Project Canterbury

A Pioneer of Papua
Being the Life of the Rev. Copland King, M.A.
One of the First Two Missionaries of the New Guinea Mission

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.

London: SPCK, 1929.
Sydney: The Australian Board of Missions, 1929.

Chapter V. 1914-1918

SOON after the visit from his brother and sister, King's health, which had on the whole been good for the last twenty-five years in spite of his complete breakdown on his first arrival in Papua, at last altogether gave way under the long-continued strain. He was very ill in 1916, and started for Sydney; but on the way his health improved, and he immediately returned to Ambasi, where he remained for another year in order to finish his Binandere translation of the Prayer-Book and his projected large Binandere Dictionary and Grammar. In August, 1917, he was obliged to go south, though still with the hope of returning to Papua; but his illness persisted, and he had to ask for another year's leave. His old Bishop, Montague John Stone-Wigg, was lying ill in Sydney at the same time, and the two old comrades died within a week of each other, Copland King passing away first in the coast hospital on October 8, 1918. The following letter written by his sister, the late Miss Ethel King, to their cousin, Mrs. Hassall, and which she kindly allowed me to publish, tells of his last days.

[72] "CAMDEN.

"October 19, 1918.


"There is so much I should like to tell you about dear old Copland, but I simply have not time to write it all, as I go back to work on Monday. If you only saw the hundreds of letters we have had, and many of them such beautiful ones that we feel we must answer them and not just send a formal printed reply.

"I don't think that note about Copland's being better ought to have been published. He was not really better, though the specialist he went to just at the time let him try and go about a bit more than he had been doing; and just then a new trouble started which turned out to be dropsy, and then the dear old chap saw that it was no longer any use hoping to get back to New Guinea. They tapped him twice. The first time was no good, and he got rapidly worse; the second time was more successful, but did not seem to make him any better. The next day they moved him to another room, as the one he was in was noisy. The new room was a beautiful one in every way with a glorious view. But when we went over to him that day and they asked us to take all his clothes home 'for the present,' I knew that the end was coming. He never left his bed again except to be lifted out once or twice at [72/73] the very last to soothe his restlessness and delirium. He was quite happy about dying. I took it upon myself to tell him, as I saw that he was fretting at the thought of a long weary illness in the hospital, and he was so relieved and happy when he knew that it was not to be for long. He settled all his business and said goodbye to many of his friends, and dictated a lot of farewell letters to the Bishop and nearly all the New Guinea staff, and we only just got it done in time before his mind began to wander, as it did a great deal the last week. Even then, through it all, he always knew us and spoke to us by name, and every now and then would seem to pull himself together and have little talks with us. He could never lie down, and spent most of his time leaning forward on a bed-rest, so you can imagine how weary he was. But he was just beautifully patient, and the nurses and sisters were awfully good to him. He saw us all on Saturday, and said good-bye to each as they had to leave, and to Ray (his nephew) and me in the afternoon. Cecil and I had the Holy Communion with him a few days before, when he could follow the service. Just after Ray left M. and Cecil came, and he just lay back and gradually became unconscious about 4.30 p.m., and about 7.30 p.m. he just gave a few big sighs and passed away so gently and all the tiredness smoothed [73/74] out of his face, and it was just beautiful. The service at the cathedral was very beautiful, and then the burial up here has been so beautiful and comforting. It has been so sweet to be able to remain here for a little while and take flowers over to his grave, which is in a lovely spot.

"I won't forget about the photo, but he has not been taken for a long time. He was always too ill to be taken since he came back this last time.

"Your affectionate cousin,


The following is from one who knew him well in the mission field:

"When one got to know Copland King, perhaps the thing which struck one most in his character was his absolute loyalty. This was evidenced in the early days of the Mission, soon after the death of Albert Maclaren. Maclaren had, of course, a cross on the altar: he was a High Churchman, as men were catalogued in those days. King personally was a staunch Evangelical, and though he developed somewhat as time went on he remained such all his life. When King took charge of the Mission, some of the members of the staff tried hard to persuade him to remove the cross; he steadily refused to do so. Maclaren had put it there, and [74/75] there it should remain, and it is still on the altar at Dogura.

"Then, again, when the great change came with the consecration of Bishop Stone-Wigg, King's innate sense of loyalty stood the strain. Of course, the position was difficult. No matter how considerate the Bishop might be, and willing as he was to allow any ritual, less or more, than that which he himself wished, there was sure to be strain; also the mere fact that King had been in charge for seven years, and also that there must be many changes in methods and ways of working, would give rise to difficulties. King's loyalty stood the strain, and never had a Bishop a more loyal lieutenant than Copland King was to Bishop Stone-Wigg.

"King did not talk much about things. He was, I think, grateful to the Bishop for not wanting to insist on ritual that did not appeal to him, but it may be that he felt that his decision to go to the Mamba when Hines broke down in health was partly due to the feeling that it would make things easier if he were to place himself away from the parts of the Mission where changes would be made. It so happened that the Bishop was away in Australia at the time. King was in charge as the Bishop's commissary. I had been at Dogura for about four months. King said to me: 'Someone must go to take Hines's place [75/76] on the Mamba; as commissary I ought to go to the outside and possibly dangerous place, so you had better remain here while I go to the north.' I have sometimes thought that he also felt this was a good opportunity to efface himself so far as the changes which were sure to come in the older parts were concerned. He remained in the north except for trips down to supervise translation work in the Wedauan language, and now and again to take charge of Dogura and to act as commissary, till his death. I saw very little of him after he went to the Mamba, but we kept up a regular correspondence. Unfortunately, white ants have eaten most, if not all, the letters I think he was a little anxious about the rather rapid development in the way of baptisms that took place a few years after the increase of the staff consequent on the appointment of the Bishop. His own methods were more of a direct personal nature, influencing the individual, that was necessary when there were few inquirers, as in the earlier days, but he was undoubtedly right in seeing the dangers of institutional religion.

"Of course, the greatest thing, apart from his own personal religion, which Copland King contributed to the work of the Mission was his translation work; he has laid all the succeeding generations of missionaries under a debt by what he did, first in the Wedauan language and later [76/77] on in the Binandere language. Here, again, his readiness to efface himself came into evidence. Whenever he wrote from Dogura about some things which seemed to us wrong in the translations he had left for us in the Wedauan language, he was always ready to admit he might have been wrong and to accept what we suggested. No one who has not had the experience of trying to reduce a language to writing which had nothing of the kind, who has not had to try and discover grammar, syntax, meaning of words, etc., can have any conception of the labour and patience of Copland King in the work on the Wedauan language. None of the people, of course, in those days knew English; there was a smattering of pidgin English from a few boys who had been to the sugar fields in Queensland, but absolutely nothing to give any help to the inquirer. Signs had to be used, men listened to when they spoke, and it was seen what they did in consequence of what was said. At first it must have been very puzzling. You pointed to your nose, and indicated you wanted to know the Wedauan word; the answer would be, 'Your nose.' You touched the man's nose; the answer would be, 'My nose,' with the personal suffix indicating the person, and one would not know that peculiarity of grammatical construction.

"Binandere is a still more difficult language. [77/78] King used to say he knew as much Binandere after five years as he had known of Wedauan in five months. However, after a time he had the advantage of using Binandere speaking boys, who had been to Dogura and had there learnt Wedauan.

"King had other interests besides those connected with the Mission. He was a keen botanist; from his earliest days in Australia he had been a collector of orchids, and he found great scope for his hobby in New Guinea. Orchids and ferns were his chief interest to take his mind away from the worries incidental to his work. He was in regular correspondence with botanists in the Philippines and also with the curator of the Gardens in Sydney. There are, I think, one or two new plants that are called after him, as he was the discoverer of them.

[The following extract from the report of the Director of the Botanic Gardens, Sydney, kindly furnished by the present director, Mr. Bennett Smith, throws light on King's botanical achievements. "Mr. King was a native of Sydney, and after a service of over twenty-five years with the Anglican Mission in New Guinea he returned home to die, on October . He had been a valued correspondent of this establishment for many years, sending down herbarium specimens of various kinds from the dependency and also some living specimens. Of late years he specialized in ferns. Shortly before his death he expressed the wish that his herbarium and botanical books should be presented to this establishment, and the transfer was carried out through the kind intermediary of his sister, Miss Ethel R. King, of Sydney, and of his colleague, the Rev. P. Charles Shaw, of Dogura. The herbarium consists of over one thousand specimens of ferns, together with a few other plants. It is most valuable, and many of the specimens have been determined by such authorities on the group as Prince Ronald Bonaparte, of Paris, and Dr. E. B. Copeland, of Manila. The specimens have been given a special label. Adjacent to the fern herbarium is a portrait of Mr. King, and thus a memorial has been constituted of an Australian botanist whose botanical work was carried out under difficulties that few Australians can even guess at.

Curator, National Herbarium.

["May 24, 1928."]

[79] "King was brought up under a very strict Sabbatarian influence; alas that we have got so far away from it! But it meant that in the early days there seemed to be too great a point made of Sabbath observance, and we have to some extent suffered from that since, as any relaxation has meant that people have gone far in the other extreme. Fishing on Sunday and other things were strictly forbidden; all garden work on Sundays was, of course, also to be accounted wrong. So that even if a man went to get food from his garden on Sunday he was put under discipline, sometimes expelled from the catechumenate; as you could not depend on the [79/80] truthfulness of the people it was possible that the excuse was a subterfuge. It is not quite fair to criticize such methods now, as there were greater difficulties in many ways than there are now, and in those days views were very much more strict about such matters than in our laxer days but the effect was not good, as it tended to develop deceit. There were times when King was in very real danger from the natives and from perils of waters when travelling was by whaleboat only, but he had a quiet courage that nothing could disturb. His devotion to the Mission sprang from a real love for our Lord and absolute loyalty to the Church as the agent for completing the work He had come to do for the whole race. For his life and example we have to thank God, and pray that we may be as faithful unto death as our 'father King' was--so the natives all learned to call him."

Mrs. Finnis, of Nevendon Rectory, England, writes:

"We were all thrilled at the small theological College of St. Wilfrid, at Cressy, in Tasmania, to hear that Mr. Copland King was coming to tell us of the work in New Guinea. One of our own students, the Rev. Walter Sage, had brought Charlie, his brother, to stay with us, one of the first laymen to go to New Guinea, so we had heard a little at first hand. There was a lantern [80/81] lecture arranged in the village, where interest in missions was a real part of the people's lives but it was the talk to the students, at which I was allowed to be present, and the personal talk I had with him, that will never fade from my mind. I can still see the blackboard with the conjugation of the Wedauan verb on it, though, alas the vowels are now not quite clear, and I can still hear his illuminative descriptions of the difficulty of reducing a spoken language to a written one. He teased us delightfully about our ignorance of the appearance of raw rubber, and then consoled us by giving us real nutmegs from New Guinea, as well as some of the rubber. And our delight in eating a pudding flavoured by the New Guinea nutmeg was a feeling to be remembered. Two early morning memories: one the wonderful experience of receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord from the hands of him who was to us as an apostle, the apostle of the Church in New Guinea; the other a walk with him down the drive and down the village road very early, with the chill morning air making him shiver a little, to catch the coach that would take him to the train. He told me then of his desire to begin work at Emo among the hill people. I used to look eagerly to see when it would begin, and then 'Don't let people call me Copland-King, as if it was hyphened. My surname is King; [81/82] people in Tasmania will hyphen me.' So with a laugh we parted as the coach drew up beside us, never to meet again in this life; but the hearts of all of us at home were filled with wonder at the simplicity of this great man, and we gave glory to God."

Mr. Elwin, who went up to the New Guinea Mission as a lay worker in 1893, two years after Copland King's arrival, has kindly furnished the following reminiscences

"Mr. Elwin arrived in the Albert Maclaren with the first two South Sea Island boys, Willie Holi and Mark Ambrim. Copland King met them at Dogura, where Mr. Elwin was with him for a few months before going with him to open a station at Boianai. He was here for some months, but, suffering badly from fever, he went to Yarrabah after twelve months in New Guinea. Though Mr. King's health was bad when he came he enjoyed wonderful health in New Guinea. He showed great aptness in acquiring the language and spoke it well. His patience with the slowness of the natives was wonderful; he used to say that it was their custom, and that our hurry was as strange to them as their slowness to us.

"On going to a new place he would sit down on the beach and say nothing for a long time. Then he would get up and walk through the [82/83] village, and, pointing to the skulls, would insist on their being taken away. At night he gathered the people all together and addressed them, being helped in dialect difficulties by the Dogura boys. He would sleep on board the Albert Maclaren, and stay until he got them to build a house for a South Sea Island teacher.

"His character was solid. If he thought a thing right nothing could turn him--e.g., when a trader of bad character called on him and was most polite he would not ask him into the house where Mrs. Tomlinson was.

"He was sympathetic and easy to get on with. Though considered a Low Churchman, he was very patient with practices he did not understand or agree with. He was a big man, but was always quiet and unassuming. He had much difficulty in finding the right terms for the translation of theological ideas unfamiliar to the natives--e.g., 'forgiveness.' The Papuan idea of forgiveness was tersely expressed by Magaiam, an old heathen chief with whom he was on friendly terms. 'When we have killed as many of the enemy as they have of us we will close the door.'

"He had all the strength and frankness of a great man, and had nothing of 'the boss' about him... He was always ready to consult with others. Although Mr. Elwin had no intention of seeking [83/84] ordination, King presented him with Hooker and persuaded him to study, and when he was ill King nursed him as if he had been his mother. His extempore prayers were wonderful, and showed an intensely devout and sincere spiritual life."

The Rev. J. Elder, of Lindfield, whose son, the Rev. Raymond Elder, has been in the New Guinea Mission for thirteen years, writes:

"I enjoyed the privilege of Copland King's friendship for nearly fifty years, beginning when he was a small boy and lasting to his death. He was my curate when he decided to go to the mission field, and I was one of the first persons who heard of it. When he returned from his first visit and went to his doctor for a clean bill of health, he was told that in New Guinea he might live two years, but probably no longer. He was stopping with me when the news of Maclaren's death came to Sydney, and he decided at once to return. He said: 'I may die, but at least I may be able to keep the flag flying till someone else is ready to take it up.' He told me that he never knew what the promise of the presence of God meant till he was alone among the heathen, as they then were, savages. I was told by one of his companions that in dealing with the natives he was absolutely fearless, and went freely among them at all times. When King went back in charge of the Mission, Archbishop Smith told [84/85] me that he did not write beautiful letters, but he went straight to business, and always told him just what he wanted to know. When the first two Papuan boys returned from a visit to Australia, King told him that what interested them most were the butchers, bakers, and abundant food shops. They had always thought that the white men came to New Guinea because they could not get enough food in their own country."

The Archbishop of Brisbane writes:

"Copland King has sometimes been spoken of as though his main work in New Guinea were that of a translator. It is true that he saw the value--nay, the absolute necessity--of translation work, and that he did much translating into two languages and did it with the utmost carefulness. Moreover, he made matters easier for his successors by compiling two dictionaries, one in the Wedau language and one in Binandere. But he never lost sight of that for which he went to New Guinea, to preach the Gospel to and to make Christ known among the heathen people who had never heard of Him. So he continued to the very end to be a missionary in quite a primitive sense. Set services in church, with congregations of Christian people, did not appeal to him so much as did walking forth to conduct simple, out-of-door services under palm-trees in small villages or among scattered groups of [85/86] people who had not yet come into the knowledge of the truth. He allowed nothing to interfere with this itinerating primitively missionary work. I have often accompanied him on Sunday afternoons when in the neighbourhood of Ambasi; he would hold three or four such services amongst very ignorant or frankly heathen people.

"He always made himself very accessible, sometimes I thought almost too accessible. He would go on writing or translating amidst a crowd of natives close around him, and of their continuous and unceasing talking one with another he hardly seemed to be aware. He had thrown in his lot with the people of the country, and to a large extent he made himself as one of them.

"He lived for many years a rather lonely life in an outpost at Ambasi, from which he usually came away only once a year to attend the Annual Conference of the European staff at Dogura. Ambasi was so situated that a European visitor seldom came his way, but I do not think he minded that at all.

"Copland King certainly had the grace of perseverance. He stuck to it. He stuck to the task of learning first one language that had never been cdmmitted to writing and then another. He stuck for twenty-seven years to the Mission of which he was one of the founders, and he once told me that his greatest wish was to die and be [86/87] buried in the land. His longing to refurn to New Guinea was expressed in more than one letter that I had from him during his last illness. But it was not to be.

"Perhaps the greatest test of his perseverance, a test which the Tomlinsons fully shared with him, was his sticking to it during the years 1892-1895. Albert Maclaren had died, little help came from Australia, the need of withdrawal was freely spoken of, but those three brave souls--Copland King, Samuel Tomlinson, and his wife (a true heroine this last)--stuck to it till better days should come. They lived to see the reward of their perseverance, and the Australian Church will ever remember them.

"Archbishop of Brisbane.
"Bishop of New Guinea 1910-1921."

It has not been possible in this short biography of Copland King to include much that would have been of real interest, as, for instance, extracts from his letters in which he often expresses, with considerable vigour, his opinion of men and things, or a more detailed account of his translations into Wedauan and Binandere, which constituted the great work of his life, though he had to undertake them far from all books and amid all the distractions of a missionary's life, the one [87/88] person on a station who is at the beck and call of everyone, and who is personally responsible for a thousand petty details, but it is hoped that enough has been given to furnish some picture of the man and his work.

We start from the point when, his thoughts being already directed towards the claims of missions, he caught from Maclaren the flash of inspiration which determined him to give his life to carrying out our Lord's last command, an inspiration which carried him through twenty-seven years of monotonous toil.

There was little in his life of picturesque adventure or entrancing novelty. The work that lay before him on his return to Papua was dull and largely uninteresting, and it was gilded by no prospect of much success. The Australian Church was but mildly interested, if at all, and certainly not interested enough to provide adequately in men or money for the task of winning Papua for Christ. Copland King responded to the call, not because he thought himself a fit leader, for he repeatedly refused the suggestion that he should allow himself to be nominated as Bishop, but because he thought that he could hold up the flag of the Church until he died, as he was warned he would die, of the climate in two years' time. A man of quiet courage and unshaken determination, he soon [88/89] won the respect of whites and natives alike. His great gift of languages came out almost accidentally. That he had a scientific mind is shown by his botanical labours, and circumstances directed it to the great task of reducing to writing and order two unknown languages, one of which was an exceptionally difficult one. He loved his people intensely, and he was under no delusions with regard to them. He was content to work for years at preparation before he thought a man or woman ready for baptism, and he was alarmed at what he thought too hasty admission to the Church when the faith began to spread in the later years. He was as ready to minister to the white miners as to the natives, and as fearless in rebuking their vices.

There was nothing spectacular in his life, but it is all the more valuable as an example of the ordinary man who was inspired by a high Christian ideal, and who unflinchingly lived up to his ideal to the end.

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