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The Betrayal of James Chalmers

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Category Articles
Date May 1, 2001

This year is the centenary of the martyrdom of James Chalmers. Little has been written about him since Lovett wrote his biography the year after his murder in Papua, New Guinea, though there is a useful summary of his life written by J.W.Meiklejohn in the ‘Dictionary of the Christian Church.’

James Chalmers was born at Ardrishaig and brought up at Inverary, Argyllshire, Scotland. He vowed to become a missionary to the cannibals when he was fifteen years of age, but that vow was soon forgotten until three years later when he was converted. In 1862 he went to Cheshunt College, Cambridge, to train under the London Missionary Society, and in 1867 he sailed for the Cook Islands of Polynesia.

For ten years he continued the work begun at Raratonga by John Williams, but he longed for unevangelised areas, especially New Guinea. The work there was begun in 1872 by six pastors from Raratonga, and Chalmers joined them in 1877. During his twenty-four years there his concern and determination carried the work through despite many setbacks opening up a wide area for the gospel. His wife died, but on a visit home to Scotland he met another woman and married her. Eventually south-east New Guinea was annexed by Great Britain and became a crown colony. Chalmers established a training institute at Port Moresby and saw the whole area transformed by the word of God. Cannibalism, endless feuds and tribal wars ended.

Chalmers was characterised by a life of faith, prayer, love for the people and a Christlikeness. He never doubted he had a gospel for the people. He paid the ultimate price for that assurance. He had sailed to Goaribari Island and his inexperienced assistant Tomkins insisted on going ashore. They were taken into one of the huge huts and there Chalmers was struck down with a stone axe and Tomkins was speared as he tried to escape. Their killers gave their bodies to their wives and Chalmers and Tomkins were cooked and eaten.

The BBC celebrated the centenary by sending to Papua, New Guinea a descendent of James Chalmers named Charlotte Sainsbury. Her journey there was broadcast on BBC2 during Easter week on the 19th April 2001, in a half-hour programme called “The People Detective.” In no way does young Charlotte share the Christian convictions of her esteemed ancestor. She was taken to the village of Ero where oral tradition is very strong, and the events resulting in the murder of James Chalmers are still vivid in the lives of the people there. At the knowledge that she was a descendent of Chalmers the village of Ero offered Charlotte all that they possessed. The head man came to her and humbly said, “You are standing on his place. The land here belongs to him and the people. You are now standing on your own land. Your coming here is very important to us. Because of his coming we are civilised.”

Charlotte Sainsbury is described in The Guardian (20th April 2001) as “one of those well-bred women of superb composure and strong principles, who wouldn’t put a foot wrong if she were a centipede. She spoke warmly of wherever she happened to be. She shook a couple of hundred hands. A couple of hundred hands waved her farewell. It was a royal progress.” Had not her distinguished and saintly ancestor laid down his life that these people might receive into their hearts the indwelling Saviour, and know the life of the Sermon on the Mount, and power to live it? But what was her response when she was introduced to a descendent of the man who had murdered James Chalmers? She spoke with the impeccable sentiments of post-modernism, which sees all beliefs and value-systems as being on the same level, sincere cannibal or sincere Christian. Charlotte Sainsbury said to him, “I think my ancestor was wrong to come in and try to change you. So I am very sorry for that, but I will go away with very very happy memories of Papua, New Guinea.” It was all a bit of a joke to The Guardian TV reviewer, Nancy Banks-Smith. “There are few things more calculated to lift the spirits than hearing that a relative has been eaten by cannibals. As opposed, of course, to being eaten by a lion, as Albert was.” Very droll, and all very sad. The betrayal of a great man.

GEOFF THOMAS

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