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Round about the Torres Straits

By the Right Rev. Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter VII. The Beginnings of the New Guinea Mission

To the north of Australia, and approaching it within less than one hundred miles, lies the great island of New Guinea, or Papua, the largest island in the world if we except Australia. In 1883 an Australian statesman attempted to annex such part of Papua as was not claimed by the Dutch on the grounds of its value to the Empire and the danger of its annexation by a foreign Power. Lord Derby repudiated this action on the ground that "the apprehensions that some foreign Power was about to occupy New Guinea appeared to be indefinite and unfounded." In the following year, however, North-Eastern New Guinea was annexed by Germany, and the Imperial Government thereupon proclaimed a protectorate over what was left--i.e., the portion of the island nearest Australia.

New Guinea is still to a large extent a land of romance. One can still meet travellers straight from the interior with strange tales of the impenetrable forest through which a track has to be cut yard by yard, of great unknown rivers navigated on rafts that are for ever capsizing in the rapids, of quaint inland tribes who have never seen a white man, of the fierce head-hunters, of the bamboo loop, which they drop over the neck of a fleeing foe, jerking it backward on to the spike behind which dislocates the vertebrae, of the sharp bamboo knife with which they sever the precious head, of the cannibal feasts, of the beautiful birds of paradise, of the gorgeous butterflies tethered alive to some dusky beauty's hair, of the great mountains topped with snow within nine degrees of the equator.

The natives of Papua are of a much higher type than the aborigines of Australia, living in well-built houses, which were often planted in lofty trees to escape the attacks of enemies, and cultivating the soil with considerable skill. They make earthenware cooking-pots, tapa cloth, and nets, and manufacture bows of great strength for fighting, and show considerable artistic skill in ornamentation of their weapons, persons, and huge masses of hair, which they wear erect in the form of an elaborate head-dress, finished off with a comb.

As they are fiercer in battle and more intelligent in labour and invention than the weaker and gentler tribes of Australia, though, like them, divided into small tribes and ignorant of any political unity, so they are more capable of receiving religious impressions and carrying them out into action with a more profound modification of their life, thought, and immemorial customs.

The New Guinea Mission is by far the most important of those in Australian territory, and the results have been not only relatively but actually most remarkable, as we hope to show.

In 1888 the British Protectorate developed into British sovereignty. The General Synod of the Church in Australia had already, in 1886, resolved "that the recent annexation of a portion of New Guinea imposes direct obligation on the Church to provide for the spiritual welfare both of the natives and of the settlers"; but resolutions of Synods are useless by themselves, although the need was strongly re-emphasized by a paper read at the Church Congress in Sydney in May, 1889, by the Hon. John Douglas, in which he pointed out that a large sphere of unoccupied territory was awaiting the Church in New Guinea.

The Church waited, for the man, and the man came in Albert Maclaren, with whose life and death the foundation of the New Guinea Mission will always be associated. He was born at Cowes in 1853, and, like so many other great missionaries, trained at St. Augustine's, Canterbury. He had intended to offer himself for Central Africa, but ill-health prevented his acceptance, and he was ordained to work in Queensland, where he left his mark in a fine Church and many memories in the hearts of the people of Mackay. He went from there to West Maitland, in New South Wales, and in 1887 accompanied Bishop Pearson to England, where he went to Durham and took his degree in 1889. In the previous year, Bishop Barry had issued an appeal for men and money for the New Guinea Mission. This appeal came under Maclaren's notice, and he volunteered and was accepted, and left almost immediately for the scene of his future work and death.

Slight but well built, with clear-cut features, a tender mouth, and beautiful, spiritual eyes, Maclaren was a man of abounding vitality, who always succeeded in impressing others and carrying them away with the tide of his own enthusiasm. He was not always practical, and was sometimes impatient of discipline and convention, but he had a burning love for souls, an almost boundless sympathy, and an absolute disregard of all selfish or personal considerations. Even those whom he most exasperated by his views could not help forgiving and loving the man, for he was one of those to whom the spiritual is the real, and who could never find his true home on earth.

He left England with the conviction that he would not return. "It is good-bye for me," he said, as his vessel left. He reached Sydney at the end of 1889, and in February he paid his first visit to New Guinea in the S.S. Merrie England, the yacht of the Governor, Sir William Macgregor. He found there were already three missionary societies at work, the Roman Catholic, whose work centred on Yule Island, the London Missionary Society, who had occupied the south-east coast, including Port Moresby, the seat of Government, and the Wesleyan Missionary Society, which had just recently occupied the islands on which Maclaren had thought of starting his Mission. Of these three, our own Mission has come most in contact with the London Missionary Society, whose work we afterwards took over in the Torres Straits. It is therefore worth while giving Maclaren's own opinion of their work on the occasion of his second visit. After criticizing the Roman Catholic Mission unfavourably he proceeds: "The system pursued by the London Missionary Society is more practical and worthy of imitation. They place native teachers from the South Sea Islands, who give the first simple teachings to the Papuans in Christianity. Their belief, too, is less complicated. They teach the great doctrine of God's revelation to man, and as far as I have seen it will take some time to get beyond this in New Guinea, . . . After nearly twenty years' work, many in England would be disappointed by the visible results of the London Missionary Society, and yet they have accomplished a noble work. Lawes and Chalmers, two men entirely different, have, each in his own way, done much, and are held in high esteem by the natives. Our Mission must learn by this example. A little more ritual would help them. It must do so; the natives are much impressed by outward surroundings."

Maclaren's first visit to New Guinea only lasted a few days, and he was at Thursday Island when the terrible wreck of the Quetta took place. He was indefatigable in trying to succour the survivors, and it was at his suggestion that the beautiful memorial church was erected, which now forms the cathedral of the Diocese of Carpentaria. He returned to New Guinea on May 1, and had a meeting at Port Moresby with the Revs. W. G. Lawes, F. W. Walker, and H. Dauncey, of the London Missionary Society, and the Rev. G. Brown, of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. It was agreed that the Anglican Mission should take as its sphere the coast from Cape Ducie to Mitre Rock, on the north-east coast, the London Missionary Society taking the coast to the south and west, and the Wesleyan Missionary Society the outlying islands, except those to the west. The making of any such agreement has been criticized, but it is difficult to see what else Maclaren could have done. The area assigned to the Church is so large that even yet we have barely covered the coast of it even in name, and it has been more than once hinted that unless we increase our staff, some of it may be assigned to another Mission. In addition, the Government, which at this time was alone able to assist in transport, and in other ways make settlement possible, was strongly in favour of such a division of spheres of work, and emphasized its opinion by refusing land to more than one Mission at the same place. It was not of course ever intended that this arrangement should apply to white settlers in New Guinea, and this has been exemplified by the erection of churches and the stationing of priests at Samarai and Port Moresby. The principle of spheres of missionary work is now generally accepted as the only means by which overlapping and waste of means can be prevented. In May Maclaren was back in New Guinea, having offered to act as private secretary to the Governor for three months without remuneration in order that the private secretary might go on furlough on full pay. This gave him an opportunity of visiting various points on the coast and selecting a site for the first Mission Station. On June 6 he writes in his diary: "On Wednesday I paid a visit to Bishop Verjus, on Yule Island, and found him ill in bed with fever. I went into the little chapel and said my prayers and felt refreshed by the sight of a place of worship. How small all our divisions appear in the presence of savage heathenism! No doubt some Protestants would tell me that I could have said my prayers in the open air far better. I am so constituted that I found it a pleasure to be alone with God in that humble chapel though it was not one of our own, and therefore I used it and was glad of the chance. On my return to the Bishop he gave me his photo, and asked me to remember him in my prayers, and wished me success in my work at the other end of New Guinea. He is a kind and good man, and thoroughly in earnest in his work."

He visited a proposed site in Chad's Bay, and made a characteristic entry in his diary: "After dinner the Southern Cross shone brightly over the site of our new Mission, a good omen. On landing, I at once said prayers to God for His blessing on it, and to be kept from sin." Everywhere Maclaren made friends with the natives and told them that he was returning to live among them. The Governor, Sir William Macgregor, was famed for the intrepid courage with which he sought out offenders alone, or with one or two attendants only, and the landings were often not without danger; but Maclaren was as cool as his chief, and learnt much of the country and people during his three months' tour. In August he returned to Australia to obtain men and money to start the work. While travelling in New South Wales he met the Rev. Copland King in a train, a man whose name is almost as closely associated with the founding of the Mission as that of Maclaren, and who after twenty-seven years is still working away on the Mambare River. Mr. Copland King says: "I introduced myself to Mr. Maclaren, and told him that I was interested in the Mission. My Sunday-school collected for it, and I had heard him speak at the great missionary meeting in Sydney, and should like to know more about the work he was starting. He explained the position of affairs to me, and we had a long conversation. He told me about some people he was hoping to enlist, and then he asked me if I would come with him. I had no idea of such a thing previously, but I would not refuse straight off, and we went as fully as possible into the subject. We got out at Quirindi, and walked up and down the dusty streets of that town till late at night. We went on by an early train next morning without any further opportunity of conversation. Indeed, I think we both felt that we had thrashed the subject out, and during the week following I made my offer and the matter was arranged."

Maclaren spent nearly a year in the toilsome work of speaking, preaching, and arousing interest in the work throughout Australia, and on July 4, 1891, he and Copland King left Sydney for New Guinea.

An old collier schooner, the Grace Lynn, was to meet them at Cooktown with the materials for their house and the carpenters who were to erect it.

Maclaren wrote from Cooktown: "I am afraid we shall have a bad time going across to Samarai, as our ship, the Grace Lynn, is a very poor sailor. The weather has been terrible, and more than one ship is overdue. I am sorry to say we have a very drunken mate on board. Our carpenters are decent fellows, though they have been grumbling at the amount of work they have had to do. I am afraid the ship is undermanned." The Grace Lynn, however, arrived at Samarai after a long passage, being towed in the last part of the way by the Merrie England, and Maclaren and King went on in the whaleboat to inspect the proposed site.

The site at Chad's Bay was first examined, but was rejected in favour of Bartle Bay, twenty-five miles to the north-east, and strongly recommended by Sir William Macgregor. Maclaren says: "The coast between Chad's Bay and Bartle Bay is striking and beautiful. Steep hills, 2,000 to 3,000 feet high, come down to within a short distance of the beach, while in some places they reach right to the water's edge. The land is not heavily timbered, but what timber there is is very picturesque, and a good many waterfalls are to be seen half-way up the hills, running down between the overhanging foliage of the trees. We reached Baunia about six a.m., and dropped anchor a short distance from the beach, as the rollers were too heavy to enable us to take the whaleboat on to the beach in safety, besides which we were not certain how the natives would receive us. It was our first Sunday in New Guinea, and an unusual one.

"Early on Monday morning I hailed a canoe, which came alongside and into which I attempted to get, but alas! just as I thought myself safely on board, over it went, and I found myself some distance below the surface. I made for the canoe, and called for a rope from our boat and was dragged on board again. We landed about twenty minutes later, and were kindly received by about forty natives, who had congregated on the beach. After many delays the Grace Lynn arrived, and the work of unloading began. Part of her cargo was a cart-horse, which created the greatest astonishment among the natives, who came from all parts to see 'horsa,' or 'the enormous pig,' as they called him."

The site of the Mission is thus described: "We could see it ten miles out at sea, a beautiful grass-covered plateau two hundred feet above the sea, and half a mile inland. Underneath it and nearer the sea is the pretty native village of Wedau. We had to pass through it on our way to the hill which the natives call Dogura."

Troubles began quickly to accumulate: great difficulties were met with in getting the material up the hill; important parts of the house were short shipped; the white carpenters worked in a very leisurely fashion, and had finally to be sent back to Sydney; but Maclaren was cheered by the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Tomlinson, who share with the Rev. Copland King the honour of twenty-seven years' continuous service on the Mission. King fell ill, and had to go away for a time to recover his health. Maclaren was indefatigable, urging the natives to work, keeping them in a good temper, learning their language, superintending the landing of goods, washing clothes, and doing a dozen other things at the same time. On Sundays he went round the villages and taught. As soon as the work at Dogura was well in hand he set off on a missionary tour along the coast. On his return he set off in the whaleboat for Samarai. The weather was bad, and he got very wet, and was attacked by fever on his arrival. He soon became so ill that he was taken to Cooktown in the Menie England. He died at sea the day before the ship's arrival, and was buried in the Cooktown cemetery. A somewhat unworthy memorial was erected over his grave, but that was replaced by a marble cross some ten years ago. Thus was laid the foundation of the New Guinea Mission.

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