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James Chalmers (1841–1901)

by Patricia A. Prendergast

This article was published:

James Chalmers (1841-1901), 1877-1901

James Chalmers (1841-1901), 1877-1901

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3667426

James Chalmers (1841-1901), missionary, was born 4 August 1841 in the fishing village of Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne, Scotland, the only son of an Aberdonian stonemason. When he was 7 the family moved to Inveraray where he attended the local school and then worked for some years in a solicitor's office. In his youth Chalmers was greatly impressed by an account of missionary work in Fiji but later reacted against the stern Calvinistic doctrines preached by Highland Presbyterians and drifted away from the church. In 1859 he was converted in a religious revival and two years later joined the Glasgow City Mission as an evangelist. There he met George Turner, the Samoan missionary, at whose suggestion he applied to the London Missionary Society for acceptance as a missionary candidate in 1862. He was trained at Cheshunt College and Highgate Academy and was ordained on 19 October 1865, two days after his marriage to Jane Robinson, daughter of Peter Hercus of Greenock and New Zealand.

Chalmers had hoped to work in Africa but was appointed to the Pacific, arriving with his wife at Rarotonga in the Cook Islands on 20 May 1867; there they remained for ten years. Although disappointed that his position lacked the challenge of pioneer mission work, Chalmers waged a vigorous campaign against drunkenness, reorganized the training of island evangelists and produced a monthly newspaper. Tamate, the name by which he preferred to be called, was the Rarotongan version of his surname. In 1877 his desire for pioneer work was realized when he was appointed to New Guinea, where three years earlier Rev. William Lawes had established a mission with headquarters at Port Moresby. The co-operation of these two men laid the foundation of the London Missionary Society's work in the island. Their policy was to set up a chain of mission stations along the southern coast, staffed by South Sea Island evangelists under the supervision of European missionaries. While establishing these stations Chalmers explored much of New Guinea's coastline, made several inland journeys and was the first European to contact many of the different groups of people who inhabited these areas. Although he was interested in exploration and was asked several times to lead expeditions into New Guinea he refused on the grounds that he was first and foremost a missionary. In the ceremonies associated with the declaration of the British Protectorate in 1884 Chalmers acted as official interpreter in areas outside Port Moresby. Sir Peter Scratchley was anxious to secure his services for the administration but Chalmers remained with the mission.

During his missionary career he returned to Britain in 1886-87 and 1894-95, receiving acclaim both as an explorer and as a missionary and arousing widespread interest in the island by his lectures. He published several accounts of his work: Adventures in New Guinea (1885), Pioneering in New Guinea (1887) and Pioneer Life and Work in New Guinea 1877-1894 (1895). His wife died on 20 February 1879 and in 1888 he married one of her childhood friends, a widow, Sarah Elizabeth Harrison, née Large; she died on 25 October 1900. There were no children of either marriage.

During his twenty-three years in New Guinea Chalmers resided for short periods on the east coast at Suau, Port Moresby, Motumotu and Saguane in the Fly River delta, but for long periods he had no permanent home. His last station was Daru. From there he set out with a colleague, Oliver Tompkins, to establish a mission on Goaribari Island. Their deaths at the hands of hostile islanders on 8 April 1901 resulted in the last major punitive expedition in British New Guinea. Three years later the acting administrator, Judge Christopher Robinson, set out with a party to recover the skulls of the two missionaries. Robinson's mishandling of the situation resulted in the death of a number of islanders and led to his suicide.

An eccentric, humane man of great personal charm, Chalmers numbered among his friends personalities as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson and 'Bully' Hayes; but his talent for friendship was most evident in his relations with the New Guinea people to whom he was sincerely and unsentimentally devoted. 'He had consecrated himself to New Guinea', wrote the Methodist missionary Dr George Brown, 'and to that work he was loyal to the end'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lovett, James Chalmers: His Autobiography and Letters (Lond, 1902)
  • W. A. Young, Christianity and Civilization in the South Pacific (Lond, 1922)
  • LMS Archives (Westminster).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patricia A. Prendergast, 'Chalmers, James (1841–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 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 Chalmers (1841-1901), 1877-1901

James Chalmers (1841-1901), 1877-1901

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3667426

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tamate

4 August, 1841
Ardrishaig, Argyll, Scotland


8 April, 1901 (aged 59)
Papua New Guinea

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