Chalmers of New Guinea
THEfirst ship to bear the honoured name of John Williams had been wrecked at Pukapuka in May 1864, after twenty years of valuable service in keeping up the lines of communication between the London Missionary Society’s agents at their numerous isolated stations in the South Sea Islands, and Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers were now only awaiting the completion of her successor, the John Williams II., as she would nowadays be called, to enable them to proceed to Polynesia, in company with a further reinforcement of the South Seas Mission staff.
The new missionary vessel was launched at Aberdeen on 5th October 1865, and, on the nineteenth day of the month, Chalmers was ordained as a missionary to the South Seas. The ceremony took place in Finchley (East End) Chapel, London. The Rev. William Gill of Woolwich, who had spent many years as an agent of the Society upon the very island of Rarotonga for which Chalmers was about to set out, described the field of labour; the Rev. John Corbin of Hornsey asked the questions and offered the ordination prayer; and the Rev. J. S. Ward-law, the President of Highgate Mission College, delivered the charge.
The missionary band received the good wishes and benedictions of their friends at valedictory services held in the Poultry Chapel and the Mission House on 2nd January 1866, and after a brief farewell service on board, concluded in the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," the John Williams II. weighed anchor on 4th January, and set out upon her long voyage. That voyage gave early promise of being a perilous one. While still in the English Channel, the vessel encountered a terrific storm, memorable as being that in which the London was lost. The passengers were thrown out of their bunks, the pilot was knocked insensible, the compass binnacle was damaged, the whale-boat was carried away, and the seamen were constrained to ask the missionaries to pray for a change of wind. With difficulty, the John Williams II. made the Portland Roads, and escaped the fate of some twenty-one vessels which foundered in the storm.
At Weymouth the missionaries were able to communicate with their friends, and assure them of their safety and their undaunted determination to face the perils of the sea in carrying out their commission. Mrs. Chalmers wrote:
"Hope has not fled from our hearts but we shall yet see the South Seas. We do not feel frightened to go on our way."
After completing all necessary repairs, the missionary ship took final leave of Old England, sailing from Portland Roads on 29th January. She experienced a second storm in crossing the Bay of Biscay, and a third off the Cape of Good Hope, but proved her seaworthy character by reaching Adelaide in safety on 3rd May. The passage had been accomplished in ninety-four days, the quickest that, with one exception, had ever been made, the time usually allowed for the voyage being from one hundred and thirty to one hundred and forty days. Melbourne and Hobart Town were successively visited, and eventually Sydney was reached.
Throughout the long voyage, Chalmers had not been by any means idle. On deck in all weathers he early made the intimate acquaintance of the sailors on board, and by means of personal conversation and a Bible class and prayer-meeting in the forecastle, he won several of the crew for the service of his Master. With his Rarotongan Bible and dictionary, he spent many hours in acquiring a familiarity with the language common to many of the South Sea Islanders.
Mrs. Chalmers was met at Adelaide by her father, and from Melbourne she crossed with him to New Zealand, on a short visit to her home circle. This was made possible by the lapse of time required for fitting out the John Williams II. for her first regular trip round the islands. Ashore, Chalmers himself was kept busy in addressing meetings and conferring with missionary brethren then resident in Sydney.
The missionary ship left Sydney for the Islands on 21st August. Owing to treacherous currents, and incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information in the navigation charts, this was undoubtedly the more dangerous part of the voyage undertaken by Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers, as they were soon to prove. On 5th September, the vessel was beating up the harbour of Anelgauhat for Aneityum, in squally weather and under dark skies, when, in putting about, she struck on a large patch of coral and held fast. The missionaries and the upper portion of her cargo were landed, as there was considerable fear lest at low water she should slip off the reef and sink altogether. On the third day she was got off. "Her fore-foot was smashed, and a great piece of her false keel carried away." She was in a very leaky state; but, patched up by the help of divers, she set sail for Sydney, under convoy of then Presbyterian mission shipDay Spring. Twenty-two Christian natives were put on board to assist in pumping, and during a long voyage of nearly three weeks these men kept the pumps going night and day, in the end refusing all pay for their services. Arriving in Sydney on 8th October, the ship was docked and repaired, and on the 15th November again set sail. Chalmers had remained aboard during this perilous interlude. Re- turning to Anelgauhat, the vessell embarked cargo and passengers, and steered for Savage Island, better known now by its native name, Niué, and this place of call was reached on 3rd January 1867. Stores for the missionaries at the station were landed, and the passengers went ashore. For several days, rough weather prevented all communication with the ship, but on the 8th the wind fell, and, Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers having gone aboard in prospect of the continuation of their voyage on the morrow, the vessel stood out to sea for the night. A few miles from the shore the wind failed, and the current began to drift the craft towards the land again. The boats were ordered out, and endeavoured to tow her away; but the current was too strong, and every hour brought her nearer to the lofty coral wall which formed the sea face of the island. About ten o’clock the gig was launched and the ladies were dropped in, and near midnight all took to the boats and abandoned the vessel to her fate. There was a fearful sea breaking over the reef, and the shipwrecked party had difficulty in making a landing. The surf was so high that there was no chance of getting a boat in, and at 3 a.m. natives from the island came out in canoes, took the party in them to the rocks, when they were dragged through the surf, and carried on the backs of the natives up a long extent of steep rocks over which the surf was constantly washing. By half-past four all were safely landed. The vessel was thrown on a part of the reef oft the north-east part of the island, and became a total wreck.
Thus, landed on a remote island, Chalmers and his wife were called upon, once again, to exercise their patience, and the trial was the more severe in face of the fact that all their possessions, beyond the clothes in which they were dressed, and "a few silver things I had in my cabin," had gone down in the John Williams II. A month later the Alfred, a German schooner, arrived at Niué, and sailed for Samoa on 11th February with Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers and a few others of the missionary band. The same day the brig Rona, commanded by the notorious buccaneer and pirate "Bully" Hayes, arrived at Niué, in the employ of a trader, and was chartered to carry the rest of the shipwrecked people to Samoa. When all had arrived there safely, the Rona was chartered again to carry Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers and others to their destinations. When she arrived in Tahiti on 23rd April, the Rev. G. Morris reported that "our dear brethren and their devoted wives do not appear to have had their ardour either damped or diminished by the numerous untoward circumstances which have chequered their path, but, full of zeal, devotion, and love, they have gone on to their difficult and arduous duties. They are men and women of the right stamp."
Instant in season and out of season, Chalmers made good use of his long voyage on the Rona to win the friendly respect of "Bully" Hayes. Before going on board he had said to him, "Captain Hayes, I hope you will have no objection to our having morning and evening service on board, and twice on Sabbaths?" "Certainly not," was the reply. "My ship is a missionary ship now, and I hope you will feel it so. All on board will attend these services." To this Chalmers replied, "Only if they are inclined." Although Hayes several times lost his temper, and "did very queer things, acting now and then more like a madman than a sane man," and although the Rona had fearful weather nearly all the time, the missionaries were well treated on board, Hayes behaving as "a perfect host and a thorough gentleman." Thus early did Chalmers exercise his gift for seeing the finest points in the most depraved character and making the most of them.
After calls at Huahine, Mangaia, and Aitutaki had incidentally afforded Chalmers an opportunity of visiting all the principal islands on which the London Missionary Society’s South Seas Mission had then established stations, Rarotonga was reached in safety on 20th May 1867. The voyage from Great Britain had extended over a period of no less than seventeen months.
Curiously enough, in the very act of landing at Avarua, Rarotonga, Chalmers received the name by which he was ever afterwards known among the South Sea and New Guinean natives. "I was the first to land, and in being carried ashore from the boat by a native, he asked, ‘What fellow name belong you?’ so that he might call it out to the shore. I answered, ‘Chalmers,’ and he roared out ‘Tamate.’"