Robert Brown (23 March 1842 – 26 October 1895) was born in Camster, Caithness, (north-east) Scotland. He was a son of farmer Thomas Brown. Robert Brown took the habit of referring to his home town, Camster (Campsterianus), to distinguish himself from his famous contemporary of the same name: Robert Brown of Montrose.
When the Brown family moved to Coldstream, Berwickshire, it brought Brown closer to the centres for study. As a young undergraduate, Robert Brown displayed an inclination for travel. Early March 1861, at the age of 19, he interrupted his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, where he was a prize-winner in botany, and took a position as a surgeon and naturalist on board the ship “Narwhal”. The party went on a whale and seal hunt, visiting the seas of the extreme Northern Islands of Zetland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, Greenland, and the western shore of Baffin Bay (N.W.T.), returning in October.
In 1862 a new opportunity for travel occurred when the Botanical Association of Edinburgh offered Brown a position as “seed collector” in Oregon. On 23 February 1863 Brown accepted. He sailed from South Hampton on 2 March 1863 and (with a ten day stop in San Francisco) arrived in Victoria on 6 May. Brown soon became acquainted with Governor James Douglas and Gilbert Malcolm Sproat. After arrival on 25 May in Alberni, his first expedition was to the Great Central Lake, Sproat Lake (which he named), Alberni Inlet, and Nootka Sound. Toward the end of June he travelled the Seattle area and on 1 September he went to New Westminster with the intention to travel up the Fraser River. He eventually set out to Lillooet and was back in Victoria toward the end of September. In October he went to Alberni for a second time to explore the Great Central Lake again after which he returned to Victoria for the winter. Brown’s Scottish sponsors were dissatisfied with the seeds he had sent back from these expeditions. Without funds for an independent exploration and dissatisfied of the Botanical association’s view of him, as a mere seed-collector rather than a botanist, he seized the opportunity of gaining a new sponsor, the “Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition.” On 6 May 1864 Brown sent in his application letter to the VIE-Committee in which he wrote; “At request of several of your members I beg to offer my services as leader of the expedition. …I’m in possession of numerous reports which under my guidance might lead to something important.”
Brown competed with two other candidates for the position of expedition leader but he clearly had the most favoured credentials. In his application letter Brown had already stated that he would offer his services for free (since he already received a small honorarium from his other employer, the Botanical Association of Edinburgh). Also he was already acquainted with many members of the VIE-Committee.
At a strategic moment, on 8 and 10 May, just before a public meeting, an article named “The Land We Live In” had appeared in two parts in the Victoria Daily Chronicle, signed anonymously by “GEOGRAPHICUS”. It was an account indirectly addressed to the committee of what was known of the interior of the island at this time, a brief account of all earlier expeditions and it mentioned Brown’s exploration travels of 1863. Surprisingly, it was Brown himself who had anonymously been advertising himself as “Dr. Brown” the explorer, showing off to be knowledgeable and publicly offering his services for free, to only later acknowledge authorship.
Brown attended the public meeting on 10 May 1864 organized by the VIE-Committee. There he spoke briefly and to the point, referring his listeners to the newspaper articles in which he had recently outlined his existing knowledge of the islands and his own explorations of the previous year.
He further gained even more public recognition and support when a detailed report of his second journey to Alberni, to explore the Great Central Lake, in 1863, was published on 20 May 1864, in the Victoria Evening Express.
Brown had made a good impression and on 1 June, at the age of 22, he was formally appointed to be the commander of the VIEE, followed by the formal appointment as Government Agent for the expedition, a few days later. It is remarkable Brown asserted his entitlement to the designation of “Doctor”. No credentials of such a title exist; he officially obtained the title “Dr.” six years later.
Although, the most celebrated achievement of the VIEE was its discovery of gold on the Sooke and Leech Rivers, Brown highly valued the discovery of coal on the “Brown River” (which was named after him) near Comox. The coal discovery proved of no immediate commercial value, still it was an early indication of coal in the region.
In April 1865 his official 27-page report “Vancouver Island Exploration 1864” was published. Later, in addition, Brown had planned to write a popular account of the expedition, illustrated with drawings made by its artist, Frederick Whymper, but he found the market glutted by other accounts of exploration.
The VIEE had been very successful for Robert Brown but unfortunately it was due to his contract with the Botanical Association that led him to relinquish the command of the second Exploring Expedition in 1865. He suggested the leadership be handed over to John Buttle; a recommendation the VIE-Committee accepted.
Still, Brown’s Scottish sponsors continued to be dissatisfied with his dispatches of seeds and they did not grant his request that his three-year contract be renewed. Prior to its termination, Brown travelled in Washington Territory, Oregon, the Queen Charlotte Islands and northern Vancouver Island.
On 2 August 1866, when he was about to leave Vancouver Island, the British Colonist and the Victoria Daily Chronicle described him as “a valuable man, who has done more towards exploring its unknown regions, unfolding its natural resources, and drawing attention to the latent wealth of the Island, than any other man in it.”
In 1867, together with Edward Whymper (brother of Frederick Whymper), he attempted to penetrate the inland ice of Greenland and made many discoveries concerning its nature.
In 1868 Brown was an unsuccessful candidate for the Chair of Botany at the Royal College of Science for Ireland (and again, in 1873, at the University of Edinburgh).
He became a lecturer on geology, botany, and zoology in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and was a member of many learned societies in England, America, and on the Continent. He was president of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh and a member of the council of the Royal Geographical Society.
In 1869 his article “Memoir on the geography of the interior of Vancouver Island,” was published, a work which appeared only in German and for which Brown was awarded a doctorate by the University of Rostock (German Democratic Republic) in 1870.
Before he was 30 years old Brown had written over 30 academic papers and an advanced textbook on botany, in addition to more popularising works. Brown’s writings on the northwest coast are diverse. He published articles ranging from reports on the botany, ornithology, geology and geography of the area he explored, to sketches of life in colonial society. He was also the author of several works of popular education for both learned and popular audiences and he contributed a number of articles to Illustrated Travels. In these publications he sometimes narrates his travels directly and sometimes transforms his accounts into fiction. His descriptions of Indigenous life include sensational narratives depicting its treachery and meanness, but also reports on mythology and native customs such as the potlatch which are exceptional for his time in their attempt at understanding.
On 3 August 1875 Brown married Kristiane (or Christiane) Augusta Maria (or Marie) Eleonora Rudmose of Ferslev, Denmark. They had two sons; Thomas (11 January 1878 – 13 May 1942), Robert Neal (13 September 1879 – 13 May 1942), and one daughter; Elizabeth Augusta (1881 – 1960) [although the existence of a daughter is not 100% proven (yet)].
By now Brown had been forced to recognize that he would be unable to gain footing in the academic world and his need for a steadier income had become more acute. In 1876 he moved to London where he joined the editorial staff of the Echo (London) and transferred to the Standard (London) in 1879. He spent the rest of his life writing, earning his living as a journalist. In later life Brown seems to have been a driven but disappointed man. He worked too hard and was both incapable of relaxing and at the same time exhausted by London life. He grew jaded that his best work went unrecognized.
Brown looked back nostalgically to his youthful years on the northwest coast and it is fitting that his final work, published posthumously, should have been an edition of John Rodgers Jewitt’s Adventures, which in the introduction and notes draws upon his experience of 30 years earlier on Vancouver Island. Robert Brown died on the morning of 26 October 1895 in Streatham (London), England, only 53 years old, working almost to his last hour. He is buried at West Norwood Cemetery, London, England.
Copyright © July 2014, Bart van den Berk.
 Source: Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.3, file 4, Vancouver Island Exploration Committee: applications for positions on exploring expedition, 1864; 80 pages.
 Source: Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.1, file 3, The appointment of Robert Brown as Commander of the Vancouver Island Exploration Expedition, 1 June 1864; 2 pages.
 Kennedy granted Brown the title of “Government Agent” close to departure of the VIEE. As published in the British Colonist, Tuesday 7 June 1864; p3.
[Annotated and edited from the following main sources, in order of usage.]
Hayman, John, “BROWN, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–,accessed 14 April 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brown_robert_12E.html.
Hayman, John, Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989; 211 pages.
—-, Robert Brown (explorer), Wikipedia, accessed 14 April 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Brown_(explorer)
Elms, Lindsay, Beyond Nootka: A Historical Perspective of Vancouver Island Mountains, Courtenay, BC; Misthorn Press, 1996; pages 24-26.
Brown, Robert, The adventures of John Jewitt, London: Clement Wilson, 1896; 256 pages.
Gilman, Daniel Coit, et al, Brown, Robert, p562, from; Gilman, Daniel Coit, et al, The new international encyclopaedia, New York : Dodd, Mead, 1905; 794 pages.
Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.1, file 3, The appointment of Robert Brown as Commander of the Vancouver Island Exploration Expedition, 1 June 1864; 2 pages.
Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.3, file 4, Vancouver Island Exploration Committee: applications for positions on exploring expedition, 1864; 80 pages.
(Keyword) biography Robert Brown