CHALMERS, James (1841-1901)

CHALMERS, James (1841-1901)
was born at Ardrishaig, Argyleshire, Scotland, on 4 August 1841, the son of a stonemason. He went to a good elementary school at Glenaray, and then to the grammar school for about a year when he was 13. He then was employed in a lawyer's office at Inverary, and before he was 20 decided to become a missionary. In 1861 he joined the Glasgow City Mission, and eight months later was sent by the London Missionary Society to Cheshunt College near London to carry on his studies. He was a good student, though not a brilliant one, always ready for practical jokes, and already showing capacities for leadership. On 17 October 1865 he was married to Jane Hercus and two days later was ordained to the Christian ministry. It had been decided that he should go to the island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific. On 4 January 1866 he sailed to Australia in the missionary ship John Williams, arrived in May, and after a stay of three months left for the New Hebrides. It seemed as if Chalmers was destined not to reach his post. The ship ran on an uncharted rock and had to go back to Sydney to be repaired. It sailed again and was wrecked in January, though fortunately all on board were saved. This was not the last of Chalmer's adventures, but he eventually arrived at Rarotonga on 20 May 1867.
Chalmers was at first disappointed to find himself on an island which was partially christianized, but soon found there was much to be done. There was a good deal of drunkenness to be fought, and the directing of the natives energies into wiser practices. He learned the language, did much teaching, and became personally popular. He was heaping up experience to be used in his later work, but he felt a strong urge to devote his life to more untutored men. In 1877 he had his desire and was sent to New Guinea, then almost an unknown land, and with his wife arrived at Port Moresby on 22 October 1877. During the following nine years he explored much of southern New Guinea, often in danger of his life, everywhere the peace-maker. In 1885 Work and Adventure in New Guinea 1877 to 1885, written in collaboration with W. Wyatt Gill, was published in London, and in 1886 under Chalmers's name appeared Adventures in New Guinea. A year later Pioneering in New Guinea was published. He had a year's leave in Great Britain in 1886-7 and much interest in his work was aroused. After his return to New Guinea he did a great deal of exploring, and gained an intimate knowledge of much of the country and of the natives. When British New Guinea was made a colony in 1888 Chalmers and his fellow missionary, the Rev. W. G. Lawes (q.v.), explained the meaning of the functions held to the chiefs. It had been decided that the colony should be governed in the best interests of the natives. It was no doubt largely the influence of the missionaries that made the deportation of the natives illegal, and caused the introduction of intoxicants, opium, fire-arms and explosives, to be forbidden. In 1893 Chalmers explored part of the Fly River in a steam launch, but found the natives extremely hostile. He had another furlough in 1894-5 and did much speaking in Great Britain. He also published Pioneer Life and Work in New Guinea, of which a considerable amount had appeared in earlier books. Back at his work in 1896, he was anxious to further explore the Fly River and established himself for some time at Saguane off the Fly River delta. In April 1900 he was joined by a young missionary, the Rev. Oliver F. Tomkins. A year later he was on a vessel with Tomkins near the island of Goariebari, and was visited by natives who appeared to be in a dangerous mood. Chalmers resolved to go ashore and Tomkins insisted on going with him. Both men were killed on 7 April 1901. There is a stained glass window to their memory in the college chapel at Vatorato. Chalmers's first wife died in 1879. In 1888 he married Elizabeth Harrison, a widow, who had been a friend of his first wife. She died in 1900. There were no children by either marriage.
Chalmers, always known by the natives as Tamate, was an adventurous man of great tact and charm, who if he knew what fear was never showed it. His complete sincerity and frank generous nature brought him friends everywhere, both among the natives and the whites. He was a great missionary, but his work had other important effects. He opened up communications with the natives not only along the coastline but often well into the interior, and inspired them with a confidence in the white man which has been of the greatest value in the government of New Guinea ever since.
R. Lovett, James Chalmers His Autobiography and Letters; R. Lovett, Tamate; and Lives by C. Lennox, A. Small, C. Stuart Ross, W. P. Nairne and W. Robson; J. King, W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea; C. B. Fletcher, The New Pacific.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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