Topic: Tauranga’s True Historian by Betty Cole

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Betty Cole's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition focuses on missionary Reverend Alfred Nesbit Brown.

Looking strange? see an archived version here

Mythology formed the history of Tauranga and its surrounds before the arrival of the Reverend Alfred Nesbit Brown. He told the true history of the district and its people in his journals and letters to the Church Missionary Society in London.

Brown wrote only of Natives and Europeans. The words Maori and Pakeha were nowhere to be seen. Possibly they became popular as the missionaries developed the native language.

I first became interested of the work of Brown when I met Duff Maxwell, ‘life tenant’ of the Elms Mission House, Brown's home, in the 1980s. For forty years, except for Sundays, he conducted a daily tour of the mission buildings and gardens.

Born in Colchester, England on October 23rd 1803, Brown was ordained by the Bishop of London in 1827. Married in 1829 he and his wife Elizabeth sailed for New Zealand ‘under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society.’

Following five year’s working and training in Paihia he made his first exploratory journey to Tauranga. The same year he took charge of the newly-formed Matamata Mission Station.

On January 4th 1838 accompanied by Mrs Brown, his son Marsh and his daughter Celia, Brown arrived in Tauranga to take charge of the Te Papa Mission Station. Brown endeared himself to the natives, who looked on him as their ‘father’ and protector. 

He found them quick and attentive learners. A quote from his journal:

 “17 January 1841: An attentive congregation of 120 persons assembled at Divine Service this morning and evening. In the afternoon 108 attended school viz. 60 men, 27 women and 21 children. Examined the first class in two chapters of Daniel, which they read with much fluency.  The school, which is in charge of a Native teacher appears from his book to be attended with much regularity and the Natives are evidently progressing in knowledge”.

Brown was concerned about the natives’ health. He had come to the mission field to convert the natives to Christianity, but found he spent much of his time tending their diseases. He attributed their unhealthy state to their cannibalism and lack of hygiene. From his Journal:

 “24 January 1842: Chiefly occupied today by compounding and administrating medicines to sick Natives from the pas."

“26 May 1842: Most of the day taken up with attending the sick."

“10 June 1842" There is much illness amongst the Natives around us, which has occupied much of my time lately. Today I prepared 70 doses for the Maunga tautiri Natives.”

Cannibalism, combined with continual inter-tribal fighting, caused Brown much distress:

 “27 May 1842:  The ‘fighters’ have returned. They discovered on the road a place where the murderers had partaken of a cannibal feast. Part of the remains of three bodies lay beside the oven”.

Brown also records incidents where natives passed through the mission station carrying skulls and other parts of human remains. ‘Popery’ was another concern of Brown’s. He had been made Archdeacon, but refused a bishopric. Humble though he was in his religious teachings, he was staunch in his conviction that those of the Church of England were the only true believers. Another journal entry:

“19 August 1841.  The R.C. Bishop and three priests off the settlement.  A strange sight in Southern districts. The Papists seem determined to make a stand for Tauranga. Engaged this afternoon a class of 21 baptismal candidates. The contrast between the R.C. party and our own in respect of knowledge and consistent behaviour is most cheering.”

An onerous task was put upon the missionaries. It was them, not the government officials, who obtained the majority the natives' signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi:

“10 April 1840.  My brethren, who are assembled at Tauranga to hold a committee, gave up the day to procuring signatures of the Natives to the government treaty.”

Brown and his fellow missionaries travelled widely, by foot and canoe, and therefore they had more contact with the various chiefs. Often there were no canoes to cross the rivers so their journeys were aborted or elongated by continuing on foot. They travelled from Tauranga to the east and as far south as Taupo. However, inaccessibility to the Ureweras was most likely the reason that the Urewera chiefs did not sign the treaty.

The missionaries taught the natives to garden and farm. From Brown’s Journal:

“20 May 1842: 114 bags of potatoes brought by the Natives from Maungatapu in payment for testaments supplied to them some months since.”

The traders taught the natives to trade. Brown noted that as the natives learnt to trade their focus turned from religion to commerce.

Brown mentions little of his domestic life in his writings. He does record his constant battle with ‘opthalmia,’ and of travelling as far as Paihia to seek a cure for his continuing affliction. He also records the sad death of his son Marsh, aged fourteen. Marsh Street remains today in his memory. 

The weather features often in Brown's Journals.  Gales so bad as to not only cancel his away journeys, but to prevent him from holding outside services at the mission station.

Te Papa (Tauranga) was the only town in New Zealand to be owned by the Church Missionary Society. The area was one thousand acres (400 hectares.) It is recorded that, “The purchase did not exceed 20 pound” ($40), and that it was a “Peninsula on which emigrants are likely to settle.”

Brown's first house was of raupo. He built a free-standing library in 1839 to house his many books. Then followed the original chapel for his converted natives, European helpers and frequent visitors to the mission. Kauri timber was imported from Thames and Mercury Bay. 

The permanent house was started in 1839. Two European carpenters were employed: Hancock and Cavanagh. Hancock stayed four years, moving in 1845 to the safety of Auckland. In the same year, Cavanagh's workshop caught fire. He lost all his tools and the hand-wrought joinery for the house. 

In the Journal entry:

 “11-13 October 1847: Removed into our new house and took down the old raupo house.”

 In 1855 Archdeacon Brown's wife died. In 1860 he married Christina Johnston of Wellington.

From 1861 to 1863 there was war with the natives in Taranaki and the Waikato.  In 1863 British troops landed in Tauranga.  On 21 January 1864 the Durham and Monmouth regiments, a naval brigade and the Waikato Militia arrived in Tauranga. They took over some of the mission buildings. The natives were determined to fight with the British, but would not fight on mission land. 

They built a pa on Pukehinahina Ridge beside the gate in the fence that bounded the mission land. The natives then invited the British to fight.  On 28th April 1864, the eve of the Battle of Gate Pa, some of the British officers were invited to dinner at the Mission House. The artillery battle had already begun as they dined at the Oval Table. 

Of the eleven officers present that night only Dr William Manley, surgeon with the Royal Artillery, survived the Battle of Gate Pa. 

Archdeacon Brown went to the battle scene and read the service for the native dead.  On 2nd May 1864 he read the same service for the British dead, who were buried in the Mission Cemetery. Brown wrote, “Sometimes fear our missionary work is coming to an end.”

Much to Brown's dismay the mission land was surveyed for settlement by the Waikato Militia. He informed the Church Missionary Society. In 1867 four-fifths of the Missionary Society land was transferred to the crown.

1872 saw Archdeacon Brown keep seventeen acres (seven hectares) of land around the mission house, which was now known as the Archdeaconry. The Browns changed the name to the Elms after a grove of elms (later cut down.) Brown continued to minister to his native converts until his health forced his retirement in1883.  He died on 7 September 1884. 

Christina Brown lived at the Elms until her death in1887. She bequeathed the property to her niece Alice Maxwell, who in 1913 sold a large part of the seven hectares. Alice left the remaining house and gardens in the charge of her nephew, the aforementioned Duff Maxwell.


Archdeacon Alfred Nesbit Brown


This page archived at Perma CC February 2017

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Tauranga’s True Historian by Betty Cole

First Names:Alfred Nesbit
Last Name:Brown
Date of Birth:23 October 1803
Place of Birth:Colchester, England