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BROWNE, Sir Thomas Gore
Soldier and colonial Governor.
A new biography of Browne, Thomas Robert Gore appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomas Gore Browne was born on 3 July 1807, the son of Robert Browne, J.P., D.L., of Morton House, near Buckingham, and Sarah Dorothea, second daughter of Gabriel Steward, M.P., of Nottingham and Melcombe, Dorset. Browne's father was a colonel of the Buckinghamshire Militia and his youngest brother, Edward Harold, was later Bishop of Winchester.
In 1824 Thomas Gore Browne was commissioned as an ensign in the 44th Foot Regiment, from which he exchanged to the 28th Foot in 1828. In 1832–35, as a captain, he served as aide-de-camp to Lord Nugent, High Commissioner in the Ionian Islands, where he acted for a tune as colonial secretary. As a major in the 41st Regiment he took part in the First Afghan War in 1842 and commanded the regiment for a short period. When Sir John England's force was repulsed at Haikalzai (in what J. W. Fortesque, the historian of the British Army, called “a foolish and most unnecessary little reverse”) Browne covered its retirement by forming square and beating off the Afghan horse. During the retirement through Khyber to India, Browne fought in the rearguard which was continually harassed. Fortesque was critical of Browne's superiors and wrote that “everything in this wretched campaign was of a piece, and from beginning to end it brought nothing but disgrace”. Browne, however, had fought bravely and was promoted to brevet lieutenant-colonel and awarded the C.B. On returning to England, Browne became lieutenant-colonel of the 41st Regiment. In 1851 he retired on half pay and was appointed Governor of St. Helena. Of his first governorship the Dictionary of National Biography can find nothing to say but that he improved the water supply.
In 1854 he married Harriet, daughter of James Campbell, of Craigie, Ayrshire, and in the same year he was appointed to succeed Sir George Grey as Governor of New Zealand. He arrived here in September 1855 to begin what he might, not unreasonably, have expected to prove a peaceful and not too strenuous office. Grey's optimistic dispatches had created the pleasant delusion that the worst problems of racial relations were solved, and that the Maoris and settlers were “insensibly forming one people”. Browne had been instructed to introduce responsible government, thus satisfying the demand of many leading settlers, and he was told by a newspaper that he would have nothing to do but to smoke his pipe and keep his temper and a good cook. But things proved otherwise, for during the interregnum since Grey's departure in December 1853 racial relations had begun to deteriorate. In some parts of the country, Maoris were complaining of the unscrupulous methods adopted by the Land Purchase Department, under Donald McLean, in buying Maori land. There was a growing antilandselling movement among the Maoris, and in Taranaki a feud had broken out between those Maoris who wished to sell and those who opposed selling land.
Responsible government was introduced in 1856, the colonial Ministers controlling domestic affairs, but Browne retained in his own hands, as the Imperial representative, the responsibility for administering Maori affairs, including Maori land purchases. Publicly he wrote that, since the Governor was responsible for the peace of the colony, he must have authority in Maori questions, but his real reason, expressed privately, was suspicion of the intentions of the settlers. This division of authority led to continual friction between Browne and the E. W. Stafford Ministry (2 June 1856–12 July 1861), especially when it became clear that the Imperial control in fact lay in the hands of McLean, the Native Secretary and Chief Land Purchase Commissioner, to whom Browne gave virtually unrestricted confidence and delegated his responsibility.
Because the House of Representatives was reluctant to grant funds for a policy administered by Browne and McLean, and McLean declined to administer measures introduced by the Ministers, almost nothing was done to extend the hopeful Maori policy of Grey. Indeed, Browne's only noteworthy measure of Maori policy was to relax restrictions on the sale of gunpowder and ammunition to the Maoris. Racial tension steadily increased; fighting among the Taranaki Maoris continued; the anti-landselling movement grew in strength; and in June 1858 the great tribes of Waikato, Taupo, and the central North Island elected a Maori King, to prevent land sales and to symbolise their antagonism to European settlement and their growing sense of nationalism.
Government policy was to ignore the King movement, confident that it would collapse, but the opposition to land sales could not be disregarded. The Maoris still owned most of the North Island, and Browne became convinced that the Europeans coveted this land and were determined to get it (as he wrote), “recte si possint, si non, quocunque modo [sic]” (fairly, if possible, if not, then by any means at all). On the other hand, he was convinced that only the violence of a few Maori extremists prevented the majority from selling adequate land to meet the settlers' needs, and this pressure of anti-landsellers (or “land leaguers”) he determined to resist. In 1858 he wanted to buy some land offered in the Waikato despite the opposition of the King party but was dissuaded by his advisers.
In Taranaki there was a danger that settlers would intervene in the Maori feud on the side of the “land sellers”, who were in a minority, and in 1858 the Government decided to treat Maoris fighting on European land as rebels. In March 1859 Browne announced this policy to a meeting of Maoris in New Plymouth, and added, on his own account, that while he would buy no Maori land without an undisputed title, he would not permit non-owners to prevent the rightful owners from selling to the Government. At once a Maori called Teira (Taylor) offered to sell land near the mouth of the Waitara River, but his right to sell was disputed by his chief, Wiremu Kingi (Te Rangitake), a leader of the anti-landselling Maoris. McLean and his assistant, R. Parris knew that this offer was impending, but had not informed Browne, whose words unintentionally sounded like an invitation to Teira, and who was taken aback by so immediate a challenge to put his precepts into practice.
Browne accepted Teira's offer, subject to proof of his title, but the investigation of ownership conducted by McLean and Parris was a sham. From the first, Browne and his advisers assumed that Kingi had no rights to the land, and regarded him as challenging the sovereignty of the Queen, but subsequent inquiries have shown beyond doubt that Kingi had not only the right, as the chief, to forbid the sale of communal land, but also had certain hereditary and personal claims to parts of the land in question. These were ignored by malice or undiscovered by carelessness, and in November Teira was paid an instalment. In February 1860, when officials commenced a survey of the land, they were resisted and the first Taranaki campaign began.
Though early in 1860 Browne had hoped, while intimidating Kingi, to avoid war, he grew more bellicose (the Maoris called him “Angry belly”). By mid-1861, after a truce had been arranged in Taranaki, he wanted to invade the Waikato to punish tribes that had joined in the Taranaki fighting, but was prevented by the alarm of the local General Assembly and the British Government. Grey was sent back to New Zealand and Browne was soon appointed Governor of Tasmania (1862–68) where he made little mark, and lamented that Governors were “silently dropping into the position of Consuls”.
Browne was awarded the K.C.M.G. in 1869. In 1870–71 he temporarily administered the Government of Bermuda. He died in London on 17 April 1887, survived by his wife and several children. He was a brave, religious, honest, and simple man, more suited to the quick decision of battle or the quiet society of his wife's musical evenings than to acting amidst the complexities of racial relations on a colonial frontier. His intentions towards the Maoris were the best, but he could match them neither with understanding nor affection; he had no liking for the smells of the pa, and he was unable to mix socially with the Maoris. His policy towards the disaffected Maoris jumped from long hesitancy to ill-considered action, and having made up his mind, he was too inflexible to change it or to admit the possibility of error; he “hoped and expected to put an end to many Maori difficulties by a vigorous and decisive act”. When Kingi would not yield, Browne acted like an exasperated man. He was, in New Zealand, well out of his emotional and intellectual depth.
by Keith Sinclair, M.A., PH.D., Professor of History, University of Auckland.
- Gore Browne Papers (MSS), National Archives
- The Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1957).