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James Chalmers: One of the Unreturning Brave

by John C. Lambert

James ChalmersThere are persons of a romantic turn who sometimes lament the rapidity and thoroughness with which the work of civilization is being carried on. Steamships, they remind us, now ply up and down the waters of the great lakes of Central Africa, and right through the heart of the Dark Continent a railway is being steadily pushed on. There are places to which a generation ago it would have taken much more than a year to send a message from London or Edinburgh, whereas now to those same places a message can be sent and an answer received in less than twelve hours. The North Pole, we have seen it affirmed, is now almost the only place left to be discovered on the face of the globe, so that whenever Dr. Nansen or Lieutenant Peary, or some other Arctic hero, has succeeded in realizing his ambition, whether by dog-sledge or airship or submarine, it will be necessary for would-be explorers to sit down, like Alexander the Great, and weep because there are no more worlds to conquer.

An Unexplored Island

But the earth is by no means so tame and familiar a planet as these persons imagine. It is only want of knowledge that will make us speak as if hardly any part of the globe still remains unknown. In Asia and Africa, in South America and Australia, there are still large tracts of territory which the foot of civilized man has never yet trod. And there is an island in the southern seas which, if judged by its size, would have to be described as the most important island in the world, and yet, of all the world's larger islands, it is precisely the one regarding which our knowledge is most incomplete.

Papua, or New Guinea, the island to which we refer, lies to the north-east of the Australian continent, separated from it by the Torres Straits, only eighty miles across. In shape it resembles one of the huge Saurian reptiles of a prehistoric era; and, if we may carry out this comparison in describing its size, it may be added that from head to tail it measures 1490 miles in length, while it is 430 miles in breadth across the thickest part of its body. Covering as it does an area of considerably more than 300,000 square miles, it is quite six times the size of England. Its chief river, the Fly, is tidal at a distance of 130 miles from the sea, and has been navigated by steamer for over 600 miles of its course. The island can boast of a mighty range of mountains quite worthy to be compared to the Alps, the loftiest peak, indeed, rising nearer to the sky than the white dome of Mont Blanc.


Of the people of this great island, however, hardly anything was known thirty years ago [written in 1907], except that they were warlike cannibals, whose only regular trade was to barter sago for earthenware pots in which to cook man. To Port Moresby, on the south-east coast of this mysterious and dreaded land, there came in 1876 James Chalmers, or "Tamate," an agent of the London Missionary Society. Combining, as he did in a very unusual degree, the qualities of missionary and explorer, he soon greatly increased our knowledge of the geography of New Guinea and of the superstitions, habits, and social customs of its various and widely differing tribes.

Chalmers was no inexperienced tyro of the South Seas when he first arrived at Port Moresby to enter upon that career of constant adventure by land and sea, on the rivers and in the forests, with Papuan savages or with the Papuan surf, in which the next twenty-five years of his life were to be spent. He had already been shipwrecked on a coral-reef in the John Williams, the London Missionary Society's vessel, named after that splendid hero of Polynesia whose true successor Chalmers himself became. He had gone with his young wife on a voyage of 2000 miles in the brig of "Bully Hayes," the notorious pirate of the Pacific, and had so fascinated that ferocious nineteenth-century buccaneer that he behaved to his unwonted passengers like a perfect gentleman. He had spent ten years on Rarotonga, among the former cannibals of that beautiful coral island. It was from the Rarotongans that he got the name "Tamate," which stuck to him for the rest of his life, though it was nothing else than the result of an ineffectual native attempt to pronounce the Scottish name of "Chalmers." In Rarotonga Tamate had gained much valuable experience; but the restless spirit of the pioneer was in his blood, and it was a joyful day for him when word came from London that he was to proceed to New Guinea to enter upon what he felt from the first to be the true work of his life.


The people of New Guinea are sprung from various original stocks, and are broken up besides into numerous isolated tribes which differ greatly from one another in colour, feature, and language. But Chalmers found that, in addition to this, every village formed a community by itself, living at enmity with its neighbours and in constant suspicion of them. The best proof of this was afforded by the construction of the houses, built as they invariably were with a view to protection against sudden attack. Along the coast marine villages were common, Port Moresby itself being an example. The houses in this case were counterparts of the lake-dwellings of primitive man in European countries, being erected on tall piles driven into the sea-bottom at such a distance from the shore that a small steamer was able to thread its way between the houses, and even to anchor safely in the main street. Inland villages, similarly, were built on poles which projected not less than ten feet above the ground, access to the platform on which a house stood being obtained by means of a ladder. Among the hill-tribes, again, tree-dwellings were most common, these being particularly inaccessible and thus most easy to defend. On his first arrival at Port Moresby, Chalmers took a long walk inland till he was about 1100 feet above sea-level, and found houses built not only on the summit of a mountain ridge, but on the tops of the very highest trees that were growing there.

Tamate at once set himself to acquire some knowledge of his vast diocese and to win the confidence of the natives. He had all the qualities for the work that lay before him. He could navigate a whale-boat through the heavy surf which crashes along the level coasts, as if bred to the job. And at tramping through the forests or climbing the mountains no one could beat him; though he confesses to sometimes having sore feet, and expresses the wicked wish that shoemakers could be compelled to wear the boots they send out to missionaries. As for the natives, he won them by a kind of personal fascination he had which was felt by every one who met him—man-eating savage or missionary-loving old lady, a piratical outlaw like "Bully Hayes," or a literary dreamer and critic like Robert Louis Stevenson. Unarmed but fearless, Tamate never hesitated to walk right into the midst of a crowd of armed and threatening cannibals. For the most part he won their friendship at the first meeting without difficulty, though every now and then he came across some troublesome customers and had a narrow escape with his life.

Cruise Along the South Coast

One of Chalmers' earliest expeditions was a cruise along the south coast from east to west, in the course of which he visited 105 villages, 90 of which had never seen a white man before. Being new to the country, he met with much to surprise or amuse him. The Papuans are passionately fond of pigs, especially when roasted; but it astonished their visitor to find that they preserved the skulls of dead pigs in their houses along with those of their departed relatives and still more to see a woman nursing her baby at one breast and a young pig at the other.

A Ghastly Parcel

One day when he had taken his seat in the middle of a native house, right in front of the fire, and was busy tracing his course on a chart, he began to wonder how it was that strange dark drops kept falling all around him and sometimes on the chart itself. When he looked up the reason became apparent. A recently deceased grandmother had been made up into a bulky parcel and hung from the roof right above the fire, with a view to being thoroughly smoked and dried. Tamate's shout of disgust brought in the owner of the house, who hastily took down his late grandmother and walked off with her on his shoulder, to deposit her elsewhere until the departure of this too fastidious traveller.

But if Chalmers was sometimes astonished at first by the Papuans and their ways, the astonishment was by no means altogether upon his side. His white skin was a source of perpetual wonder, especially if he had occasion to roll up his sleeves or change his shirt, and so exposed parts of his body that were not so bronzed as his cheeks by the sea air and the burning sun. Great, too, was the perplexity caused by his combination of a white face with black and toeless feet—perplexity which suddenly turned into horror if he lifted his legs and pulled off his boots.

These, however, were among the lighter phases of his experiences as a pioneer. Until he became known, along many a league of coast and in the deep recesses of the forest, as the best friend of the Papuan people, Tamate had constantly to face death in the grimmest forms, and with a vision of the cannibal cooking-pot lying ever in the background. Here is a hairbreadth escape which looks thrilling enough as we read it in his Adventures in New Guinea, though it does not seem half so dramatic on the printed page as it did when the present writer heard Tamate relate it himself—"a big, stout, wildish-looking man," as R. L. Stevenson described him, " with big bold black eyes," which glowed and flashed as he told his story and suited the action to the word.

A Perilous Retreat

On one of his coasting voyages in the Ellengowan, a little steamer that belonged to the Mission, he came to a bay in which he had never been before. He put off for the shore as soon as possible, but the moment his boat touched the beach he was surrounded by a threatening crowd of natives, every one of them armed with club or spear. The savages absolutely forbade him to land, but he sprang ashore notwithstanding, followed by the mate of the Ellengowan, a fine, daring fellow with something of Tamate's own power of feeling least fear where most danger seemed to be. Up the long sea-beach the two men walked, accompanied by the hostile crowd, till they came to what was evidently the house of the village chief. The old man sat in solemn dignity on the raised platform in front of his house, and did not condescend to take the least notice of his visitors. Climbing up to the platform, Tamate laid down some presents he had brought, but the surly magnate flung them back in his face. It now became apparent that a row was brewing, for the crowd took its cue from the chief, and was beginning to jostle rudely and to indulge in bursts of brutal laughter. Turning to the mate, who stood a little way behind, Tamate asked him in English how things looked. "Bad, air," he replied; "the bush is full of natives, and there are arms everywhere. They have stolen all my beads and hoop-iron. It looks like mischief." Even Chalmers now felt that it was time to retire. "Gould," said he to the mate, "I think we had better get away from here; keep eyes all round, and let us make quietly for the beach." Chalmers used to describe the next quarter of an hour as one of the most uncomfortable in his life. The crowd followed, growling savagely, and one man with a large stone-headed club kept walking just behind the missionary and most unpleasantly near. "Had I that club in my hand," thought Tamate, "I should feel a little more comfortable." A few steps more, and he said to himself: "I must have that club, or that club will have me." Wheeling suddenly round, he drew out of his satchel a large piece of hoop-iron, a perfect treasure to a native, and presented it to the savage. The man's eyes glistened as if he had seen a bar of gold, and he stretched out his hand to grasp the prize. In a moment Tamate seized the man's club, wrenched it out of his hand, and brandishing it in the air as if he meant to use it, headed the procession and marched safely down to the boat. Long afterwards, when these natives became his friends, they told him that he "looked bad" at the moment when he took possession of the club; and Chalmers confesses that that was just how he felt.

As we have indicated already, the traveller in New Guinea soon finds that the dangers of the Pacific surf are hardly less than those of the shore or the forest. From the time when as a boy he had learned to swim and row and steer through the often stormy waters of the High land loch beside which he was born, Tamate had been passionately fond of the sea; and it was his constant habit to make trips of exploration along the New Guinea coast in a whale-boat, acting as his own skipper. On the southern coast at certain seasons of the year huge rollers sweep in continually from the Papuan Gulf and burst upon the beach with a noise like thunder. A strong nerve and a cool judgment, as well as a stout arm at the steering-oar, are required if a landing is to be effected in safety; and even to the finest swimmer, to be overturned in the midst of the surf may mean a death either from drowning, or by the teeth of swarming crocodiles, or by being pounded to jelly on the rocks. In the "riding of the surges" Tamate was a master, but though he performed the feat successfully hundreds of times, he once or twice came to grief and had the narrowest escape with his life.

An Exciting Experience

In one of his letters he tells of an exciting experience he had in company with a Mr. Romilly, a Government agent, whom he had taken with him in his whaleboat:—

"We were very deeply laden. On nearing the bar it did not seem to me as very dangerous, so we stood on. The first bar sea sped us on, the second one caught us, we shipped water, the steer oar got jammed, the boat swung and went over. It was deep and the seas heavy, and for a short time it seemed some of us must go. It is a terrible place for crocodiles, but I suppose so many of us frightened them. The smashing in the surf was enough to kill. The boats crew of native students did nobly. We got ashore. I feared at one time Romilly was drowning. I felt somewhat exhausted myself. I fancy Romilly must have been struck with an oar. The boys got the boat in after a good hour's hard work. I got three times on to the boat's keel, and each time was swept away. At last got an oar, and assisted by a native I got to a sand-bank—resting a little, then ashore. A fire was lighted, around which we all gathered, when one of the students engaged in prayer, and with full hearts we all joined him in thanksgiving. During the night things were washed ashore, and amongst them my swag."

They spent all that night on the beach, gathered round a fire. Sunday followed. It is not strange to find Chalmers remarking, "We all felt sore and unfit for much exertion." But it is characteristic that he adds that he had two services that day.

Services to British Officials

The reference which Chalmers makes in the foregoing passage to his having the company of a Government agent on this unlucky trip makes it suitable to mention at this point that in 1884 the British flag was formally hoisted at Port Moresby, and the whole of Southeastern New Guinea declared to be a British Protectorate; while in 1886 this step was followed by the proclamation of Queen Victoria's sovereignty. Of these actions of his Government Chalmers fully approved, and his services to the British officials then and afterwards were of the most valuable kind. No one else knew the country as he did, no one was so familiar with the habits of the people, their languages, and their modes of thought. His work for the Empire has received the most appreciative notice from various quarters. In a letter to the Times, written just after the news of Chalmers' death had reached this country, Admiral Bridge says, speaking of the assistance rendered him by Chalmers in 1884-5, "His vigilance, cheeriness, readiness of resource, and extraordinary influence over native savages, made his help quite invaluable. I can honestly say that I do not know how I should have got on without him. He had an equal power of winning the confidence of savages quite unused to strangers, and the respect, and even love, of white seamen... It is difficult to do justice in writing to the character of this really great Englishman. One had only to know and live with him in out-of-the-way lands to be convinced that he was endowed with the splendid characteristics which distinguished our most eminent explorers and pioneers."

Chalmers As An Explorer

Admiral Bridge was right in describing Chalmers as essentially an explorer and pioneer. In many respects he was a man cast in Livingstone's mould, and was never more happy than when pushing his way into regions where the foot of a white man had never trod before. Not only did he explore by whale-boat or steam launch all the coasts and bays of Southern Papua, but he was the first white man to walk right across New Guinea to its eastern end, and he penetrated farther up the difficult Fly River than the most adventurous travellers had ever been before.

And yet he never forgot that his work was primarily that of a Christian teacher, and he never shrank from the little monotonies that were involved. Even when his position became virtually that of a missionary bishop, with duties of superintendence not only over the great Fly River delta, but over the scattered islands of the Torres Straits, he cheerfully undertook day by day the duties of an elementary schoolmaster. He taught the A B C to young and old—though it should be added that he had the shrewdness to take advantage of the Papuan love of song and music by teaching the people to sing it to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." One who visited him when he had made his home in the midst of the mangrove swamps of the Fly River found him at daybreak in a rudely constructed schoolhouse which he had built on the sand just above high-water mark. He had a class which was learning English, and with a small bamboo stick for a baton was leading his scholars as they sang, first "God save the Queen," and then "All hail the power of Jesu's name." "I don't think," this friend writes, "that Chalmers ever appeared quite so great a man as when I saw him thus teaching that group of Fly River children."

R. L. Stevenson and Tamate

Thus for five-and-twenty years Tamate of the big warm heart went out and in among the tribes of New Guinea, until his Polynesian name had become a household word alike in the sea-dwellings of the shore, the tree-houses of the hills, and the great dubus or barracks in which in the larger communities the people herd together by the hundred. But the day came when Tamate was to go out no more. Writing from Vailima to his mother in November, 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson said of the friend whom he loved and admired so greatly: "I have a cultus for Tamate; he is a man nobody can see and not love...He has plenty of faults like the rest of us; but he's as big as a church." And he expresses the hope that he "shall meet Tamate once more before he disappears up the Fly River, perhaps to be one of 'the unreturning brave.'" The words were almost prophetic. Possibly they gave voice to a dim presentiment of which Chalmers himself was sometimes conscious, and of which he may have spoken to his friend.

The Last Expedition

It was only a few months after, in the beginning of April, 1901, that Tamate set out to visit the district around Cape Blackwood, on the eastern side of the Fly River delta, which was inhabited by a ferocious tribe of savages. He knew that these people were both skull-hunters and cannibals, and for that very reason he had long been eager to get a footing among them. He was accompanied on this occasion by the Rev. Oliver Tomkins, a young and promising colleague lately arrived from England. At a place called Risk Point a swarm of natives, armed with bows and arrows, clubs, knives, and spears, came off in their canoes and took forcible possession of the Niue, the little Mission vessel. With the view of inducing them to leave, Tamate decided to go ashore. He did everything he could to persuade Mr. Tomkins to remain on board, probably because he anticipated trouble. Mr. Tomkins, however, refused to allow his leader to go alone; and so the two went off together. Those on board never saw them again, either in life or in death.

The captain of the Neue waited for two days, sailing about the coast and keeping a sharp look-out, but no trace could be seen either of the Mission party or their boat. Seeing now that a tragedy must have taken place, he sailed with all speed to Daru and reported the matter to the British Governor. At once the Governor started in person, accompanied by a sufficient force, in order to find out exactly what had taken place and to inflict punishment if necessary. From a native who was captured he secured the following tale, which was afterwards corroborated in all particulars.

Murder of Tamate

When the two white men got ashore they entered the long dubu of the village, their native boys being induced to enter also by the promise of something to eat. No sooner was the whole party within than the signal was given for a general massacre. The first to be killed were the two missionaries, who were knocked simultaneously on the head from behind with stone clubs. Both fell senseless at the first blow, and their heads were immediately cut off. Their followers were then similarly killed and beheaded, though one of them, a powerful man, managed to snatch a club from one of his assailants and kill another at a blow before being himself felled. The heads were distributed as trophies among the murderers. The bodies were cut up and handed over to the women to cook. They were cooked at once, the flesh being mixed with sago, and were eaten the same day.

It was a painful and tragic end to the life of one who, by the testimony of Sir William Macgregor, Governor of New Guinea for seven years, has justly been called "The Apostle of the Papuan Gulf." And yet how much truth there is in the Governor's words in his official report of the massacre and of the steps he felt obliged to take for the punishment of the perpetrators: "I am not alone in the opinion that Mr. Chalmers has won the death he would have wished for of all others—in New Guinea and for New Guinea."

Authorities for Narrative

The authorities for the life of Chalmers are Adventures in New Guinea and Pioneering in New Guinea, both by Mr. Chalmers himself; James Chalmers and Tamate, both by Richard Lovett, M.A. All published by the Religious Tract Society.

From The Romance of Missionary Heroism... by John C. Lambert. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1907.

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