Browne, William George (DNB00)
BROWNE, WILLIAM GEORGE (1768–1813), oriental traveller, was born in London on 25 July 1768, and descended from an old Cumberland family. He was educated privately until entering at Oriel College, Oxford, where, receiving 'no encouragement and little assistance in his academical studies,' he diligently strove to educate himself. After leaving Oxford (B.A. 1789) he for a time pursued the study of the law, which he relinquished upon becoming independent by his father's death. His earnest though sedate temper was deeply stirred by the French revolution. He reprinted at his own expense a portion of Buchanan's treatise 'De Jure Regni apud Scotos,' and other political tracts, and seemed inclined to a public career, when his thoughts were diverted into a new channel by reading Bruce's travels and the first report of the African Association, and he resolved to devote himself to the exploration of Africa. Among his qualifications he enumerates' a good constitution, though by no means robust, steadiness of purpose, much indifference to personal accommodations and enjoyments, together with a degree of patience which could endure reverses and disappointments without murmuring.' He also possessed a fair acquaintance with the classics, and an elementary knowledge of chemistry, botany, and mineralogy. He arrived at Alexandria in January 1792, and after two months' residence proceeded westwards along the coast to visit the ruins at Siwah, which, with a candour rare among explorers, he pronounced not to be the remains of the temple of Jupiter Ammon. Fennell, who differed from him on this question, remarks that Browne's Ammonian expedition involved much more personal risk than Alexander's. He subsequently spent some time at Cairo, studying Arabic and investigating the political and social condition of the country, and visited the principal remains of Egyptian antiquity, now familiar, but in his time little known, to Europeans. Being prevented by war from entering Nubia, he turned aside to the vast Roman quarries at Cosseir on the Red Sea, which he explored in the disguise of an oriental. The war still continuing, he determined to accompany the great Soudan caravan to Darfur, a country not previously described by any European, from which he hoped to penetrate into Abyssinia. After encountering great hardships he reached Darfur in July 1793, only to fall sick of dysentery, to be robbed of most of his property, and to be detained by the sultan. He was not, however, imprisoned or personally ill-treated, and employed his enforced residence in examining the character and productions of the uninviting country, solacing his ennui by the education of two young lions. At length the sultan was induced to dismiss him by the fear of reprisals on Darfurian merchants in Egypt, and Browne returned with the caravan of 1796, having made no remarkable discoveries of his own, but having gained much information, especially on the course of the Nile, the correctness of which has been established by subsequent research. Having journeyed over Syria and through Asia Minor to Constantinople, he arrived in England in 1798, and published an account of his travels in 1800. The unfavourable reception of this valuable work was chiefly owing to the defects of the writer's style. As a traveller Browne is not only observant but intelligent and judicious, but his good sense deserts him when he takes the pen in hand, and he becomes intolerably affected and pedantic. His enthusiasm is unaccompanied by fancy or imagination, and his faithful registry of observations and occurrences is rarely enlivened by any gleam of descriptive power. His work was further prejudiced in the eyes of the public by the prominence given to physiological details and an eccentric encomium of eastern manners and customs at the expense of the civilisation of Europe. There is, nevertheless, an element of reason in Browne's paradox, and his favourable judgment of orientals after all he had undergone at their hands says much for his good temper and philosophic candour.
From 1800 to 1802 Browne travelled again in Turkey and the Levant generally, and collected much valuable information, partially published after his death in Walpole's Travels in various Countries of the East. He spent the next ten years in England, 'leading the life of a scholar and recluse in the vast metropolis,' but intimate with several men of similar tastes, especially Smithson Tennant, the Cambridge professor of chemistry, who speaks of his 'soothing, romantic evening conversations.' In 1812 he again left England with the object of penetrating into Tartary by way of Persia. Travelling through Asia Minor and visiting Armenia, he proceeded in safety as far as Tabriz, which he left for Teheran towards the end of the summer of 1813, accompanied by two servants. According to one account these men returned a few days afterwards, declaring that Browne had been murdered by banditti. According to another, the discovery was made by the mehmandar, or officer charged to insure his safety, whom Browne had unfortunately preceded. His body could not be recovered, but his effects, excepting his money, were restored to the English ambassador, and after some time his bones, or what were represented as such, were brought to Tabriz and honourably interred. There seems no good reason for the suspicions entertained of the Persian government, and it remains a question whether the motive of the murder was plunder or fanaticism exasperated by Browne's imprudence in wearing a Turkish dress.
Browne is described as grave and saturnine, 'with a demeanour,' says Beloe, 'precisely that of a Turk of the better order.' Beneath this reserve he concealed an ardent enthusiasm, his attachments were warm and durable, he acted from the highest principles of honour, and was capable of great generosity and kindness. In politics he was a republican, in religion a free-thinker. His intellectual endowments were rather solid than shining, but he possessed in an eminent degree two of the traveller's most essential qualifications, exactness and veracity.
[Browne's Travels in Africa, Egypt, and Syria, 1800; Walpole's Travels in various Countries of the East, 1820; Beloe's Sexagenarian, vol. ii.]