Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Chalmers, James
CHALMERS, JAMES (1841–1901), missionary and explorer, born at Ardrishaig, Argyllshire, on 4 Aug. 1841, was son of a stonemason near Peterhead. His mother, also of highland blood, came from Luss on Loch Lomond. His early years were mainly spent at Ardrishaig, Lochgilphead, and Glenaray, near Inverary, and he was educated at the village schools. At ten he saved a schoolfellow from drowning. Before he was fifteen he entered the office of a firm of lawyers at Inverary. A Setter from a Fiji missionary, read in a Sunday-school class, led him in 1856, at the age of fifteen, to determine on being a missionary (Autobiog. p. 27). Chalmers at once began religious work, and in 1861 was for eight months in the service of the Glasgow City Mission. Offering himself to the London Missionary Society, the work of which in the South Seas had already appealed to him, Chalmers was accepted for training, entered Cheshunt College in September 1862, and remained here until June 1864 ; he then spent a year at Highgate in a home for missionary students, and for another year worked at Plumstead in mastering the Rarotongan language. He was ordained to the congregationalist ministry in October 1865, and on 4 January 1866 sailed for Raro tonga, the largest island of the Hervey group, which was reached after much adventure on 20 May 1867.
Chalmers spent ten years in this comparatively quiet field of work. Soon in charge of the mission, he pursued a policy of moral reform, cultivated a missionary spirit amongst the more devoted natives, and was diligent in work at the institution for the training of native teachers. His methods, characteristic and unconventional, drew some criticism from his colleagues, but endeared him to the people. His bold spirit sought, however, severer experience. In 1876 Chalmers was appointed to New Guinea, where work amongst the savages had been begun in 1871. In May 1877 Chalmers left Rarotonga, reaching Port Moresby, New Guinea, in October. The new duty contrasted strongly with that he had left. The land was little known, and the savages were of evil repute. There was need of incessant travel, mainly by water, and there was constant peril of death. Such work suited Chalmers. In he visited 105 villages, at ninety of which he was the first white man ever seen. He went unarmed, firmly resisted extortion by chiefs, and diligently sought out stations for his South Sea teachers. From to 1886 Chalmers did much exploration work of general value. He began a systematic examination of the Gulf of Papua, visiting the entire coast from Yule Island to Bald Head. In 1879 he discovered the mouths of the Purari river, which he revisited in 1883. By 1881 he thought he knew 'more of the country and the people than any other foreigner' (Autobiog. p. 201). He was not a scholar, but in that year he translated the synoptic gospels into Motu, a language spoken east and west of Port Moresby (Hist. of the British and Foreign Bible Society, v. 244). At home some hesitation was felt as to Chalmers's rough-and-ready methods: he freely used tobacco as currency ; but he worked well with his fellow missionary, William George Lawes [q. v. Suppl. II]. By 1884 Chalmers had placed out nine New Guinea evangelists, and thought that the mission might prove 'one of the greatest . . . that ever yet has been worked' (Autobiog. pp. 228-9). He succeeded, indeed, in planting a line of mission posts from the Papuan Gulf to the Louisiade Archipelago. Chalmers regretted the policy under which Mr. Chester, police magistrate of Thursday Island, in 1883 took formal possession of south-east New Guinea as a kind of appendage to Queensland. The reputation of the colony in dealing with native labour was not good ; and Chalmers went to Australia in the hope of serving the interests of his people. Opponents called him the 'tyrant missionary,' but his visit had good effect. A protectorate was proclaimed by Commodore Erskine at Port Moresby in November 1884, Chalmers and Lawes helping to bring the New Guinea chiefs together for the ceremony there and at other points. The commodore warmly acknowledged the 'invaluable services' of the two missionaries, a commendation re-rated later by Admiral Bridge (The Times, May 1901) and by another official, H. H. Romilly (The Western Pacific and New Guinea, pp. 241-2).
Chalmers came home on furlough in 1886 ; declined overtures to enter government service ; read papers on New Guinea before the Colonial Institute (Proceedings, xviii. pp. 88-122) and before the Royal Geographical Society (Proceedings, n.s., ix. 71-86) ; saw a book through the press, and addressed many meetings. In June 1887 he sailed again for New Guinea, and spent two years in visiting stations up and down the coast. In 1890 he crossed to Australia, and visited Samoa, where he met Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote of him as 'a man I love' (Letters, ii. 212, cf. ii. 220), and one for whom he felt a 'kind of hero-worship' (Life of R. L. Stevenson, ii. 127).
From 1892 to 1894 Chalmers undertook work in the Fly river and western district of the mission, making his centre at Saguane amidst the mangrove swamps of the Fly delta. The dangers from the natives were even greater than those already met, and Chalmers prophetically regarded the work as his last. It was interrupted by another visit to England, but he was at Saguane again in January 1896. His hope was to establish a base from which to reach the little known tribes of the interior. In 1900 he was joined by the Rev. O. C. Tomkins. The end came, in the way so often feared and so often nearly reached, in 1901. On 4 April Chalmers and Tomkins, with some South Sea mission boys and a teacher, sailed for Goaribari Island. They reached Risk Point on 7 April and anchored off the village of Dopima. Crowds boarded the boat and would not leave. In the hope of drawing them off, Chalmers and Tomkins landed with their party. They never returned. Invited into a native house, the missionaries were knocked on the head, killed, and eaten.
Chalmers was twice married: (1) to Jane, daughter of Peter Hercus, who died at Sydney on 20 Feb. 1879; and (2) to Elizabeth Harrison, a widow who, as Elizabeth Large of Leeds, had been a friend of his first wife. She died on the island of Dam on 5 Oct. 1900. There were no children. Chalmers was a man of simple, unquestioning faith and overflowing zeal, of sanguine temperament, restless spirit, and dauntless courage; in manner unconventional, and possessing singular powers of winning the confidence alike of white men and of the wildest savages. He was an excellent speaker, and had some command of vivid, picturesque narrative. He left three records of his experiences: 'Work and Adventure in New Guinea' (jointly with W. Wyatt Gill, 1885; new edit. 1902); 'Pioneering in New Guinea' (1887; new edit. 1902); and 'Pioneer Life and Work in New Guinea' (1895). His autobiography is incorporated in the Life by Lovett (1902).
[Lovett's James Chalmers: his Autobiography and Letters (with portraits), 1902; Lovett's History of the London Missionary Society, vol. i. (1899); King's W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea.]