Tuesday, January 18, 2011



Rare  1875 tin plate photograph of Bertie Everett Brown, aged perhaps 18 months or two years; with absolute stillness of body required Bertie nevertheless couldn’t resist shaking a leg.


Grandfather had a questionable past, in fact as I was soon to find out he was a man of many ‘pasts’: his childhood in Indiana, the teenage years when he first resorted to the use of fists; the missing ten years before his Levuka marriage to Maggie McGowan, the transition from stripling to man. 

I guess it all boils down to Bert while he still was Bert and to Chas when he had a past to conceal: Brown from the inescapable past, Brown-Parker, his re-invented future.

Uncovering grandfather’s past involved constant search and discovery. I was forever backtracking, correcting an item here, changing a fact or date there. 

But in those ensuing years spent delving through internet sites and government archives, and despite finding his birth and his family and the American Browne beginnings in England, a huge  ‘question mark’ continued to loom over Charles-Bertie’s double life.

I’ve covered grandfather's life story in great detail in the ‘Secrets and Lies’ saga that much of these blog posts derive from but for now I’ll compact his story to a brief outline of his Quaker forebears before attempting to place him in the Pacific region of Fiji.

The family’s original Quakers, Richard and Mary Browne lived in Northamptonshire at a time when religious persecution by crowned heads and government was at its worst. Earlier members of his family had been prominent in England’s secular and state affairs over the centuries, but by the time of his death in 1662, Richard Browne had nothing left to leave his family.

The circumstances surrounding his death can only be guessed at and would without a doubt be heartbreaking to know.

In the years after his death the children clung to their father’s Quaker beliefs and in the 1680’s the two eldest sons, William and James, joined William Penn in the new American colonies, helping establish the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania, and in 1701 the historical Nottingham Lots.

 The story of our pioneer American Quakers is richly detailed in historical records and tracing their lineage gave me a great deal of pleasure.  Some were very good Quakers, some were bordering on the pedestrian and some were astonishingly entrepreneurial.  In fact it was quite a shock to learn my grandfather had such a solid, respectable and religious background.

However by the time Bertie Everett Brown grew up in Peru, Indiana  and left home, his father was working as an insurance salesman, and his mother was about to be abandoned along with his unmarried sister Leota.  In fact when ChasBert wrote his father off  in his Levuka marriage certificate as deceased, his dad John was actually imprisoned in the Michigan State Penitentiary, for what crime I haven’t been able to uncover.

Grandfather was a great liar.  He delighted in telling his growing family tall stories of exploits as a sailor, as a soldier in the Spanish American War, about his time in the Alaskan gold fields, and about friends in high places.  

But he never told anyone just how he crossed the Pacific to arrive in, of all places, Levuka, Fiji.


Tracing ChasBert’s movements in America has been hampered by his hazy identity changes.  He left few clues for a nosy grand daughter to follow and perhaps that was his intention. For instance he always claimed service in the USA Navy, and even stated that fact when he applied for Australian naturalisation prior to joining the army in 1915 at the age of 41.  I feel sure he was telling the truth on that occasion at least.

His naval service should have been easy to check, but no, early American naval records for enlisted men are incomplete and scattered with nom de plumes and red herrings.  

Later in newspaper interviews at the height of his vaudeville fame in New Zealand when at various times he was known as ‘Kid’ Parker, he talked to reporters about his boxing prowess, and bouts with champion pugilists in the States. I then spent hours trawling the internet throwing in the boxing names I had already come across, Kid Parker and Kid Brown. 

I found an interesting item about an Irish boxer called “Sailor” Tom Sharkey about a year younger than ChasBert.  Sharkey was described as a powerful, rough, durable fighter: at one time a likely contender for the American heavyweight title. A former United States Navy sailor Sharkey’s resume of bouts included two against “Sailor” Charles Brown, in 1894 and 1896 in Vallejo California. In both fights ‘Sailor’ Charles was knocked out in the first round. 
By this time I had already found several fights ChasBert had already lost in both Australia and New Zealand, some lost with the same knock out punches.  I felt my search was getting warmer, I was beginning to sense the widening gap between truth and fantasy.  

I’m sure grandfather had been a sailor in the USA Navy, had probably mixed in boxing circles and had even known Tom Sharkey. I would even bet grandfather borrowed showbiz ideas from Sharkey  who is largely credited with pioneering boxing and ball punching as vaudeville attractions.

But what I desperately wanted to find out was how, as either Bertie Everett Brown or Charles Nelson Brown Parker, he had crossed the Pacific  and ended up in the small and remote town of Levuka.

I was always aware of the dangers in claiming a new found research item as gospel truth without absolute verification. There is for instance a murky area surrounding Mary Masters, the wife of our earliest Quaker.  Some other family historians have jumped in boots and all about this lady.  She did exist, we just have no way of absolutely proving her family’s origin prior to the 16th century where some researchers have placed her in the bosom of ancestral Plantagenet royalty. Nor can we prove she and Richard Brown married.

A similar problem now presented itself.  I had ChasBert in California, a sailor in the Navy around 1896.  The year fitted the last confirmed sighting of Bertie Brown in Indiana in 1893.  Plenty of time to join the navy, plenty of time to desert from the navy.

And plenty of time to join a crackpot voyage to the South Pacific.


When I found this item in an 1897 edition of The New York Times my research antenna began to quiver. All the signs pointed in the right direction, but this was the dangerous part,  I needed confirmation, pure assumption was not proof however much I wanted it to be.

The Times report was indeed a revelation.  Here was a scenario I could readily identify with  Grandfather. 

In the light of America’s 1896 financial woes with unemployment rampant, someone had dreamed up a marvellous con to relocate one hundred out of work locals to a paradise in the tropics complete with beaches littered with gold  and eager young maidens searching for husbands... As my husband always says, there’s one born every minute!

For a sum of money, these one hundred hopeful adventurers were provided with a skipper and ‘a wretched old crate of a schooner’, actually the decrepit former Tahitian mail packet, the Percy Edwards, together with ten seamen to crew the voyage.  

Calling themselves the United Brotherhood of the South Pacific the group sailed away from San Francisco to found a socialist Utopia on some unsuspecting but nevertheless hopefully welcoming sun drenched island.

I searched for more details; a report from The Sydney Morning Herald lifting verbatim an article by the San Francisco Chronicle obliges with a lengthy description of the Percy Edward’s departure.  In the first paragraph amid the brig saluting the flag of the United States and the hurrahs of waving, cheering friends at the pier is the advice that 99 rifles are stored safely in Captain Petersons cabin with only seven crew men of the 102 passengers on board allowed access.

Newspaper reports from NZ Papers Past

A library of sorts has been accumulated, provisions for ventilation made, bunks arranged to form mess rooms, and banjos, mandolins, guitars, flutes and violins provided by their owners to entertain and amuse. (I wonder could Grandfather’s gramophone be among this lot.)

But on the negative side it is noted that belongings and trunks have been stored below decks with little regard to shipboard safety, ready to jolt from side to side and end to end in rough weather.  So conditions on board weren’t all that ship shape.

It is said that arrangements for the expedition were made with order and decorum, articles of incorporation drawn with care.  The drunken and the dissolute would be excluded. The spirit of adventure, it is suggested,  rather than the struggle for bread seems to animate them to make this strange voyage.

Of course, with time the Brotherhood quickly became thoroughly disillusioned; various islands they approached soon sent them on their way, the dream of  dusky hand maidens and gold on sunny beaches giving way to the brutal reality of survival on a leaking ship.

Eventually the boat in a sorry state limped into Levuka, then under British Sovereignty, where some fifty of the by now unwilling passengers abandoned ship, and in need of money and sustenance sought back breaking work on accommodating banana plantations in the vicinity of the Rewa River and Suva Bay.

The remainder sailed off to islands in the south where the boat was caught in a hurricane, lost her masts and foundered near Noumea to be eventually sold off, resurrected and used in the Kanaka slave trade...

Here though was the link I had been searching for, the year was right, the locality spot on, the only item missing was a passenger and crew list for the Percy Edwards

Grandfather would have been 23 years old when the ill fated expedition left San Francisco, 26 when this photo of a muscular and very young looking ChasBert  was taken in an Auckland studio in late 1900.  I can see the affable boy he was in this photo, courting the sweet young girl Maggie would have been in 1897 or ’98.

By this stage I was re-reading New Zealand newspaper interviews where he spoke of the book he planned to write about adventures in Fiji; and the stories his daughter, my Aunt Leota told her children about his exploits with pearl smugglers.  All of which I had discounted as fibs but now had second thoughts about.

I mulled over various pro’s and con’s; for a start the 1900 marriage to Maggie had always seemed almost indecently rushed.  The claim he had seen Maggie from the deck of a boat, a vague clue fighting to claim a time frame.

But if he did arrive on the Percy Edwards, as one of the duped ‘100’ or as a crewman, then two or three years gave reasonable time for ChasBert to wander around Fiji working and accruing experiences and adventures, make his way back to Levuka, meet and court Maggie and in 1900 carry her off to New Zealand and Australia.

And let’s face it, by now I knew full well my American Grandfather was perfectly capable of being part of the ill fated South Seas Brotherhood...in one devious way or another.



Robyn Mortimer ©2011