James Chalmers of New Guinea
Towards the Fly River

THE early months of 1891 were occupied in the work of his district, and Tamate was gratified to observe a gradual change coming over the people. "They are not cowed, and do not give the appearance of being so, but they are changed." Walking from Motumotu to Oiapu, for instance, he was accompanied by a crowd of natives, all armed, and presenting a formidable appearance; "but during the days we were together there was no robbing of plantations, and never an ill word was said in any of the villages we passed through. At our last open-air service at Oiapu—I was going to Maiva in a canoe, they were going to Mekeo—I begged of them to behave themselves, and said I hoped on my return to hear that they had done so. Several spoke, saying that things were altogether changed, that they had come along from Motumotu, and there was no robbing, and they would continue so, and I am glad to say they did." "Don’t misunderstand me," he adds, " they are not Christians, converts, nor catechumens."

In July Tamate left New Guinea on a short visit to Queensland, and once more experienced the perils and hardships of shipwreck. On the 24th the Harrier struck on a reef off Cape Bedford, after nine o’clock at night. "She bumped fearfully, and, a heavy sea running, she got fairly fast."

When it was evident that there was no hope of saving the vessel, passengers and crew took to the boats. They were about twenty-two miles from Cooktown, and were only saved from having to row the whole way thither in open boats by being picked up by a passing ship.

Tamate spent his fiftieth birthday in Cooktown. "I am fifty to-day," he wrote, "and I honestly say I could wish to take twenty-five off, and begin again the same work. My one desire now is, stronger than in youth, to serve Him wherever He commands. Guess I am older, but really not getting older. I love life as much, as ever; steady work, rough work, pioneering or settled, a prank, a joke, a feast, or famine, all comes well as of old. When with these young fellows at Kerepunu and Port (Moresby), I was young as they were, and cannot think I should tuck my mantle of age around me; guess I should get rid of it."

At Cooktown, too, Tamate for-gathered with Dr. Bellyse Baildon, from whose pen we have a sketch of the man and of the return to New Guinea.

"In shirt-sleeves rolled back. over the elbow and pith helmet on his head, or bareheaded, with his dark leonine locks setting off his noble face like a natural casque, he looked—what he was— a born leader of men. I can never forget a riding expedition we had, mostly a reckless gallop, when he headed us with the (unconscious) air of a Commander-in-chief. For this bearer of the gospel of peace was nothing if not a born fighter. To see the man in civilised drawing-rooms was to see Samson shorn of his locks. He always looked out of scale there, like a whale in a tank. He had just come from one of his many hair-breadth escapes,—the total wreck of the mission vessel, the Harrier,—but adventure and danger were the breath of the man’s nostrils. A few hours before we cleared for Port Moresby, all Cooktown said we should never leave that day. Our crew was known to be drinking itself drunk in the grog-shops of Cooktown. But Tamate meant to go by that tide, and go we did; the crew tumbling aboard as best they could, with sufficient dregs of sobriety among them to get up sail and clear the difficult harbour, and cast anchor outside before nightfall. One could not help thinking of Ulysses and the swine of Circe.

"Once on the unruly sea, Tamate seemed again to dilate, and he personated for us, in the little ship of sixty-eight tons, a Vasco de Gama, a Cortez, or one of our own ‘Sea Dogs,’ Raleigh, or Drake going to singe King Philip’s beard. What a grand buccaneer he would have made! Then in the hour of apparent danger, when we were running over the reef and might have struck at any moment, what absolute fearlessness, and yet what wise, almost tender, consideration for those about him.

"Then what a reception at Port Moresby, where he had been rumoured dead; how the canoes with the stark-nude paddlers swarmed round the ship. It was like the return of a king to his kingdom.

"And in still worse danger, when the men of Movi-Avi (Moveave) swarmed about us, weapons in hand—a deadly sign—he stood, in Tennyson’s fine image, ‘like a rock in the wave of a stormy day.’ But four months before, only his eagle eye taking in the situation at a glance, and his swift wresting of the club from the hands of a chief, saved his wife and the whole party from instant massacre."

Of this trip to Queensland, Mrs. Chalmers wrote at the time—"Tamate’s six weeks’ absence was a trying time in all ways. You see he was only here a few days after our return, not long enough to make his influence felt. How thankful I was to see him back you cannot imagine, and what a tale of trial and danger he had to tell me. In the public reports he makes little of it, but to me he has told all, and I can only forget all the worries and hardships here, and be thankful that our Father in His great love spared life, and sent my dear husband back in safety. We expected him home in three weeks at the most, and what the three extra weeks’ waiting was, without any news, and with the new teachers all down with fever— one, as we thought, dying—is more than I can describe."

"Ten years ago," Tamate wrote in September 1892, "when little was known of the people west of Manumanu in Redscar Bay, I hoped, if God spared my life, to introduce the gospel to all the districts as far as Orokolo, and thought that the work might occupy a fair lifetime. We got to Orokolo in January 1892, and now my desire has enlarged, and I hope yet to carry the gospel to the Fly River, and to the westward. The plan I have always adopted is to visit frequently, get thoroughly known by living with the people, and, through interpreters, tell them the story of divine love, and so prepare the way for teachers living with them. I place no teacher where I have not first lived myself, and where I should be unwilling to live frequently."

The foregoing words were penned by Tamate on his return from an adventurous journey in the swampy district of Namau, where the inhabitants were all cannibals or skull-hunters, and where no white man had ever been seen before. The trip was accomplished in part in a whale-boat and, for the rest, in native canoes. The sea risks were, as usual, not inconsiderable, while the dangerous nature of the people visited may be gathered from the fact that Tamate’s boatmen were over and over again reduced to a condition of terror. "The flotilla opened, and we passed out, my boys devoutly hoping I had made up my mind to return home. On learning I had not, and that I meant to go right on, some got ill, others glum, and one poor wretch simply sat down and cried. I suppose they knew their own savage nature better than I did, and were frightened accordingly."

In this cannibal land the question of provisioning, too, was a somewhat complicated one. "The chief was away from home, but the wife in charge had quantities of food cooked and sent to us; but not one of my boys would touch it, saying it might have been cooked in pots used for cooking human flesh, or prepared by hands unwashed since last they rubbed themselves over with the juice from the dead bodies about. No use arguing, eat they would not; and I confess I could not lead off, and so give them an example."

This Namau expedition was full of incident, dangerous, pathetic, or humorous, but it was entirely successful. Acquaintance was made, for the first time, with several chiefs in this wild district, and promise of an early return had been sought on every hand. It might be said that Tamate was sustained by the sense of exultation. "Sleep! All chance of it had gone. The present and future are with me. The gospel is being preached all through Namau, and I saw the end of killing and cannibalism, and another people won to Christ. My interpreter and Ipai were busy also, the one asking questions and the other answering, with smokes. Cock-crowing is near and I must sleep; so I get two hours or thereabouts. By daylight I am up, quite refreshed, ready for a hard day."

Returning to Motumotu, Tamate rejoiced over the baptism of eight natives at Toaripi, regretting only that there were no women—"until the women are got for Christ, we cannot expect any real living Church." In June of the same year he had secured a very fine tract of country at Jokea and Oiapu, and he had projected the formation of a college for the training of New Guineans for the work of teaching. He felt that he still required an adequate supply of native teachers if he was to continue to break ground towards the west. He was anxious, too, to secure New Guineans, for these seemed to be able to live, and even thrive, in localities in which the swamps reeked with malaria, a malaria that induced dangerous if not deadly fever.

In the beginning of 1893, Tamate received timely aid in the provision of a steam - launch— christened Miro (Peace)—to enable him to overtake his visitation, with greater speed, with less regard to weather conditions, and with a slight increase of comfort, if whale-boats or native canoes may be said to have provided anything that can be called comfort.

Tamate was at Thursday Island when the Miro arrived on 5th January. "She came in through a real tropical downpour, which, however, did not deter Mr. Chalmers from going on board at once. He was at Thursday Island awaiting her arrival, and is delighted with her general fitness for the work she has to do."

Anxious to prove the utility of his new boat, Tamate set off on 12th January, visited the stations on the various islands in Torres Straits, and then, after touching at Saguane, at the mouth of the Fly River, crossed to Orokolo. Although the Miro met with " dirty weather" in crossing the Gulf, she "did splendidly, taking very little water on board." From Orokolo he journeyed eastwards, visiting station after station in turn, until he reached Port Moresby on 23rd February. This was the extreme limit of his district, and he immediately returned along the coast until he arrived at his head-quarters at Motumotu. At Jokea he was delighted to find that much progress had been made with the construction of the new settlement. "A fine large bungalow and six cottages were finished, and plantations connected with each cottage cleared and planted."

At some stations Tamate found occasion to reprove the teachers, at others he was called upon to examine catechumens, and rejoiced to baptize a goodly number in the aggregate. This time he found a number of women among the candidates for admission to the church. At Motumotu he had "a great day," baptizing four men and one woman—the first woman in the whole Elerna district. "She said to me the night before, when leaving with her husband, ‘Tamate, I do love Jesus, and I do want always to love Him.’"

There is little wonder that Tam-ate had a serious illness after all this exposure and work at high pressure, and in his sickness he missed the tender care of Mrs. Chalmers, whose health had become so unsatisfactory that it had been deemed necessary to send her back to Great Britain for a season.

We may mark time at this point by quoting from a despatch by the Governor of New Guinea, addressed to the Colonial Office about the date at which we have now arrived.

"Without expressing an opinion as to any inward change produced by the mission on the members of this large tribe (at Kanaheri), I have no hesitation in saying that their outward manner and conduct have been much modified in the right direction by the labours of the Rev. James Chalmers and his South Sea Islands teachers. We were kindly and courteously received by these people, and I had every reason to be well satisfied with them in all respects."

The time was approaching at which Tamate was entitled to another furlough, when he intended to join Mrs. Chalmers in England. He felt, however, that he could not return to Great Britain without visiting the Fly River itself, and making some effort to open up friendly relations with the savage tribes inhabiting the country through which it flowed.

Tamate was by no means the first to ascend the river. In the course of the twenty years immediately preceding his visit, no fewer than four expeditions had ascended the Fly River to a considerable distance, but in every case the explorers had found the natives to be of a hostile disposition, and had made no attempt to secure their friendship or to explore either bank. As Tamate once said— " Steaming up a river and steaming back is most unsatisfactory exploration, and all that is seen from the deck of a vessel is not worth recording." It was left to him, after all, to obtain the earliest reliable information in regard to the immense and fertile region drained by the Fly and its tributaries.

The prospecting expedition was made in the Miro, and Tamate was accompanied by a native teacher and two interpreters. At a very short distance up stream he was able to land at a village where the people "had never before seen white men, except at rifle range, and now they saw and touched." "The noise and shouting was great, and to an excitable and imaginative person it might have appeared that the hour of our doom had come. We were, as always, unarmed, having only a walking-stick, which is useful in going over native bridges and for long walks. Some of the men were very evil-looking, and the women, who were gathered in the houses—the few we, saw—were not at all prepossessing. A few of the men had been to Sumai, and had obtained, in exchange for yams, taro, bows and arrows, old filthy shirts, and they certainly looked fearful guys." After a short service had been held, "there were some very suspicious movements—groups consulting, men going to the houses, and a noise of arrows being handled," and Tam-ate deemed it wise to return to the Miro.

At the next stopping-place, "we soon had over one hundred and fifty canoes around us, and on an average four men in each canoe, and all shouting at their loudest. We could not keep them from crowding on board, and at one time it was very uncomfortable, and they seemed as if they meant to be unpleasant." But friends were made here and at other places, and it was found that Tamate’s "fire canoe" was "peace canoe," and that he himself was anxious to show himself friendly, and to tell them that " the Great Spirit is love and loves them." In this preliminary trip a short run sufficed, and the missionary returned to the coast and shortly left for Great Britain, arriving there on 3rd July 1894.

Revisiting his native Inveraray, Tamate was received with great enthusiasm, and this ancient and royal burgh was honoured in conferring its freedom upon its lionhearted son. Wherever he went, throughout the country, he won the hearts of those who were privileged to hear him, and it has been claimed that no missionary of the nineteenth century "made a deeper impress on the minds and hearts of the young pepple of our churches and Sunday-schools."

Dr. Joseph Parker recalls an occasion on which Tamate gave a missionary address in the City Temple; "I remember well," he says, "one sentence that was spoken. He was in a great heat; the spiritual fervour was contagious, the whole town seemed to be in a sacred inflammation of the soul; said he, ‘Do let us have some backbone in our Christianity.’ It is the last word of his that I remember. It is a word that should be written all over the Christian Church."

We do not find that Tamate had so much to tell in 1894 of actual pioneering work, and—beyond a short speech at the Royal Geographical Society, on an evening when Sir William MacGregor, Governor of British New Guinea, was relating his experiences—he did not make any contribution to the programmes of the Geographical Society or of the Colonial institute. By this time, greatly to his satisfaction, New Guinea had become the object of much patient scientific exploration and investigation; it held the fortunate position of a British Crown Colony, with an administrator of the best type; and his Society and the churches had listened to his appeals for men and means, with the result that the reports of at least six missionaries were now making known the claims of New Guinea.

But the interest aroused by the personality and missionary appeals of Tamate, reawakened curiosity and interest in regard to the work in which he had spent the best part of his life, and, as his two previous volumes had gone out of print, he was constrained to republish selections from them under the title Pioneer Life and Work in New Guinea. There is little in this book that is not contained in the two previous volumes, and it suffers, like them, from a lack of "editing," but the reader is rewarded in the glimpses it gives, at firsthand, of the great missionary’s perilous and devoted service.

On 13th November 1895 Tamate sailed again for New Guinea.

Return to Book Contents Page