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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 12 (March 1, 1935)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 24 — Professor J. Macmillan Brown — A Great Teacher, Writer And Traveller

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 24
Professor J. Macmillan Brown
A Great Teacher, Writer And Traveller

Professor John Macmillan Brown, M.A., Chancellor of the Uni-University of New Zealand, who died in Christchurch at the age of eighty-nine, on January 18th of this year, will live in the Dominion's history as the greatest pioneer of education in these islands, and as a vigorous and tireless rover of the Pacific in the cause of scientific enquiry. He was closely identified with the Canterbury University College from its foundation, and he left a fortune for the establishment there of a School of Pacific Islands Studies. He was an English and classical scholar of high attainments, and he was a keen investigator in the field of anthropological research in Polynesia and other parts of the Pacific. He was an eloquent speaker and writer, a philosopher, and an earnest advocate of the claims of higher education for all.

(S. P. Andrew photo.) The late Professor J. Macmillan Brown.

(S. P. Andrew photo.)
The late Professor J. Macmillan Brown.

The late Professor Macmillan Brown was emphatically one of those men who leave the country the better for their presence in it. He was not only a great educationist and a leader in the arts and sciences, but he was a warm-hearted humanist, whose thought was ever for the advancement of his fellows in the knowledge and the culture that make a nation great. He saw beyond his time; he was a prophet and a guide; and from his death-bed he spoke his last words of counsel and warning to the people; his last address as Chancellor of the University of New Zealand was read on his behalf in the Senate only a few hours before he died.

For sixty years he had been a leader in scholarship and progressive thought in New Zealand; and his last thought was for the advancement of those studies which should be peculiarly the province of this country at the gates of the wide Pacific.

His Professorial Career.

Macmillan Brown's early scholastic work was both solid and brilliant. The foundations of his great attainments were laid in his native Scotland, where he studied in Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. Scholarships gave him an entrance into Balliol College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself in English and classics. He came under the splendid influence of Dr. Jowett, the famous Master of Balliol, and he met, through Jowett, such men as Matthew Arnold and Swinburne. He wrote a great deal before he came to New Zealand, and he was offered newspaper editorial work, but an offer of the Professorship of English and Classics in the just-founded Canterbury College brought him to New Zealand in 1874.

It was very strenuous toil; the eager young Scots scholar threw himself into the work with all his heart, and he was working sixteen hours a day, so enthusiastic was he for the advancement of his classes. He had to give up the classical side of his work, but he soon took on the teaching of political economy and history. For twenty years he was the great driving force in the life of the college. He was a member of the New Zealand University Senate since 1877, and for the fourteen years before his death he was Chancellor. His annual addresses were always looked forward to as likely to contain stimulating and discussion-provoking thought; nothing that Macmillan Brown said was perfunctory or lacking in fire and the spirit of leadership. He delighted in shaking up the dry bones of indifference and laissez faire; he was unceasing in his appeals to the country's legislators for greater practical support of the cause of higher education.

Voyaging in the Pacific.

Macmillan Brown was fifty years old when he began a new phase of activity, a life that led him cruising about the Pacific Ocean until he became the most travelled of all New Zealand's writers and publicists, and indeed probably the greatest scientific traveller in the world. When failing eyesight forced him reluctantly to give up his professorial work he realised that, as he could not continue to read and write by artificial light he would have to seek the regions of longest sunshine and short winters or no winters. So he became a rover of the Pacific, seeking the sunshine of the tropic lands. He reconstructed his whole scheme of life, and turned his necessity to profitable account by studying the racial origins and problems and social anthropology of the Pacific Islands peoples.

“From Island Unto Island.”

For thirty years he travelled about the Pacific, in all kinds of vessels, finding his way to the most remote places. page 14 His first study was Hawaii, with its strange mixture of races, and he gradually explored the other groups and the East Indies, Japan and the shores of Asia, until he knew the whole Pacific, literally from China to Peru. When he returned to New Zealand from one of his early voyages he told me that Mr. S. Percy Smith, who had about that time retired from the position of Surveyor-General of New Zealand, had been one of his sources of inspiration in Polynesian matters and had encouraged him to apply his scientific mind to problems which the Polynesian Society had been formed to investigate. Mr. Smith made several South Sea cruises to gather traditions bearing on Polynesian origins and migrations; and Macmillan Brown, though not a Maori-Polynesian linguist as Percy Smith was, greatly extended the original scope of investigation. He took the whole Pacific as his field; and he studied not only ethnological matters but also economic conditions and political issues. He entered every country with an open mind; he was never content to accept the views of earlier investigators; he delighted to propound new theories and hammer home novel conclusions. Some of his theories seemed to me to be based on inadequate data; nevertheless they were always thought-provoking, stimulating further enquiry.

Discomforts and difficulties of travel in the Pacific never deterred the vigorous and enthusiastic Macmillan Brown from searching out islands where some questions waited to be solved or at any rate discussed. He voyaged in all kinds of vessels, from ocean liners to small auxiliary-screw schooners. He contrived to visit even half-forgotten Rapa, most southerly of Eastern Pacific Islands, and he made repeated attempts, at last successful, to reach the most wonderful and enigmatical of all places, Easter Island.

The Riddle of the Pacific.

It was through the courtesy of the Chilian Government that he set foot on that island of the strange stone men. A vessel of the Chilian Navy, a square-rigged training ship, made a call at Wellington in 1924, when bound from Australia to Valparaiso, for the special purpose of giving him a passage to Easter Island; and on that sail-and-steam voyage across the wide stretch of the Pacific he increased his knowledge of Spanish. He was the greatest scientific enquirer of all those who had visited mysterious Rapanui, but even he, who brought to bear on that uncanny island of the giant images all the powers of his keen brain, could not claim that he had solved its anti-quarian problems. “The Riddle of the Pacific”—the fitting title of his book on Easter Island—remains an eternal conundrum.

I have often thought that had a good speaker of Maori from New Zealand visited Rapanui while there were still some of the old wise men living, he could have gathered information that would have solved the mystery of the island and its quarries and statues. But the atrocious raids of the Peruvian slave-ships in 1863 ruined Rapanui; the ruffian Spanish kidnappers from Callao carried off most of the inhabitants for forced labour, and the native priests and legend-keepers were among those stolen.

Macmillan Brown, like his predecessors, arrived on the scene too late to do much but describe the antiquities and the melancholy spirit of the island, and to propound fascinating theories about the vanished lands of the Pacific.

Books and Lectures.

Those Pacific cruisings of the active little professor, which criss-crossed all the wide ocean, gave him material for several books, dealing with the origin and culture of Maori and Polynesian, the Dutch East Indies, and other topics arising out of racial migrations and the mingling of races. Primitive man in Oceania presented endless questions for discussion and solution. Nothing in the Pacific escaped his eye or brain. He discussed such subjects as the origin and development of artistic design and artcraft, the origin of the Maori curve and spiral in carving, in a way that revealed the great breadth and range of his observations.

He talked publicly even more than he wrote. The professorial manner was always with him, but he never wearied his hearers. He was the most fascinating and charming of teachers and lecturers. I first made his acquaintance in Christchurch in 1906, and I remember well how pleasant it was to listen to the greatly learned man discuss all manner of men and places, and reveal every now and again some unexpected treasury of knowledge, the garnerings of his travels. That was at his home beside the glistening waters of the little Wairarapa, where grand old trees bent over the quiet stream. In his later years he built a pretty home on the Cashmere Hills, high above Christchurch city, where he could look out over the green glory of the plains to the snowy glint of the far-away mountains. There lies Macmillan Brown, returned to the earth beside the city where he taught with all the loving fire and energy of youth sixty years ago. He will never be forgotten. His books are his memorial; but an even greater memorial will be the School of Pacific Studies for which he left the greater part of the wealth he had gathered by wise investments and savings.

Professor Macmillan Brown's wife (who died in 1903) was a very gifted woman, a fitting mate. She was Helen Connon, M.A., the first woman to graduate with honours in a British University; she became Principal of the Christchurch Girls' High School.

An Appeal to Reason.

There is a pathetic interest as well as solid value in Macmillan Brown's last address to the University Senate, read on his behalf by the Pro-Chancellor, the Hon. J. A. Hanan, while the grand old teacher and prophet lay dying. It sounds now like a bugle call, not to war but to the
(Rly. Publicity photo.) Canterbury University College, Christchurch, where the late Professor J. Macmillan Brown spent twenty strenuous years of his life as teacher.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Canterbury University College, Christchurch, where the late Professor J. Macmillan Brown spent twenty strenuous years of his life as teacher.

page 15 leaders of thought among us to rally to the cause of peaceful liberty and freedom, the true education of humanity which should make wars impossible. Some extracts are the essence of wisdom.

“The only chance of suppressing or even limiting the scope of the destructive art of the armament-makers,” wrote Macmillan Brown, “is greater intelligence in the human race, and this can be attained chiefly by education. Educational institutions have the youth of a country in the formative or plastic stage, and that is the stage when it is easiest to develop intelligence; it is on this that the keen outlook and wisdom of the succeeding generations depend. And without this keenness of outlook and wise penetration in mankind, war and the preparation for war, the source of most human misfortunes, will never be traced to their true source, the net-work of armament-making. And when the human race as a whole see plainly when their disasters come, they will, led by their wise statesmen, take measures to extirpate this destructive art and its masters.

“Next to experience and competition during the lifetime it is education makes the intelligence of man to increase. Improve the environment and man grows more intelligent. The broader, the longer and the more extensive and intensive the education is the greater the rise in the quality of the environment. Races, ages, and nations are more truly distinguished from each other by their system of education than by any other feature. Its growth is the growth of civilisation.”

The wise old man returned again and again to his appeal for disarmament. So long as the fear of war existed in the international mind, so long the existing depression would oppress the world and choke the channels of commerce. And he lamented the pride of man, little man. Humanity had many millions of years to travel before realising how minute is the place of this earth in the cosmos. Telescopes revealed “billions of universes that dwarf our little world;” but man would still think himself as the centre of it all.

Education, education in the highest sense, is now more necessary than ever—that was the burden of the great philosopher's dying call to his fellow-New Zealanders.

From the Engine Cab.

In a special appeal to motorists for care at level-crossings, an engine-driver, speaking from 2Ya Wellington recently, put the position very clearly, as the following extract indicates:—

“An engine-driver may, during a shift, pass more than one hundred railway signals, all of which have to be obeyed. The passing of one at danger, may spell disaster to himself and his passengers. He also has other things to think about. He has to run to a timetable. He has to use judgment in regulating the speed. Tablets have to be exchanged. An occasional hot bearing may add to his troubles. He also has, as you have, his homesicknesses. I will not bother you with any more of the engine-driver's anxieties, but just mention those few to show you that although there are various important matters to be attended to, firmly fixed in the engine-drivers' mind is the obeyance of all signals whether they be clear or danger signals.

“Mr. Motorist, I have explained how we must pass and treat all signals, probably over a hundred in one day. Am I asking too much of you to stop, look and listen at all level-crossings? I do not suppose the majority of you will cross half a dozen in one day.”

An Appreciation.

As a sample of the rail traveller's appreciation of the courtesy and helpfulness of the Railway staff in New Zealand, we have pleasure in reproducing the following letter recently received by the Chairman of the Government Railways Board, Mr. H. H. Sterling, C.M.G., from a grateful resident of Te Awamutu:— I wish to call your attention to the courtesy, help, and consideration accorded me by your officers at Te Awamutu recently, and to assure you of my sincere appreciation of the same.

Briefly, the facts are as follows:—On or about 17th December I rang our Stationmaster (Mr. R. H. Annibal) asking for three reserved seats on an express train leaving here about 8.20 on the morning of the 23rd December.

On or about the 19th December Mr. Annibal advised me per phone that no seats were available on that train, but he had reserved the seats on an extra express leaving here about 4.40 on the same morning.

Now, Sir, there was no need for him, or his staff, to go out of their way to secure me accommodation, and I greatly appreciate the consideration and trouble that the local officers went to in this matter.

When returning from my leave the Stationmaster at Wellsford was courtesy itself. I rang him and asked for seats on the Opua-Auckland express and Auckland-Wellington Limited on the 4th instant. A few days prior to coming home, and when I got to the Wellsford station the reserved seat tickets on both trains were available. I cannot speak too highly of your officers' courtesy, and want to assure you of my appreciation of the services rendered me.

An old Wellington identity, full of years but still devoted to his pipe, when asked which smoke of the day he preferred, replied with a smile, “I have no preference. To me all smokes are equally good. Why, I often wake in the night and have a whiff! Bad habit? Ha! ha! So it is. But like some other bad habits it's very enjoyable! I used to smoke ordinary plug, but for years past I've been smoking Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead) and I find I not only get more enjoyment out of it but can smoke it with absolute impunity, and that makes all the difference. There are other toasted brands, but I don't want anything better than Cut Plug No. 10.” “The other toasted brands” referred to are Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold. All are of superfine quality and all are quite harmless. “Toasted” is imitated, but never equalled, or even approached. It's inimitable! And year after year the demand increases. There's no finer, purer, or better tobacco manufactured. It's on sale everywhere.*

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