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James Calvert (1813–1892)

by S. G. Claughton

This article was published:

James Calvert (1813-1892), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

James Calvert (1813-1892), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455944

James Calvert (1813-1892), Wesleyan Methodist missionary, was born on 3 January 1813 at Pickering, Yorkshire, England, son of David Calvert, tenant farmer. He attended a school at Malton, where in 1827 he was apprenticed for seven years to George Barnby, printer and bookbinder, and learned skills which he applied throughout his life. His parents were Anglicans who occasionally attended the Malton Wesleyan Chapel. At 18 Calvert became an active Wesleyan and in 1832 was accepted as a local preacher on trial. In May 1837 he was recommended by the London district as a candidate for the ministry and entered Hoxton Theological College; there at his own cost and in his own time he gained some knowledge 'of at least the elements of medicine and surgery'. When the conference decided to send to Fiji 'two men and a printing press', John Hunt and Thomas Jagger were designated and Calvert was added because of a generous benefaction. He always regretted this interruption in his theological training. On 22 March 1838 at the parish church, Shoreditch, Middlesex, he married Mary Fowler of Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire.

Calvert was ordained at Hackney with Hunt and Jagger. They embarked in April in the Despatch and arrived at Sydney in August. Three incidents lent colour to the voyage: the Jaggers were almost washed overboard; one evening the ship veered off course and headed for rocks; and they overshot Port Jackson by a hundred miles (161 km). However, Calvert reported to Rev. John McKenny and Rev. J. Watkin that they 'had a good passage, having had plenty of fresh meat and puddings'. They sailed in the Letitia 'a wretched craft, badly found and showing more capacity for pitching and rolling … than for making headway'. They called at Tonga and arrived at Lakemba on 22 December. Calvert 'commenced housekeeping' within two weeks; he was soon speaking the native tongue, and quickly became a master of their vernacular.

The reception of the missionaries by the Fijians was very mixed. The theft of their only two kettles was 'no small domestic calamity', but Calvert regretted that he had complained, for when native leaders returned the stolen property he noted that 'the top joints of four little fingers … had been cut off, not from the culprits themselves, but from their children'. Supplies from overseas were infrequent and the missionaries subsisted mainly on taro and yams. Calvert's health suffered and at times he became frustrated and depressed; he wrote to Hunt: 'all my life, both as it regards my spirit and motives and design, is very far off the exceeding broad command of God'. He was encouraged, however, when the missionary ship Triton on a maiden voyage arrived in July 1840 with Rev. John Waterhouse, general superintendent of the Australian and Polynesian missions, and Rev. Thomas Williams. Williams remained as his colleague until August 1843, but while Calvert was steady, pleasant, frank and a competent craftsman, Williams was complex and independent, 'with rich intellectual and artistic endowments'. From 1837 many Fijian chiefs seemed to imagine that missionaries were undermining their authority: both Calvert and Williams found that old gods die hard.

In 1848 Calvert was appointed to Viwa Island where he met Thakombau. The native warfare around Mbau in 1843 lasted until the victory of Thakombau and King George of Tonga at Kamba in April 1855. The general superintendent at Sydney, Rev. William Boyce, had asked Calvert to stay in Fiji until peace was restored: 'You have an influence which no one else can have … as you are the master mind of the King of Mbau. In supporting his authority you have done well and are Scripturally justified'. In November 1855 Calvert left for England with David Hazlewood's manuscript Fijian translation of the Old Testament. The British and Foreign Bible Society granted £900 toward its publication and Calvert helped to produce 5000 copies of the first complete edition of the Fijian Bible and 10,000 copies of the New Testament.

Calvert returned to Fiji and as district chairman in 1861-64 became an expert in local politics. He mediated in 'threatening local wars, in conflicts between native interests and the claims of foreign settlers, and formal commissions of inquiry', but was mostly concerned with the 'extremely perilous relations with the Tongans settled or roving in the group'.

In January 1865 he left Sydney in the Yatala for London. He lived at Bromley, Kent, in 1867-71 as a supernumerary minister. When in 1872 the Wesleyan Committee appealed for missionaries with administrative gifts to serve in South Africa, Calvert volunteered. He arrived at Bloemfontein in December and in January 1873 had charge of the New Rush circuit. There he was disturbed by social problems. 'We have native services in the Dutch, Kafir and Sesuto languages … and some Dutch speaking natives from the Cape, who will not worship with other inferior Africans'. Once when he invited natives 'to come to the English chapel to be married', his white congregation threatened boycott measures 'whereupon the poor fellows drove to my house where I married them. I felt humiliated but patiently submitted and endured'.

In February 1875 he reorganized 'the almost wrecked church' at Potchefstroom. Next year he had oversight of Pietermaritzburg and Durban and later was acting chairman in the Bloemfontein district. In 1879 he wrote 'I came here at the risk of my health and even life for a short term only … last summer I very nearly failed … I cannot with any safety undertake the work here for another summer'. The triennial meeting at Queenstown in June 1880 recorded: 'South African Methodists will not forget his constant zeal for their welfare, and the ready self-denial … in a time of perplexity and need'. He returned to England in April 1881. At an enthusiastic welcome by the Wesleyan Missionary Society he insisted on a larger employment of native teachers in all missionary enterprise.

After his wife died at Torquay in 1882 Calvert moved to Croydon and with help from the Religious Tract Society published 6000 copies in Fijian of Pictures of Things in the Bible. In May 1886 he sailed for Sydney and in July revisited Fiji. At Suva he was invited to stay with the acting governor. He then went to Tonga and New Zealand, left Auckland in the Mariposa for San Francisco and returned home by way of Chicago, New York and Liverpool. In February 1889 he married the widow of Rev. Dr Andrew Kessen and lived at Hastings. In March 1891 he was invited to conduct a special service in City Road Chapel at the centenary commemoration of Wesley's death. He died 8 March 1892 and was buried in the Barton cemetery, Torquay. It was said that few men made more friends than James Calvert.

Select Bibliography

  • G. S. Rowe (ed), Fiji and the Fijians, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1858)
  • G. J. Stevenson, Methodist Worthies, vol 3 (Lond, 1885)
  • G. S. Rowe, James Calvert of Fiji (Lond, 1893)
  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • W. J. Townsend, H. B. Workman and G. Eayrs (eds), A New History of Methodism, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1909)
  • G. C. Henderson (ed), The Journal of Thomas Williams … 1840-53, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1931)
  • James Calvert letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

S. G. Claughton, 'Calvert, James (1813–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Calvert (1813-1892), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

James Calvert (1813-1892), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455944

Life Summary [details]


3 January, 1813
Pickering, Yorkshire, England


8 March, 1892 (aged 79)

Cultural Heritage

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