Page 1: Biography
Brown, Alfred Nesbit
This biography, written by Jinty Rorke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in August, 2020.
Alfred Nesbit Brown served as a Church Missionary Society missionary in New Zealand from 1829 to 1884. He was born on 23 October 1803 in Colchester, Essex, England. His parents were Ann and Joseph Brown. Alfred attended school in Colchester, and became articled to a local attorney. He applied to the CMS in 1824, encouraged to do so by Dr William Marsh, vicar of St Peter's, Colchester, his friend and mentor, who taught him the evangelical principles to which he adhered all his life. After training at the CMS school in Islington, London, Alfred Brown was ordained deacon on 10 June 1827 and priest on 1 June 1828.
Alfred married Charlotte Arnett at Islington, Middlesex, on 20 March 1829, shortly before leaving England for New Zealand. Charlotte was born probably in 1795 or 1796. Little is known of her early life except that she was well educated, and kept a girls' school before her marriage.
Alfred and Charlotte Brown sailed first for Australia on the Elizabeth. They arrived in the Bay of Islands on the City of Edinburgh on 29 November 1829. Although Alfred was only the third ordained missionary to arrive in the country, the couple at first took charge of the missionaries' children. Three children were born to them in the next eight years – a stillborn child, a son and a daughter.
On 9 April 1835 Alfred Brown opened a CMS station at Matamata in the Waikato, near Te Waharoa's pā. This mission lasted little more than a year: intertribal warfare forced the closure of the station in October 1836. One of his notable converts from the area was Te Waharoa's son, Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapipipi, who was baptised in 1839.
The Brown family took up residence at Te Papa (Tauranga) in January 1838, and by 1839 Alfred Brown had purchased 1,333 acres of land for the CMS. Bishop G. A. Selwyn granted him his licence as minister of the Tauranga district on 19 December 1842 and appointed him the first archdeacon of Tauranga on 31 December 1843. He was installed in September 1844. In 1847 he declined the offer of a bishopric. Selwyn nominated him again in 1853, but to Brown's satisfaction Tauranga was passed over when new dioceses were created.
In all areas of his work Alfred was supported by Charlotte Brown, who was described as pious and 'superior in education to most Female Missionaries'. Her teaching experience proved invaluable to her, as she had charge of the infants' and girls' schools. She supervised the work of the station in the absence of her husband on his frequent pastoral visits around the Bay of Plenty, ran her own household, travelled miles over rough country to care for the wives of the other missionaries when they needed her in illness or in childbirth, took the children of other missionary families into her own, and received graciously many important visitors. All this she achieved in spite of the severe headaches she suffered all her life in New Zealand.
Life was not all duty. Alfred Brown may have been rigid in his religious views, but he had a lively sense of humour, read widely and wrote poetry. His only printed work, Brief memorials of an only son (1845), was inspired by the death of his son, Alfred Marsh, in whose memory he also endowed a scholarship at St John's College, Auckland. His closest friend among his colleagues was William Williams. He was a keen and successful gardener, and it seems that he and Charlotte loved music, for they brought with them the first piano to come to New Zealand.
On 13 November 1855 Charlotte Brown died in Auckland, and was buried in Parnell. Four years later, on 18 February 1860, at Wellington, Alfred married his second wife, Christina Crombie Grant Johnston.
Alfred Brown's mission was affected when inter-racial war spread to Tauranga in 1864. British and colonial troops camped on mission land at Te Papa and Brown was called upon to minister to the wounded and bury the dead after the battles of the Gate pā and Te Ranga. Although he attempted to be impartial, it has been suggested that he lost the trust of local Māori by his association with their enemies.
Moreover he came into conflict with the colonial government after the war when military settlers occupied mission property without CMS permission. After some negotiation the CMS relinquished four-fifths of its Tauranga land to the government, retaining one-fifth as an endowment. In 1873 the mission house and 17 acres were purchased by Brown. The property, named The Elms at that time, was eventually passed on to, and preserved by, his second wife's family.
Until well into his old age Brown spent up to four months of each year walking the tracks of the Bay of Plenty and Waikato to preach and baptise. He often acted as a mediator between warring tribes. His aims were to protect the Māori from European influence and to convert them into perfect Christians. In both of these he failed, but this failure in no way detracts from the sincerity of his attempt, or the depth of his love for the Māori people. Alfred Brown died on 7 September 1884 at Tauranga, and is buried in the mission cemetery there.