Page 1: Biography
Soldier, military leader, writer, impostor
This biography, written by Bryan D. Gilling, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
George Hamilton-Browne, who posed as a hero of the New Zealand wars, was born in Ireland, probably between 1848 and 1851. He claimed that his father was George Browne, a major in the 44th Regiment; his mother's name is unknown. As a young man he drifted to New Zealand, enlisting on 16 July 1872 in the Armed Constabulary. After a period of undistinguished service as a trooper, in what was essentially a peace-keeping force, he was discharged at Taupo in October 1875. For a year or so he had no permanent employment. In early 1877 he became the publican at Te Wairoa, Lake Tarawera, for a short time before leaving, in debt, for South Africa.
By 1879 Hamilton-Browne was in Natal and participated in the Anglo-Zulu war, commanding a battalion in the irregular Natal Native Contingent, apparently on the strength of his claimed experience in New Zealand. He proved to be a passably competent commander, but his attitude to his troops was brutal and contemptuous. He was a spectator of the British defeat at Isandhlwana, where his men were too starved and exhausted to fight. Later, he briefly commanded what was to become the nucleus of the Natal Horse; he then saw further service in Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Mashonaland, and in Matabeleland in the 1890s.
Falling upon hard times, in 1908 'Colonel' Hamilton-Browne, as he styled himself, sought a pension from the British government, on the basis of active military service in New Zealand from 1866 to 1871. He claimed, in English newspapers, to have obtained the New Zealand War Medal and a captaincy in the Armed Constabulary Field Force.
George Hamilton-Browne's alleged achievements prompted a New Zealand government investigation in late 1908 and early 1909, which found evidence of his serving only after hostilities had ceased. Several colonial officers recalled him as a dispatch rider in the Taupo Armed Constabulary. One speculated that he might have obtained his New Zealand War Medal when one of his companions, Henry Brown, died: by adding an 'e' to the name on Henry Brown's medal, he would have been able to produce apparent evidence of his war service. Hamilton-Browne was not granted a pension, but the publicising of his financial plight resulted in his marriage on 1 January 1909 to a wealthy woman, Sarah Wallis Wilkerson. She believed that during the Anglo-Zulu war he had saved her fiancé, who had later died in the Sudan. It is possible that Hamilton-Browne had been married before, as he described himself as a widower on the marriage certificate.
Although his initial claims were rejected, Hamilton-Browne wrote two books about the wars in support of his assertions: With the lost legion in New Zealand (1911) and Camp fire yarns of the lost legion (1913). The former seems to be a participant's detailed account of the campaigns against Titokowaru and Te Kooti. Its fictionalised hero, Richard Burke, is a young Irish gentleman who, after early training as a British officer, becomes a colonial scout, eventually gaining a commission in the Armed Constabulary. Burke participates in every important action of the period, the military career portrayed approximating the actual one of Christopher Louis Maling of the corps of guides.
The book itself relates a plausible and often exciting tale, and is written in a bluff, robust style. The narrator, Burke, criticises any leader, such as Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, who is not aggressive enough for his taste, and praises Colonel G. S. Whitmore and Lieutenant Thomas McDonnell, who are. In his later book Hamilton-Browne abandons the 'Richard Burke' pseudonym and identifies himself as the narrator. Since his entire service was after the cessation of all hostilities, his tales of combat, though accurate in general terms, derived from bar and barrack-room reminiscences, probably improved by some research on a visit to New Zealand in the late 1890s, during which he was convicted of forging a cheque and placed on probation for a year.
George Hamilton-Browne died in Jamaica, probably in 1916, leaving Sarah Hamilton-Browne destitute. It is not known when or where she died. There seem to have been no children of the marriage. While Hamilton-Browne was clearly an impostor, his influence as a writer on the New Zealand wars was enduring. Some of his principal contemporaries, including Gilbert Mair and Christopher Maling, were swift to challenge the truthfulness of his books. However, their condemnation was often overlooked, and Hamilton-Browne was still being cited as an authority as late as 1959.