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Samuel Macfarlane (1837–1911)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Samuel Macfarlane (1837-1911), missionary, was born on 18 February 1837 at Johnstone, near Glasgow, Scotland, a son of poor parents with a large family. He had little schooling and after apprenticeship became a railway mechanic. In 1853 when his family moved to Manchester he joined the Oldham Road Congregational Chapel and soon decided to be a missionary. Despite his scanty education, he prepared himself, was accepted by the London Missionary Society, trained at Bedford and ordained on 11 November 1858. Soon afterwards he married Elizabeth Ursula Joyce, sister of a colleague, and sailed with her on 6 January 1859 for the Loyalty Islands; he reached Lifu on 30 October.

The island had been annexed by France in 1853 and French Marist priests had arrived in 1858. Tribal jealousies, sectarian conflict and French fear of British influence complicated his task and from May 1864, when his mission was destroyed by a punitive expedition, he waged a masterly paper war with the administration. His ruthless professionalism, which alienated some of his colleagues and French officialdom, helped to maintain the position of the mission in the island but later led to diplomatic demands by the French government for his removal.

Macfarlane toured eastern Australia as a mission delegate from December 1867 to March 1868. After his removal from Lifu was decided on 14 June 1869 he began planning a mission in New Guinea. In December 1870 Rev. A. W. Murray arrived to replace him. On 30 May 1871 they sailed in the Surprise to reconnoitre New Guinea. They returned to Lifu on 2 November. Leaving Murray in temporary charge of New Guinea, Macfarlane left with his wife, four sons and a daughter for England. He published The Story of the Lifu Mission (London, 1873) and had his plans for New Guinea approved by the society.

Macfarlane returned to Sydney on 26 June 1874 and relieved Murray at Somerset, Cape York, on 29 July. In the next four years he made 23 voyages, visited over 80 villages, established 12 mission stations, learned something of 6 languages and published translations in 2 of them. In 1877 he moved his headquarters to Murray Island to implement a policy of supervising coloured teachers resident on the mainland. His objection to the preference of his colleagues, W. G. Lawes and James Chalmers, for residing among their congregations caused much dissension; the estrangement was deepened by Macfarlane's sometimes arrogant assumption of seniority. In the steamer Ellengowan he explored between 28 August and 28 December 1875, named the Baxter River and took H. M. Chester and Luigi D'Albertis seventy miles (113 km) up the Fly River. He was widely criticized over a shooting incident on the second voyage.

For the benefit of his family Macfarlane returned to England in June 1886 and published Among The Cannibals of New Guinea (London, 1888). He received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in February 1887 and served as an officer of the London Missionary Society until he retired in 1894. He died at Southport, Lancashire, on 27 January 1911, survived by his wife who died on 28 October 1913, aged 76. Two sons later became missionaries in China.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Murray, Forty Years' Mission Work in Polynesia and New Guinea, From 1835 to 1875 (Lond, 1876)
  • L. M. D'Albertis, New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw (Lond, 1880)
  • O. C. Stone, A Few Months in New Guinea (Lond, 1880)
  • A. Wichmann, Nova Guinea, vol 2 (Leiden, 1910), part 1
  • J. Sibree (ed), LMS: A Register of Missionaries, Deputations, etc. from 1796 to 1923 (Lond, 1923)
  • R. Leenhardt, Au Vent de la Grande Terre (Paris, 1957)
  • W. P. Morrell, Britain in the Pacific Islands (Oxford, 1960)
  • Australasian, 9 Oct 1875, 29 Jan, 5 Feb, 29 Apr supp, 3 June 1876
  • P. A. Prendergast, A History of the London Missionary Society in British New Guinea, 1871-1901 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Hawaii, 1968, copies held at Australian National University and National Library of Australia)
  • J. M. Douglas, The Loyalty Islands and S. Macfarlane 1859-1869 (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1971)
  • LMS papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Macfarlane, Samuel (1837–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 February, 1837
Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland


27 January, 1911 (aged 73)
Southport, Lancashire, England

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