Project Canterbury

Albert Maclaren
Pioneer Missionary in New Guinea

By Frances M. Synge

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1908


FOR me to write an Introduction to the life of the Rev. Albert Maclaren is a labour of love, for I have known few more lovable men than the subject of this memoir.

Albert Maclaren first became known to me on Sunday, the 23rd of February, 1890, when he arrived at the Island of Dauan, on the New Guinea coast, on board the S. S. Merrie England, from Thursday Island.

On my arrival in British New Guinea in 1888 I found two Missions established there. The London Missionary Society had already been fourteen years at work, and then extended over a large area of the southern coast from the Fly River to Teste Island, but this line was broken by great gaps at which there were no teachers.

The Roman Catholic Mission had, three or four years before my arrival, established itself in the middle of this line, with headquarters on Yule Island, and with a few stations on the Mekeo River, on the mainland opposite to Yule Island, which was a very accessible and convenient centre.

It was quite clear that many a long year must elapse before these two Missions could evangelise the 92,000 square miles of territory over which I had declared the Queen's sovereignty on the 4 of September, 1888. My experience of Mission work in Fiji, where I was intimately acquainted with the remarkably successful results of the Methodist Mission--results that, so far as I am aware, have not been surpassed by any modern Christian Mission--had led me to feel that it was my duty to try to procure additional Mission settlement in New Guinea; and not unnaturally under such circumstances I first addressed myself to the Australian Methodist Church, and had already, before Mr. Maclaren arrived in New Guinea, invited a Methodist Mission to take up the Eastern Islands of the Colony.

Mr. Maclaren was accompanied by the Hon. John Douglas, C.M.G., who had acted for some two years as Special Commissioner on the New Guinea coast before the country was brought under sovereignty. Mr. Maclaren informed me he had come over to arrange to open a Mission of the Church of England.

It was clear there was more than sufficient field for the four Missions, but it was at the same time desirable that each should have its own area, so that their strength should be utilised to the best advantage. I urged on Mr. Maclaren before deciding anything to accompany me on a tour to the east end of the Colony and along the north-east coast of the mainland.

Accordingly on the 22nd of May, 1890, Mr. Maclaren accompanied me on a tour to the Mekeo district, making the acquaintance of the Roman Catholic Bishop Verjus. Mr. Maclaren had volunteered to act as my Private Secretary for three months while travelling with me, which allowed the Private Secretary to go on leave on full pay, as Mr. Maclaren would not accept any remuneration. This gave me at the same time a very efficient Secretary and a delightful companion. The first journey I had to make during that term was to deal with a tribe of the Mekeo country that had attacked another; but fortun ately neither there nor at any other place while Mr. Maclaren was with me was any blood shed by my party. It was already said by the natives of the Mekeo district that the "Governor makes peace everywhere," and we were received accordingly. An equal number had in this case been killed on each side, and the two principal chiefs were made to publicly rub noses and become reconciled. This was Mr. Maclaren's first experience of the Papuans. But he had other new experiences during that first journey. He had several matrimonial proposals from high chiefs, who believed Mr. Maclaren was open for an alliance because he was clean-shaven. One night Mr. Maclaren was asleep under my hammock, which was swung on two sticks under a "fly," when he was awakened by a painted, armed warrior, who looked into his mosquito net, and caused some alarm; and soon after that a great pig came and began to "root" him as he lay in his sleeping couch. One did not know from this beginning which most to admire, Mr. Maclaren's moral courage or his cheerful good nature. After the Mekeo trip Mr. Maclaren was with me when I visited the schools and examined the scholars of the Roman Catholic and London Missionary Society's schools, and he thus became acquainted with their methods.

On the 9 of June, 1890, the Rev. George Brown, the General Secretary of the Australian Methodist Missions, joined us at Port Moresby. The working heads of the four Missions could thus be all brought together without much trouble. A remarkable group of men were thus assembled to confer together.

Representing the London Missionary Society were two distinguished men--the scholarly, accomplished, devoted and experienced teacher, Dr. W. Lawes; and the courageous, indefatigable, ever-active and fearless James Chalmers. For the Methodist Church the large-hearted, brave veteran, Dr. George Brown, who had kept two hostile Samoan armies apart by sitting down between them when drawn up in battle array, and refusing to move till they began to discuss terms of peace; and who had afterwards planted the Gospel in Duke of York and neighbouring islands under conditions of great danger. For the Church of England the Rev. A. A. Maclaren, full of life and hope, prepared to work with these older men in the new field, with two objects only in view--to serve his Master and to do all in his power for the Papuan, for whom he already entertained the warmest sympathy. The fourth Church, the Roman. Catholic, was worthily re presented by its working head, Bishop Verjus, a well-educated man, broad-minded, and an excellent missionary. Of that group of eminent and highly qualified men only the Rev. Dr. George Brown, the oldest man of the number, now survives.

The missionaries agreed among themselves that the Church of England should occupy the north east coast from Ducie Point to the boundary with the German Protectorate of Kaiser Wilhelms land; that the Methodists should have all the Eastern Islands, except Hayter, as their field, the London Missionary Society giving up to them Teste Island; that the London Missionary Society should have all the south coast, except the, part occupied by the Sacred Heart Mission. That this result was arrived at so speedily and easily was in no small degree owing to the character of Mr. Maclaren. He was a man of perfect temper, very tactful, courteous, and always prepared to give due consideration to the greater experience, and to the wishes and opinions of others. There can be no doubt that the partition of labour made between the Missions then was of very great use to the natives of the country and to Mission work. It was soon after confirmed by a policy that was, with the sanction of the Secretary of State, published in the Royal Gazette: that in any one native village only one grant of land would be given to a Mission by the Government.

In the month of July, Mr. Maclaren and the Rev. Dr. Brown accompanied me on a round of inspection of the Louisiade and D'Entrecasteaux groups of islands, and as far as the Lachlan and Woodlark Islands, which gave Mr. Maclaren an excellent opportunity of becoming acquainted with many native tribes, and gave him a knowledge of their condition, manners and customs that would hardly have been possible in such a short space of time under any other circum stances.

On the 23rd of July, 1890, we first entered the special Mission field of Mr. Maclaren, the north-east coast, at Chad's Bay. We anchored in front of the native village, and could see numbers of people preparing to run away. I landed with two boys without any arms, when some of those present recognised me, as I had some time previously resettled them in their village. We soon assembled a number of the natives. They did not understand any English, but it was possible to make oneself partially under stood by the Mime Bay dialect. When Dr. Brown and Mr. Maclaren landed, I presented the latter to the natives as their missionary, and using the native idiom told them "he had come to sit down among them as their missionary". They understood this to mean that they were 'to be seated, and that Mr. Maclaren was to preach to them there and then, which he naturally said he was not prepared to do, though they showed their willingness to receive him as their missionary by at once seating themselves on the ground in an attitude of expectancy.

Mr. Maclaren then accompanied me the whole length of his coast district, which he thus visited from Cape Ducie to Mitre Rock. Many of the tribes were then as wild as possible. In Collingwood Bay, for example, a memorable stampede was produced among a crowd of natives assembled round us by one of my party striking a match. Such was the panic produced by this slight cause that the natives bolted blindly in all directions, running against and upsetting each other, while one was stunned by rushing against a house-post. In Collingwood Bay we were presented with the greatest treat they had at command--cooked yams and dead dog.

On the 4 of August I landed alone with Mr. Maclaren on the invitation of a number of natives we saw on the beach some miles south of Mitre Rock. They soon became numerous, and were somewhat boisterous. They did not know iron, and were with difficulty got to do any trading. They were provided with arms, and were very suspicious. Their method of salutation was to pull one's nose. One of them in warmth of friendship or exuberance of spirit saluted Mr. Maclaren in this way somewhat roughly, and caught him by the chin. They suddenly all darted into "the bush," without any apparent reason; but we found later on that it was because one of them had stolen Mr. Maclaren's spectacles. Another was detected in the act of stealing his jacket. Had we remained too long there would certainly have been trouble. These are fair examples of what Mr. Maclaren learned of his people on that journey.

We selected several sites for Mission stations, such as that on Mission Hill, some twelve or fifteen miles south of the German boundary; and for Collingwood Bay, Maclaren Harbour, a beautiful place on the north end of the Bay.

Mr. Maclaren continued with me till the 1 of August, 1890, when I landed him at Cooktown.

On the 20th of December, 1891, I was at Samarai, accompanied by the Right Honourable Sir Samuel Griffith, G.C.M.G. We found Mr. Maclaren there seriously ill, and on the way to Australia. He was suffering from fever, and it was thought desirable that he should proceed to a colder climate. Mr. Maclaren was physically a splendid man, but he had one peculiarity in his constitution that unfitted him for a malarious country--he could not tolerate quinine. I have known a few, very few, similar instances, in which men could not take this medicine, but they are now, I believe, all dead. No such man should stay in a malarious country, for he does so at the risk of his own life and to the danger of others. But this was not understood at that date, which was prior to the great discoveries of my friend Major Ronald Ross.

In a despatch dated the 6th of February, 1892, I wrote as follows:--

"On the same day (23rd December, 1891) the steamer proceeded to the Anglican Mission Station at Wedau, in Bartle Bay. The Rev. A. Maclaren, the head of the Mission, we left at Samarai, suffering from an attack of fever, which did not appear to be of unusual severity, but to which he succumbed shortly afterwards. The death of that gentleman is a great blow to the Mission in its present stage, and is a very regret table public loss. He was at the time the only clergyman representing the Mission in his district. An excellent site had been selected for the station, and some progress made in erecting a very superior dwelling-house, but it was found that much of the house materials had been short sup plied and operations had in consequence been suspended; but although Mr. Maclaren had been such a short time in the district, and had heavy care and much vexation in connection with the building of houses and founding the Mission, I could see clearly that he had made a distinct impression on the natives of the vicinity. He had prepared a vocabulary of about a thousand words of their language, and had visited all the tribes on the coast between Girumia and Sibiribiri. The natives of Wamira were attending service regularly, and becoming a settled, industrious community. He had also been successful in establishing peaceful relations between some tribes not yet visited by me, and I believe he was fast reducing crime in the district."

And in my Annual Report for the year, when speaking of Missions, I wrote:--"The Anglican Mission, which had taken up as its field the north-east coast from Cape Ducie to Mitre Rock, was completely stunned by the death of the Rev. A. Maclaren, at the end of the year. He was possessed of all the high qualities that seemed necessary to make a man a great missionary among such a people--enthusiasm, originality and strong sympathy. High hopes were entertained as to the work he and his Mission would be able to accomplish among the native tribes. His death was a very serious public loss. Under the management of the Rev. C. King, the Mission-house at Wedau has been completed, and all is now prepared at the station for the reception of other workers. Mr. King has established services and a school for the natives nearest the station."

Further knowledge of the world has only confirmed my belief that the death of Mr. Maclaren closed the earthly career of one who would have been a great missionary. He was a sympathetic man, patient and sweet-tempered, the type of man that would gain the confidence of natives and influence them for good. He was earnest in the spiritual part of his work, and went to the fountain head for his own religion. Mr. Maclaren made it a rule of life to read a certain portion of the Greek New Testament every day, a practice that would have greatly assisted him when he came to translate the Gospels into native dialects.

He was warmly attached to the Church of England, though I understood that his father was a Presbyterian. But Mr. Maclaren was so little of the bigot that I find it entered in my diary that he went to say his prayers in the Roman Catholic chapel at Raro. Bishop Verjus of the Roman Catholic Mission said to me once when speaking of Mr. Maclaren: "They tell me he is more a Catholic than I am". This was probably true in the broadest and best sense, though Bishop Verjus was no bigot.

Mr. Maclaren had clear views as to utilising native manners and usages in mission services. He was, for example, delighted with the nose flute of some of his people, and intended to include it in the choir. This frame of mind he derived from his acquaintance with the history of the ancient church, and from his own study of human nature.

Mr. Maclaren gave the first impetus to Church of England Mission work on the great and interesting field of the north-east coast.

One can wish that Mission nothing better than that it shall always continue to move in the direction in which he gave to it its first start; and that it may always be animated by the spirit that was infused into it by Albert Maclaren.


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