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James Chalmers of New Guinea
At South Cape


Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers left Sydney on 20th September 1877 and arrived at Somerset on the 30th. On 2nd October they left Somerset, on board the Bertha, and, after visiting Darnley Island and Murray Island, reached Yule Island on the 19th, and on the 21st landed on the mainland of New Guinea at Boera, for Port Moresby, then the most westerly of the stations on New Guinea proper. There they received the hospitable welcome of Mr. and Mrs. Lawes, whose acquaintance they had made ten years before, Mr. Lawes having been stationed at Niué at the time of the wreck of the John Williams II.

Chalmers lost no time in getting into harness. Although Port Moresby was not his ultimate destination—he having been commissioned by the Directors of the Society to found a new branch of the mission farther east—he set out at once with Mr. M’Farlane upon a short inland trip of twenty-five or thirty miles into the hinterland of Port Moresby, with a view to ascertaining whether a healthy situation could be found for a station that would minister more directly to the needs of the inland tribes. This excursion did not extend beyond three or four days, but it afforded an opportunity to come into direct touch with naked savages to whom a white man was more of an apparition than a fellow-creature. The object of this tramp was not considered practicable. "The very mountainous character of the country, and the sparse population scattered on the tops of hills and mountains, many of the houses being built in the forks of trees, convinced us that on the peninsula, as in the Papuan Gulf, the population is mostly on the coast, where the large and numerous villages have the stronger claims." Thus, Mr. M’Farlane.

A few days later, accompanied by Mr. Lawes and Mr. M’Farlane, Chalmers set out upon a coasting trip towards the east, with a view to visiting the existing stations, and prospecting for a suitable locality for the new central station of which he was to make a working base. Along the coast, as far at least as Kerepunu, the name of "Misi Lao" was known to the natives, but when Tamate took a walk of nine miles inland from Kaili he and his friends were the first white men ever seen by the inhabitants of the village visited by them. Mr. Lawes was left at Kerepunu, and the rest of the party sailed for Teste Island. This was found to be about twenty miles from the mainland, and the idea of establishing the projected station upon it was abandoned, Chalmers desiring "a position more accessible to New Guinea."

The characteristics which differentiate the explorer from the ordinary missionary were most marked in Tamate. He was not content merely to proclaim his message to those who would listen. Each new step supplied him with data from which he, and those who should follow him, might arrive at an accurate and intimate knowledge of native life; and no detail of the habits of the peoples he visited, of their social customs, or of their physical environment, was considered unimportant. In consequence, his journals teem with firsthand observations that have contributed greatly to the sum of useful information in regard to the geography, ethnography, and anthropology of the great dark land of New Guinea. Here is one of his earliest memoranda of this nature. "I think women are more respected here than they are in some other heathen lands. They seem to keep fast hold of their own possessions. A man stole an ornament belonging to his wife, and sold it for hoop-iron on board the Bertha. When he went ashore, he was met on the beach by his spouse, who had in the meantime missed her trinket; she assailed him with tongue, stick, and stone, and demanded the hoop-iron." This incident occurred at Teste Island.

Moresby Island was next visited, but it, in turn, was rejected as unsuitable for a central station. East Cape and Killerton Island marked the eastern limit of this prospecting cruise. A return was made to Moresby Island, and thence the Bertha carried the party to South Cape. A landing was made on Suau or Stacey Island, off the Cape.

"About nine we went ashore near the anchorage. I crossed the island to the village, but did not feel satisfied as to the position. One of our guides to the village wore, as an armlet, the jawbone of a man from the mainland he had killed and eaten; others strutted about with human bones dangling from their hair and about their necks. It is only the village Tepauri on the mainland with which they are unfriendly. We returned to the boat and sailed along the coast. On turning a cape we came to a pretty village on a well-wooded point. The people were friendly, and led us to see the water, of which there is a good supply. This is the spot for which we have been in search as a station for beginning work. We can go anywhere from here, and are surrounded by villages. The mainland is not more than a gunshot across. God has led us."

Besides its central and otherwise desirable position, Suau possessed the additional attraction of being a place at which the language of the people most nearly approximated that of the Teste Islanders. A sailor had gathered a vocabulary of four hundred words of the Teste Island language, and this was in the hands of the missionaries. It was tried at East Cape without success, and to the natives there the vocabularies of the Port Moresby natives and the Murray Islanders were equally unintelligible. But, as we have said, at Suau the Teste Island vocabulary proved a useful basis for intercourse.

The Rarotongan teachers who accompanied Tamate, their wives and their goods, were at once landed. A spot for the mission house was selected, and missionaries, teachers, and sailors from the two mission vessels—the Bertha and the Mayri—set to work on its erection. On 5th December 1877 the missionaries went ashore to reside, and the Bertha left,—the Mayri remaining at their disposal.

Chalmers never tired of praising - the devotion, zeal, and other missionary qualities of his Polynesian teachers; but he had occasionally to run serious risks when they had failed to act with all the patience and tact that their perilous position rendered imperative. An instance of this occurred during the first days at Suau. An axe belonging to one of the teachers had been stolen, and, during the search, the owner of it "ran off for his gun, and came rushing over with it. I ordered him to take it back, and in the evening told them it was only in New Guinea that guns were used by missionaries. It was not so in any other mission I knew of; and if we could not live amongst the natives without arms we had better remain at home; and if I saw arms used again by them for anything except birds, or the like, I should have the whole of them thrown into the sea." Tamate himself never relied on anything more formidable than a stout hazel walking-stick, throughout the whole of his—humanly making—dangerous expeditions; and the stick was only used as an aid in walking, and in balancing himself while crossing swamps and other places where the foothold was insecure.

All this notwithstanding, an incident in which the abuse of firearms played an important part came near to terminating the Suau station, and perhaps the lives of the little missionary band. Some natives had boarded the Mayri, and a misunderstanding with the captain had arisen. This culminated in a murderous assault upon the captain, who in self-defence shot his assailant dead. Tamate required all the tact of which he was master. The natives rose in arms and crowded into the village, and one who was friendly advised flight. But "Mrs. Chalmers decidedly opposed our leaving. God would protect us. The vessel was too small, and not provisioned, and to leave would be losing our position as well as endangering Teste and East Cape. We came here for Christ’s work, and He would protect us." So they stayed, and even despatched the Mayri to Murray Island with its wounded captain, leaving themselves without means of escape even if they had occasion to change their minds.

By dint of friendly diplomacy and courageous indifference, this storm was weathered, and the good graces of the natives were regained. "I had an invitation to attend a cannibal feast at one of the settlements. Some said it would consist of two men and a child, others of five and a child.

The cannibal feast was held. Some of our friends appeared with pieces of human flesh dangling from their necks and arms. The child was spared for a future time, it being considered too small. Amidst all the troubles Mrs. Chalmers was the only one who kept calm and well."


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