James Chalmers of New Guinea
Exploring from South Cape


THE earlier months of 1878 were sufficiently occupied in the work of completing the establishment at Suau; but, in May, Tamate and Tamate Vaine (Mrs. Chalmers) made an extended cruise along the south coast in the mission ship Ellangowan. Chalmers has summarised the work accomplished:

"Communication was held with some two hundred villages, one hundred and five were personally ‘visited, and ninety for the first time by a white man. Several bays, harbours, rivers, and islands were discovered and named; the country between Meikle and Orangene Bays, together with that lying at the back of Kerepunu was explored, and the entire coastline from Keppel Point to M’Farlane Harbour traversed on foot."

From point to point, Chalmers explored the coast-line from China Straits to Hall Sound, landing wherever he saw any appearance of population; and, if his vocabulary failed him, making friends on all hands with chiefs and the people by means of presents and kindly and peace-speaking signs. The stock methods of the New Guinea pioneer have been well described by Dr. M’Farlane— "I have often been amused at the pictures of Moffat, Williams, and the rest, compared with my own experiences. Instead of standing on the beach in a suit of broadcloth, with Bible in hand, the pioneer missionary in New Guinea might be seen on the beach in very little and very light clothing, with an umbrella in one hand and a small bag in the other, containing (not Bibles and tracts, but) beads, jews’ harps, small looking-glasses, and matches; not pointing to heaven, giving the impression that• he is a rain-maker, but sitting on a stone with his shoe and stocking off, surrounded by an admiring crowd who are examining his white foot, and rolling up his wet trousers (he having waded ashore from the boat) to see if he has a white leg, and then motioning for him to bare his breast that they may see if that also is white. The opening and shutting of an umbrella for protection from the sun, the striking of. a match, the ticking and movement.. of a watch—these things cause great surprise and delight, and loud exclamations."

As we shall have occasion to see, Tamate added to this repertory of introductory accomplishments those of smoking and singing.

A graphic narrative of this voyage of discovery will be found in a chapter in Work and Adventure in New Guinea, entitled "A Few Trip Incidents," and we content ourselves here with a rough sketch of the work accomplished on this beginning of Tamate’s "journeys on New Guinea, in parts hitherto unknown, and amongst tribes supposed to be hostile."

Exploration began at China Straits, at the most easterly point of the southern coast of New Guinea. For a few miles the traveller was within the sphere of influence of the mission station at East Cape, but he soon came upon "little known seas and country," where he had to make his landmarks for himself upon the very incomplete charts in his possession. The Scot abroad ever retains an indelible and deeply cherished memory of his native place, and Tamate named his first discovery "Inveraray Bay."

If he did not know the country and the people, however, Tamate was not quite unknown to the coast natives within a radius of fifty miles from Suau. These had heard of the fate of the men who had been shot by the captain of the Mayri. They did not receive the missionary at all heartily, and were rather "inclined to be impudent." Brave to a fault, Tamate was always discreet, and on this first visit contented himself with giving a few presents, and then getting quietly to his boat, and away.

In Farm Bay the explorer was more cordially received, and made his first advances by submitting to the inspection of an admiring crowd. On the following morning a number of canoes came off. The natives evidently wanted to make a show of confidence in their visitor, but the snorting of the engines— steam being up — disconcerted them. When the anchor was up, the canoes were warned to keep clear. They could not quite see why: the sails were not set. But a turn or two of the screw was sufficient demonstration for most of them. "One canoe hanging on is pulled under, a wild shout, a moment’s silence, and then there is a loud roar of laughter, when they see canoe and paddlers appear astern at some distance."

With the object of getting into friendly touch with the natives, the same devices had to be resorted to over and over again. A piece of red cloth would be attached to a stick and floated astern. Then hoop-iron would be offered, and once that was accepted the canoes came alongside, and fraternising became an easy matter. All seemed to understand the process of trade and barter, and valuable time was gained. For, while the captain carried on intercourse with the canoes, Tamate would take boat, effect a landing, and accomplish a visit to the local chief. "As long as trading canoes remain alongside, the parties landing are perfectly safe; care should be taken to get away as soon as possible after the canoes leave the vessel."

Tamate landed at Fyfe Bay in spite of a crowd of armed natives who warned him to remain in the boat. He insisted on seeing the chief and sprang ashore, followed by the mate of the Ellangowan. But presents and blandishment were alike unavailing with "the stern old chieftain," and gifts to the people were indignantly returned. Judging discretion the better part of valour, Tamate retired upon his boat, in as dignified a manner as possible, followed by a suspicious crowd, and closely attended by a man with a large round club.

At Meikle Bay—named after his old friend, the Rev. Gilbert Meikle—Tamate had a more cordial reception, and persuaded the chief to accompany him on a short inland expedition. This resulted in the discovery of what was afterwards charted as Mullens Harbour and Poroai Lagoon. The charts gave no indication of the existence of this large sheet of water, but the explorer felt sure, from the formation of the land and the manner of clouds hanging over it, that there must be a lake or an arm of the sea, and that there must be considerable streams carrying off the water of the Lorne Range and Cloudy Mountains.

There was a "slight scuffle" at Ellangowan Bay, and Tamate had to simulate a towering passion to keep a noisy crowd from pressing on him. At Orangerie Bay the mission vessel was surrounded by over one hundred canoes, containing quite four hundred men, and resort to the steam whistle was found to be the only means of keeping them at a respectful distance. At another place Tamate had to make his escape in a native canoe, pressing the unwilling rowers into his service by sheer dint of his overpowering will.

In conversation with natives at Port Moresby, Tamate had heard of a settlement of Amazons, and had been informed that the members of the community were excellent tillers of the soil, splendid canoeists in sailing or paddling, and quite able to hold their own against attacks by warriors of the other sex, who sometimes attempted to invade their province. He could quite credit the existence of this settlement, for he had found that the instigators of nearly all the native quarrels were the women, who were never lacking in physical courage, and would even chastise their lords, not only with tongue, but with fist and stone. One of the most picturesque incidents of the trip was its discovery.

However they might treat native men, the Amazons were evidently afraid of Tamate. He landed alone, and shortly descried hundreds of women standing under the houses—which are, in New Guinea, always constructed so that the floor shall be some feet from the ground. He could only see grass petticoats and feet. Each attempt to come within speaking distance was baffled by a wild discordant scream that would have tried the strongest nerves. Determined not to be baulked, he tried to lure the Amazons from their ambush.

"I threw on the beach a piece of red cloth and a few beads; walking away quite carelessly, and apparently not noticing what was taking place. A girl steals out from the crowd, stops, turns, eyes fixed on me; advances, stops, crosses her hands, pressing her breast. Poor thing, not courage enough; so, lightning speed, back. It is evident the old ladies object to the younger ones attempting, and they are themselves too frightened. Another young damsel about nine or ten years old comes out, runs, halts, walks cat-like lest the touch of her feet on the sand should waken me from my reverie; another halt, holds her chest, lest the spirit should take its flight or the pattering heart jump right out. I fear it was beyond the slight patter then, and had reached the stentorian thump of serious times. On; a rush; well done! She picks cloth and beads up."

Tamate’s point was gained, and he was soon besieged by the noisiest crowd he had ever met. He was glad to escape on board his boat. When he landed a second time, he was met by a clamouring crowd; to whom he gave presents indiscriminately. "Soon there was a quarrel between the old ladies and young ones. The latter were ordered off, and because they would not go I must go." The "old ladies" insisted upon his getting into his boat and retiring. Throughout the records of his further pioneering journeys, there is no trace of Tamate’s ever having braved the Amazons again.

After prospecting on Dufaure Island, Orangerie Bay, for a site for a mission station, and then continuing his investigation of the coast-line westwards, Tamate came to the Keakaro and Aroma districts. In Aroma he was traversing the coast-line between M’Farlane Harbour and Keppel Point on foot—his boat accompanying him on the outside of the reef—when he recognised that the natives by whom he was surrounded were all armed, and that others were lurking at a distance. Believing that his safety lay in keeping on the move, he told the native teacher and Loyalty Islander who were with him to keep a good look-out, and pushed on, hoping to reach the next village. The little party were jostled and hustled in a menacing fashion. Efforts were made to trip them up, and to wrest their satchels and fowling-pièce from them. This time the women were on the side of peace. Two women carried off clubs that were in the hands of men pressing most close upon Tamate, and an old woman distracted the attention of the two armed men between whom Tamate was walking. To cut a long story short, the village was reached before the murderous intention of the crowd was fulfilled, the chiefs intervened, and the little party made their escape in their boat, which had now been able to get through the reef and come inshore.

Tamate was wont to look back upon this experience as one of the most dangerous he ever had to face; and yet the ice had been broken. Only eight years later, the Hon. John Douglas was able to write— "We found ourselves fronting a palm-fringed shore, with a background of bright grass - covered hills. . . . This is the district of Aroma—a rich and populous one; and there was no lack of life to give it interest, for we soon had plenty of canoes about us, and all along the beach for several miles the people were moving about.

Within a space of not more than three miles we visited four villages, and at each of them a mission teacher was stationed, all of them being comfortably housed. . . . They live surrounded by gardens, and in groves of cocoa-nut palm, with abundance of sweet potatoes, taro, and arrowroot. . . . The people as a whole struck me as a much nicer lot than the South Cape tribes— cleaner, healthier, and apparently more industrious. Nothing can be more charming than the palm groves, and the children seemed as happy as they could be. There was a perfect swarm of them."

What Chalmers has called his "first real inland trip" was undertaken in August 1878, when be crossed the New Guinea peninsula in the extreme east—from Catamaran Bay to Discovery Bay, in Milne Bay. On this occasion he was accompanied by Mr. Chester, the magistrate of Thursday Island. Mr. Lawes has recorded that in the course of this expedition much previously unexplored country was traversed, and our knowledge of the much-indented coast-line greatly increased. Eighteen populous villageswere discovered. Besides seven rivers and numerous rivulets, three mountains, and extensive bays and lakes were seen." Although this was "the first walk ever taken by a white man across eastern New Guinea," Tamate’s name and fame had gone before him, and it stands on record as one of the most pleasant and least dangerous of all his longer expeditions.

However well-fitted Suau may have been as a centre for missionary operations and Christian influence, it proved itself to be even more unhealthy than Port Moresby. Teacher after teacher sickened, and despite the tender solicitude of Mrs. Chalmers, and unwearied nursing by her, four of them died. Then she herself began to show signs of failing health, and it was deemed desirable that she should proceed to the Colonies. She arrived in Sydney in November 1878, but it was soon evident that the sufferer was becoming weaker, and on 20th February her gentle and heroic spirit passed away. To the last, her mind was bright and vigorous; she delighted to talk of missionary work, and especially of the scenes and events through which she had passed while in New Guinea. At this time Chalmers wrote home: "The natives learned to love her, and would have done anything possible for her. When they heard of her death they showed much sorrow, and said she ought to have remained with them, and if death came let her lie near to them. I left her once for six weeks, and during all that time they treated her well, many coming daily to see her, some with vegetables, some with fish; putting them down and going away, not waiting for payment, only saying, ‘You must eat plenty, and when Tamate returns be strong and fat.’

Suau was reduced to the status of a native preacher’s settlement, and Chalmers joined Mr. Lawes at Port Moresby.


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