Thomas Robert Gore Browne was born on 3 July 1807 at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, the second son of Robert Browne and his wife, Sarah Dorothea Steward. The family, of Anglo-Irish origin, had settled near Aylesbury in the late eighteenth century: sons in each generation had entered the armed services and the church. Browne's father was colonel of the Buckinghamshire militia, and Browne himself entered the army at 17. In command of the 41st (The Welsh) Regiment of Foot, he earned promotion to lieutenant colonel and the CB in the calamitous first Afghan war, 1839–42.
Browne first experienced civil administration in the Ionian Islands from 1832 to 1835 as aide-de-camp to the high commissioner. On 4 June 1851 he married Harriet Louisa Campbell at St Quivox, Ayrshire, Scotland. They were to have four sons and two daughters. Shortly after his marriage Browne assumed office as governor of St Helena, but retained his army commission. In 1855 he was appointed governor of New Zealand.
Browne received no special instructions on Māori matters, which were not expected to bulk large among his problems. His major task, it was assumed, would be to give full effect to the 1852 constitution and to introduce responsible government. When Browne reached Auckland in September 1855, only a rump of the General Assembly remained, and the House of Representatives had stalled on the question of responsible government. He dissolved the House for a general election. When its successor met in April 1856, he summoned Henry Sewell to form the first ministry. Factional manoeuvres quickly overthrew Sewell and his successor, William Fox, but by 2 June a third ministry was in place, formed by Edward Stafford. It was to survive until July 1861.
During the first seven months of his residence in New Zealand Browne travelled extensively. From observation and consultation he reached conclusions which dominated his future conduct. Relations between Māori and settler in the North Island were already critical. Five-sixths of the land were owned and occupied by Māori. The number of settlers was rapidly increasing; the Māori population was visibly shrinking. Settlers openly clamoured for Māori land. Unless checked, existing trends would soon bring armed conflict, costly to settlers but fatal to the Māori. In a responsible government, ministers would answer to an exclusively Pākehā assembly. However, the governor personally controlled the only armed force, and he further insisted on retaining control of Māori affairs.
This was Browne's own decision: the Colonial Office approved tardily, with private misgivings. All three premiers who held office in 1856 professed agreement and not until 1860 were moves made openly to challenge his assumed powers. In fact all politicians viewed the situation with disfavour. Much of Browne's governorship was consumed in the search for power and funds commensurate with his responsibilities. His Māori policy had three goals: to buy surplus Māori land rapidly; to place under trust sufficient land for all future Māori needs, and clothe with Crown title the land that Māori vendors kept for themselves; to establish local self-government and courts in Māori districts to replace beleaguered tribal authority.
The 1856 session refused to augment the minute sum reserved for Māori purposes in the constitution, but Browne took comfort from a unanimous resolution calling for a scheme of Māori government to be prepared for the next session, in 1858. During the recess he had the co-operation of C. W. Richmond, his ablest minister, in framing an interlocking group of four bills to provide a basis for Māori self-rule. The whole ministry supported Browne in rejecting demands to waive Crown pre-emption of Māori land in favour of direct purchase. Richmond also acted on Browne's request to counter the emerging King movement in the Waikato district.
After a visit to Waikato in April 1857, during which he had talks with the proposed King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, Browne concluded that the desire for a separate nationality was basic to the movement. Nevertheless he persuaded his ministers to appoint a special official who would advise the King movement leaders on new laws and arbitrate in disputes. Gradually a divergence between the aims of Richmond and Browne became clear. F. D. Fenton, the appointee, saw himself as implementing a ministerial policy in opposition to his superior, the native secretary, Donald McLean, who answered directly to the governor. Ignoring instructions, he slighted Te Wherowhero by building up a 'Queen's party' of younger men. The open rift within the native service, and the furore aroused in Waikato, forced Browne to withdraw Fenton in 1858. However, the plan was not discarded; a replacement was appointed in 1859 when the excitement had died down.
Similar disagreement arose over the legislative programme in 1858. Belatedly it emerged that the measures had been hedged about with limitations unacceptable to Browne. In reserving them for Colonial Office decision, Browne made it clear that continued control of Māori affairs by the governor was at issue. When the Colonial Office decided that the arrangement should continue, Browne pointed out that he required new powers and more money. A bill was introduced into the imperial Parliament to create a nominated native council with advisory and administrative powers, and independent access to funds. Opposition from all sides forced its withdrawal. However, the move prompted the introduction in New Zealand of a substitute measure. The Native Council Bill 1860 provided for a native council which was to be purely advisory, without funds. Control of Māori affairs was to be transferred to ministers. No alternative remained; Browne advised acceptance, in the hope that the calibre of his nominees would give the council moral authority. In the event all nominees declined appointment. The Colonial Office had not made up its mind about the issue when Browne's term ran out.
This long struggle to advance Māori welfare was overshadowed by Browne's decision to persist in the purchase of a small block of land at Waitara in northern Taranaki, against opposition by the region's most prominent chief, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. Browne's stance has been much criticised, but he did at least act consistently. The entire transaction was public; every fact affecting title was common knowledge. Browne had good reason to believe that the vendors had the right to sell and Kīngi none to object. At every stage he had the support of his ministers; he was sustained by large majorities in the Assembly, and by the Colonial Office. He and his supporters never retracted their views and all sides derided the 'new facts' advanced by Governor George Grey in 1863.
In the war which arose directly from the purchase, Wiremu Kīngi was supported by Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui and by Waikato followers of the Māori King. Like most campaigns by regular troops against guerilla fighters, the war left the countryside devastated and ended without any clear-cut military victory. The possibility of Kīngi's resisting the purchase had been recognised from the first. By relying on military leaders to make contingency plans, Browne committed a serious error of judgement. However, he was not the only one at fault.
Even before the first shots on 17 March 1860, Anglican leaders were denouncing Browne. Octavius Hadfield spearheaded the campaign, although at the time Bishop G. A. Selwyn was perceived as its leader. In fact Selwyn's friendship remained unbroken in troubled times, while other close friends of Browne joined in the criticism of him. Politicians were cautious, usually preferring the safer course of attacking military mismanagement. The Stafford ministry, which made no attempt to disguise its role in the affair, survived the 1860 session and, following a general election, was defeated by only one vote in 1861 when issues unconnected with Waitara played a part.
Browne's efforts towards a constructive Māori policy did not end with the outbreak of hostilities. What seemed a substantial step forward was achieved as a by-product of war. In July 1860 a large gathering of chiefs was summoned to Auckland primarily to allay alarm over the war. During the month-long meeting known as the Kohimarama conference some policy questions were aired. Although the discussion was inconclusive, the results of the meeting were encouraging. Politicians voted a large sum for a second conference in 1861 and the possibility that permanent consultative machinery might evolve seemed real for a time.
In April 1861, after hostilities in Taranaki had ceased, Browne concentrated troops in Auckland to confront the King movement. In his own view he was simply taking up the issue of sovereignty which had been raised when King Māori intervened in Taranaki. He mistakenly believed he had the full support of the Colonial Office. His demands for the return of plunder taken from Taranaki and the withdrawal of bans on land sales and on roadmaking in Waikato were rejected by Māori leaders. Winter rains began in early May and clearly troop movements would be impracticable until spring; it seemed possible that moderate counsels might yet prevail. However, among Pākehā observers there was no division. Even clergy who had denounced Waitara pressed Waikato Māori to yield.
A newly elected House of Representatives met on 3 June. In the month before Stafford fell, Browne secured a unanimous address promising full co-operation if war should come. The accession of William Fox did not stem the drift to war; but at the same time, a secret committee concluded that troops in New Zealand were too few. In early July, several days before Fox took office, the report was adopted by the Executive Council: there would be no war without reference to the imperial government. In public, military preparation continued, and there were signs that pressure was weakening Waikato resolve. On 26 July McLean returned from a visit to Waikato with proposals for a conference: the following day Browne learned that Grey had been appointed his successor. Browne was not recalled; he served out the remaining months of his six year term.
By the time Grey arrived, in late September 1861, Browne had done everything possible to smooth his way, bearing in mind that he might choose either conflict or reconciliation. The Assembly was committed to co-operation in war. On the other hand, it had adopted unanimously a memorandum in which Browne outlined a comprehensive Māori policy, including local self-government, a training school for Pākehā and Māori entering the native service, and a Māori land tribunal. Funds on an unprecedented scale were put at Grey's disposal.
Browne was appointed governor of Tasmania, and from his new post, 'certainly the most comfortable Govt. in H.M.'s gift', he followed New Zealand events through his friends' letters. 'We are New Zealanders in heart & soul', he wrote in 1863. But he refused to enter the renewed controversy over the Waitara block after its surrender by Grey in May 1863. In July 1863 he was the only Australian governor to answer Grey's appeal by sending troops. Browne returned to England in December 1868 and received the KCMG in June 1869. Later that year, at the intercession of Edward Cardwell, he was appointed temporary governor of Bermuda for the short span necessary to qualify for a pension. He died in London on 17 April 1887.
Browne's analysis of racial problems was acute and the solutions he proposed far sighted, but success was impossible. Power, money, and – even more important – forbearance by settlers, were all lacking. To suppose that any policy could have prevented the Māori from being despoiled of their lands, or have averted armed conflict altogether, is to ignore the entire history of colonial settlement.
There is abundant testimony to Browne's attractive qualities as a man. His candour and public spiritedness impressed all who met him. One quality seldom noted is his magnanimity. Wiremu Kīngi remained to him 'a chivalrous though a mistaken fellow'. In reporting on a battle at Waitara on 23 January 1861 he described the outcome as 'highly creditable' to the troops but went on: 'and I must add glorious to the Māoris as proving their great skill & indomitable courage.' While Browne lived, his character and conduct never lacked defenders. Thereafter, he became the scapegoat not simply for the Taranaki war of 1860–61 but also for the immeasurably more destructive wars of 1863–70. Redress is overdue for 'a high-minded gentleman, & an upright and unselfish public servant.'