Brown, John Croumbie

South Africa

John Croumbie Brown, missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS) in Russia and the Cape Colony, was a leading voice in the emergent nineteenth century global environmental movement. He was born in 1808 in Haddington, Scotland, eldest son of Samuel and Elizabeth Brown, and grandson of Rev. John Brown, famous for his Self-Interpreting Bible. Educated in Aberdeen and ordained in 1830 in the Presbyterian Associate Synod of Scotland, he joined the LMS where he served as pastor of the English and American Church of St. Petersburg, Russia from 1833-1837. His success there led to his appointment in 1844 as pastor of the Union Church of Cape Town where he succeeded the renowned Dr. John Philip.

Brown’s environmental mission, birthed during his term in the Cape Colony, was influenced by several events. First was his 1846 English translation of a Narrative of an Exploratory Tour to the North-East Colony of the Cape of Good Hope by two French missionaries, T. Arbousset and F. Dumas. Their description of the social and environmental destruction wreaked by the mfecane (a period of chaos and warfare among indigenous communities in southern Africa about 1820-1840) stood in stark contrast to the beauty of Basutoland’s mountains. These contrasting images of ruined wilderness and lush garden served as a lasting model of a restored Eden that remained with Brown for the rest of his life. The second major influence was his 1847 tour of the Cape Colony when he personally experienced the devastation brought by intermittent drought and floods. He witnessed these torrents as they swept away enormous amounts of fertile soil that could have been used to turn the desert wilderness into a teeming garden. This experience piqued his interest in climate change, and especially in the causes and effects of aridity.

In 1848, Brown returned to Scotland with his family where they remained until 1862. In addition to pastoring several Presbyterian churches, he pursued botany and science at the University of Aberdeen. In 1853 the university appointed him lecturer in botany, bestowed on him an LL.D. in 1858, and appointed him Chair of Botany. These crucial years exposed him to the latest advances in botany and related sciences, providing a scholarly basis for his future work in agriculture and conservation.

In 1862, Brown eagerly accepted the post of Colonial Botanist of the Cape Colony in southern Africa. While in office he engaged a large network of missionaries scattered across Africa, Madagascar, and St. Helena to further botanical research. He also engaged in voluminous correspondence with botanists around the world, for example: Dr. Asa Gray of Harvard University, Cambridge; Dr. Harvey of Trinity College, Dublin; Sir William Hooker, Director of the Royal Gardens, Kew, London; and Dr. Mueller, Colonial Botanist of Australia. Brown also relied heavily on the work of Swedish botanist E. M. Fries and the American environmentalist George Perkins Marsh. Both had sounded the alarm over the anthropogenic causes and consequences of colonial destruction of the environment.

Brown’s work as Cape Botanist focused on improving the colony’s agriculture and range management. He introduced new crops, addressed crop diseases, and promoted the use of organic fertilizer. He addressed the harmful impacts of overgrazing and livestock diseases while improving pasture lands, grasses, and new means of storing forage. His pleas for increased dams and irrigation reflect his concern for both water and soil conservation. His unfortunate clash in 1866 with the colonial government over representation of the Cape Colony at the International Exposition in Paris in 1867 led to Parliament abruptly abolishing his post. He returned home to Scotland in January, 1867.

Back in Scotland, Brown increased his knowledge of environmental issues and conservation. In 1875, he published a major book, The Hydrology of South Africa, and used it to persuade the British government to engage in more proactive conservation in its colonies. In addition, he proposed the creation of a correspondence school based on his experience in delivering field lectures as Colonial Botanist in the Cape Colony. He suggested a series of scientific textbooks similar to his text on the hydrology of South Africa that would assist colonial settlers in improving their agriculture while engaging in conservation of water, soil, and forests. When this proposal was turned down by the editors of The Colonist, the major journal of the British colonies, he threw himself into writing a series of over fifteen books on forestry, reforestation, and the need for state forestry training in England, Scotland and the British colonies since they lagged behind other European countries. In addition, his books such as Forests and Moisture: or, Effects of Forests on Humidity and Climate and his Introduction to the Study of Modern Forest Economy reflect his deep understanding of the modern environmental crisis on a global scale and of the means to address it.

In order to write his books, Brown travelled extensively throughout continental Europe as a global ambassador of conservation. He also travelled to the Great Lakes region of the United States to learn about the hydrology of that region. In fact, Brown was instrumental in the founding of the United States Forestry Department through his longstanding friendship with its founder, Franklin Benjamin Hough, whom he mentored. For good reason, Brown has been heralded as “the single most influential voice in the formation of a colonial and North American discourse on forestry, irrigation, range management, and on the impact of settlement.” [1] He was elected a fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Linnean Society, and honorary vice-president of the African Institute of Paris.

As early as 1847, Brown asserted that the environmental concerns of planet earth were primarily religious in nature and therefore needed a religious solution. Through his preaching, publications, teaching and travels, he raised a prophetic voice on behalf of sustainable agriculture and conservation of water, soil, trees, and plants. In so doing, he became one of the most influential voices on behalf of missionary care of creation and the modern environmental movement in the nineteenth century. His powerful environmental gospel continues to be relevant. In 1895, John Croumbie Brown was laid to rest in his home town of Haddington, Scotland.

Richard S. Darr


[1] Grove, Richard. “Scotland in South Africa: John Croumbie Brown and the roots of settler environmentalism,” in Ecology & Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, ed. Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 140.


Brown, John Croumbie. Hydrology of South Africa: or Details of the Former Hydrographic Condition of the Cape of Good Hope, and of Causes of its Present Aridity, with Suggestions of Appropriate Remedies for the Aridity. London: Henry S. King and Co., 1875.

——–. Forests and Moisture: or, Effects of Forests on Humidity of Climate. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1877.

——–. Introduction to the Study of Modern Forest Economy. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1884.

Darr, Richard. “Protestant Missions and Earth-Keeping in Southern Africa 1817-2000.” Th.D. diss., Boston University School of Theology, 2005.

Grove, Richard. “Scottish Missionaries, Evangelical Discourses and the Origins of Environmental Thinking in Southern Africa 1820-1900.” Journal of Southern African Studies 15, no. 2 (1989): 163-187.

——–. “Scotland in South Africa: John Croumbie Brown and the Roots of Settler Environmentalism.” In Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, ed. Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin, 139-153. Edinburgh: Keele University Press, 1997.

Venter, P.J. “An early botanist and conservationist at the Cape: the Reverend John Croumbie Brown, LL.D., FRGS, FLS.” Archives Year Book for South African History 15, Vol.2 , (1952): 279-292.

This article, submitted in February, 2022, was written by Rev. Richard S. Darr. The author researched Rev. John Croumbie Brown and several other missionary earth-keepers in his dissertation, “Protestant Missions and Earth-Keeping in Southern Africa 1817-2000,” Boston University School of Theology, 2005.