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Major George Bruce.

A pall hung over our Christmas and New Year holiday season this year with news of the appalling loss of life caused by the tsunami. Places of which we had barely heard featured prominently in the news, among them the province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, and the Andaman islands to the north of it. As it happens, both these places were the settings of novels written in Australia by Major George Bruce, husband of Mary Grant Bruce.

Much of Major Bruce's military career before he married Mary in 1914 had taken place with British units in India. He served on the north west frontier province (today's northern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and on the Andaman Islands, from which he presumably learnt about Aceh; we do not know if he ever actually visited it.

Major George Bruce and Mary Grant Bruce of 'Billabong' fame were both writers of adventure stories for adolescents, although Mary's books are much better known than his. George Bruce wrote four novels based on his experiences with the British Army in India. His third novel, Tom in the Andamans, was first published by Whitcombe & Tombs in 1924 with later editions in 1926, 1936, 1944, 1946 and 1948. This short novel of 88 pages was part of Whitcombe's Story Book series for children in their early teen years.

The central character in the novel, Tom Vereker, is a 14 year old English boy who, because of his poor health, is sent to recuperate on the Andaman Islands at the home of his cousin, Sir High Standish, the Chief Commissioner there. On the way out by ship the reader is given accounts of exotic peoples and customs at ports like Gibraltar, Port Said, Colombo and Rangoon. The Andamans were a prison for 10,000 long-term convicts from India and Burma. On the island Tom goes on a fishing expedition, collects butterflies, shoots snipe and learns Indian Army games such as tent-pegging. The book concludes with an adventure in which an escaped convict is pursued. The style of the book is very similar to that of Mary Grant Brute.

In 1940 George's fourth and last novel, Red Devil, appeared, published by Angus & Robertson. It is set in the later 19th century and begins in a remote town on the Afghan border. Here an Irishman, Captain Ulick Burke, in charge of Border militia, hunts raiders from an outlaw tribe who have devastated a lowland village. Burke sees a similarity between the Afghan tribes and his own Irish and Scots forebears, who themselves carried out raiding parties in centuries gone by. In this book Major Bruce is more sympathetic to the wild Pathan tribes than in his previous novels.

The red-headed outlaw leader, Sher Dil, known as the 'Red Devil', is sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on the Andaman Islands prison. After some time he escapes to Achin (now known as Aceh) on the north of Sumatra, and stirs up a successful revolt against Dutch rule there, the revoit being the central event of the novel. Bruce seems sympathetic to the rebels in their struggle against their imperial overlords in this case, whereas in India as an army officer he naturally supported the British against the Pathan rebels. The hero Sher Dil eventually finds his way home to the frontier in an adventurous journey via Malacca, Rangoon and Calcutta, and comes to a reconciliation with the British rulers of his land.

George Bruce and Mary Grant Bruce were second cousins. Her father Lewis Eyre Brute came from an Anglo-Irish family from County Cork. Lewis arrived in Australia in 1859 and worked as a surveyor in east Gippsland. He married into the Whittakers squatting family and Mary, born in 1878, was brought up in Sale. Following the early success of her 'Billabong' books, Mary went to work as a journalist in London in 1913. On a trip to Ireland she met her father's brothers Richard and Charles, the latter being the Protestant Dean of Cork. Here she was introduced to Major George Brute, a second cousin eleven years older than herself. They soon became engaged.

The Brute family were Anglo-Irish gentry of distant Scots background who had been living in County Cork since the 1650s. The family seat was Miltown Castle, where George had been brought up. He and Mary had a great grandfather, Rev. Jonathon Bruce of Miltown Castle, in common. George Brute was born in 1867. As a youth in the Irish countryside he was good at shooting and fishing. After joining the British Army at Sandhurst, he was commissioned into the First Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in 1888, becoming a Lieutenant in 1890. From 1888 to the early 1900s he served as an officer in the British Army in India. He was stationed at Bombay and Madras, and also in Burma and Bengal.

He also took part in forays into the wilder country to the north, the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan--these experiences forming the basis of three of his novels. He volunteered for service in the Andaman Islands, which housed a prison for convicts from the Indian sub-continent. He was promoted Captain in 1899. George Brute kept up his shooting and fishing activities in India. He would go out by himself into the bush observing nature. While on leave in London in 1900 he wrote an article on Tibet for The Times; this launched him on a writing career. Thereafter he produced a series of articles on natural history, specializing on new species of fish, and on military topics.

From 1905 to 1910 Major Bruce served with the Norfolk Regiment in Africa, first at Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. In 1910 he was seconded by the Colonial Office to lead an expedition in Nigeria commanding local military and police. He was awarded the African General Service Medal with clasp 'West Africa 1909-10'. He retired from the Army in 1914, and he and Mary travelled to Australia and were married in Melbourne.

On the outbreak of the First World War, later that year they returned to Europe. Major Brute was called up and served with the 3rd Reserve Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, from 1915 to 1918, training troops at Cork, then at Pembroke in Wales and near the end of the War at Northumberland in England.

After the War the Brutes returned to Australia with their two sons and settled in Traralgon for most of the 1920s. Mary was already an established children's writer, and during this time Major Brute wrote his first two adventure novels. The Lion's Son was published by Cornstalk Publishing of Sydney in 1928. Its hero is Lt. Donald Gordon, an officer at a British outpost on the Afghan border trying to keep the local tribes from conducting raids. These tribes were then called Pathans; we now know them as Pashtuns, the main tribe in Afghanistan. The novel captures the feel of the harsh rocky mountainous landscape of the region and the customs of the locals.

In the novel a tribal leader calls a jihad or holy war against the British and Indian troops, steals rifles, ambushes a convoy and begins a large-scale insurrection. The fort in which the hero is located is besieged, and then relieved by an advancing column. Finally the British and Indian troops advance into the unmapped territory of the rebellious tribes, and after many skirmishes, succeed in subduing them.

1928 saw the appearance of a second novel by Major Bruce, The Rainbow of Saba published by Thomas Nelson of London in 1928. This is an historical novel set in the 13th century in which an Englishman, Harold de Berry, joins a Khazar Princess in a trip east from Turkey to appease the Muslim shall of central Asia at Bukhara (in modern day Uzbekistan). They then move further east across the roof of the world to the realm of Ghengis Khan, leader of the Mongol Horde, with whom they form an alliance against the Shah in order to retrieve a jewel precious to the Khazars, the Rainbow of Saba.

The Bruce family returned to Ireland in 1927 to live at Omagh, but their younger son Patrick died tragically in a shooting accident. After a period in Europe they lived in the south of England for the decade of the 1930s, and returned to Australia before the outbreak of the Second World War. George Bruce's novels reveal him as a well-read and intelligent man curious about local customs and able to describe in clear prose the culture of exotic places. He died in 1949 at the age of eighty-one. In 1954 Mary Grant Bruce moved back to England for the last years of her life; she died there in 1958 aged eighty.
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Title Annotation:Australian novelist
Author:Morgan, Patrick
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Previous Article:Editorial.
Next Article:Turning fact into fiction: the 1857 Hornet Bank massacre.

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