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James Chalmers: Missionary to Cannibals

by Christa G. Habegger*

His fearlessness won the respect of the cannibals; his compassion, their loyalty and friendship

The Chalmers who invested his life as a missionary to New Guinea was very different from the carefree, high-spirited youth who grew up in county Argyllshire, Scotland. The one trait that bound the man to the boy was a love of adventure. Chalmers wrote of his youth: "I was very restless and dearly loved adventure, and a dangerous position was exhilarating."

James Chalmers was born in 1841 in the town of Ardishaig. His father, a stonemason, and his Highlander mother brought him up with the stern discipline of a Scots peasant home. His most vivid boyhood memories centered around the nearby Loch Fyne and other bodies of water in the county. Young James became a favorite of the local fishermen. He won recognition for his bravery in sea escapades, having rescued comrades from drowning on several occasions.

As a scholar, James did not distinguish himself, "either in attendance or conduct," but he was a leader among his classmates, particularly when there were fights between rival schools. At 13, James left the local school and attended an upper level grammar school. During his early teens, James was busy "sowing wild oats," but it was also during this time that he made a decision which affected the whole course of his life.

Despite his rebelliousness, James attended a Sunday school class under the direction of the Reverend Gilbert Meikle, a godly man who wielded a strong influence over him. During one class Mr. Meikle read to the children a letter from a missionary to the cannibals in the Fiji Islands. When he had finished reading, he looked around the room and said, "I wonder if there is a boy here this afternoon who will become a missionary, and by and by bring the Gospel to cannibals like these?"

Moved, Chalmers immediately responded in his heart, "Yes, God helping me, I will."

The memory of the incident diminished during the next few years. James, as yet unconverted, strayed from the influence of the Sunday school. However, in November 1859, two preachers from Northern Ireland arrived to hold special meetings. A friend prevailed on James to attend. At the service, James felt that the message was intended for him. The following Sunday, James recorded that "in the Free Church I was pierced through and through from the conviction of sin, and felt lost beyond all hope of salvation. On the Monday Mr. Meikle came to my help, and led me kindly to promises and to light ... I felt that God was speaking to me in His Word, and I believed unto salvation."

Eighteen-year-old Chalmers began immediately to testify of his conversion at meetings in his town and county. Furthermore, he recalled his boyhood vow to become a missionary and renewed it, this time confident of the Lord's leadership. On the advice of a missionary home on furlough, James applied to the London Missionary Society, and was accepted and sent by them to Cheshunt College for theological training. His eagerness to go to the mission field prompted him to study hard. Yet, he retained his love of adventure and fun. He remained a leader in student activities and good-natured pranks, one of which was donning a huge bear skin and terrifying the student body during an evening meal.

Fellow students with Chalmers at Cheshunt said of his appearance and influence: "He was tall and thin ... His hair was black, and his eyes hazel with an endless sparkle in them. He was active and muscular, lithe but strong ... By all his natural qualities of body, mind and spirit he was a born pioneer and leader of men."

During his student days, James became engaged to a girl named Jane Hercus. They were married in October 1865. Two days after his marriage, James was ordained to the ministry. His appointment to Rarotonga, an island in the Hervey or Cook group in the South Pacific, was cemented, and the couple looked forward to January when they would sail for their mission field.

Fifteen months later, the Chalmerses were still far from Rarotonga. They first sailed to Australia, where they spent much time for repairs to the ship. From there they secured passage to one of the Samoan islands from which they hoped to sail on to Rarotonga. After waiting six weeks, Chalmers finally secured passage aboard the Rona, commanded by a notorious pirate, Bully Hayes.

Unlikely as their association must have appeared, the two men were instantly drawn to each other. Probably, the "blustering pirate and the high-spirited missionary ... had nothing more in common than a reckless indifference to danger and a thirst for adventure."

Chalmers continued to have services on board ship as was his custom, and Hayes for his part tried to behave as a gentleman and even required his men to attend.

On May 20, 1867, the Chalmerses saw the mountains of Rarotonga. A boat could not get close enough to shore, so a brawny native waded out to carry Chalmers to land. The native wished to know his passenger's name that he might announce it to those waiting on the shore. "Chalmers," the missionary said. "Tamate," was the nearest equivalent the confused native could call out to other Rarotongans, and Tamate became Chalmers's name for the next 35 years.

Chalmers, eager to pioneer a work for Christ, was disappointed to find the "gem of the Pacific," as the beautiful island was appropriately called, already Christianized. For the next ten years, he was responsible for the smooth operation of an already-established mission. However, he set out to explore the island in order to know his "parish" better, and his treks revealed that there were still areas left unconquered. Life was easy on the island, and the natives' only employment seemed to be fighting among themselves or indulging in drunken festivals involving gross immorality. He determined to find useful outlets for native energy. He reorganized an existing Training Institution and also set about educating native children.

An important aspect of Chalmers's missionary method became apparent in his work on Rarotonga: he encouraged self-government and independence of European influence once a native work was well established. He wrote: "So long as the native churches have foreign pastors, so long will they remain weak and dependent." He visited native churches on a regular basis and reported that the "out-stations under the charge of native pastors contrast very favourably with the stations under the care of European missionaries."

Chalmers had pleaded repeatedly with the LMS to be assigned to a new field. In 1877 he finally received instructions to move on to New Guinea. "Several bands of native teachers from the islands went to New Guinea during that period, but only a few survived the ferocity of the cannibals and the trying climactic conditions." Like all challenges, this new one stimulated him.

New Guinea, or Papua, the largest island in the world, located across from the northern tip of Australia, was largely unexplored at the time of Chalmers's arrival. Chalmers became to New Guinea what David Livingstone was to Africa. He found the people "a very fine race physically, but living in the wildest barbarism. Nose-sticks, huge rings adorning the lobe of the ear, necklaces of human bones, gaudy-coloured feathers, repulsive tattoo marks, and daubs of paint were almost the sole clothing of the men. The only additional adornment of the women was their bushy grass skirts." The natives of New Guinea, like those of Rarotonga, spent much of their energy fighting. Tribal disputes were settled by bloodshed, and victorious tribes celebrated with cannibal feasts. Many Papuan houses were built in the tops of tall trees to help protect the inhabitants from surprise attacks. Unlike the Rarotongans, however, the Papuans were industrious in the cultivation of the soil. There were talented craftsmen among them in woodwork or pottery. Surprising to the first missionaries, too, was the fact that Papuan family life was much better developed than among many primitive cultures. Parents were affectionate with their children, and children, in turn, cared for sick or aging parents. Women enjoyed a much better status — approaching equality with men--than did the women of most areas where Christianity had never permeated.

The Chalmerses, along with a small staff of native teachers, established Suau as their first mission center. Upon arrival, Chalmers handed out presents — beads, leather belts, red cloth — to the suspicious natives to convince them that they were coming peaceably. The village chief offered the Chalmerses the hospitality of his hut while the mission house was under construction. Privacy there was minimal, and household decorations consisted of human skulls and other bones, and bloodstained weapons.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Chalmers was delighted with the warm reception the missionaries received. "Tamate" was more realistic, but said nothing to dampen her optimism. One day their true peril became obvious. While Tamate was on his way to the shore, a group of armed, yelling savages surrounded the partly built mission house. Tamate rushed back and was confronted by a native warrior brandishing a stone club. The missionary looked at him coolly and demanded the reason for the attack. The savage responded that the villagers wanted "tomahawks, knives, iron, beads," and that if these were not supplied, the missionaries would be killed. Tamate replied calmly that he didn't give presents to armed people. Again the savage repeated his demand and threat, and again Tamate refused, over the frightened protest of a native teacher. The natives eventually retreated to the bush for a parley, and the missionaries spent a watchful, uneasy night. The next morning, a native, without war paint, approached Tamate and apologized. Tamate received him cordially." 'Now you are unarmed and clean,' he said genially, 'we are glad to make friends with you,' and taking [him] to the house he gave him a present." Tamate, by his refusal to be cowed by threats, won the respect of the natives and eventually their loyalty and friendship.

Both Chalmerses worked tirelessly to make the mission a spiritual success, he by conducting services and she by teaching. Those who accepted Christ were carefully nurtured in the faith. Tamate baptized only those who demonstrated a genuine transformation and a growing knowledge of the Word of God.

Convinced that the work at Suau was progressing well, Tamate was eager to penetrate other areas with the gospel. In 1878, he travelled for several weeks, leaving his wife alone among the natives. On his return he wrote: "Mrs. Chalmers says it is well she remained, as the natives saw we had confidence in them, and the day following our departure they were saying amongst themselves, 'They trust us; we must treat them kindly. They cannot mean us harm, or Tamate would not have left his wife behind.'"

In February 1879, Tamate lost his beloved wife and brave helpmate. Her health had been broken by repeated attacks of fever and the strain of the difficult mission work. Tamate, though grieving, plunged into his work even more energetically.

Besides introducing Papua to the gospel, Tamate accomplished the seemingly impossible goal of promoting peace among the tribes all along the coast. According to those who accompanied him on his visits to native villages, Tamate had a remarkable influence over people. A fellow missionary wrote:

"Tamate's power over savages was partly a personal thing ... It was in his presence, his carriage, his eye, his voice. It was not only wild men whom he fascinated. There was something almost hypnotic about him ... Then again, his judgment, largely the result of wide experience in critical situations, was unerring. He saw evil brooding where an inexperienced eye would have seen nothing to fear; he was equally certain everything was satisfactory, when a novice would have suspected danger.

"His fearlessness must have been a great factor of success in his hazardous work. He disarmed men by boldly going amongst them unarmed ..."

"Tamate was not only fearless, but as a pioneer he was also perfectly cool ... His perfect composure, as well as his judgment and tact, and fearlessness ... must have brought him through a hundred difficulties ... during his long service for Christ in New Guinea."

The natives themselves testified most eloquently of his influence. When asked what prompted one tribe to give up cannibalism, an old chief said simply, "Tamate said, 'You must give up man-eating': and we did."

During a typical first-time encounter with a savage tribe, Tamate and a native escort would wait on board their boat until the natives on the shore had had a chance to notice the strange vessel and absorb the shock of seeing a white man for the first time. Usually, an armed party of men would climb into canoes and approach the missionary boat. Tamate would then make signs of peace, distribute presents, and make a brief address, stating that he had come to make friends and planned to return for a longer visit in order to tell them of a great Being of whom they were ignorant. He felt that the first visit should be short — just long enough to establish amiable relations. Sometimes during such a visit, the natives would invite him ashore in order that the rest of the village might admire his white skin. If the reception were especially warm, he would be accorded the sign of affection — nose-rubbing. "Alas, " he wrote. "I cannot say I like this nose-rubbing; and having no looking-glass, I cannot tell the state of my face ... Kissing with white folks ... is insipid -- but this! When your nose is flattened, ... and your face one mass of pigment [from the war paint]!" After a successful first visit, he was assured that his longer missionary campaign there would be well received.

In November 1884 Great Britain announced that New Guinea was formally annexed as a territory. Tamate was enormously successful in smoothing over native resistance to the Protectorate. On his own initiative he visited tribal chiefs, explaining the terms of the annexation. The chiefs were then invited aboard a British man-o'-war for the official ceremony. Tamate was present to explain the proceedings to the natives. After the ceremony, Tamate corresponded often with British officials to ensure that the terms of the agreement were kept and that the natives were treated fairly.

In 1888 Tamate married a widow, "Lizzie" Harrison, a longtime friend of the first Mrs. Chalmers, with whom Tamate had maintained correspondence. This second Mrs. Chalmers provided the companionship and support Tamate had longed for since his first wife's death. She too, proved herself to be a brave and self-denying missionary. Unfortunately, like her predecessor, Lizzie Chalmers did not live long in New Guinea. In 1900, after 12 years on the field, she died.

The last brief phase of Tamate's service to New Guinea was spent visiting existing mission stations. He was much encouraged by the arrival of a dedicated young helper, Oliver Tomkins. Together they planned an expedition to the Aird River Delta. The natives in that region were reputed to be fierce and unapproachable, even by Papuan standards. No white man had ever seen them. For a long time, Tamate had desired to make the dangerous trip there in order to win them for Christ. On April 4, 1901, the mission steamer sailed to Risk Point, off the shore of the village of Dopima. Immediately the ship was surrounded by natives. Tamate promised to come ashore in the morning. The next day, both Tomkins and Tamate went ashore, saying they would return shortly for breakfast. After a certain interval had passed, as if by prearrangement, the natives who remained on the ship looted it, taking all of the stores of presents and Tamate's and Tomkins's belongings. The captain, alarmed by the prolonged absence of the two missionaries and by the conduct of the natives, was further concerned when he saw a large number of warriors getting into canoes. He suspected that the missionaries had been murdered and that the next targets were he and his shipmates. He sailed away to report to the governor. His suspicions were confirmed a short time later by British investigators and the testimony of captured natives from the guilty village. The missionaries had been clubbed, beheaded, and eaten.

The news of Chalmers's murder made headlines all over the world. Those who had worked closely with Chalmers were shocked and grieved at the news of his death, but felt strongly that he would have wished to die as he did — engaged in service to the natives of New Guinea. As an old friend wrote: "Hitherto God had preserved him; now he allowed the blow to fall, and His faithful servant to be called up home."


*Reprinted from FAITH for the Family (1982). Copyright Bob Jones University. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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