'CELEBRATED ALL OVER AFRICA FOR HIS YARNS - The Tall Tales And Fast Times of 'Maori' Browne
On the evening of 9 December 1896, at the end of the operations to quell the recent revolt of the amaNdebele and Shona peoples in the British South Africa Company colony of ‘Rhodesia’, General Sir Fred Carrington and his staff entertained a guest to dinner in their improvised mess outside the settler village of Umtali. It was, according to one of Carrington’s staff, Major Robert Baden-Powell, a wonderfully convivial evening, enlivened by the story-telling of their famously garrulous companion;
To-night we had to dinner ‘Maori’ B., who was with me in the Native Levy in Zululand in 1888. Celebrated over Africa for his yarns of fighting and adventure. Originally of a fine old Irish family - arrested, while a schoolboy from Cheltenham on his way to shoot at Wimbledon, on suspicion of being a Fenian; enlisted as a gunner; blew up his father with a squib cigar; shot his man in a duel in Germany; biked into Lake Geneva; went to New Zealand, where for twelve years he fought the Maoris; ate a child when starving; and afterwards hunted the bushrangers in Australia; took a schooner in search of a copper island, or anything else of value; next, a Papal Zouave; under Colonel Dodge, in America, he fought the Sioux. When with Pullein’s corps in South Africa, his men shot at him while bathing; he beat them with an ox-yoke; they stole an ostrich and hid it; a row among themselves followed, begun by a Kentish navvy, who complained he did not get his fair share of the ‘duck’. B. denies that in the Maori war the Maoris displayed a flag of truce for more ammunition, but to ask the troops to stop firing shells into town, so as to let them have water - ‘else how can you expect us to fight?’ they said. Then he became a gold-digger; later, fought in the Gcaleka war, then the Zulu, Dinizulu, first Matabele campaigns, and lastly the present operations, in which he is a major in the Umtali forces. [i]
‘Maori B’ was just the sort of adventurer whose company Baden-Powell enjoyed. It was earlier in the same campaign that Baden-Powell had first met and befriended the American scout, Frederick Burnham, a man whom Baden-Powell declared ‘a most delightful companion on such a trip; amusing, interesting, and most instructive’, and who would provide something of the inspiration for Baden-Powell‘s most famous legacy, the Boy Scout movement. For Baden-Powell ‘Maori B‘ was clearly cut from something of the same cloth as Burnham, although perhaps a little rougher-hewn around the edges. If Baden-Powell was concerned by the more disturbing aspects of ‘Maori B‘s adventures - including the casual reference to child cannibalism - he made nothing of it, although his efforts to at least partially disguise his guest‘s full identity might suggest that he distanced himself from ‘Maori B‘s rather more maverick world view. Indeed, in his book on the 1896 Campaign Baden-Powell reproduced a photograph of ‘Maori B‘ in an absurdly gung-ho pose, distinctly offensive to modern sensibilities, pointing a gun at a cowering African. While the picture‘s inclusion undoubtedly suggests the degree of curiosity Baden-Powell felt about him, the decision to reproduce the picture so small that ‘Maori B‘ could not effectively be recognised might not have been a coincidence.
In fact there is little doubt about ‘Maori B’s identity - he was a British soldier of fortune called George Hamilton Browne (the name was not originally hyphenated, although he took to using that form in later life), a man whose extraordinary adventures were only matched by his self-conscious mythologizing of them, a man who enjoyed telling a good story with himself at the centre of it, and - to the frustration of modern historians - was seldom one to let the truth stand in the way of it.
According to family sources, George Hamilton Browne was born on 22 December 1844 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the son of Major George Browne of the 35th Regiment and his wife, Susannah. The Browne family seat was Comber House, in County Londenderry, Ireland, and George was one of nine children. He was given a public school education but by his own account he gained ‘far more laurels in the playing fields than in the lecture-rooms, for although I worked hard in a desultory way, still my best efforts were given to the play-ground and gymnasium’[ii]. He remained athletic in later life, and would retain a keen interest in boxing. Raised against the background of the sights and sounds of a military life adventure clearly seeped early into George’s blood. After schooling he was apparently sent to and academy in Lausanne - a fashionable enough route to a broader international outlook at the time - with a view to eventually joining the British Army. Browne looked back on his youth on more than one occasion, and in broadly similar terms to those outlined by Baden-Powell - a string of adventures and escapades involving restlessness, dramatic entanglements with women and a duel which, between them, apparently conspired to prevent him gaining admission to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich as an officer cadet. Instead, he ran away and joined the Royal Horse Artillery but was discovered by a relative and discharged as being under age. There followed, he said, another lady, another duel, and a flight across the Channel which resulted in his enlistment in the Papal Zouaves - the first taste of an essentially mercenary lifestyle which would characterise his career - and a whiff of action in the Italian War of Unification. Inevitably, given the faintly scandalous nature of these adventures, it is almost impossible to confirm any of them by reference of official sources.
By January 1866 Browne had arrived - allegedly - in New Zealand, and entered the defining period of his life which would establish his taste for frontier warfare in Irregular units. It earned him the nick-name ‘Maori’ - perhaps self-attributed - by which he was universally known thereafter. This period coincided with the later stages of the long struggle between indigenous Maori and settler societies in New Zealand, a time when the British government was steadily reducing its commitment of regular troops, and when the tough wars waged in remote areas against the last - and arguably most determined and skilful - independent Maori leaders was fought instead by local Constabulary and Militia units.
By his own account Browne left New Zealand about 1870. He claimed over the next two years to have fought against Australian bushrangers - who were certainly most active at this period - and to have been wounded. He may also have seen service in the American West but if so only briefly, for he was back in New Zealand by 1872 and serving in the Armed Constabulary. He was discharged at his own request in 1875 and tried his hand at running a pub but the venture failed and he left New Zealand under something of a financial cloud. He was troubled by money worries throughout his later life, and admitted himself that he was often reckless.
At the beginning of 1878 he arrived in southern Africa. He claimed to have a number of former acquaintances among the 1/24th Regiment - then serving in the closing stages of the 9th Cape Frontier War - and he volunteered to serve as an officer in Pulleine’s Rangers, an irregular unit formed by Lt. Col. Henry Pulleine of the 1/24th. With the end of the Cape Frontier War, and the breaking up of the Irregular units stationed there, Browne secured a commission as a major in the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, Natal Native Contingent, which was then being assembled for the imminent invasion of Zululand.
Browne was present with his battalion when the Centre Column crossed into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift on 11 January 1879, and was in the thick of the attack on the stronghold of the border chieftain, Sihayo kaXongo, the following day. On 20 January the column advanced to establish a new camp at the foot of iSandlwana hill and the following day most of the 3rd NNC were ordered to sweep forward through the Malakatha and Hlazakazi hills. Browne was present throughout the reconnaissance and during the overnight bivouac on the eastern end of Hlazakazi, and on the morning of the 22nd his men were ordered to clear parties of Zulus from the next line of hills, Magogo and Silutshana. They were in the middle of this operation when the commander-in-chief, Lord Chelmsford, instructed them instead to return to the camp at iSandlwana to assist in packing up the tents and baggage for a general column advance. Browne’s battalion had marched to within a few miles of iSandlwana when they became aware that the camp was under a heavy Zulu attack. Returning to a secure ridge next to the road behind them, Browne had sent urgent messages to Lord Chelmsford informing him of the attack, but had been unable to influence the battle’s outcome.
When at last Chelmsford was able to retire his forward detachments to iSandlwana, the camp had been over-run, and that night Hamilton Browne claimed to see the body of his old friend Henry Pulleine lying among the dead..
In the aftermath of the battle Browne was involved in a number of ruthless incidents which suggest that the attitudes implicit in Baden-Powell’s photograph of him were by no means posture alone. Returning on the morning of the 22nd from iSandlwana to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift - which had famously withstood an attack by the Zulu reserve overnight - Browne’s men, assisted by a number of regular infantry, passed over the field killing the Zulu wounded whom they found there. In Browne’s comment that ’it was beastly but there was nothing else to do’[iii] it is possible to trace an echo of the war without quarter which sometimes characterised the closing stages of the New Zealand campaigns. The 3rd NNC was disbanded shortly thereafter but Browne and a number of his officers remained at Rorke’s Drift, and took an active part in forward patrolling. On one occasion Browne recalls ambushing two Zulu diviners who were burning medicine to discourage the British - ’on turning the body over we found it was a woman’, he remarked, ’we neither of us expressed any regret’[iv].
Ordered to the Cape to help raise fresh Irregular troops Browne returned in time to join Lord Chelmsford’s new advance across the border at the end of March to relieve the beleaguered garrison at Eshowe. He took part in the battle of kwaGingindlovu on 2 April but was later sent back to the Cape again escorting Irregulars due for discharge. Badly injured in an accident on the way - he was crushed between a mule and its stall on board ship - he saw no further service in the Zulu campaign.
Instead he spent several months convalescing at the Cape where he met one Dolphina Spolander, whom he married on 25 June 1879. The couple were to have six children although Browne spent much of his time away from the marriage, adventuring in southern Africa. He served in the BaSotho ’Gun War’ on 1880, and in Sir Charles Warren’s Bechuanaland Expedition of 1884. In 1885 he was appointed adjutant of the Diamond Fields Horse. In 1888 he served with auxiliary troops again during the 1888 Dinuzulu rebellion in Zululand, where he first met Baden-Powell.
In 1890 Browne joined the British South Africa Company’s Pioneer Column to occupy Mashonaland in modern-day Zimbabwe. This was the beginning of several years involvement in the affairs of ’Rhodesia’. He apparently served under Major Forbes in the 1893 conquest of the amaNdebele, and, as Baden-Powell noted when he met him again in 1896, was commanding Umtali volunteers during the Rebellion.
His movements after the Rebellion are not entirely clear, although he had apparently acquired land and cattle in Rhodesia, only to lose his herds to the rinderpest epidemic that was sweeping across southern Africa. He does not seem to have taken part in the Anglo-Boer War, but by 1904 he was back at the Cape. Here, in May, Dolphina died, ushering in a period of protracted hardship for Browne. He had no financial assets to show for his adventuring, and it is thought that it was about this time that he sold his campaign medals - although he seems to have later assembled an unofficial set for dress wear. By 1908 he was back in London where his plight attracted some press attention;
Not all the men who have led the Empire’s troops to victory in the field come back to London to be feted and lionised. But rarely has anyone fallen on such hard times as Colonel G. Hamilton-Browne. Within thirty years, he put in fifteen years hard fighting in New Zealand and South Africa, yet his home is now a London lodging-house. He is penniless and been of late on the verge of starvation. He is willing even to black boots for a living. Unhappily his service has all been with irregular colonial corps, so the War Office has no pension for him ..Colonel Hamilton-Browne (‘Maori’ Browne as he was known in New Zealand) is sixty-two years of age … He finds himself penniless through loss of his cattle through disease in Mashonaland… [v]
Yet this press attention turned Browne’s luck once more. The report was spotted by a lady named Sarah Wilkerson, who recognised Browne’s name from years before;
…Colonel Browne, generally called ‘Maori’ because his first service was in New Zealand … is grey and sturdy, rather like Lord Roberts in appearance…Reduced to extremities, he lived for three weeks on the sale of his medals, and then applied to the Salvation Army. When his position was made known, he received assistance from many quarters. One day a letter came from a lady asking if he was the same Hamilton-Browne who had served in Zululand, and saved the life of a man whose name she gave. The lady had been engaged to the man whose life was saved, but he had died later in the Sudan and she never married. The correspondence with Colonel Browne led to a meeting and the acquaintance ripened into an engagement. The marriage took place today, and as the lady is wealthy, the vicissitudes of the veteran soldier are probably ended…[vi]
The marriage took place in 1909, and it seems to have been about this time that Browne decided to commit some of his adventures to paper. Perhaps Sarah encouraged him - although the need to find a new source of income was undoubtedly a factor. ‘I had made the Crown my fetish and my flag from early childhood’, he wrote with a touch of bitterness,
… and my own stupid and conceited mind reckoned it to be my bounded duty to fight for them, and that so long as the war continued I must continue to serve., no matter what it cost me in pecuniary and personal losses. This infatuation has stuck to me all my life, and is as quick now as it was then, my life in consequence, so far as gaining the good things of this world, being a wretched failure …as for your country, represented as it is by a gang of greedy, self-seeking politicians, you may starve in the gutter or rot in the workhouse. Therefore, my romantic new chum, when you see the chance to make money on the one hand, and fighting for your country on the other, you go for the money. There are plenty of bally fools such as I have been to do the fighting. Your paltry services won’t be missed…[vii]
Browne’s first book, With The Lost Legion in New Zealand, was published about 1911. The title is from a Kipling poem - ‘There’s a Legion that never was ‘listed, that carries no colours or crest’ - and is a rip-roaring account, written in the first person, of service in the Pai-Marire (‘Hau hau’) campaigns in New Zealand in the late 1860s and 1870s. After describing the misadventures of his youth, the narrator sails to New Zealand where he enlists in one of the Volunteer Colonial units, and subsequently takes part in a host of dangerous escapades and adventures, of skirmishes, patrols and ambushes. These adventures are brought to life in a series of dramatic drawings by S. Valda, in which the hero bears a marked resemblance to portraits of Browne himself.
Yet one thing strikes the modern reader as odd about the book. Although Browne gives the hero much the same childhood background and youth as himself, he refers not to him not by his own name but by a pseudonym, Richard Burke. Moreover, although stressing that ‘the main facts [my italics] are all strictly true. And that the men I have tried to depict lived, starved, fought and died in the very manner described in the book‘, Browne also refers in passing in the Preface to the ‘thousands of novels [my italics] …written with plots founded on splendid achievements’ and asks ’then why should one not be penned about the deeds of the Lost legion..’[viii]. Taken together, these comments suggest a very deliberate blurring of the boundaries of fact and fiction, and that perhaps With The Lost Legion was never intended to be strictly autobiographical in the way many readers at the time - and historians since - have assumed. It was - in one of Browne’s favourite words - a yarn, into which he poured a good deal of his own impressions - and many incidents appropriated from elsewhere.
The book was apparently a commercial success and Browne followed it up with a sequel, With The Lost Legion in South Africa, published about 1913. Curiously, the pretense of ascribing the adventures therein to a fictional character had, by that point, been abandoned - Browne wrote as himself, and the stories he told were his own.
The reasons for this change can best be explained by the reception his first book had when it reached New Zealand. Whatever subtleties Browne had intended by adopting a fictitious central character were lost there, where veterans of the real fighting were indignant to find many of their own exploits passed off as belonging to Richard Burke - and by implication to Browne himself. Moreover, it was clear that Browne enjoyed the company of hard-bitten, restless men such as himself, and throughout the book he describes his fellow ‘lost legionaries’ in such terms with considerable relish. At a time when New Zealand was striving to throw off its frontier image, and establish itself on the world stage, this in itself caused considerable offence. Major Christopher Maling, who had been a member of a small elite unit known as the ‘Corps of Guides’ raised during the Titokawaru campaign in 1869, found much of his own achievements attributed to Burke in With the Lost Legion, but it is difficult to tell from his response whether he was more affronted by this or by Browne’s characterisation of his comrades;
I have felt very sore about Browne’s With the Lost Legion in New Zealand not so much about his appropriating my particular part in the war but on account of his continued allusions to the drunken habits and cut-throat propensities of the Corps of Guides …It is only natural that I should feel annoyed that he should cast such vile aspersions on a body of men whom it would have been an honour to command and whom no commander would ever have allowed to commit the atrocities which G. Hamilton-Browne considers the correct thing to be done by men under his control..[ix]
The truth, argued officers who remembered Browne from his time in New Zealand, was very different from the picture suggested the book. Far from having served in the bloody campaign against Titokowaru, no record exists of Browne’s enlistment in the Armed Constabulary prior to 16 July 1872 - five months after the last effective shots of the New Zealand Wars were fired - and he was discharged on 31 October 1875. During much of that time he was stationed in the Taupo and Rotorua areas, and another distinguished veteran, Captain Gilbert Mair, recalled that
The Commanding Officer, Colonel Roberts, NZC, often detailed him to carry despatches to my force, and at time he was attached to my native contingent. He never had a higher rank than trooper … I remember the man perfectly. He was a stout, well-built fellow, very genial and cheery, and only remarkable for his knowledge of pugilism.[x]
According to both Maling and Mair Browne had never seen a shot fired in anger. Indeed, another officer - perhaps in an attempt to undermine the veracity of his observations about New Zealand life in general - went so far as to suggest that Browne not even been entitled to his New Zealand campaign medal, and had only acquired one by appropriating the records of another long-serving soldier named ‘Brown’ who had died.
Certainly, it is difficult to argue with the distinguished New Zealand historian James Belich’s judgement that, as far as any right to claim to himself a role as an active participant on the Wars, Browne was nothing more than a ‘soldier-charlatan’[xi].
If that is the case, then, how did Browne come to have such a detailed and convincing knowledge of campaigns of which he had no personal experience? Much of it undoubtedly came from mixing freely with the many members of the Constabulary who had taken a genuine part, and who were still serving in 1872, at the time of his own enlistment. In particular, it was noted that Browne was well acquainted with one Pierre de Faugeraud, a hard-drinking Frenchman who had served alongside Maling in the Corps of Guides, and whose real-life escapades form the basis of several incidents in With the Lost Legion.
It is worth noting, however, that Browne claimed to have sailed for New Zealand as early as 1866. Clearly such a claim cannot be taken at face value, but if it were true it would at least place him in the islands when the earlier phase of fighting was under-way, and it is not inconceivable that he might have enlisted in one of the Volunteer units under a false name - as many did - and the record of any service, whether active or otherwise, is therefore lost to history. Indeed, his mere presence in the settlements in the contested frontier area would have given him ample opportunity to absorb some of the impressions which make With the Lost Legion so apparently convincing.
It is equally possible, of course, that Browne simply brought forward the actual date of his arrival in New Zealand in order to validate the experiences he ascribed to Richard Burke, his alter ego - and that Mair and Gilbert were quite correct in judging his story of personal involvement a complete fabrication.
Either way, Browne had clearly enjoyed telling stories of the New Zealand Wars throughout his life, and had happily associated himself with them. It is impossible, now, to be certain as to whether he actively passed off other men’s adventures as his own - or whether he merely incorporated them into a pool of ’yarns’, and allowed others to draw their own conclusions. He could, no doubt, count of the fact that in Britain and southern Africa he was unlikely to bump into many who could contradict him - although it is reported that he did once encounter Maling in London. And if Maling had confronted him - well, given what we know of his character, one suspects Browne might simply have shrugged off any accusation of plagiarism, and taken refuge behind the obvious fiction of the narrative device of Richard Burke.
What can we make, then, of Browne’s crucial accounts of his time in southern Africa, and in particular of the iSandlwana campaign? In With the Lost Legion in South Africa he has, of course, abandoned his reliance on a fictional narrator, and - no doubt aware that he was therefore much easier to call to account - has largely stuck to genuine personal impressions. Most of these can be confirmed by comparison with official reports and the diaries and letters of other participants. It is interesting to note, however, that where two accounts by Browne of the same incident exist - usually in an official report and in his memoir - the version in the book is markedly more sensational. In telling the story of the crossing at Rorke’s Drift on 11 January 1879, for example, Browne suggests that several men from his battalion of the NNC were swept away in the water and drowned but ‘I do not know how many …I had never received a long roll of them when I took over command, and but few returns were ever sent in’[xii]. This incident was made much of in the 1978 feature film Zulu Dawn, but in fact NNC casualties were habitually noted in official returns - and none exist for 11 January. Nor do any other independent sources mention any such losses.
Browne’s first two books seem to have been well received, and indeed he was to write a third and final one, Camp Fire Tales of the Lost Legion, c. 1913, which was a wide-ranging compilation of anecdotes of adventure - allegedly his own - from around the world, including New Zealand. By then an old man, Browne and his wife moved to Jamaica following the outbreak of WW1, and there, after protracted ill health brought about by a lifetime of hardships, he died in a nursing home in February 1916.
If the story that Sarah had been a wealthy woman at the time of her marriage just seven years before is true, Browne’s financial recklessness must have continued to the very end. In 1920 the New Zealand Government received a letter from the Lady Superintendent of a munitions depot in England regarding an elderly lady who was then at work there;
Her husband, the late Colonel G. Hamilton-Browne, fought again and again in the Maori Wars … I am taking the liberty of writing to ask if it is possible for the Government of New Zealand to do something for Mrs Browne as I am thinking that the work of this depot (repairing soldiers’ clothing) will not last much longer and feel sure that it will be hard for Mrs Browne to get any suitable employment again. I feel so sorry for the poor woman, so reduced in circumstances.[xiii]
Perhaps the sympathetic Lady Superintendent had addressed her appeal to the wrong Government. Whether the Union of South Africa - for whom Browne had so genuinely and assiduously waged war for more than a decade against the indigenous population - or that of Rhodesia might have been moved to help is not known, but in the light of the controversy surrounding his claims, the Government of New Zealand most certainly was not.
NOTE; This article was first published in Soldiers of the Queen, the Journal of the Victorian Military Society.
[i] The Matabele Campaign 1896 by R.S. S. Baden-Powell, London,
[ii] With the Lost Legion in New Zealand by Col. G. Hamilton-Browne, London, c. 1911.
[iii] A Lost Legionary in South Africa by Col. G. Hamilton-Browne, London, c.1913.
[v] Cutting in the National Archives of New Zealand, Defence Department file on George Hamilton Browne, MW/1989, reproduced in Barbara Cooper’s George Hamilton-Browne; An Investigation Into His Career in New Zealand, Historical Review; Bay of Plenty History Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, November 1985. Cooper’s article ably outlines the case against Browne in New Zealand.
[vii] With the Lost Legion in New Zealand.
[ix] Letter, C. Maling to G. Mair, 20-7-1916, Alexander Turnbull Library, reproduced in Cooper, George Hamilton-Browne.
[x] Cutting in the National Archives of New Zealand, Defence Department file on George Hamilton Browne, MW/1989, reproduced in Barbara Cooper’s George Hamilton-Browne; An Investigation Into His Career in New Zealand, Historical Review.
[xi] I Shall Not Die; Titokawaru’s War, New Zealand 1868-1869, by James Belich, Wellington, 1989.
[xii] A Lost Legionary in South Africa.
[xiii] Reproduced in Cooper, George Hamilton-Browne.