we expected. The sun was fearful in the middle of the day; and though we had as much shelter as possible, I had sunstroke and fever, and yet feel pain at times. One night we spent at Delena, one at Boera, and then on here, arriving at 10.30 p.m. Tamate says that, what with putting right out to sea to catch wind, and then coming in to the stations, the distance travelled would be about two hundred and fifty miles.

"It seems like getting back to civilisation to get here, where they have many comforts and plenty to eat. The beds at the various stations were horrid — especially after sitting or lying in a boat all day—wooden planks covered with mats, sometimes a sort of mattress made from the cotton they gather from trees. My bones have felt so stiff and sore at times. The teachers themselves always sleep on mats on the floor, but they all have a bedstead, and sometimes two, for the use of the white missionaries.

"The cost of living here," Tamate Vaine continues, with the interest of the housewife, "is something to wonder at; everything out of tins; nothing in the country to fall back upon except sago (native made). We have not been able to get a native vegetable for months, and very little fish. Here they get wallaby now and then. We cannot even obtain that at Motumotu."

While Tamate and Mrs. Chalmers were still at Port Moresby, the mission suffered a severe loss in the death of the wife of Piri, the faithful and tried Polynesian teacher at Boera. Of her Tamate wrote, "She was a splendid worker. . . . Wherever she went she was at home. She could command the biggest, nastiest-looking savages, and get from them whatever she wanted. She could take services, preach a sermon, teach in school, superintend work about the station, take charge of a boat, and handle it well in the worst of weather." Dr. Gill has told us that she was a good house-wife, and scrupulously clean and neat. Once again, Tamate and his colleagues were justified in their choice of their dusky comrades and in the sound training they had been able to give them.

On his return to Motumotu, Tamate set to work upon the duties of his new sphere. In September 1889, a conference of the white missionaries in New Guinea—now numbering four or five instead of two—was held at Port Moresby, and it was decided that Murray Island had proved to be too far from the mainland to serve as a stepping-stone, and it was agreed that this island should cease to be the headquarters of a white missionary, and should thereafter rank as an out-station, and be left in the care of a South Sea Islands teacher. It was also arranged that Tamate, accompanied by Mr. Savage, should pay a visit to the Fly River.

Return to Book Contents Page