ONE hundred years ago next week, missionary and explorer George Brown died in Australia having spent much of his life on the islands that are sprinkled like a skyful of stars across the Pacific Ocean, attempting to convert cannibals to Christianity.
He fled to the seas around Papua New Guinea because, he said, “it was the farthest place from England”. More specifically, it was the farthest place from his hometown of Barnard Castle and, in particular, the farthest from his stepmother.
This is a little embarrassing because his father, also George Brown, has a celebrated place in newspaper history: it was he who founded the Darlington & Stockton Times, the weekly sister paper of The Northern Echo.
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George Snr had himself been orphaned at the age of 13 and had started work as a solicitor’s office boy. He rose to become a barrister, secretary of the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway, clerk to the Barney Board of Heath, founder of the Mechanics Institute as well as the proprietor and first editor of the D&S Times which he first published from 26, Horsemarket on October 2, 1847.
Before that, in 1841, George Snr’s wife, Elizabeth, died, when George Jnr was just five. George Snr remarried, and the problems began.
In his early teens, George Jnr started work as an assistant to the Barnard Castle doctor, Isaac Cust. “After nearly blowing up the establishment in trying to make hydrogen gas and afterwards preparing some phosphorus fire-bottles which created a sensation in the streets, it was consider that I had no special gifts for the medical profession,” George wrote in his autobiography of 1907.
As he was taking these first explosive steps, cholera visited the town, killing scores of people. George fell dangerously ill, and when he recovered, he fled the epidemic and his stepmother to Sunderland. Aged 15, he became a cook on a schooner named Savage, but jumped ship when it was discovered he couldn’t make a plum duff.
He then worked for a Hartlepool draper, rowing out to sell goods to ships anchored just off the coast – this suggests he was involved in smuggling, bringing contraband back to shore.
From there he embarked on the Santipore which took him via the Mediterranean to Canada. In Quebec, he fell from a ladder into the Santipore’s hold and broke his leg. This meant he couldn’t continue on the voyage, which was fortuitous as the Santipore soon sank with the loss of all hands.
Although his leg mended, his heart was broken by a Canadian love affair. With his father beseeching him to come back to Barney, he sailed on the Duke of Portland for as far away as possible: New Zealand. On board, were a couple of Methodist bishops and in conversations on the long voyage, he saw the light, and decided to become a missionary.
He was ordained as a Methodist minister, and married a “helpmeet”, Lydia, herself the daughter of a missionary “whom I had long thought to be best qualified for the position”. They honeymooned by sailing to their first bamboo home on Samoa, an island so far flung that it is about 2,000 miles east of Australia.
Here they lived for 14 years, preaching, teaching and healing – even George’s explosive experiments at the doctor’s became useful in helping the islanders. George immersed himself in the Samoan culture, learning the local language, gaining a reputation as a fair friend, and beginning his collection of artefacts for which he is still renowned today.
Officially there to spread the word of Christ, explorer-missionaries like George were also spreading the influence of Britain. But Germany was also after territorial influence. On one occasion, German traders left some villagers some trinkets and some guns which they turned on their neighbours. George kept the peace by sitting between the warring villages.
In 1875, he and Lydia and their growing family were posted to the Duke of York Islands, which lie off Papua New Guinea. He was now described as a “pioneer missionary”, and he found himself living among cannibals.
On the island of New Ireland, he visited a native house in which 35 human jawbones were displayed – the remains of previous guests. On a coconut tree outside were 76 notches – one for each human that had been devoured.
George tried to interview the village chef but found him desperately distracted by “some culinary preparations” going on just down the road. Over stones, a human thigh and leg, freshly killed the day before, were being roasted for the chief’s evening meal.
The most notorious incident came in April 1878 when a chieftain named Taleli killed and ate, with yams, four European Methodist teachers on the island of New Britain. George, as head of the European contingent on the archipelago, led a punitive expedition against the cannibal chief, burning villages and killing between ten and 80 natives.
The Blanche Bay Affair caused a furore in the Australian and British press – this wasn’t how a missionary was expected to behave. The British and German authorities investigated and George was called to account for himself before the Chief Justice in Fiji, who congratulated him for his prompt action in protecting the European residents. It was noted how the natives had immediately submitted to the incomers and they all now lived in peace.
In the early 1880s, George relocated to Australia to take up more conventional Methodist work in president, looking after all the missionaries in the South Seas and becoming president of the New South Wales Methodist conference – a great honour. He continued visiting places like Tonga, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and, in 1886, Barnard Castle.
He was in the UK to attend a conference in London, and this seems to have been the prodigal son’s only trip home after he fled as a 15-year-old.
His father had died at the age of 58 in 1868 – he’d only edited the D&S Times for its first 18 months before he sold it to stockbrokers Robert and William Thompson who moved it into Darlington – but was so well regarded in Barney that the Brown Memorial Unitarian Chapel had been built in Newgate in 1870 (it was near to where the parish hall is today in front of St Mary’s church).
George Jnr preached there during his 1886 visit as well as at the Methodist chapel at the foot of Galgate.
Then it was back to farflung places on the other side of the world. In 1890, on a boat to Samoa, George befriended Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, who was so impressed by the Christian who converted cannibals that he offered to write his life story. Although they remained friends, it never came off, and in 1907, Hodder & Stoughton of London published George’s hefty autobiography.
He died near Sydney at the age of 81 on April 7, 1917. Three weeks later, a memorial service was held in the Galgate church. The Reverend Robinson Lang said: “This missionary-explorer was a great figure in British Methodism, with a unique record of glorious service among savage people, and whose name is held in greatest honour throughout the South Seas.”
The Reverend WW Walton, who had visited him in Australia, said: “Dr Brown was a great man, and Barnard Castle has never produced in real manhood a greater man.”
In its obituary, the newspaper founded by his father described George as “the distinguished missionary and pioneer of Empire in the South Seas”.
It also said: “Dr Brown’s missionary career continued for 48 years, during which he made a collection which for ethnological interest could scarcely be surpassed.”
In 1920, 74 packages arrived from Australia at the Bowes Museum. The packages contained George’s collection of 3,004 objects, like shields, spears, carvings, bags and jewellery, plus 2,000 photographs and 1,000 corals, shells and butterflies. They were displayed in the George Brown Room, which opened in 1924.
In 1953, the collection was sold for £2,000 to King’s College, Durham, which in 1963 became Newcastle University. In 1984 that institution sold it to the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan, for £600,000, where it featured in a major exhibition in 1999.
On the 100th anniversary of his death, George will be remembered in prayers in the Galgate church, where his memorial remains, and we believe that every April 7 is George Brown Day on the scattering of islands in the southern seas which are about as far from Barney as you can get.
With many thanks to Alan Coustick of Barnard Castle for his help, and also to the late Mary Lowes