Chalmers of New Guinea
New Guinea in 1877 and before
IF Australia be classified as a continent, New Guinea,
or Papua, is the largest island in the world. In rough figures, it extends
for 1400 miles from east to west, and at its broadest for 490 miles from
north to south. Its northern coast-line almost reaches the equator, and at
its southeastern extremity it lies between the tenth and eleventh
parallels of south latitude.
When Chalmers first landed on its
shores comparatively little was known of the tribes which peopled it; the
leading geographical features of the interior had been barely ascertained;
and even its coastline, at various points, had never been surveyed.
The first European to record the
existence of the island was D’Abreu, who sighted it in
in 1526 a Portuguese explorer, Don Jorge de
Meneses, spent a month on its shores. Two years later, Alvarez de Saavedra,
a fellow-countryman of Don Jorge, also visited the island, which he named
Isla del Oro, having formed an idea that gold was to be found in its soil.
Again, in 1545, Ynigo Ortiz de Rez, a Spaniard, coasted along its northern
shores for 250 miles, and gave it the name of Nueva Guinea, fancying that
he saw some resemblance between it and Guinea on the West Coast of Africa,
It was visited in 1616 by Schouten, and in 1699 by Dampier, who first
circumnavigated it. In 1768 M. de Bouganville sailed along its southern
and eastern coasts, and in 1770 Captain James Cook visited its south-west
Other explorers followed, but little
was added to the knowledge of the country until Captain Black-wood, of
H.M.S. Fly, discovered the Fly River in 1845; Lieutenant Yule in
1846 took observations on the south coast as far east as the island which
bears his name; and in 1848 Captain Owen Stanley, of H.M.S.
Rattlesnake, made a rough survey of the south-east coast, in view of
its strategic position in proximity to the northern shores of Australia.
But the first survey of any importance was that of Captain Moresby, in
command of H.M.S. Basilisk. In 1871, and again in 1876, he
conducted a series of exact observations which resulted in the mapping out
of the greater part of the southeastern coast-line, and the discovery of
the China Straits and of the now well-known harbour of Port Moresby.
The island was found to be separated
from Australia by a belt of very shallow water, suggesting to the
physiographer that it had once formed a part of that continent. From the
deck of the passing ship, it could be seen that there were magnificent
mountain ranges in the interior, vast stretches of the finest scenery,
hundreds of miles of fertile land under cultivation by the natives, and
great rivers which must have their sources many miles from the coast.
Of the people, little was known
until the settlement of the London Missionary Society’s agents upon the
island. It was ascertained, however, that they were called Papuans, or "frizzly-haired,"
that they spoke in places a language which had some similarity to the
languages spoken on the islands of eastern and western Polynesia, and that
they were addicted to the practice of cannibalism.
When the French took possession of
the Loyalty Islands in 1864, the Samoan and Rarotongan teachers were
ejected, and the idea of New Guinea as a field for these workers was
broached. In 1867 the Directors began to mature plans, and in 1871 Dr.
Samuel M’Farlane, accompanied by Mr. A. W. Murray, made a prospecting
visit. Navigation in Torres Straits was found to be the most intricate and
difficult in the world. At that time the coast had not been surveyed, and
the captain of the vessel chartered by the missionaries would not go
within twenty miles of the coast— if he had lost ship he would have lost
his insurance—and Messrs. M’Farlane an Murray had to make their firs
acquaintance with the shores of New Guinea by means of navigation in an
open boat. They found that a sickly climate prevailed at points on the
coast touched by them,—" to remain for a single night meant three months’
fever and ague,"—and that the natives were not much more hospitable. They
ascertained that they had to deal with "a savage and bloodthirsty people,
who have made cannibal feasts of many a shipwrecked crew; who pent up the
three hundred and sixty Chinese passengers of the Saint Paul, lost
on their shores, clubbing and cooking three or four every morning, until
only four remained." The coast - line was found to abound in sunken rocks
and reefs, sand and mud banks, currents and calms, and these missionary
pioneers reported that the Directors might calculate upon losing a vessel
in Torres Straits every three or four years.
Here is Dr. M’Farlane’s description
of New Guinea. "A country of bona fide cannibals and genuine
savages, where the pioneer missionary and explorer truly carries his life
in his hand. A land of gold, yet a land where a string of beads will buy
more than a nugget of the precious metal. A land of promise, capable of
sustaining millions of people, in which, however, the natives live on
yams, bananas, and cocoa-nuts. A land of mighty cedars and giant trees,
where, notwithstanding, the native huts are made of sticks and roofed with
palm leaves. A land consisting of millions of acres
of glorious grass,
capable of fattening multitudes of cattle, where, however, neither flocks
nor herds are known. A land of splendid mountains, magnificent forests,
and mighty rivers, but to us a land of heathen darkness, cruelty,
cannibalism, and death. We were going. to plant the gospel standard on
this, the largest island in the world, and win it for Christ; and as the
gospel had worked such marvels in other parts of the world, we felt sure
that it could not fail in this home of the Papuan and cannibal tribes."
On 1st July 1871 Messrs. M’Farlane
and Murray, accompanied by eight Polynesian teachers, landed on Darnley
Island, in Torres Straits. Conceiving the idea that this island, in close
proximity to the mainland, and separated from it by several miles of open
sea, might afford a safer and healthier centre than any point of the known
coast of New Guinea, two teachers were settled among the natives, who made
great profession of friendliness, and the pioneers made for Dauan, a small
island two or three miles from the shores of New Guinea itself. There they
again located teachers. At Saibal Island they placed the remaining two,
and returned to the Loyalty Islands after touching at Cape York, where the
most northerly of the representatives of the Queensland Government was
stationed, and at Yule Island and Redscar Bay on the mainland of New
Dr. M’Farlane thereafter left for
Britain, for the purpose of consulting with the Directors of the Society,
and in October 1872 Mr. Murray returned to Torres Straits, accompanied
this time by the Rev. W. W. Gill, and thirteen additional Polynesian
teachers. Landing at Somerset, Cape York, they established the
headquarters of the London Missionary Society’s New Guinea Mission. By
them a new station was founded at Manumanu, on Redscar Bay, but Manumanu
proved very unhealthy, and, after several of the teachers had died, the
survivors were taken back to Somerset—not before they had made good
friends with several sections of the Motu tribe.
In November 1873 Mr. Murray returned
to the mainland, and placed the teachers at Port Moresby, discovered by
Captain Moresby in the interval. A few months later, on 29th July 1874,
Dr. M’Farlane arrived at Cape York, on his return from home, accompanied
by the Rev. W. G. Lawes, until this time one of the Society’s agents at
Niué. Mr. Lawes, with his wife and child, settled at Port Moresby in
December 1874, the only white people on the whole of New Guinea. Dr.
M’Farlane removed the headquarters of the Gulf Mission from Somerset to
Murray Island, and thereafter devoted himself to missionary work in the
vicinity of the Fly River and also at Kwato in the neighbourhood of East
Cape. These enterprises were carried on independently of the branches of
the mission to which Chalmers was apprinted, and Dr. M’Farlane’s name soon
disappears from the further . record of the work on the sou n-east coast.
Until October 1877, a period of nearly three years, Mr.
and Mrs. Lawes laboured alone at Port Moresby. Chalmers has styled Mr.
Lawes "the Father of New Guinea travel." "Before him little had been done
in penetrating into the interior of the island, and no name has been more
used by after travellers as a password to known and unknown tribes than
that of ‘Misi Lao,’ the well-known missionary. My first travel began with
his influence and the frequent use of his name; and through him my first
tramp was made easy by the confidence natives had in him. Under this
influence they accompanied us as far as white men had then got." At the
date last mentioned, Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers arrived at Port Moresby, and
commenced work in their new sphere.