2. Martyr for the Empire

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 12 June 1914 featured a magazine section that included a number of articles, most of them unsourced, in the genre of popular reading.  There was, for example, a short article about a vicar in Britain who had a problem with … the growing custom of bridesmaids and other women in bridal parties attending the marriage service with uncovered heads. He was about to … decline to solemnise marriages where the scriptural rule is not observed. There was another story that recounted the experience of an Australian girl who, on a visit to Germany, took a flight on the Zepplin airship, Victoria Louise, from Hamburg to Kiel. She was living the high life, literally:

It was a lovely sensation, and an ideal way of travelling – no jolting or rattling as in an express train, and not that constant sensation of speed and the after result of drumming in the ears as in a motor. We sat in comfortable cane armchairs in a sort of long observation car, and drank champagne and ate caviar sandwiches in a most luxurious manner, with no idea we were travelling so fast.

The airship was heading to Kiel for a yachting regatta and the Kaiser himself was there:

… as the airship swept over Kiel harbor at eleven o’clock (the hour for the opening of the regatta), we could see the Kaiser standing on the deck of his yacht, the “Hohenzollern,” waving his cap at us. He takes a great interest in these airships and encourages them all he can.

These were the same airships that would be used to bomb British cities the following year.

But the story I want to highlight from the collection is the one headed, Pioneers of Empire: Adventures Among Cannibals. It is a detailed account, again unsourced, of the life and death, or martyrdom, of the Scottish missionary James Chalmers who worked in (British) New Guinea from 1871 to his death in 1901.

Chalmers, another missionary – Oliver Tompkins – and some ten mission boys were killed on the island of Goaribari on 8 April 1901. The article gave a graphic account of their fate:

... Chalmers and his companion were courteously received, and were being escorted to the neighboring village when, without a moment’s warning, cowardly blows were rained on their heads from behind. Both fell senseless; their heads were instantly cut off, and the bodies given to the women to cook for the expected banquet.

The question arises as to why this story appeared in the local paper some thirteen years after the incident.  The reason I am inclined to give is that from the time it reached the outside world, this story became a staple in the narrative of Empire; and therefore the immediacy of the tragedy was not the real issue. Rather, its content had become, as it were, timeless and it was available to be used, as required, to promote the ideals of the British Empire. The article had probably been written for syndication by a missionary society. Interestingly, there was also an abridged version of this story which appeared in country newspapers later in 1914, after the outbreak of the War. For example the abridged version appeared in The Shoalhavern Telegraph on 4 November 1914 and the Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle on 19 December 1914. In fact, this abridged version was still doing the rounds of country newspapers  in 1920 – The Tumut and Adelong Times, 30 September 1920 – and, incredibly, it appeared as late as 1934: The Southern Record and Advertiser (Candelo, NSW) on 15 June 1934.

Rosalie Triolo (2012) has written about the use of guided reading material, particularly The School Paper, in Victorian public schools in the period leading to the War to champion the narrative of Imperial loyalty, and this article in the local paper was essentially serving the same purpose, albeit for an older audience.

The following extracts highlight how the theme of the missionary as an adventurer is developed:

... he was sent to the most dangerous missionary work in the world, among the cannibals of New Guinea.
… he greeted the dusky crowds, wearing necklaces of human bones…
… a gigantic savage, wearing a human jawbone suspended from his neck, demanded gifts for them all …
… surrounded by a dense mob, brandishing spears and clamoring for the lives of the white man and his wife.
… he narrowly escaped from a number of natives whom he had accidentally disturbed while feasting on a crew of Chinamen whom they had murdered.

and so on. It reads like a religious Boys’ Own adventure. It represents the muscular version of the Christian missionary. Chalmer’s character could as easily be an army officer or a district magistrate in some equally dangerous part of the Empire. And that is what the story is really about: ‘the missionary as servant of the Empire’. This point is made clear towards the end of the article:

Thus the years passed, the Scottish missionary winning the respect and even affection of his cannibal flock traversing the length and breadth of his island “parish” and paving the way for the annexation by Great Britain which was to come later. … and, thanks to the missionary’s pacific efforts and his years of brave labor among the cannibal population, 70,000 square miles of territory were annexed to the Crown without the shedding of a drop of blood.

The epitaph penned for Chalmers at the end of the article is as clear:

Thus perished Jas. Chalmers on the scene of his life’s labors – as gallant a man as ever helped to prepare the way, through hardship and perils, for the spreading of the British Empire.

Chalmers’ status as an Imperial pioneer had been earlier acknowledged by Lovett (1902, p.501). Lovett wrote the definitive work on the life and work of Chalmers as a missionary in both the South Seas and New Guinea, and it is most likely that it was his account that was the source of the various newspaper articles:

New Guinea is an unknown tropical corner of our Empire, and from a commercial point of view of comparatively little value; but the pioneer work done by James Chalmers in opening up communications with the natives, and thus rendering Europeans’ exploitation possible, was emphatically imperial in character. As an explorer and pioneer, his name should stand high in the annals of our Imperial history.

The article appeared round the time of Empire Day (24 May) so, presumably, it was an appropriate  occasion to ramp up  the ideals of Imperial loyalty and duty, and the example of Chalmers in (British) New Guinea was both local – at least in terms of its proximity to Australia – and recent enough to warrant this sort of exposure.

As well as being Imperial in intention the story definitely has a religious message. It is about selfless missionaries bringing the Word of God to the ‘pagan cannibals’ of New Guinea so that they too can live in His Light. They are even prepared for martyrdom in this holy work. From our perspective 100 years on, this heavy dose of religion in the local press will probably seem hard to understand. However there was nothing unusual about religious articles of many kinds appearing in the local press at the time. The local paper routinely listed the times and locations of all religious services, presented summaries of sermons preached, reported on visits by bishops and other church leaders and changes in clerical appointments, detailed the business of church committee meetings, publicised fund raising activities, covered Sunday School and so on. Religion was a staple of the paper.

This level of reporting of the religious life of the community offers a critical insight into the society of the time. In terms of its own narrative Gippsland was a pioneering community and without doubt  one key measure of its success and development was the growth of religion, both Protestantism and Catholicism. Progress was measured by such as the number of parishioners and the erection of churches, and, additionally for the Catholics, the building of schools. Religious practice and institutions were threads holding the community together. Moreover, while the priests and pastors were not bringing the Word to cannibals, they were in many ways struggling in their own missionary endeavour to bring light to the darkness of the lower orders, which meant a struggle to combat godlessness, vulgarity, criminality, neglect of the family, vice, drink, gambling and all their other failings.

Religion at the time was most definitely a moral and political force. Protestantism was in fact the spiritual life force of the Empire, a fact that would become very apparent as the War took hold.

Finally, at the very start of the War Australia despatched the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force of approx. 2000 men who seized German New Guinea.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 12 June 1914, p. 5

Triolo, R 2012, Our Schools and the War, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne

The Shoalhaven Telegraph, 4 November 1914, p.6

Stawell News and Pleasant Creek Chronicle, 19 December 1914, p.7

The Tumut and Adelong Times, 30 September 1920, p.3

The Southern Record and Advertiser, 15 June 1930, p.2

Lovett, R 1902, James Chalmers: His Autobiography and Letters, London


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