James Chalmers was born at Ardrishaig, Argyllshire, on August 4th, 1841. His father was an Aberdonian, his mother a Highlander of Luss, on Loch Lomond. The boy grew up sturdy, manly, full of good spirits and energy, and brimming with love of adventure. Danger always called him. He had many narrow escapes from drowning, many thrashings for getting into such scrapes, but the punishments did not have much effect. He saved more than one person from drowning—one was a school-fellow near his own age, 10 years. The going to and from school was thrilling. They were in Glenaray then, and there was a Glen party and a Town party, and fights between them were a regular thing. Turf and stones used to fly, and many were the punishments administered by the school-master for black eyes and damaged heads.
There was Sunday School, too, and care was shown by the Presbyterian minister, Mr. Meikle. James Chalmers loved Mr. Meikle, but very often when he saw him coming would get out of his way, for the Spirit of God was working in the heart of the boy, and though, at the age of 14 or 15, he had adopted a rather reckless mode of life, and had left Sunday School, he could not flee his thoughts.
At 15 he heard Mr. Meikle read a letter from a missionary in Fiji, relating stories of cannibalism, and the power of the Gospel; and when Mr. Meikle said: "I wonder if there is a boy here who will some day become a missionary and take the Gospel to cannibals?"—James Chalmers resolved that he would.
But, before he could preach salvation to others, James must himself be saved. He was 18 years of age before this came to pass. It is a simple story. Two evangelists, at the request of Mr. Meikle, were conducting services in a joiner's loft, and a Mr. MacNicoll persuaded young Chalmers to go, lending him a Bible at the same time. The meeting had commenced. Old Hundredth was pealing out—"All people that on earth do dwell"—and as the boy entered, the sounds thrilled him. The text was Rev. 22:17: "And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come; And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the Water of Life freely." James wanted to come—he wanted the Water of Life, but it was not till the following Sunday in the Free Church that he was solemnly convicted.
Heaven could never be for him he felt. On Monday, Mr. Meikle had the joy of leading him to the Saviour—showing him that "the Blood of Jesus, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
Very soon afterwards the young man preached that Saviour to others, working in the Glasgow City Mission. But he must be a missionary, and after some time spent in the London Missionary Society's College he married, and was sent out to Rarotonga. His wife was Miss Jane Hercus. Her grandfather was the first minister of Greenock Church. Her parents went to New Zealand just after her marriage. In every way she was just the wife for James Chalmers, and never failed him.
They started for Rarotonga from Greenwich in the "John Williams," on Jan. 4th, 1866. The voyage was as adventurous as anyone could desire, for, after much hindrance, beginning with repairs at Weymouth, and including the total wreck of the "John Williams" near Niue, and further perils in another boat, they arrived at their destination, Avarua, for Rarotonga, on May 20, 1867, having been a year and four months on the way.
Chalmers found Rarotonga too civilised for the work on which he had set his heart, but for ten years he and his wife laboured there, encountering many dangers, and she endured many weeks of loneliness during his frequent absences along the coast and in the interior. They found a great foe in the drink. There was the native orange beer, and, alas the drink supplied by white men. Chalmers, or "Tamate," as the natives called him, gained great influence amongst his flock, and as time went on, many native teachers were trained and sent to other stations from Rarotonga, some of whom gave up their lives for the Gospel.
For several years before they left Rarotonga, Chalmers cast longing eyes upon New Guinea, and in 1878 he and his wife were there, at Suan. Here the brave wife remained alone six weeks, whilst he went on an exploring expedition to Port Moresby, and to visit the native teachers during the absence of Mr. and Mrs. Lawes. Not long after she was taken ill, and he sent her to Sydney, to friends, hoping on her restoration to health that they might both go on to England. Her destination, however, was a better clime. She passed away at Sydney, Feb. 20, 1879. His first intimation of this was from a newspaper; then came a letter from her friends in Sydney. After a rapid visit to her family in New Zealand, Chalmers buried his sorrow in his work. He did not now wish to return to England. "She is safe with Jesus," he wrote to Mr. Meikle. "It is mine now to live and labour for Him, more entirely His than ever."
The return of Mr. and Mrs. Lawes, as also the companionship of Mr. Beswick, helped James Chalmers no little at the time. The people amongst whom he worked were strange and savage, ready with weapons in a second. With their ferocity was mixed a curious timidity.
On one occasion, as Chalmers landed, a sailor sat down to remove his boot, and the assembled warlike crowd fled, for they thought the man was "Taking himself to pieces," and they were fearful of such a proceeding. On another occasion when "Tamate" landed, his white suit was affectionately handled, but his black boots were objects of fear for some time. His power over these poor folk was great. Fearlessness of death impressed them deeply. Always he stood calm, unmoved, defenceless before them when they showed fight. That this fearlessness was based upon his "religion" they soon discovered, and as they, too, believed in the deathlessness of the soul, this joy of a Christian in the thought of the life beyond the dark grave—so dark to these poor heathen with their slavish fear of evil spirits—appealed to them as nothing else could do. And to him, who saw the Glory of the undefiled inheritance which was his through the shed Blood of Christ, what a joy and privilege it was to point these perishing souls to his Saviour.
In August, 1886, he really arrived in England. He had left her shores 20 ½ years before, and his reception by the Directors of the London Missionary Society was warm, and solemnly glad, if one may use the terms.
"Tamate" did not hide his desires, or the needs of New Guinea, as he stood before his Board. He took a firm hand.
"New Guinea wanted men, New Guinea must have men." His thrilling story of the work in that island (three times the size of Great Britain), was listened to with breathless interest, not only by the Directors, but all over the United Kingdom. There were demands for "Tamate" everywhere.
On June 15th, 1887, he sailed once more for New Guinea in the "Orient.'' Adelaide was reached on Aug. 4th. There were many speechifyings, and also Royal Geographical meetings, where more deputation work was done, but we can imagine he was glad to be at Port Moresby once more. He remained there for a time with Mr. and Mrs. Lawes; and during their absence in Australia he stayed to superintend affairs.
In 1888, "Tamate" married again. The second Mrs. Chalmers was a widow, Mrs. Harrison. She had been Miss Lizzie Large, and was a friend of his first wife. They had corresponded frequently during her lifetime. Soon after the wedding they settled at Motumotu, or Toaripi, as it is called. Here Mrs. Chalmers found plenty to do teaching the natives. There were 3000 round about the missionary station, and those who were learning seemed to enjoy it. The work shortened her lonely hours, too. Of course, between the different villages there were sanguinary fights, the natives spearing one another to death, and storing up the skulls of the slain in the village "dubus;" but the presence of "Tamate" and his wife prevented bloodshed many a time, and there were souls won for Christ amongst even these warlike people.
In 1890, Mrs. Chalmers—"Tamate Vaine"—was in need of a change, so they went to visit Rarotonga, where "Tamate" was well remembered, though he had left 13 years before.
Back again at Toaripi, when he had to leave her whilst he inspected possible stations on the Fly River, where he was to work later. In March, 1892, she had to return to England during his erection of a home and a mission house at Saguane, on the Fly River. In May, 1894, just when the place was finished, the Directors wired for him to come to England for the great Centenary Celebration of the London Missionary Society, in 1895. There was a happy re-union with his wife, and his step-son Bert, and plenty of deputation work. He left England, never to return, on Nov. 13th, 1895, reaching his beloved New Guinea on Jan. 20th, 1896. His wife was with him in 1897, and together they laboured at Saguane for the spread of the Gospel.
On Jan. 28th, 1900, she wrote that they had a New Year gathering of 1700. It was the last this brave woman saw, the last her husband saw, too. She was called Home on Oct. 25 of the same year, dying at Daru, whither she had been taken by her husband in the hope of reaching Sydney. "Tamate," though he did not know it, was to follow her in six months, by a fearful path.
Shortly after her Home-call, he and Mr. Tompkins, a dearly loved young colleague who had come to help him in April, 1900, started for Goaribari Island, in the "Niue," and both put off for the shore in the whale-boat (which had been Mrs. Chalmers' gift to the London Missionary Society) on April 7th, 1901. The captain of the "Niue" never saw them again, and it was not until an expeditionary force had landed and caught a prisoner at Dopima, that any news could be had. The story the prisoner told was that "Tamate" and Mr. Tompkins had been felled with stone clubs, beheaded, and both their bodies eaten. The natives who had accompanied the missionaries were treated in the same manner.
And thus, through the swift blow of their murderers, was Heaven opened to these two intrepid soldiers of Jesus Christ.
From Twelve Mighty Missionaries by E. E. Enock. London: Pickering & Inglis, [1936?].
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