By Haydn Brown.
Oliver Fellows Tomkins, to give him his full name, was born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, the fourth son of the Daniel Tomkins. His formal education began in his father’s school in the town before travelling to Switzerland for a short time to complete it. He then spent five years working in business in Norwich, during which time he joined Dr George Barrett’s Congregational Church in Princes Street. Later, Tomkins become a student at Dr Henry Grattan Guinness’ Training College in London where he took a medical course.
The original Princes Street Congregational Church was opened in 1819 with John Alexander becoming its “Founder and First Pastor”, and one of the most popular ministers in and around Norwich from 1819 to 1866 at what is now the United Reformed Church. Dr George Barrett took over the church reigns following the death of Revd John Alexander.
Tomkins was clearly smitten with evangelism for during college holidays and half-terms, he would preach to the North Sea fishermen and volunteer for mission work in English country villages, travelling to each in a caravan, whilst camping at night. He was therefore delighted when, eventually he was appointed to work as a missionary in the Torres Straits of New Guinea. Half of his financial support for this mission was paid for by members of the Home Magazine Missionary Band which helped to pay enthusiastic bearers of ‘God’s word’ to go to many far-flung places in the world.
Tomkins sailed with the Reverend Albert Pearse in December 1899; they were to join the Scottish-born missionary James Chalmers in New Guinea, the territory where Chalmers himself was to ignore calls from his friends to leave and return to England when his second wife died. His refusal, along with the arrival of Tomkins was to have consequences for both of them some sixteen months later.
But for the moment, Chalmers was pleased with the arrival of Tomkins, who would share the burden of his large district. According to Chalmers:
“Throughout Mrs. Chalmers’s last illness, Tomkins [was] “a great help and a great comfort.” No son could have treated me kindlier than he did.”
In his young colleague Tomkins, Chalmers saw reasons for hoping that he might have more time to return to his pioneer work. A few months after Tomkins’s arrival, Chalmers again sent a brief message to the Mission House regarding Tomkins: “He will do”; and that opinion was confirmed again, and again in the months that followed. Dr. William George Lawes was to call them, “the intrepid Paul and the beloved Timothy.”
But we move on – to 7 April 1901 to be exact. This was when Tomkins and Chalmers were on board the ‘Niue’ and had arrived at the Aird River at Kisk Point on Goaribari Island. The last entry in Tomkins’ diary indicates what happened next:
“In the afternoon we were having a short service with the crew, when about twenty canoes were seen approaching ……. They hesitated as they got nearer to us, till we were able to assure them that we meant peace. Gradually one or two of the more daring ones came closer, and then alongside, till at last one ventured on board. Then, in a very few minutes, we were surrounded by canoes, and our vessel was covered with them …… On this, our first visit, we were able to do really nothing more than establish friendly relations with the people. They stayed on board about three hours, examining everything, from the ship’s rigging to our shirt buttons. They tried hard to persuade us to come ashore in their canoes, but we preferred to spend the night afloat, and promised we would visit their village in the morning.”
Neither of the Niue two missionaries, nor the twelve native Christians who accompanied them were seen after this visit to the natives. What really happened was only ascertained a month later, when George Le Hunte, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony, visited the Aird River with a punitive expedition, and heard the story from a captured prisoner. This was quoted from an account supplied by the Rev Archibald Ernest Hunt, who accompanied the Lieutenant-Governor:
“The Niue anchored off Kisk Point on 7 April and a crowd of natives came off. As it was near sunset, ‘Tamate’ [the native name for John Chalmers] gave them some presents, and made signs that they were to go away, and the next day he would visit them ashore. At daylight the next morning, a great crowd of natives came off and crowded the vessel in every part. They refused to leave, and in order to induce them to do so, Tamate gave Bob, the captain, orders to give them presents. Still, they refused to move, and then Tamate said he would go ashore with them, and he told Tomkins to remain on board. The latter declined, and went ashore with Tamate, followed by a large number of canoes. When they got ashore, the whole party were massacred and their heads cut off. The boat was smashed up, and the clothing etc. distributed. All the bodies were distributed and eaten, Tomkins being eaten at the village of Dopima, where they were all killed.”
But just like most stories aimed at a reading public; the writers kept to the old adage ‘don’t let the facts spoil a good story’! One suggested that the ships party was invited back to the native’s village and into a newly constructed ‘Dubu’ for refreshments; clearly, if this was true, the two did not recognise the significance of entering such a communal house – which was for fighting men and could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice! Tomkins and Chalmers were clearly ‘taken in’ by the welcome; neither could they have seen any meaning behind the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut, a picture of stark contrast!
True or false, it was the case that other fellow missionaries had already reported similar sights elsewhere; of smoke-blackened human jaw bones dangling from the rafters of village huts, smoke-dried human flesh and notches in trees which denoted the number of humans who had been cooked and eaten in a community. So, some may have thought, what on earth were the two men thinking, when clearly it was common knowledge that there were cannibalistic traditions in the region, a place where the missionaries were trying to bring the word of God!
But for Tomkins and Chalmers it would be too late; no sooner had they taken their places, seated at ground level along one side of the large laid-out spread, when each was clubbed from behind and killed. It was also said that their bodies were prepared and cooked with a variety of sago dishes, cooked with shell-fish, boiled with bananas, roasted on stones, baked in the ashes and tied up in leaves, – to be served as the main course, a feast that had been promised to the victims! Afterwards, their bones were kept on display and seemingly, the native’s ‘Dubu’ house had been suitably blessed by their preferred Gods!
Back home, relatives and friends undoubtedly mourned the loss of Oliver Tomkins and the church he once worshiped in, the Princes Street Congregational Church, held a memorial service for Tomkins. Members afterwards subscribed to a plaque which they placed inside the church building in his memory; it remains there to this day.
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