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George Brown (1835–1917)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

George Brown (1835-1917), Methodist missionary, was born on 7 December 1835 at Barnard Castle, Durham, England, son of George Brown, professional secretary, editor, barrister and Unitarian preacher, and his wife Elizabeth, née Dixon, sister of the wife of Rev. Thomas Buddle, missionary in New Zealand. He received his rudimentary education at a private school. Reacting to his stepmother's discipline, he proved wayward, dealt in contraband when an apprentice and attempted to run away to sea. After experience on a troopship and in Canada, he migrated to New Zealand in March 1855, attending classes held by Bishop Selwyn and Rev. J. C. Patteson on the voyage. While living with Buddle at Onehunga, Brown was influenced by leading Methodist preachers, joined the 'society', became a local preacher and was designated a missionary for Samoa in 1860. On 2 August 1860 at Raglan he married Sarah Lydia, second daughter of Rev. James Wallis, missionary at Whaingaroa Harbour; of their nine children, two sons and four daughters survived infancy.

Brown was ordained in Sydney on 19 September and soon afterward sailed to the islands. While stationed at Savai'i (Samoa), Brown urged the opening of a mission in New Britain. In 1874-75 he travelled in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and New Zealand canvassing support. He then visited Fiji and Samoa for volunteer missionaries, and a station was established at Port Hunter, Duke of York Island. In October 1876 Brown arrived in Sydney and continued his deputationary work in the colonies. An entire house was built in Sydney to be transported to New Britain and the Browns settled there at the end of the missionary voyage in 1877. When a Fijian missionary and three teachers were murdered in April 1878 Brown acquiesced in a punitive expedition which caused a furore in the Australasian press (the Blanche Bay affair) and had repercussions at Exeter Hall, but which rendered the region safe for all expatriates. Seriously ill, Brown withdrew to Sydney in May 1879. In September he went to Fiji where he was virtually exonerated. Because of travel hazards he did not reach New Britain until March 1880. His wife had survived a serious illness but two of his children had died. When the Browns left the archipelago in January 1881 about twenty-nine stations had been established.

Sydney now became Brown's headquarters where he engaged in linguistic work for the mission. He had accrued additional celebrity through descriptions of his collections in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1877-81, and was popular for deputationary work. In 1881-91 he did much to influence Australian public opinion about the islands by his letters to the Sydney Morning Herald under various pseudonyms, the most notable series being the Carpe Diem letters in 1883-85 which criticized British inaction and warned of German aggression. Appointed to the Bourke Street circuit, he was superintendent in 1884-85. In 1886 he visited England where he was lionized in church and scientific circles and acted as a commissioner for New South Wales at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London. He returned to Sydney via America in March 1887. In the interim he had been appointed general secretary of missions, an office which he held until his retirement in April 1908. His first major assignment was to act in 1888-91 as special commissioner to Tonga, where colonial mission policies had provoked the secession of the 'Free Church' in 1885 under the King and Rev. Shirley Baker. By his capable handling of the situation Brown helped to avoid dissension in the Australian colonies where active Tongan committees had been formed. While secretary, he was also responsible for pioneering two new mission fields within the Australian sphere of influence. He attended the meeting at Port Moresby on 17 June 1890 under the auspices of Sir William MacGregor when the major Protestant missions came to a mutual understanding on Papua, and in 1891 launched the Methodist mission at Dobu. After visiting the Solomon Islands in 1901, he conducted the first mission party to Roviana in May 1902. He also made many visits to Methodist missions in the western Pacific.

In 1892 Brown was awarded an honorary D.D. by McGill University. He wrote many mission pamphlets and reports and was a regular contributor to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. His papers included 'Conceptional theory of the origin of Totemism' and 'The necessity for a uniform system of spelling Australian proper names', and in 1911 he was responsible for an influential report on the 'Future of the Australian Aborigines'. His Carpe Diem letters were resumed briefly in 1907. He visited London in 1908 where he published George Brown, D.D., Pioneer-Missionary and Explorer: An Autobiography, much of the work being done by his daughters Elizabeth and Monica. Melanesians and Polynesians: Their Life-Histories Described and Compared followed in 1909. Brown's scientific correspondents included Ferdinand Mueller, Lorimer Fison, E. B. Tylor, Sir James Frazer, J. J. Lister and R. H. Codrington. He was a corresponding member of various societies and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1913, when president of the Methodist General Conference, Brown went to England as special Australasian representative to the missionary centenary celebrations of British Methodism in October. When he died at his home, Kinawanua, Gordon, on 7 April 1917 he was also vice-president of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Australian Native Races Protection Society. He was buried in the Methodist section of the Gore Hill cemetery. His wife died at Kinawanua on 7 August 1923. His estate was valued for probate at more than £16,000. His extensive collection of South Sea artefacts was bought by the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, and over thirty volumes of his papers are in the Mitchell Library.

At once urbane, venturous and practical, Brown earned the respect and friendship of colonial administrators such as Sir Arthur Gordon, Sir John Thurston, MacGregor and C. M. Woodford. MacGregor described him as 'the most pellucid man' he knew, and Thurston, who was not generally sympathetic to missionaries, liked him and described him as 'thoroughly trustworthy'. Though at first he seemed 'lady-like' in manners and appearance to colonial Wesleyans, his essential toughness and resilience helped him to survive all manner of obstacles. R. L. Stevenson found in him, as in James Chalmers of New Guinea, a hero, and wanted to write his biography in 1890. Brunsdon Fletcher saw him as an imperialist, though 'a Radical to his finger-tips'. Although the opponents of missions said that he 'cared more about his name being given to a new snake, bird, or insect' than for the souls of the islanders, his missionary exertions gave him little time for the scientific pursuits he enjoyed, and he had a real sympathy for the indigenous peoples.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Powell, Wanderings in a Wild Country (Lond, 1884)
  • C. B. Fletcher, The New Pacific (Lond, 1917)
  • W. Deane (ed), In Wild New Britain: The Story of Benjamin Danks (Syd, 1933)
  • C. B. Fletcher, The Black Knight of the Pacific (Syd, 1944)
  • Methodist (Sydney), 14 Apr 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Apr 1917
  • manuscript catalogue under George Brown (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Brown, George (1835–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 December, 1835
Barnard Castle, Durham, England


7 April, 1917 (aged 81)
Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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