Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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BROWN, Alfred Nesbitt

(1803–84).

Pioneer missionary.

A new biography of Brown, Alfred Nesbit appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Alfred Nesbitt Brown was born at Colchester on 23 October 1803. At the age of 20, having decided to become a missionary, he abandoned the study of law and trained, first, in the home of the Rev. Edward Bickersteth, and then in the Church Missionary Society's newly opened Training Institute at Islington. He was ordained deacon on 10 June 1827 and priest on 1 June 1828. In the following year he married and, shortly after, sailed for New Zealand, arriving at Paihia, after a short stay in Sydney, on 29 November 1829. He was the third ordained minister in the country. Brown never returned to Britain and spent the remaining 55 years of his life working in the mission field.

Brown stayed at Paihia for four years, taking charge of the school for European children, but by 1833–34 the mission began to emerge from its first struggle to survive and, for the first time since Hongi began his raids, the missionaries started systematically to explore the country as a step towards expanding their activities. In October and November 1833 Brown, with Henry Williams, Fairburn, and Morgan, went up the Thames Valley and reached Matamata pa, where they were hospitably received by the Maoris and their chief Te Waharoa. Returning, they selected Puriri as a mission site. In February 1834 Brown and James Hamlin sailed from the Bay of Islands to Kaipara Harbour and, from there, walked south to the Waikato. Hongi's raids had left almost unoccupied the region which Brown and Hamlin traversed; consequently there were no canoes in which to cross rivers. Their food supply rapidly diminished and had to be augmented by fern root, the stems of palm trees, and tawa berries. On 19 March they came to the Waikato River, which they ascended as far as Ngaruawahia and then crossed to Whaingaroa (Raglan) and south to Kawhia. From Kawhia they travelled east to the headwaters of the Waipa River, down the Waipa by canoe to Ngaruawahia, and on down the Waikato to its junction with the Maramarua. Going up this river and overland to the north-east they came to the Firth of Thames and, from there, reached the newly established mission station at Puriri. This journey took nearly five months and was one of the finest in the history of the mission. Another followed in August 1834, when Brown and Wm. Williams returned to the Waikato and Tauranga to select a site for a permanent mission station. The site chosen was at Matamata pa, and there Brown began work early in the following year.

Less than a year later a skirmishing war broke out between the Maoris of the Tauranga district and those of Rotorua. Brown did his best to prevent or limit the hostilities, but eventually it was decided to abandon the Matamata station. Before settling with his family at Tauranga in 1838 Brown accompanied Marsden when, on his last visit to New Zealand, he sailed around the North Island in the Rattlesnake, commanded by Captain Hobson. At Tauranga missionary work was still distracted by the endemic warfare; only towards the end of 1844 was there peace between the Rotorua and Tauranga tribes and, for the first time, Brown had a comparatively peaceful district in which to work. Peace, for Brown, was not an unqualified blessing. Renewed European settlement, he believed, exposed the Maoris to inevitable degradation and misery. Moreover, after Bishop Pompallier's visit to Tauranga in March 1840, he feared that his own work would be imperilled by the arrival in the district of Roman Catholic missionaries; the “unremitting assaults of Popery” left Brown angry and bitter.

Brown was created Archdeacon of Tauranga on 31 December 1843 and thereafter spent about four months of each year on visits around his archdeaconry, which included the Rotorua and Tarawera areas, as well as the vicinity of Tauranga. In 1850 he told Bishop Selwyn he had to walk 700 miles to administer the Lord's Supper to 800 communicants. His energy and devotion could not disguise, however, the gradual decline in the success of the mission. By the 1850s, in spite of the steady development of church organisation, the number of converts was decreasing and there appeared to be a marked deterioration in the religious behaviour of the Maoris. The Maori wars of the sixties seriously crippled the work of the mission. In 1863 the Theological Training and Boarding School, started only two years before, had to be disbanded and was never reassembled. The mission house at Tauranga became a refuge for all the European women in the district and, during the battles of Gate Pa and Te Ranga, Brown tended the wounded, comforted the dying, and buried the dead, both Maori and Pakeha. For a short while, in July 1863, Brown was driven from his station to Auckland. After hostilities ceased, settlers came to occupy the confiscated land and the district was never a wholly Maori one again. For a long time the influence of Hauhauism kept the Maoris in an unsettled state, and Brown's last years gave him little hope for the future. He died on 7 September 1884.

In his work Brown contended with poor health; he was a very bad sailor and, in the 1840s, he suffered painful eye trouble. In 1845 his only son Marsh died at the age of 14 and Brown, deeply torn, wrote Brief Memorials of an Only Son and founded a scholarship in his memory at St. John's College, Auckland. His wife, Charlotte, who with his daughter Celia had helped him to run his Maori schools, died in 1855. Five years later Brown married Christina Johnston.

It was Brown's ambition “to live & die a humble missionary”. He opposed suggestions that he should be made a bishop and worked unobtrusively at his station. He was uncompromising and bigoted, suspicious of the “liberal spirit” of the times and rigidly self-righteous. Respecting few of his contemporaries in New Zealand, he did not have many friends, though he valued his association with William Williams. Yet Brown could show kindness and a certain scholarly charm and, in the wars of the 1860s, his integrity and impartiality were displayed in an extraordinarily difficult and distressing situation.

by Timothy Holmes Beaglehole, M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D. (CAMB.), Senior Lecturer, Department of History, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • A History of the Church Missionary Society, Stock, E. A. (1899)
  • Bay of Plenty Times, 9 Sep 1884 (Obit).


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