Hula dirge for Chalmers


IN PREVIOUS contributions I have written about Rev William George Lawes of the London Missionary Society and his contributions to the Gospel in Papua New Guinea.
This is a sequel to my previous contribution and seeks to share more about Lawes colleague, Rev James Chalmers, also of the London Missionary Society.
Rev James Chalmers now has a portrait on the walls of the Sir Hubert Murray Stadium. However, it may be that younger generations are not aware of his contributions. And so Chalmers’ story is here shared so that his does not become a picture without a story.
Rev James Chalmers was from Scotland and served in Niue (aka Savage Island) prior to coming to Papua New Guinea to assist Lawes. He was fondly known by the native given name of Tamate conferred by the church in Niue.
Rev Chalmers was both an explorer and a pioneer, travelling all long the Papuan coast to establish friendly contact and prepare the way for the latter establishment of permanent mission stations.
In March 1901 Chalmers prepared for a mission further west of Port Moresby. The other man that accompanied him was Oliver Tomkins.
On this fateful journey Chalmers was murdered along with Tomkins on April 8, 1901 at Goaribari Island. Also murdered were nine other mission boys and a South Seas pastor. Unfortunately my research has not produced the names of the other 10.
The details of their murder were later known from the account of witnesses interviewed at a colonial court. Chalmers and Tomkins were tricked to sit with the natives and felled from behind with wooden clubs. The two men were butchered and cooked up in a stew with sago. Chalmers boots were boiled and chewed over several days before being deemed inedible by the cannibals.
The sad news distressed not only the LMS but also many Papuans. The Hula of Central sang a lament to honour and mourn Tamate. The lament is still sung today and I hope to in later editions include its words. Interestingly the exact spot at Dopima where Chalmers and Tomkins were murdered has been claimed by the sea, almost as if God himself cursed it!
Upon receiving the news Administrator George Le Hunte sailed in the Merrie England to apprehend the Goaribari with the aim of identifying and trying the murderers. The Goaribari resisted and in defence Le Hunte’s party killed several Goaribari but did not succeed in making any arrests
In 1906 Le Hunte was succeeded by Christopher Robinson a former judge, who was appointed as acting administrator. The murder of Chalmers and Tomkins received much coverage in Australia and England. The ambitious judge Robinson sought to confirm his appointment by attempting to capture and try the unprosecuted murderers. This second attempt failed due to the inexperience of Robinson and his men in conducting such delicate affairs. In the second attempt some Goaribari were welcomed on board the Merrie England and then seized.
The captives prior to boarding had been assured that no further retaliation would ensue. The Goaribari read this as treachery and predictably launched war canoes to rescue their men. A police constable fired the first shot. All the whites on board panicked and also fired, killing eight Goaribari and wounding many others. Thus another punishment also unintentional was exacted on the Goaribari.
The Australian government reaction to the second botched arrest was swift and vicious, particularly because Robinson had sailed to Goaribari on his own initiative, and without permission. Charles Abel of the LMS incorrectly accused Robinson of initiating the massacre by firing the first shot. Robinson was promptly suspended and ordered to Australia to face a commission of enquiry.
This sudden backlash was too much for the sensitive judge Robinson who wrote two pathetic letters accepting full responsibility and committed suicide by shooting himself through the temple with a revolver. He died in uniform, still an officer by the flag pole outside Government House in Port Moresby.
Rev Lawes was on leave in London when the news of the Chalmers murder broke. Despite the murders of Chalmers and Tomkins, Rev Lawes refused the assistance of the British navy fearing that the Crown’s involvement would only result in punitive punishment of innocent Goaribari.
To pacify the Crown, Rev Lawes delivered an excellent and moving speech at Albert Hall in London. This speech was delivered to protestors demanding justice for Chalmers and Tomkins. Rev Lawes maintained that both Chalmers and Tomkins had understood the risks before going on shore at Goaribari Island. Lawes orated that both men would be remembered and honoured by humankind and God for being martyrs for the Gospel. Instead he requested those who mourned to honor the dead by continuing the Lords work, and to conquer violence with love!
This message when retold was responded to positively in Samoa, Cook Islands and Niue. Hundreds of South Seas pastors migrated to Papua to pick up the banner and continue the work of their beloved Tamate. By them doing this, Tamate and Tomkins died not in vain! God bless their souls.
And so from this sad story, we read a positive outcome. The church in Papua New Guinea today owes its gratitude to the hundreds of South Seas pastors that responded to the call of Rev Lawes.
Most of the descendents of these South Seas pastors never returned, and hence their Polynesian genes are now widely expressed within Papua New Guinea. This is in marked contrast to the historical photos of the early dark Papuans.
We were called Melanesians by the British because back in the 1800s, we displayed in abundance the pigment “melanin” in our skin.
The Bible verse that has inspired this author to contribute this piece is John 15:13 –“Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
To God be the glory great things he has done.

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