Chalmers of New Guinea
WHERE are the young men?" was one of the first questions put by Chalmers when he landed in Rarotonga. Of elderly men and women, of young women, and of children he noticed that there was a proportionate population, but of young men there were few or none to be seen. On learning that these had taken to a lawless life in the bush, he lost no time in making extended excursions into the less frequented parts of the island, tracked them down to their lairs, and by his frankness and cordiality won over many of them to friendship and confidence. He found that one of their principal occupations was the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating beverages, made from oranges, bananas, pine-apples, and other fruits. Without thought of the risk of bodily harm to himself, he penetrated to the secluded spots at which drunken orgies were wont to be held; sometimes arriving in time to broach the casks and pour the liquor on the ground, at other times coming on the scene when the deadly poison had done its work, and murderous brawling and strife had converted a carousal into a free fight. "Our greatest enemy at present," he wrote in 1870, "is strong drink, foreign and native. Auckland traders supply us with the former, and the oranges with the latter. Sometimes a church member is enticed away with it, and falls. Occasionally one or two are led to see the evils of it; they leave it off, and seek to live better for the future."
In 1873 Chalmers began to agitate for a Rechabite Society. The chiefs urged the claims of what they called "the new society" on the people, and themselves joined it. After eighteen months, he was able to report that "great good has been accomplished through it. It is entirely in the hands of the natives; they elect their own staff of officers. Makea (chieftainess) and her husband have given it all their influence. They have both insisted also on the law for the suppression of drunkenness being fully carried out."
Concerning the system of debt, to which reference has already been made, we are able to quote again from Chalmers in his own words:— "Another great evil we are fighting here is the system of debt. The traders do what they can to get the natives into their debt, and to keep them in it, hoping thus to secure their entire produce. I have been much struck with a passage by Wallace, in his Malay Archipelago, on this subject. He says: ‘Another temptation he cannot resist is goods on credit. The trader offers him gay cloths, knives, gongs, guns and gunpowder, to be paid for by some crop perhapsnot yet planted, or some product yet in the forest. . . . preventing permanent increase in the wealth of the country.’ It is just what we have to fight against on Rarotonga, and now we see light breaking. For some months past the people have been making extra efforts to pay off all their debts, and will likely be entirely free by the end of the year."
In 1874 the different chiefs made an attempt to form a united government for the whole island, and enact laws equally binding upon each individual of the entire population. In hearty sympathy with this proposal—and more than likely the originator of the idea— Chalmers prepared a draft constitution and submitted it to the chiefs. "They must act for themselves," he wrote. "Unless the natives are taught to look after their own island and prepare for the future, they will not be able to resist the pressure of the white faces."
Nothing that affected the welfare of the Rarotongan was too trifling or too secular to claim Tamate’s interest and attention, but he never lost sight of the supreme end of his mission—the spiritual emancipation of these babes of civilisation. There was often ground for much anxiety, but he steadfastly maintained a cheerful and hopeful outlook; and, as the years rolled by, he could not but recognise tokens of a distinct development of spirituality. By the exercise of a wise and firm discipline, he purged the church. of evils which he found prevalent among the people at his coming to the island; and, relieved of the dead-weight with which tolerated wickedness inevitably cramps the religious consciousness, the church began to seek a higher level, and to recover its zeal for the salvation of others. "We have no great numbers coming seeking admission to the church; still, a few are attending the classes," he wrote in 1870. "Much prayer is being presented at the throne of God’s grace for the revival of religion among us. All our services are well attended, and we hope that soon we will hear the sound of rain, and be blessed with God’s great blessing, the Holy Spirit." In that very year the church experienced a season of refreshing.
In 1872 visitors to the island found that the church services were attended by devout gatherings of worshippers; native prayer-meetings were held every evening, except Saturday; class meetings were being conducted in the deacons’ houses; and there was an excellent Sunday school. "In his exposition of 1 Chron. xvii., Mr. Chalmers urged the people to repair the walls of the church and churchyard. When I called at the island two months later, the call had been responded to and the work done." The same witness, comparing the conduct of the Christian natives on board his vessel with that of many of his fellow-countrymen, confessed that he, "in all fairness, must yield the palm to Mr. Chalmers’s ‘children.’"
Writing on 29th August 1873, Chalmers informed a correspondent that all the services were well attended, that many were present at the weekday prayer-meetings, that he anticipated a full attendance at a Monday morning meeting for prayer. that blessing might follow efforts then being put forth for the suppression of drunkenness, and that there were thirteen in attendance at the inquirers’ class. Writing again in November 1875, he says: "Ten of our lads, after a sincere profession of faith in Christ, were received into church fellowship. They live with us, and their lives testify to a change. God grant that they may be kept in His love. In each of the settlements there is visibly a greater interest in things belonging to the eternal good of man."
In addition to the work proper to the sphere which we have attempted to sketch, Chalmers had an outer circle of duty. There were, first of all, the village settlements in other parts of Rarotonga. These he visited alternately, preaching at each once a month. During the week, and especially on Wednesdays, he sometimes rode out to one or other of the settlements, saw teacher and deacons, conversed with them, and attended to any matters of business. Once every three months he met his teachers, and they discussed with him the state of the churches, all joining in prayer for God’s benediction upon the work. "These meetings are fountains of blessing for the whole island."
Then there were the out-stations upon other islands of the Hervey Group, at which native teachers were located. These were visited annually by Chalmers and his colleagues in turn. In June 1870, for instance, he visited the Penrhyns, a group of coral islands six hundred miles north of Rarotonga. There had been quarrelling. Two hundred and forty of the adherents had forsaken the settlement, leaving the teacher with a diminished flock of about sixty. Of the band of teachers originally settled on the islands, all but one had died, or gone away, or been stolen by the Peruvian slavers, and never more heard of. Of the remaining teacher, Chalmers wrote: "He is a slow-going mortal, yet careful of the many things needful here below. We found it necessary to remove him, insisting upon his return to Rarotonga, and after a hard and well-fought battle we succeeded in getting him on board ship.. . . We left Vaka, a steady, upright, earnest man." In the course of the same cruise Chalmers visited Manihiki, Rakaanga, Pukapuka—the scene of the wreck of the John Williams I.—Mauké, and Atiu.
In November 1871 he visited the island of Mangaia, on a fraternal visit to the Rev. W. Wyatt Gill, about to go home on furlough.
We climbed hills, ran down into valleys, and groped about, with candle-nuts lighted, in deep caves. When far in the bowels of the earth, and surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites innumerable, we would sit down in one of these chapels and praise Him who made all things, and gave us abilities to enjoy the workmanship of His hands."
We have seen that Chalmers advocated for the natives of Rarotonga a civil polity which would tend to foster a spirit of self-reliance, and render them independent of extraneous aid. For their religious institutions he sought the same consummation of the work of the missionary. In 1874 he wrote:
"We have changed the system of paying the pastors and teachers in this island, and I hope will soon do so at the out-stations. The churches are now to pay their own pastors, and collect their own subscriptions for the Society. If, after fifty years’ instruction, they are unable to mind their own affairs, I fear the instruction must have been defective. We shall see. . . . I think it is time these churches were left to their own resources, under the superintendence of one foreign missionary, who could take charge of the Institution. So long as the native churches have foreign pastors, so long will they remain weak and dependent. Why should not one white missionary do for the Hervey Group ?" The counsel which he offered to his Directors found its counterpart in his policy in dealing with the churches. In every manner possible, he put responsibilities upon the shoulders of native pastors, teachers, and deacons, and foreshadowed to them the withdrawal of the aid of the white missionary.
In fostering a spirit of missionary interest among the people, he did much to induce a sympathetic conviction of the sufferings of the heathen peoples In the South Pacific, yet living in darkness, and in hourly need of the evangel of peace. Unselfish and missionary instincts were stirred, further, by the growing intercourse between the Hervey Islands and New Guinea. In 1872 five students and their wives went from the Institution to aid the first pioneers of the mission to south-eastern New Guinea; and as death, or ill-health, or the opening up of new stations, created opportunity, fresh drafts were made upon the student-teachers in the Institution. "The churches on Rarotonga have had special meetings for prayer, that God might open the door so that His word should be known on New Guinea. Every Sabbath service, and at every meeting during the week, Papua is mentioned in prayer." This was in 1872. In 1875 he wrote: "We have just appointed six men with their wives to be ready for Papua by next visit of ship. They go willingly, yea more, they greatly desire it. Quite a number of those who have gone are dead, yet the desire decreases not in those who are now with us.’
The missionary enthusiasm manifested by the Rarotongans was but the reflection of that which animated Tamate himself. So early as 1869, be offered to go to New Guinea for pioneer service. In 1870, writing to the Directors in regard to the missionary future for which his students were preparing, he said: "Allow me to say, we also would willingly go, and to the holy, sacred work, lifting up Christ before a heathen people, consecrate ourselves, our all. Another who has long laboured, and by experience been truly fitted for work like the present in Rarotonga, might do better than we do; and we who are yet young and in good health, enjoying tropical life thoroughly, might, with a few of these students, go down to the West, and in the northern New Hebrides establish a mission—lift up Christ the dispeller of all darkness."
In 1872 it seemed as if his desire was to be granted, for Dr. Mullens wrote asking him to go to New Guinea. But his colleagues upon the Hervey Group were agreed that Rarotonga could not do without him, and he had to decline the offered honour with reluctance.
Later, in 1874, Chalmers again stated his views to the Directors. "We have been nearly eight years on Rarotonga. During that time I have visited all the islands of this mission at various times, and am compelled to admit that the out-stations under the charge of the native pastors contrast very favourably with our stations. . . . Surely the Society should stretch forth into new and larger fields. . . . The many islands yet in heathen darkness who have not heard of our Glorious Redeemer should soon hear of Him. Why not try to reduce the staff of missionaries on old fields; leave the churches there to bud forth, and think and act for themselves; and let new fields be taken up?" But his time was not yet.
In giving his old pastor, Mr. Meikle, some account of the preparation of the band of teachers which left for New Guinea in 1876, Chalmers exclaimed: "How I should rejoice to accompany them, and stand in the centre of Papua and tell of Infinite Love. The nearer I get to Christ and His Cross, the more do I long for contact with the heathen. The one wish is to be entirely spent for Christ, working consumed in His love."
At last the call came. Chalmers was instructed to hold himself in readiness to proceed to New Guinea, and in May 1877, just ten years from the date of their arrival at Rarotonga, he and his wife bade an affectionate farewell to their people and sailed for the West.
For James Chalmers, as he stood on the deck of the John Williams III. and saw the topmost peak of Rarotonga dip below the horizon, the pleasures of memory and those of hope must have been curiously mingled. He had begun work on that island as a young man of twenty-six years of age; at the age of thirty-six he had now reached manhood’s prime. During those ten years he had been privileged to see his work prosper in his hands, and develop as he had willed that it should. He had preached and prayed and visited; and genuine fruitage had been vouchsafed. But, whether he recognised it or not, the greatest work had been accomplished in himself. His had been the discipline and the experience. No student, it had been his duty— a duty faithfully performed—to direct the studies of a college, to reorganise its curriculum, and to place it on a self-supporting financial basis; preparing text-books, a "Bible Index," and a "Bible Atlas and Gazetteer" for his students, revising their exercises and expounding the scriptures to them, from Genesis to Revelation, he had acquired an intimate familiarity with the Rarotongan tongue,
a familiarity that was to prove of infinite service in the study of the languages and dialects of the Papuan race. In diplomatic control of chiefs and pastors and teachers, he bad learned to understand the Polynesian character, and to suit himself to its moods and deficiencies. In a fine tropical climate, and in subjection to the routine of a busy and well-regulated life, he had built up a splendid physique, far excelling that with which he had left his native shores, and one that was wonderfully fitted for the toil and strain of the pioneer life he was now to taste. In the triumph of the gospel of Christ over the sins and superstitions of heathenism, he had laid the foundation of a reckless confidence in his mission and his message of peace, a confidence that was to carry him through many an adventurous episode, where a faint-heart would have failed and perhaps have lost his life.
By way of footnote to the foregoing chapter, it may be mentioned that Mr. and Mrs. Chaimers availed themselves of an opportunity to break their journey by calling at New Zealand on their way to New Guinea. They arrived in Auckland on 13th June, and visited relatives and others in various towns. "We found all our friends well," he wrote. "Fifteen years had gone since I saw them, and some from whom we then parted are now resting and waiting. We were all changed. They were expecting to see a thin, pale-faced, black-dressed missionary, and were surprised to meet a stout, bronzed, unclericallooking being." From New Zealand the travellers crossed to Sydney, in order to take passage for New Guinea in September.