By MALUM NALU
A PLAQUE outside the Beth Brown Memorial Church in Iokea, Gulf, commemorates the arrival of missionary James “Tamate” Chalmers on Oct 8, 1833.
It is a special moment for me on Aug 17, 2017, to be here in this place as I have written several articles over the years about the 1901 murder and cannibalism of Chalmers on Goaribari Island – a case stranger than fiction – that continues to haunt the conscience of Gulf people more than a century later.
On this day, inside the church, I hear the Gulf people plead to leaders including Deputy Prime Minister Charles Abel, Governor Chris Haiveta and Kikori MP and Youth Religion and Community Development Minister Soroi Eoe to reconcile with family members of Chalmers, as well as those killed on Goarabari in response by the then British administration, if the province is to progress.
This conversation is at the United Church Papuan Gulf Synod at Iokea.
It has been an ongoing belief in Gulf for many years that if the province is to develop, it must first reconcile for the sins of its fathers, for the murder of Chalmers and his party.
Back in 2010, Gulf man Peter Memafu was pushing for his people to reconcile as he believed that the province had remained under a curse since the murder of Tamate.
James Chalmers was the so-called “Livingstone of New Guinea” and a star in the London Missionary Society’s firmament.
For 34 years from the 1860s onwards he preached the gospel in the South Seas. He also loved whisky, enjoyed exploring the unknown territory and had a genuine rapport with the Papuan people.
But not even this charisma and courage could save him when late in his career he and his party were lured into an ambush on Goaribari Island, part of what is now the Gulf province.
They were beheaded and eaten by the natives.
This is a history that proves that fact is indeed stranger than fiction.
Sorcery, magic, head-hunting and cannibalism were rife in those days.
To possess a skull collection was to enhance one’s standing in the spirit world.
In 1901, on Goaribari Island alone, a missionary, Harry Dauncey, found about 10,000 skulls in the island’s long houses.
It is the Goaribari incident that lies at the heart of Memafu’s extraordinary theory of why Gulf is the most-undeveloped province of Papua New Guinea. He believes that if Gulf is to develop, it must first reconcile for the terrible sins of its fathers for the murder of Chalmers and his party.
He says succinctly that Gulf “is commonly known to the whole country as the very, very least-developed province”.
“People of Gulf were sent all over PNG to help build and develop the country,” Memafu writes.
“Over the years Gulf province has produced some of the best brains the nation has had to offer.
“Its people have come to serve PNG as chief executive officers, managing directors, departmental heads, senior statesmen and women, leaders, politicians, ambassadors, high commissioners.
“Gulf under the colonial rule achieved so much progressive development.
“Social services such as education, regular health provisions, law and order including tourism, banking, and post office services, trade stores and as well as basic privileged benefits were once enjoyed by people of the Gulf province”, (but 42 years) “after independence and Gulf is totally deprived of everything.
“One would say that time itself has literally stood still over the whole of Gulf province. All basic services began to decline and came to a grinding halt.”
It is Memafu’s steadfast belief that Gulf province remains under a generational curse from God himself because of the shedding of the innocent blood of Chalmers and Tomkins.
Is there any hope for the Gulf province?
“The Old Testament Bible in the Book of 2nd Chronicles 7:14 reminds us that, ‘If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land’,” Memafu says,
“Therefore, and in order for the Gulf province to really move forward and start talking about real social, economic and developments issues, we must first correct our past mistakes, our terrible wrongdoings, our generational sins and curses that have allowed God to curse our land and our people who live on it.”
Back to the future, on Aug 17, 2017, Haiveta agrees with the reconciliation idea in Iokea.
“Our (Gulf) commitment is for reconciliation,” he said.
“We have to say sorry.
“We don’t even have a memorial, a school, or a building or institution named after Tamate (Chalmers).
Haiveta said it’s quite ironic that a school named after Chalmers had been built in Milne Bay but not in Gulf.
“We (Gulf) are responsible,” he says.
“We killed James Chalmers, not Milne Bay people.”
Haiveta says hundreds more people were killed on Goaribari in response to the murder of Chalmers.
“We must put those souls to peace and rest,” he says.
“This is one commitment that I will carry out.”
Abel, who is Alotau MP, says he has a personal connection with Chalmers as his missionary great-grandfather worked with him in Port Moresby and in Milne bay.
He said it is because of this that a high school named after Chalmers has been built in Milne Bay.
Abel says that people of Gulf must not let the Chalmers murder continue to bother their consciences.
“Don’t torment yourselves too much about it (murder of Chalmers),” Abel says. “You don’t have to go through too much anguish about it.”
He says the people can go through reconciliation as Haiveta wants but some things are best forgotten through the message of forgiveness by the church.
Coming out of the church building, I see the memorial plaque for Chalmers, and I think of all that I’ve heard inside.
I think of the massive Papua LNG Project that could transform Gulf from a forgotten backwater into a powerhouse of the country.
Chalmers, I think, being a Man of God, would forgive the people of Gulf for what they’d done to him.
By MALUM NALU