James 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 coast.

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 Guinea.

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.


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