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That their names may live on

Rev James Chalmers - Tamate
Rev James Chalmers (Tamate) - his name & the names of many other heroes of PNG will be remembered forever


WABAG - Today, 8 April, is the anniversary of the untimely death of Rev James Chalmers – ‘Tamate’ – who was killed and cannibalised along with Rev Oliver Tomkins and local missionaries on Goaribari Island in Western Province 119 years ago.

When I think about their horrible deaths, the names of four friends come to mind who were all posted to serve in the Western Province at some stage of their careers in the 20th century.

They also served in Western Highlands district when Enga sub-district was still a part of it.

Three of them were adventurous young kiaps and the fourth, a wantok, was a policeman who was posted to Daru as soon as he completed his training at Bomana Police College in 1975.

Unlike the missionaries who went ashore on Goaribari Island armed only with the word of God, my four friends all carried guns.

My heart sank when John Gordon-Kirkby sent me a photo of his painting of Tamate’s grave in a lonely place between a dilapidated squatter building and what appears to be a buai stall.

I heard about Tamate’s life story on a school social science radio broadcast many years ago at Kandep Primary ‘T’ School. And now, thanks to John, I had a painting to look at.

How I respect these brave early missionaries and explorers who came to Papua New Guinea on sailing ships.

All three of my kiap friends, Phil Fitzpatrick, Chips Mackellar and John Gordon-Kirkby, live in retirement in different parts of Australia – South Australia, Queensland and Victoria respectively.

Peter Pyaso
Daniel Kumbon's wantok, Inspector Peter Pyaso, taken in Port Moresby in 1977. The other young man is Daniels's classmate at the NBC's training centre, Kiri Nige from Simbu

My other friend was a policeman, Inspector Peter Andan Pyaso, who was killed by my own Enga people at the remote outpost of Lapalama in Kompiam district in 1992 when he went to stop a tribal fight.

He had flown there on a fixed wing aircraft. His body came home on the same plane.

Peter Pyaso was from my own village of Kondo in Kandep. He was first posted to Daru after completing his training at Bomana police college in 1975.

He was a bright young man but his mother could not muster enough money to pay his school fees to do Form 3 at St Paul’s Lutheran High School in 1974. His father had died when he was in primary school.

When he was gunned down, Peter had just been promoted as commander of police mobile squad 9 in Enga.

I met Phil, who I correspond with often, in Noosa in 2016 when I was in Australia for the Brisbane Writers Festival. I met John Gordon-Kirkby in my village during Christmas of 1975. I haven’t met Chips Mackellar yet but am just reading a digital copy of his book ‘Sivarai’ published in 2013.

Chips wrote of how intrigued he was to see crocodiles attack people and how people attack crocodiles which, in the end, eat each other.

When he served in Enga from 1972 to 1974, tribal fighting worried but didn’t affect him. Chips must know that nothing much has changed since people still destroy each other, but now with high powered guns.

Even if Coronavirus comes to Enga and threatens to wipe out the entire population, some people won’t put down their weapons. They must know the virus will kill them both before they kill each other.

People must appreciate the efforts of missionaries who brought messages of peace to our shores. Rev James Chalmers came all the way from Scotland to serve people in the South Seas only to end his life so violently.

Imagine Fr William Ross walking into unexplored highlands country from Madang knowing that other missionaries had been killed by hostile tribes.

And the eight missionaries, included five German Catholic sisters, who had to walk over the mountains to reach Mt Hagen when they were escaping from the Japanese in the Sepik during World War II.

Tamate was killed on this day in 1901 along with Rev Tomkins, a chief and nine missionaries from Kiwai Island, including a young mixed race man from the Torres Strait islands.

They were killed at Dopima village on Goaribari Island - clubbed, beheaded and cannibalised.

The Rev Pitoi, a United Church pastor from Western Province wrote an article about the life of Tamate which was published in February 2018.

Painting of Tamate's grave by John Gordon-Kirkby  1974
Painting of Tamate's grave by John Gordon-Kirkby, 1974

There are lots of sources I could use to write about Tamate’s life but Pitoi’s piece talks about a reconciliation process that began in 2018 and which documents on video the activities of Rev Chalmers before he and his party were killed.

Pitoi said the documentary would be taken to the United Kingdom and shown to the descendants of the missionaries in preparation for their participation this year of a reconciliation and treaty signing ceremony backed by the United Church and senior political leaders in Gulf Province.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, I have not been able to find out if the documentary was made but it seems the United Church delegation could not go to England because of the current state of world turmoil.

Among other activities, the project was also going to retrace the footsteps of Tamate through the villages he introduced to the Gospel.

“From Suau to Daru, the group will document by video the entire trip, reporting on the indigenous church that has grown from the blood of the martyrs,” Pitoi said.

Tamate – a rendering of the name ‘Chalmers’ - was born in 1841 in Ardrishaig in Argyllshire, Scotland.

He was converted in 1859 and was influenced for mission work after a letter from a missionary to Fiji was read out in his Sunday school class.

In 1864, aged 23, Chalmers enrolled at the London Missionary Society College in Highgate. He married Jane Hercus the following year and two days later was ordained in Finchley Chapel.

He sailed from England en route to Australia on 4 January 1866 aboard the John William. A year later he was at Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, but disappointed to learn that most of the local people had already become Christians.

Chalmers busied himself reaching out to alcoholics, broken families and ministering to whoever needed help. He also began to teach native teachers and pastors.

Chalmers learnt the local language and grew popular with the people who pronounced his surname ‘Tamate’. The nickname stuck.

Seeking a more challenging place to work, Tamate was tasked by LMS to work in Papua. From Suau, on the border of Central and Milne Bay provinces, to the Western Province, Tamate worked tirelessly to bring the gospel to the people.

He was instrumental in settling disputes and so successful in his dealings with the local people that his assistance was often sought by colonial officials.

It is said that the cessation of forced slave labour (‘black-birding’) to Australian plantations is attributed to the efforts of missionaries like Chalmers.

Apart from his mission work, Tamate was an explorer and took risks venturing into unexplored areas. That was how he began work around Goaribari Island where he and his party met their deaths.

After the massacre, the British navy based in Australia was tasked to punish the murderers. It is believed that hundreds of people were killed in retaliation. These events caused anger and bitterness among the local people.

While there are many versions to the story, the fact remains that innocent people died and a consequence has been an apparent hostile atmosphere on the island. The curse on the land was widely believed to be the result of innocent blood being spilled.

The saying, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Gospel” is true in this case where a thriving United Church exists in villages where Chalmers and many like him lost their lives for the sake of the gospel. Indeed, the blood of the martyrs speaks.

“When we as Christians humble ourselves and come before God in true repentance, even for the sins of our forefathers, God will hear from heaven, forgive our sins, and He will definitely heal our land,” says Rev Pitoi.

“Doing it right and doing it God’s way will ensure Gulf Province rises up delivered and blessed to take her rightful place as a leading province in PNG.”


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Lara Lamb

Thanks for this - do you happen to have the name of the witness to the killing?

Daniel Kumbon

Good to hear my wantok that the painting you did of the grave is now in the museum in the village of his birth on the island of Mull in Scotland.

The painting you did of me hangs in the living room of my house in Wabag, Enga Province PNG.

Your legacy as a kiap, painter etc will live on.

John Gordon-Kirkby

Thank you once more, dear wantok, Daniel, for paying tribute to me and to persons living, and some now deceased, who have had the privilege of serving the people of PNG.

My painting of the Daru Island grave of the Rev James Chalmers (Tamate) is now in the museum in the village of his birth on the island of Mull in Scotland.

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