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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter I - Antecedents and Early Years


THE scene opens in Calcutta. The year 1859 had entered its closing quarter. All India had settled down into profound peace after the great convulsion. The Mutiny had been crushed. No longer did a vestige of rebellion linger anywhere in the land; and the closing act of retribution had been quite recently carried out, when Tantia Topee, the ablest of the leaders of the enemy, had expiated his crimes on the gallows at Cawnpore—the very site of the supreme atrocity, to which he had been more than consenting. The exciting times of 1857 were beginning to be regarded as almost ancient history. Her Most Gracious Majesty had assumed the sovereignty and rule of the land; Lord Canning was now her Viceroy, as well as Governor-General of India; and the event had, as it were, been blazoned in the heavens by the portent of a brilliant comet

Nowhere was there even the gentlest of breezes on the face of the waters, except perhaps, it might be thought, at the city and port of Calcutta, where the season cynically called the “Cold Weather” was assumed to have set in.

This little breeze or rippling of the waters was due to the outbreak of war with China, and to the local preparations for an expeditionary force that was to start from Calcutta to take part in the campaign there. These preparations were being vigorously pressed forward—the more vigorously that the destined leader of that force, Sir Robert (afterwards Lord) Napier, was present on the spot to see to them. This appointment of Sir Robert, and all that it implied, will be dealt with more fully further on. Here it suffices to mention that, as an epoch in the annals of the Royal Engineers, the corps to which he belonged, this command in China caused much pleasure, and no little excitement, among them.

At the same time, while the Engineers in Calcutta were elated with the improved prospects thus opening out to the corps, the periodical season for a little regimental curiosity and interest had arrived in the accession to their numbers of young officers from England—a curiosity which on this occasion was somewhat greater than usual, owing to the rumours that were afloat regarding one of them. He was written and spoken of as exceptional and unique; of an independent turn of mind and quite unconventional; of powerful physique, but with no swagger; able and many-sided, but without any assumption; not by any means in the Admirable Crichton style, but a good sort all round—genial, humorous, and a capital comrade; lastly, a true Scot, and given to “ganging his ain gait” He was said to have been brought up on the Continent, and to know and do all manner of things that no one else ever thought of doing or knowing. Thus ran the rumour, but rumours are apt to be tinged with exaggeration.

The youngster’s name was James Browne, but he was said to be more generally and more distinctively known as “Buster”—a name without a meaning, but with an expressive, buoyant, vigorous sort of sound, and one that he had inherited from an elder brother, ' who had met his fate in Havelock’s advance to the rescue of the Lucknow Residency garrison.

Young Browne duly reached Calcutta, and, for once, rumour had not been lying. He was found to answer the expectations that had been formed; but, not being allowed to join the force for China as he had hoped, he made but a brief stay in the metropolis, and embarked forthwith on his career in Upper India, where every Bengal Engineer available was urgently needed.

The earlier pages of James Browne’s career will show how thoroughly his education and the formation of his character and proclivities were due to the home education and personal guidance of his father, Dr. Robert Browne; and, at the same time, it cannot be questioned that the father was in all material points— moral, mental, and physical—the prototype of the son. Before, then, entering on “Buster’s” own career, a few words will now be said respecting Dr. Robert Browne’s antecedents.

Our scene therefore goes back half a century, and shifts from Calcutta to Scotland—to the historical district and town of Falkirk, of old the storm-swept outpost of Stirling Castle, the ancient citadel of the kingdom, peopled by a hard and sturdy race.

Robert Browne stands before us, a lad born and brought up in the manse of his father, the parish minister, widely known as a divine and a scholar. Imbued with the spirit and the lessons acquired from the old church at his door, then about to be restored, and from its relics, the tombs and monuments of the Scottish heroes of olden days, what wonder if Robert Browne was led, while still a boy, to adopt a career for himself, to quit his father’s home and to go for further study and special training to one of the Scottish universities—Edinburgh, Aberdeen, or St. Andrews

The times were exceptional and exciting. The war with France was in full swing; our empire in the East was advancing at a momentous pace; while Australia, Canada, and Greater Britain generally, were taking shape. Hence, felt Robert Browne, his career must be in foreign lands. So he now, while still a boy, joined the Universities first of St Andrews and then of Edinburgh, and, helping his finances by tutoring and bursarships, as was the habit of the times, studied finally in the science , and other classes, and won his position in the medical profession.

By this time, however, there was a certain amount of retrogression in young men’s prospects, for Waterloo had been fought, and with “gentle peace returning” there was a glut in the market of aspirants for employment; and this resulted in Browne’s starting in life as the doctor of a vessel on the India and -Australia Line. While thus engaged he had an opportunity of showing his worth when a grave epidemic, from which he was himself a severe sufferer, broke out in his ship. His skill and conduct attracted attention, especially from some of the older and more experienced passengers, by one of whom, Captain Whiteman, he was induced and helped to start in practice in Calcutta Captain Whiteman further remained a warm friend through life, and eventually becoming a director of the East India Company, gave appointments in its service to all Dr. Browne’s sons.

Dr. Browne then started on his career in Calcutta, and was successful in his practice, both with the English residents and with the native community. Among his habitual patients was a Mr. Van Plasker, a Dutch merchant who had lost his English wife, and whose only daughter was receiving her education in England. When, in due course, she returned to India to join her father, he was ill, and asked Dr. Browne to meet her on arrival and escort her to her home. This meeting resulted eventually in their marriage; and four years later, there being then no further necessity for remaining in India, and as their children would probably thrive better in an English climate, they left Calcutta in 1835.

After revisiting old friends and old scenes in England and Scotland they moved over to France, and at first lived at single anchor, so to speak, at Tours and Paris and at Le Havre, where James, their youngest child—the subject of this memoir— was born, on September 16th, 1839.

One point only need be mentioned in regard to their stay at Le Havre. It is that another of the English families resident there was that of Mr. Charles Pierson, with whom the Brownes formed a strong and lasting friendship. Their eldest son, William Henry Pierson, of nearly the same age as James Browne, became afterwards his class-fellow at Cheltenham, and eventually his brother officer in the Royal Engineers. Further, in still later years, as will be seen, James Browne married the Piersons’ only daughter.

James Browne, then, was born in France towards the end of 1839, and spent his childhood there till 1847, when the whole family migrated to Germany, first to Frankfort and afterwards to Bonn. The eldest son, John, had been bom in India, and was some five or six years older than James. The second son, Robert, was bom at Tours, and was only about a year his senior; and these two, Robert and James, the youngest of the whole family, were devoted to each other. From Germany the family returned for a couple of years to France, to Boulogne, and then, at the end of 1854, crossed over finally to England.

Throughout these first fifteen years of James’s life, Dr. Browne, as already casually mentioned, supervised fully and personally the education of all the three sons, adopting lines which were continuous throughout—whether in France or in Germany—and wholly different, intentionally, from those customary in the schools of England or Scotland. All religious instruction was given at home, very carefully and fully, as also a scholarly training in French and German, and in classics and history, especially Indian history, all of which the boys were taught direct and wholly by Dr. Browne. They went to the local classes, or gymnasia, for most other subjects of education and for such sciences as astronomy and geology, in which they became specially interested through the friendship of men on the spot, eminent in these subjects. There were no boys’ games, as in England. There had been none in Scotland during Dr. Browne’s youth. But athletics, swimming, fencing, and the like, were taught in local special schools.

All this implied a boyhood—a life—an education— very different from that of boys in England or Scotland; but the home life and the constant association with the families of their French and German friends formed a distinctive and effective feature of the education involved.

In holiday seasons they habitually revelled in walking tours with Dr. Browne, in such regions as Switzerland and the Black Forest, so that as the sons grew out of boyhood they had the experience and self-reliance of young men.

It may be added that from the earliest years James Browne developed an exceptional love and turn for music. It was a great joy and solace to him through life, though he was never actually taught music or singing properly or scientifically or as a lesson. There seems to have been, at one time, an idea or fear that his strong love of it might be prejudicial to his practical career.

Such were the education and life that helped to form James Browne’s personality and character by the time he was emerging out of boyhood, and on the eve of joining a public school in England, preparatory to special training for India. Though a thorough boy in heart, he was a man in mind and bent, even to being led and accustomed by his recent experiences to watch public affairs, to think of them, and to arrive at independent conclusions, not always those that might be popular or in fashion.

During all his years on the Continent stirring events had been going on in India, and the thoughts and attention of the family had been much turned towards them—such as the war and disaster in

Afghanistan, the conquest of Scinde, the war with Gwalior, and the first conflicts with the Sikhs; and latterly there had been the Punjab and Burma wars, followed by the annexations of those countries.

It may be observed, while dealing with this subject, that Dr. Browne, having before him the probability of a career in India for his sons, seems to have been careful to impress on them the evil in India of any bearing to the natives other than kindly, sympathetic, and friendly, and the importance of avoiding harshness and arrogance. During the time of his own residence in India no ground had arisen for bitterness or race antagonism. British arms and influence and methods were dominating the land and introducing order and social improvement. But, with all this, the mutual relations of the English and the natives—especially in Calcutta—had been excellent and kindly, and Dr. Browne had very successfully impressed on his sons such characteristics of the natives as formed the habitual features of the race in general.

In these later years a period of embroglios had begun in Europe itself—Italy and Bavaria, Austria and Hungary; and also France, especially Paris, had been the scene of war, revolts, or revolution; and Louis Napoleon had become emperor before the family came to reside temporarily in Boulogne; so that the time of “ Buster’s” youth had not been specially pacific. Then, at the end of 1854, the Crimean war had begun; and the family moved over to England to prepare James Browne for service in India, his elder brothers having already preceded him, for the same purpose.

It will be remembered that Dr. Browne had, in his young days, gained the friendship of his fellow-passenger, Captain Whiteman. This gentleman had now, in his older years, become a director of the East India Company, and remembering his early friend, he gave him appointments in the service of that company for all his three sons—one for the Civil Service to the eldest, John, and two Addiscombe cadetships for the younger ones, Robert and James; and it was in connection with these openings that Dr. Browne, as already shown, had sent John and Robert to England to prepare, the one at Oxford for Haileybury, and the other at school for Addiscombe. And now that these two elder sons were on the point of joining Haileybury and Addiscombe respectively, Dr. Browne, with his whole family, crossed the Channel to England, and proceeded to Cheltenham, where they settled temporarily, placing James as a pupil in the College early in 1855, and where too they renewed their friendship with the Pierson family, already resident there.

It was at Cheltenham1 College, then, that James Browne entered, early in 1855, for his special education and preparation for the military service of India. Of course, at first, at this English school he created something of a sensation, for while he spoke English perfectly, without any accent, though with a sort of burr, still it was obvious that he had been brought up abroad and was new to the ways and habits and games of English schoolboys. Hence at the start there was a natural and inevitable tendency to make fun of him. But this soon ceased, as he was exceptionally strong, hardy, and resolute, with the frame of an athlete, trained in the gymnasium both in Germany and France. Then his natural good-nature and his quaint humour won the day, and he forthwith became thoroughly popular and a leader in the school. He also, at once, took a good position in its classrooms, being placed in the highest form on the modern side, and standing at its head—neck and neck, both generally and especially in mathematics, with his Le Havre friend, Pierson.

What surprised James Browne, as it had before surprised his elder brothers, was the singular ignorance of the other boys in such general subjects as history and geography, as well as in foreign languages, and the neglect of them in the school course; while at the same time there was no part of its recognised curriculum in which he found himself seriously behindhand. All honour, then, to the old Scot—tenax propositi—who had lined out and carried through his own scheme of education for his sons, and was bringing it to so successful an issue!

Browne remained at Cheltenham for that one year, 1855, by the end of which the Crimean war was practically at an end, and the time had arrived to begin giving effect to the lessons which its blunders had taught the country—and also to develop, on a scale suitable to the greatness of England, other institutions and principles, of which the germs had been sown in the sensational fields of Crimean suffering and ardour, and with which the names of Florence Nightingale and of Hedley Vicars will ever be associated. Of the one, the fame is worldwide; to the other may be justly attributed the rise and growth of that higher moral tone and conduct in the men who fill our ranks, which have gradually become so marked, especially of late.

At the end of 1855, as Browne was to join Addiscombe in the following February, the family left Cheltenham altogether, and took up their residence finally and permanently in London.

His brother Robert had been already a year at Addiscombe, but had to remain on for another year to complete the residence required before he could get his commission; and so he returned there, taking James with him and introducing him in February, 1856. He had begun to make his mark—was prominent among the cadets for his strength and prowess at football, and had been given the title of “Buster.” As James soon showed similar qualities, he gradually became known as “young Buster,” the “young" being dropped in course of time. This Addiscombe football was not at all an organised methodical game, such as that played at Rugby or elsewhere, even as described in “Tom Brown," but a very rough-and-tumble business, with much horse play and little skill. The late Sir Charles Bernard afterwards began to introduce the more correct game; but he left Addiscombe early for Haileybury, and Addiscombe was itself abolished very shortly afterwards.

Robert Browne left Addiscombe at the end of the year 1856, receiving a commission in the Bengal Native Infantry. He did not possess the particular gifts or mathematical bent that were essential to the securing of a high position in the Addiscombe lists, but he stood high in general subjects—and exceptionally well in the regard of his comrades, by whom he was thought likely to come strongly to the front in practical life.

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